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The 4 Horsemen That Predict Divorce

How accurately can one predict the future? Dr. John Gottman, an American psychologist and professor can, and according to research, his predictions are correct 93.6% of the time. Dr. Gottman has spent the last 50 years of his life researching couples and relationships. Particularly, how couples interact when they disagree or argue. While conflict is inevitable in any relationship, how couples resolve issues and problem-solve together is what Dr. Gottman is interested in. With half a century of research, Dr. Gottman identified four major factors that determine divorce or separation and he coined them “The Four Horsemen of Divorce.” They include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 


No relationship is perfect and there will likely be times in any relationship where partners feel the need to voice concerns or complaints about any given topic. However, there is a stark difference between complaining and criticizing your partner. Criticism is defined as a direct attack, specifically on one’s character. This often leaves the other person feeling rejected, alone, attacked, and hurt.


Complaint – “I’m feeling really frustrated right now because you said you’d do the dishes and they’re still sitting in the sink.” 

Criticism – “You said you’d do the dishes and they’re still sitting here. You’re so lazy and selfish. I can’t count on you for anything.” 

Criticism is the first horseman because it is typically the first to develop. If continued, it is likely that criticism will become a part of your relationship more often and with more intensity and frequency. This typically paves the way for contempt and other horsemen that are harder to recover from. If you find that you are prone to criticizing in relationships, try to change the dynamic of the conversation by talking with your partner about the issues you have using I statements and owning the way you feel in the situation. 


The definition of contempt is feeling as though a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn. Contempt is when someone is being truly mean-spirited and hateful towards another. When someone is speaking with contempt they may call the other person names, attack their character, ridicule, mock, diminish, and shame them. This leads the other partner to experience shame and worthlessness. While criticism is attacking a person and their character, contempt goes further in that it adopts a superiority and power of the other. Contempt is often borne from resentments and negative thoughts over the other partner over a period of time.

Example: “I work all day long and you haven’t done a single thing in this house. You have it so easy compared to me and you can’t even get one thing done, you are so pathetic! You don’t contribute anything to this house, you might as well just be another child since I can’t count on you for anything.”

Out of all four horsemen, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce and separation. Interestingly, some research has shown that families and couples who experience contempt in the household are on average more susceptible to common colds and the flu!


Feeling defensive is a common experience among couples. Feeling accused or blamed for something often elicits this response and so we give a list of excuses to get our partner to back off. When defensiveness is a common occurrence though, it usually doesn’t end well. Taking responsibility for ourselves is the first step to combat defensiveness in relationships. Defensiveness, especially in the face of frustration or conflict, typically only fuels the conflict and leaves the other partner feeling unheard. 


Defense – “Did you pick up the dry cleaning on the way home?” 

“ Why do you always ask me to pick it up? It’s not even my stuff. I’ve had a really busy day, why can’t you just do it?” 

Responsibility – “Did you pick up the dry cleaning on the way home?”

“No, I forgot. I’m sorry, that was my bad. I got really busy at work today, but I will set a reminder to do it tomorrow.” 


When in conflict, stonewalling occurs when a person disconnects from the conversation. This could be the person leaving the room, staying silent, shutting down, or not engaging. While stonewalling is usually in response to one of the other horsemen such as contempt or criticism, it often leaves the other partner feeling rejected and unheard thus escalating the conflict. Some space or time away from the conflict to calm down may be needed, but those needs should be stated instead of one side simply withdrawing from the conversation. 


Stonewalling: *Sitting quietly with head down* *Leaving the room* *Refusing to respond*

Stating needs: “I need a minute to calm down. Can we take a break and talk about this in a little while?” 

Next time you see one of the four horsemen appear in your relationship, try to navigate the conversation by using I statements, remembering what you love and are grateful for in your partner, taking responsibility, and checking in to make sure you’re stating your own needs as you work through the conflict. No one is perfect and these skills take practice. Making small changes in how we communicate can make a big difference in the longevity, outcome, and overall health of relationships. As a final thought, while these horsemen were outlined as a means to predict the success or failure of romantic partnerships, these same principles can be applied to any relationship and are just as toxic in friendships, parent-child relationships, and other familial relationships.