The ‘Four Horsemen’ That Can Destroy Your Marriage

Annoyed woman and man talking

According to John Gottman, author and marriage and relationship expert, there are four major factors that can make it virtually impossible for a marriage to flourish. In a recent article, Eric Barker, a writer who specializes in human behavior, described the “Four Horsemen” in detail. Barker says that at the top of the list is contempt. Contempt can be displayed through verbal or nonverbal means, with mean words, dismissive glances, deep sighs, or physical distance. The result is that your partner will feel as if you are disgusted with him or her. It is very difficult to get someone to cooperate in a conversation or conflict resolution if that person can feel the disdain you have for them.

Another relationship no-no is criticism. Being dissatisfied with the way someone does something, or doesn’t do something, is OK. But criticizing the person, qualifying the person as a bad individual because he or she can’t fold the laundry correctly, is critical and hurtful. This is an attack on the person’s character, the person’s core, not just on behavior. Barker suggests focusing on the behavior at hand and narrowing the scope of the complaint.

Defensiveness is another negative relationship trait. When people become defensive, they are basically relinquishing any responsibility for the problem at hand. This type of behavior puts the other partner on defense also and elevates the tension. Ultimately, defensiveness eliminates any spirit of willingness or cooperation from either partner.

The final “Horseman” is stonewalling. When an individual shuts down and turns away from his or her partner, resolution is nearly impossible. A relationship cannot be fixed by only one partner.

Barker points out that Gottman’s work also sheds light on how couples overcome problems. “Sixty-nine percent of a couple’s problems are perpetual,” Barker says. “These problems don’t go away, yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.” It’s how they approach these problems that separates successful marriages from unsuccessful ones. Barker says it’s important to accept those things which cannot be agreed upon. Just like aches and pains that come with age, some negative character traits come with all spouses. Learning how to accept those qualities, and to stay physically and emotionally connected to each other, will help couples maintain strong, loving relationships. So make time for each acceptance, for talking and getting to know one another, and for a little horseplay. Just remember to keep the “Four Horsemen” far, far away.

Barker, Eric. What are the four things that kill relationships? Business Insider (2012): N.p., 25 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lance


    November 12th, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    There are so many things that can cause a good relationship to go bad, but I think that the one big thing that will hit it like a ton of bricks every single time is the refusal that some people have to listen to their partners. You know those people- they say that they are really listening and trying to see the others point of view, but in reality they are simply looking for some way to be able to say that they are right and that you are wrong. That’s it. So I really think that when you have this need to always be right and fail to take any kind of responsibility for something that goes wrong, then your marriage is going to be in some pretty serious trouble.

  • shannon


    November 12th, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    “It’s how they approach these problems that separates successful marriages from unsuccessful ones.”

    This sums it up very well.SO often I see and hear of friends having trouble in their marriage for something that actually has a better way around it and sans a conflict,but they do not know about it.everybody has problems but how you deal with them is what dictates the future.

  • stressmom


    November 13th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    There is a big difference between recognizing that these are the things that CAN destroy a marriage and the things that will.

    We all have a tendency after a while to let these little nuisances creep into our marriage. I don’t think that we would bu human if at some point in the relationship we did not feel like we were wronged or that we shouldn’t have to compromise.

    But you do have to be adult enough to see that to make it work sometimes you have to let go of always needing to be right and just hang on to the person who is important to you.

  • Ben


    November 13th, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    If these are the 4 Horseman attitudes, what are the 4 Horseman actions? My guess would be:
    spending too much money
    Affairs (emotional or physical)
    Disagreements over whether or not to have kids
    Having completely different hobbies

  • Brooke H

    Brooke H

    November 13th, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    OMG! What a drag that kind of person would be to live with. But why in the world would you ever marry someone like that anyway? I am so lucky. People get so sick of me saying it, but i have the best partner in the world. Thank you, honey!

  • bailey


    November 13th, 2012 at 12:14 PM

    you could be poles apart but some things are required to maintain a healthy relaionship.the article makes does a good job by listing them all here.these are things that will make it very hard for the relationship to sustain.

    you know,you could be very different from each other and still make the relationship work.but with these horsemen,even if you share a lot of things in common it would be very difficult to make it work.these are like the essentials that a relationship cannot do without.

  • Colin


    November 13th, 2012 at 2:06 PM

    @Lance – well said, you’re completely right.

  • DrBobby


    November 13th, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    Things that kill relationships, I would have to disagree. Everything you list are indicators that the relationship is in fact already over. What you are missing is the cause of these. I have nothing but contempt & disgust for my ex-wife. The contempt developed in the last of 17 years. My ex is ADHD, BiPolar with Borderline tendencies. I had endured 17 years of maladapted pathological lying, gas lighting, emotional manipulation (deceit) & had lost all trust for good reason. Disgusted because these disorders were known & covered up. Rather than opening up with honesty, my ex went full psycho with false DV charges. My capacity for compassion was never called upon, she is a narcissistic sociopath (like so many these days). Anyway.. My:

    Contempt arose from catching, documenting & recording her pathological lying & gas lighting.

    Stonewalling arose for my own protection from her borderline personality. Our kids are now doing the same. This is the recommended path suggested by psychiatrists to protect yourself from BPD. This is not abuse, these women are not entitled to victimize their spouse or children.

    (Her) spending too much money would be part of the impulsivity & poor self regulation with ADHD & BP. Still doesn’t excuse it, bills have to be paid.

    Anyways, your 4 horsemen are indicators that it is already over. These emotions do not spontaneously pop out of the blue. There is a female reply here condemning these feelings, of course with the gynocentric view that it is never the woman’s fault (for anything). Clue in, Love is the combination of Trust & Joy. Many women somehow feel that manipulative deceitful behaviour is normal, you destroy your own relationship & it is solely your own fault.

  • Mike


    November 15th, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    You mean cheating’s not on the list?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.