The Four Horsemen of Relationships: Predicting Divorce


In a landmark study mentioned in the Malcolm Gladwell book, BLINK, psychologist John Gottman studied hundreds of couples and thin-sliced an hour each of random conversation between the two. The study’s findings were startling: by studying that conversational thin-slice you can predict (with a 95% accuracy) who was going to divorce or not. Gottman did this by extracting patterns of behaviour–both verbal and non-verbal cues, facial expression, heart rates, and fidget counts (how often and to what extent one or both of the couples fidget in their chair). He found out that what happens in just that hour of conversation is sacramental of where the whole relationship is at the moment and is predictive of where the relationship is going to be years down the line. He found out that there are four main predictors of couple separation or divorce. These are the tell-tale signs that the couple will not last or will end up in divorce:

The Four Horsemen of Relationships

1) Defensiveness
2) Stonewalling
3) Criticism
4) Contempt

Horseman 1: Defensiveness

The first horseman of relationships is Defensiveness. It is the (usually) unconscious effort to protect yourself from anxiety, either by diversionary tactics, intimidation or by distortions of reality. People usually become defensive because they don’t want to experience an uncomfortable feeling. The defensiveness is their way of blocking the feeling they don’t want to experience. So they divert attention to other, less uncomfortable issues, they engage in a shouting match, or they dismiss the issue altogether, acting as if it doesn’t exist. 

“Remaining non-defensive is the single most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness when working to turn conflict into collaboration.” [Judge Jim Tamm]

Horseman 2: Criticism

4 Horsemen of Relationships: Criticism

Criticism is the second horseman. This is better explained by differentiating criticism from complaint. 

A complaint is specific. A criticism, on the other hand, is a generalization–attacking the partner’s personality/character/attitude and not the particular event that spurred the argument or fight. If you’re complaining you would say: “You forgot to buy groceries! I’m really mad right now because you didn’t do what you said you would.” Criticism is different. You criticize by saying, “You always forget! You can’t be counted on! I will never ask you to do anything for me again!” While a complaint is an attack on the event that happened, criticism is an attack on the person.

Horseman 3: Stonewalling

The third horseman is a little more difficult to deal with. Stonewalling is the blunt refusal to cooperate in making the relationship work. In relationships where intense arguments break out, and where incessant criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, eventually, one partner just tunes out of the relationship. This is what stonewalling is all about. When they say that hate is not the opposite of love, apathy is, they probably meant that one person is stonewalling the other. 

4 Horsemen of Relationships

Here’s the typical cycle: (1) Women criticize men, (2) Men become defensive and emotionally withdraw from criticism or conflict (research indicates that 85% of stonewallers in marriages are husbands). The stonewaller acts as if he couldn’t care less about what the partner is saying or doing. He (sometimes she) turns away from conflict and from the relationship. Any form of disengagement can be stonewalling.

Other behaviours:

  • Refusal to negotiate conflict in good faith
  • Refusal to discuss honestly one’s motivations
  • Refusal to listen to another point of view with openness
  • Refusal to compromise
  • Refusal to collaborate
  • Refusal to support the other person’s plans

Horseman 4: Contempt

But the most dangerous of the 4 horsemen is contempt. 

Contempt is really a set of behaviours that communicate disgust: sneering, sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery, hostile humour and condescension. It is primarily transmitted through non-verbal behaviours and as such is not easily addressed. It is a particular stance that has to do with how one partner looks at another. It is the most difficult to resolve because it has to do with respect — when one person has lost respect of the other, that is usually the beginning of the end of the relationship. 

The relationship does not move toward reconciliation and inevitably increases the conflict. It is always disrespectful. Research shows couples that display contempt for each other suffer more illnesses and diseases than respectful couples.


Check your relationship and see whether these four telltale signs are present. If these are present, it doesn’t mean you are going to separate (5% of the couples were still able to save their relationships), but it surely means you have a lot of things to talk about with your partner if you are to have a chance at saving the relationship. Sign up to my email list to learn about the 9 priority areas you can work on to have a better relationship. Of course, it may be time to look for help from other people as well, like this program or this one. You could also read my review of the last program here


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