The Dance of the Four Horsemen and How to Get Back on Track || By Tristan (TJ) Dubovich, Affordable Counseling Intern for People House

Have you ever been in an argument with your partner and felt the need to defend yourself…? For example, your partner is criticizing or blaming you for something and you need to make them see they are wrong! Alternatively, have you tried to tell your partner that you don’t like a certain behavior and they withdraw from you for a period of time? Or do you make fun of your partner’s character when you are upset to prove a point?

Most of these dynamics show up, at some point, in relationships. However, if they are commonplace in a relationship, they can be detrimental to the health and longevity of the partnership. In fact, they are so common in unhealthy relationships that they have an official name – The Four Horsemen. This label was created by the Gottman Institute, which was founded by duo John and Julie Gottman. The Gottmans are both therapists who have been working with couples for decades and have completed years of research on what makes or breaks marriages (Gottman Institute, 2023).

The Four Horsemen

  • Criticism – Attacking or complaining about the core of your partner’s character. Example: “You are such a pig – you never do the dishes”.
  • Contempt – Treating your partner with disrespect by doing things such as name- calling or mimicking them sarcastically. Example: “You’re an airhead for forgetting to pay our bills this month. Can you remember anything?” Contempt has been found to be the single greatest predictor of divorce (Lisitsa, 2022).
  • Defensiveness – Avoiding accountability for the effect you had on your partner and making excuses for why it actually wasn’t wrong. Example: “I wouldn’t do _ if you didn’t do _ first”.
  • Stonewalling – Stopping or withdrawing from engaging with your partner.
    Example: Shutting down when your partner upsets you and walking/storming off without communication.

I challenge you to think about how you may engage in one of the four horsemen within your relationships. How do you potentially play a part in the negative cycle of indulging in these dynamics? How do your current/past partners exhibit these behaviors? Once you can self-reflect and take ownership of your piece, it can be easier to address how to change and hold yourself accountable to make better choices. The Gottman Institute provides “anecdotes” to the Four Horsemen and they can look like this:

  • Criticism – Instead of criticizing your partner when you are upset, try utilizing “I” statements of how you feel and then stating a positive need. For example: “I’m feeling really frustrated that you don’t pick up your dirty clothes in the bathroom. It’s hard for me to walk through there when they are on the ground. Would you be willing to put your clothes in a hamper when you remove them?”
  • Contempt – Instead of attacking/insulting your partner out of hurt/anger, try to remember the positive qualities you love and cherish about them. For example: If you are feeling upset about your partners’ messiness, remind yourself that you love the creativity and passion that come from their “wild” personality. Practicing a daily share of appreciation/gratitude towards your partner can be a great way to combat getting to a place of contempt.
  • Defensiveness – Instead of victimizing yourself and trying to deflect or reverse blame, try understanding your partner’s perspective from an open mind and offer an apology for any wrongdoing. For example: “I can hear your experience of me saying yes to that friend’s party without asking if you wanted to go was hurtful for you. Would it be helpful for me to check in about plans if they include both of us?”
  • Stonewalling – Instead of avoiding your partner when there is conflict present, challenge yourself to stay present and name your emotional landscape. For example: “I’m feeling really activated by this argument. I need to take some space to calm down before we continue. Can we come back to this in 30 minutes?”

I hope that you are able to take these tools and equip yourself to show up as your best self in relationships with others and to provide a framework for when things may be stuck in a negative cycle. Also, please remember, we are all human and we are not perfect! We can and will make mistakes. We can also be responsible for those mistakes and continue to work to have the Four Horsemen stay in their barn and out of our partnerships.

Gottman Institute. (2023).

Lisitsa, E. (2022, November 3). The Four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, & stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from

About the Author: Tristan (TJ) Dubovich is a marriage and family therapy intern at People House. TJ works with individuals, couples, and families in a solution-focused and collaborative approach. He enjoys working with folks from a variety of backgrounds – especially those in the LGBTQIA community, those in life transitions, and couples looking to improve their relationships.