4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Dr. John Gottman has spent more than 25 years conducting research aimed at answering the question: ‘what makes relationships work?’. His insights enable him to predict with a great degree of accuracy whether a relationship will prove to be a long-term one. By focussing on how couples communicate with each other, both verbally and non-verbally, one of the conclusions he comes to is: couples that have a ratio of at least 5:1 of positive expressions of communication versus negative ones have a greater chance of a long-term relationship. Examples of these positive expressions of communication include showing interest in each other, asking questions, and being empathetic and friendly. Negative examples are expressing anger, consciously upsetting the other person, expressing criticism or even being antagonistic towards the other person.

He has also demonstrated that having conflicts within a relationship is fine, since expressing your anger in a constructive manner clears the air and restores the balance in the relationship. However, this does not apply when one or more of the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and ‘stonewalling’) make an appearance during the conflicts. His research reveals that when these four ‘horsemen’ are chronically present, in 80% the relationships will end in divorce. And when attempts to restore the balance in the relationship are regularly rejected, the chance of the relationship being terminated is as high as 90%.


There is a significant difference between expressing a complaint and making an accusation. With a complaint, you indicate what behaviour you find difficult to deal with. But an accusation goes further, putting the personality or character of the other person under discussion, placing the problem firmly on the partner’s plate. For example, ‘I’m upset you haven’t called the doctor to make an appointment’ is a complaint. But if you say ‘I can’t believe you still haven’t called the doctor, you’re just so irresponsible’, this has now become an accusation. One way of identifying an accusation is in the use of words like: always, never, why are you so…, typical of you to…, etc. In general it’s usually the woman in a relationship who introduces this ‘horseman’ into the conflict.


It is one step up from criticism and involves openly showing the other person no respect and being deliberately insulting toward your partner. Examples of this are the use of swear words or malicious humour, making sarcastic comments, or parodying the partner. Example: ‘I do my best all day to organise things for the children and do the housework and all you can do when you get home is slump onto the sofa and turn into an immovable shapeless heap of a human being. You’re so pathetic! I can’t understand what I ever saw in you.’


It’s a fairly natural reaction to become defensive during a conflict. However, even though it’s logical, it doesn’t contribute anything to the quality of the relationship. This defensive attitude is often the result of the tension that’s being felt. Instead of trying to understand the other person, you are denying your own responsibility, making excuses or responding to a complaint with another complaint. For example, you repeat yourself without responding to the other person or use words such as: it’s not my fault that…, that’s not true…, yes but…, you’re the one who…, it’s not fair, etc.


Instead of responding to the problem or conflict, you pull yourself out of the relationship, either physically or mentally. No response is given to what the other person says or does. Although it can be meaningful to respond in such a way occasionally, it is destructive for the relationship if it happens on a regular basis. Different forms of this behaviour include: changing the subject, looking away, going away/isolating yourself or keeping silent. In general, men tend to engage in stonewalling more often than women.

Although the study focuses on relationships within marriage, the insights gained can also be applied to friendships or relationships at work. So, within a team for example, if one or more of these ‘horsemen’ regularly make an appearance, there’s work to be done. So what can you do in such a situation? There are several films available on YouTube (search for ‘John Gottman’). Or take a look at this short film explaining why some attempts to restore balance in a relationship succeed and why others don’t. In essence it’s all about how much ‘money’ there is in the other person’s ‘emotional bank account’.


So what’s the challenge for this week? Take time to reflect on the extent to which these ‘horsemen’ are present within your team, friendship or relationship (personal or professional). Be honest about the part you yourself play within that team, friendship or relationship. And if it turns out that the horsemen keep making an appearance on a regular basis, decide what you want to do with them. Are you prepared to invest in improving the relationship? Or are you content to leave it as it is, with the chance that the relationship will terminate sooner or later? Whichever choice you make, make it a deliberate one. And if you want to change… don’t wait till tomorrow, but take action today.

Enjoy successful relationships!

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