The 4 Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse

Dr John Gottman has identified four behaviours which predict the end of a relationship.

1. Criticism

Criticism are statements that express disapproval with your partner, indicating that there is something wrong with the core of their character, which can result in them feeling assaulted, rejected and hurt. Criticisms usually starts with “You always…” and “You never…”. The important thing to note is the difference between criticism and complaints. Complaints are about specific issues, as opposed to a global attack on their personality.


Complaint – “I was very worried when you were coming home late and did not call me. Last time I thought we both agreed to call each other when that happens.”

Criticism – “You never care about others and how your actions could affect others! You are always so inconsiderate and selfish! You always do things to deliberately make me upset.”


Make a constructive complaint, which includes your feelings (How it impacts you?), the problem and a suggested solution.

Tip: To minimise potential conflict arising from the other party feeling being told what to do, you can encourage them to suggest some options first. Ensure the other party knows that you wish to hear their solution, as well as suggest your own solution and negotiate based on all the solutions proposed.

The danger with the first horsemen – Criticism is that if the couple remains critical of each other, often it will escalate and become a recurrence with both higher frequency and intensity. As a result, greatly increasing the chances of other more destructive horsemen to follow. For example, when the partner feel that they are under attack (from the criticism), it is highly likely that they will respond defensively.

2. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a typical response to criticism or a perceived attack from their partner in an attempt to defend themselves. The two most common form of defensiveness in close relationships is counter-complaining/counterattacking and by enacting the innocent victim, which often also involves ‘whining’.

Enacting the innocent victim and ‘whining’:

The mentality is for the individual to stand up for themselves and inform their partner that they are innocent, as they already did their best and that the partner is just being unreasonable and unappreciative. The “innocent victim” will then expect the partner to back down or apologise. Unfortunately, the success rate is minute, instead it is highly likely to escalate the conflict and prevent couples from taking responsibility of their mistakes and resolving issues.


“Did you take the garbage out tonight yet?”

“Can’t you see that I came home late from work today. I work very hard to earn money for our family.  I am sure you can see how tired I am, how come you can’t just do it?”


The mentality is to respond with a complaint or attacking, in an attempt to deflect the problem from themselves and reverse it back on the partner, so the negative focus will be on the partner raising the issue.


“Did you forget to take the garbage out?”

“Oh, and you are flawless, you have a perfect memory?! Remember when you forgot to pay the bill and our power got cut!?”


Acknowledge the partner’s feelings, then accept and take responsibility of your actions and finally propose a solution or actions that you will take to resolve the issue.


“Did you forget to take the garbage out?”

“I understand that you are angry about how I forgot to take the garbage out, it just slipped my mind, but I can do it right now.”

3. Contempt (Mocking)

Contempt is any verbal or non-verbal behaviour that allow the partner to assume superiority over the other. Verbal behaviour may include disrespect, mockery, sarcasm, name-calling, ridicule and mimic, where non-verbal behaviour may include facial expressions, eye-rolling, sneering, scoffing and mimic. The mentality of exercising contempt to make the other feel worthless and inferior. Of the four horsemen, contempt is the most damaging, destroying fondness and admiration between couples and should be eliminated.


“How can you be tired? I did all the washing, dishes, cleaned the house, mopped the floor, watered the garden and have to look after the kids to keep the house going, while having to work as well. All you do after work is play stupid video games. You are just like a parasite.”


Refrain from open expression of contempt.

Practise a higher level of acceptance, this can potentially be achieved through the partner reminding themselves the positive qualities and actions of the other, fostering appreciation when contempt surfaces.

Engage in constructive complaint and ensure to keep calm during the process.

If in the unfortunate event where expression of contempt is happening, attempt to raise the issue with the partner in the form of a constructive complaint. Include how you feel (i.e. disrespected or worthless), the behaviour (statements or non-verbal behaviour) that was of concern. Remember the partner can also give permissions for the other to raise future similar issues when they feel being disrespected to further encourage open communications.

4. Stone walling (argue, never say a word)

Stonewalling is where the listener withdraws from the conversation or interaction with the speaker. Stonewalling is often a response when contempt is expressed by the speaker. The mentality behind stonewalling is an evasive measure to avoid confrontation or facing the issue with their partner, which may include physically leaving the room, tuning out, turning away and acting busy. Stonewalling could be caused by feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded and this may cause them not to be able to engage in any rational discussion. Repeated stonewalling may foster a vicious cycle, where one partner demand to engage in discussions and the other seeking to evade or avoid.


Learn to identify the early signs (e.g. start of feeling emotionally overwhelmed) of stonewalling, when it happens, discuss with the partner to take a break first, then re-engage when both partners are feeling calmer.

Mediator’s Tip:

When clients display behaviour under any of the four horseman, the mediator’s role is to raise awareness and bring it forward to the client’s conscious mind. Other strategies may include guiding parties to express emotions and engaging in positive discussions.