What Is The ‘Four Horsemen’ Relationship Theory & How Can It Predict A Breakup?

While there are no guarantees when it comes to creating stable, long-lasting relationship, there are some behaviors that can affect your chances of going the distance. Plenty of research has been done in this area, but the Four Horsemen relationship theory sheds some light on how our communication patterns in couples can either strengthen or derail our connections. Confused? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

What is the four horsemen relationship theory all about?

The Four Horsemen is a relationship theory proposed by renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman. Gottman has been analyzing relationships for decades — since the 1970s, in fact. As a result of his extensive research, he’s developed a pretty solid idea of what constitutes a happy relationship and what’s sure to make a connection crash and burn. The Four Horseman theory identifies four negative communication styles or behaviors that can predict the end of a romantic relationship or marriage if left unchecked.

According to Gottman’s research, the presence of four specific, negative communication patterns in a relationship can predict breakups with over 90% accuracy. The key to avoiding the Four Horsemen is to practice healthy communication skills, such as active listening, expressing empathy and understanding, and maintaining a positive perspective towards your partner. When that doesn’t happen, it won’t be long before things go south.

What are the four horsemen in this relationship theory?


Criticism is the first of the Four Horsemen in relationship theory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it refers to attacking your partner’s character or personality, rather than focusing on something specific they did that upset you or pissed you off. If this happens regularly, it can lead to defensiveness, hurt feelings, and resentment on your partner’s behalf.

Criticism can take many forms, from passive-aggressive comments to harsh attacks. For example, a mild criticism might be saying “I wish you would help with the housework more often.” (And hey, most of us in heterosexual relationships have been there.) On the other hand, a harsh criticism might be saying “You’re so lazy, you never help with anything around here.” The second example is a personal attack on the character of the partner and is likely to cause more damage to the relationship.

To avoid criticism, you should focus on the thing your partner did rather than who they are as a person. Instead of saying “You’re always so selfish,” try saying “I would appreciate it if you could help me with this task.” This is way more likely to get the response you’re looking for. Plus, you’ll avoid making a personal attack on their character. Nobody’s perfect, so don’t expect it of them.


Contempt is the second of the Four Horsemen. This refers to showing disrespect, disgust, or superiority towards your partner, often through sarcasm, name-calling, or mockery. This can be especially harmful to a relationship since you’re basically sending the message to your partner that you hate them. The foundation of love you built gets eroded quickly, and it’s pretty sad.

Contempt can take many forms, including eye-rolling and making sarcastic comments. For example, instead of expressing your frustrations with your partner’s behavior in a constructive way, you might say “You’re so incompetent, you can never do anything right,” or “I can’t believe I’m stuck with someone like you.” These comments are not only rude as hell, they’re completely inappropriate to say to someone you’re supposed to love.

Obviously, you need to avoid this at all costs. How? Start by focusing on the stuff you love about them rather than their flaws. Also, when there is something you really can’t hold your tongue about, share that constructively and without being unnecessarily cruel. And, as you’ve probably heard before, it’s better to express yourself with “I” rather than focusing all on them.

In addition to avoiding contempt, it’s important to practice healthy communication skills such as active listening, expressing empathy and understanding, and maintaining a positive perspective towards your partner to build a healthy and happy relationship.


Defensiveness is the third of the Four Horsemen in relationship theory. This one refers to reacting to your partner’s complaints or criticisms with defensiveness rather than listening to their concerns or taking responsibility for your own actions. It’s a completely natural response when you feel like you’re being attacked, but it can seriously screw with your relationship. That’s because it keeps you from actually talking about and resolving the issue(s) at hand.

Defensiveness can take many forms, including making excuses, refusing to take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and counterattacking. For example, maybe your partner thinks you haven’t been prioritizing quality time with them. A defensive response might be to say, “You never make time for me either.” That might be true (even if only in your mind). However, it does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it’s likely just going to make things worse.

To avoid defensiveness, it’s important to listen to your partner’s concerns and acknowledge their feelings. Yes, even if you don’t agree with them! Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand where they’re coming from. (It’s called empathy, duh!) Instead of getting defensive, try to take responsibility for your own actions. Then you can work together to find a solution.


Stonewalling is the fourth and final horseman in relationship theory. This one is all about withdrawing from the conversation or shutting down emotionally, often in response to feeling overwhelmed emotionally. Stonewalling is one of the worst things you can do for your relationship since it literally prevents communication from happening. It also makes your partner feel ignored or dismissed, which is obviously a problem.

Stonewalling can include avoiding eye contact, giving short or monosyllabic answers, or even physically leaving the room mid-conversation. While you’re probably doing this because you’re experiencing intense emotions and need some space to process. However, it’ll likely be interpreted by the other partner as disinterest, contempt, or lack of care.

To avoid stonewalling, it’s important to recognize the signs of emotional overload and take steps to manage them. This might mean taking a break from the conversation, practicing deep breathing or meditation, or seeking the help of a therapist or counselor to work on managing your emotions.

If you’re on the receiving end of stonewalling, it’s important to remain calm and try to create a safe and supportive environment for your partner. Avoid being critical or attacking them. Instead, try to express your feelings in a non-threatening and non-judgmental way. For example, you might say “I feel hurt when you shut down like that,” or “I want to understand what you’re feeling, can you tell me more?”

How can these things end your relationship?

The Four Horsemen can ruin your relationship by creating a toxic communication pattern that erodes the foundation of love and mutual respect. When these negative communication styles become habitual in a relationship, they can lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, and disconnection. This can ultimately lead to the breakdown of the relationship.

Criticism can lead to defensiveness, which just makes fights worse and prevents you from actually resolving the problem and moving on. Contempt can create feelings of disgust and disrespect, which can damage the trust and affection in a relationship. Defensiveness can shut down communication and prevent the acknowledgment of each other’s feelings and perspectives. Stonewalling can make the other partner feel ignored or dismissed, which can create a sense of emotional distance and disconnection. When put simply, it’s easy to see why it’s so toxic.

The Four Horsemen can also create a negative feedback loop in which each partner’s negative behavior triggers the other’s negative behavior, leading you to have the same toxic fights over and over again. Over time, this cycle can become entrenched in the relationship, making it difficult to break the pattern and repair the damage.

What can you do to solve this problem?

Depending on which of the Four Horsemen you’re guilty of using when communicating with your partner, there are a variety of things you can do to switch things up and get back on the right track. To avoid the damaging effects of the Four Horsemen, it’s important to practice healthy communication skills. We’re talking active listening, expressing empathy and understanding, and continuing to focus on your partner’s positives and the things you love about them. By focusing on constructive communication and avoiding negative communication patterns, you’ll be able to build a stronger relationship.

Bolde has been a source of dating and relationship advice for single women around the world since 2014. We combine scientific data, experiential wisdom, and personal anecdotes to provide help and encouragement to those frustrated by the journey to find love. Follow us on Instagram @bolde_media or on Facebook @BoldeMedia