Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 

Patterns of communication that can lead any relationship to a dead end.

There are four negative conflict patterns found in relationships that if allowed to run rampant will be lethal to any relationship. These conflict patterns are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. John Gottman, a marriage and divorce researcher, studied hundreds of happy and unhappy couples. After many years of research he found that these patterns of communication are the leading causes of divorce. Unhappy couples had these horsemen in their relationship, while happy couples did not, or were able to repair quickly. Learning and understanding these patterns of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling can help you understand your relationship better, and guide you to know where you can improve. 


Criticism is very common in most marriages. However, if left unchecked it can lead to more deadly horsemen. A criticism expresses negative opinions about the other’s character or personality (Gottman & Silver, 2018). When starting off a conversation with a criticism, it sets the tone for the entire discussion. In fact, John Gottman found that how the discussion starts typically determines the outcome of the conversation with 96% accuracy (Panganiban, 2022). So in other words, if you start the conversation with criticism, then you will likely leave the conversation worse than before. 

There are different types of criticism that can creep into a relationship. Sometimes criticism can look like exaggerated language such as; “you always” or “you never.” Other times it can show up as asking why questions for example; “why didn’t you do the dishes today?” On the surface this may not seem critical, however on the receiving end it can be interpreted as there is something wrong with them for not doing the dishes. Criticism can also look like making jokes about the other person’s flaws. This is a passive-aggressive way of communicating what you don’t like about your partner (Panganiban, 2022). This can be especially harmful when making a joke in front of others, because it can lead to embarrassment. 

In every marriage there are some complaints between each spouse. However, a complaint and a criticism are very different. A complaint focuses on a very specific behavior such as, “I’m upset you didn’t clean the bathroom, like you said you would. Can you take care of it before tomorrow?” The focus is on the behavior of not cleaning the bathroom rather than on the spouse. Here is a formula to keep in mind to give a complaint: 1) express how you feel (I’m upset); 2) about a specific event or behavior (not cleaning the bathroom); 3) and this is what I want/need/prefer (can you do it before tomorrow) (Gottman & Silver, 2018). A compliment is a healthy way to use assertive communication to express feelings and suggest what is needed in that moment. 

Complaint: I’m angry because I didn’t know you made plans tonight. Next time can you communicate with me better?

Criticism: Why didn’t you think to call me? You never communicate with me. 

Complaint: I noticed the laundry still isn’t done. I’m frustrated because you told me you would do it yesterday. Can you start doing it now? I’ll help. 

Criticism: You never follow through with chores around the house. 


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2018). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the international bestselling relationship expert. Orion Spring. 

Kimberly Panganiban, M. A. (2022, March 7). Types of criticism: Expressing concern or complaint without harm. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from