Couples & Marriage

Helping Couples Understand the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by John Gottman

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When your close relationships are struggling, everything else in life feels harder. At The Family Therapy Clinic we want to help you heal, find peace in your life, and remember that you are not alone.

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In the realm of relationships, Dr. John Gottman is an expert. Renowned for his groundbreaking research on marriage and relationships, Gottman’s work has illuminated both the intricacies of successful partnerships and the warning signs of impending doom. One of his most well-known concepts is that of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” which metaphorically illustrate destructive communication patterns that can lead to relationships ending. In fact, Gottman claims that he can predict with 93% accuracy which couples will get divorced based on certain predictive factors, including the 4 Horseman.

So what are these not so great behaviors? Let’s dig in.

The Four Horsemen


The first horseman charges in with sharp words and attacks on character. Criticism isn’t just talking about a behavior (you didn’t do the dishes) but becomes about attacking the person (you’re so lazy you never do what you say you will!) often through generalized statements like “You always” or “You never.” This can quickly turn discussions into battlegrounds, leaving both partners feeling wounded and defensive.


This horseman is perhaps the most toxic, as contempt breeds a sense of superiority and disrespect. Eye-rolling, sarcasm, mockery, and insults are its weapons, chipping away at love and respect until there’s little left but bitterness and resentment.


When one feels attacked, the instinctive response is often defensiveness. This horseman appears as excuses, denial of responsibility, or counter-attacks. While it may seem like a shield, defensiveness actually fuels conflict by escalating tensions instead of resolving them.


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The final horseman brings a chilling silence to the relationship. Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws, shutting down emotionally and physically. It’s a form of emotional disengagement that signals a breakdown in communication and connection.

Understanding the Impact

Gottman’s research showed that the presence of these horsemen predicts relationship failure with alarming accuracy. Couples who consistently engage in these destructive patterns are more likely to divorce or experience significant unhappiness in their relationships.

Criticism and contempt breed resentment, defensiveness amplifies conflict, and stonewalling creates emotional distance. Together, they form a destructive cycle that can unravel even the most loving relationships over time.

Navigating Towards Healthier Communication

While the Four Horsemen may seem ominous, they also serve as beacons, highlighting areas for improvement and growth. All couples will fall into getting defensive or sometimes shutting down. If there is an effort to repair and do it better the next time that is an important part of having a healthy relationship. If these things become a pattern that feel difficult to get out of, finding a therapist trained in working with couples might be a good place to start. Gottman’s work emphasizes the importance of replacing these destructive patterns with healthier communication strategies:

  1. Expressing Needs Instead of Criticizing: Focus on specific behaviors or situations rather than attacking character.
  2. Building Respect and Fondness: Cultivate admiration and appreciation for each other, fostering a positive atmosphere.
  3. Taking Responsibility: Own up to mistakes and address concerns without resorting to defensiveness.
  4. Active Listening and Empathy: Practice genuine listening and understanding, even when emotions run high.
A couple smiles while holding hands and sitting across from a man with a clipboard gesticulating as he talks. This could represent the support couples therapy in American Fork, UT can offer. Learn more about couples therapy for communication American Fork, UT and how couples therpaists American Fork, UT can offer help today.

And while communication skills are important, it is very difficult to use those skills when you are in a heated argument with your partner, especially if you are feeling unheard or misunderstood. This is where understanding the underlying cycle and attachment needs can be incredibly helpful in breaking couples out of their cycle of conflict and disconnect.

Begin Couples Therapy in American Fork, UT

Understanding and addressing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be helpful for couples to learn how to foster enduring love and intimacy. By recognizing these destructive patterns and replacing them with healthier alternatives, couples can create safety in their relationships and have a secure and loving bond. If you and your partner are stuck in a cycle of conflict, contact one of our therapists today. You can start your therapy journey with The Family Therapy Clinic by following these simple steps:

  1. Schedule a consultation.
  2. Learn more about our therapeutic approaches here.
  3. Start coping with conflict in healthier ways!

Other Services Offered with The Family Therapy Clinic

At The Family Therapy Clinic, we provide comprehensive mental health services designed to address your unique needs in addition to couples therapy. Whether your teenager requires support for anxiety or depression, post-divorce, or you are looking for support with your faith, our specialized therapists offer tailored therapy. Understanding life’s unpredictability, our experts also focus on adult anxiety, adult depression, and  OCD therapy, ensuring a holistic approach to mental wellness across different life stages.

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