Wellness Blog

Couples/Marriage, Mental Health Counselor Wilmington NC, Relationships


The Four Horseman of The Apocalypse (In Relationships)

John and Julie Gottman have been studying relationships for over 40 years and they have nailed down the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse of a relationship. If you let these horseman run wild through your marriage, you’re in trouble. I know when I learned these I was guilty of ALL FOUR!



Criticism is blaming a person for the problem and attacking their character. The Gottman share that this is attacking someone’s character, but I would generalize this idea to cover any time we are telling someone about them instead of about us. When anyone starts telling me how I feel or how I think, I guarantee I will get defensive and angry. Who are you to tell me what is going on in my world? 

It is okay to complain. I get so frustrated when my husband pulls off his socks and they go into the washer inside out. I don’t know why that drives me bananas, but it does. Instead of saying, “You never think about me” or “I swear you are trying to put me in the crazy house” or “You’re so lazy” I can make a complaint versus a criticism and just label the behavior: “When you leave your socks inside out, I feel very frustrated.” 

A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using I statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?



Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.



Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. This is when a person stops talking and either walks away or gives you the cold medusa stare (you know who you are). Stonewalling is not to be confused with taking a timeout in a healthy way. Time outs are great! Matter of fact, I highly recommend them. However, a time out is not yelling “TIME OUT” and driving off to leave your partner twisting in misery for the next three hours. 

To understand stonewalling, you have to understand flooding. Our “fight, flight, or freeze system” (otherwise known as the sympathetic nervous system) is in place to keep us safe from danger. In the past, safety was from predators trying to rip our guts out or hunting for the survival of our tribe. For women, it was organizing and counting grains to ensure our village had enough to eat to sustain us when the men didn’t get anything from hunting (ever wonder why organizing/cleaning reduces your anxiety, ladies?!). 

Stonewalling is our “fight, flight, or freeze” system coming online and we are not managing it effectively. 

The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing. The first step of physiological self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which will get you anywhere. 

The only reasonable strategy, therefore, is to let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). 

Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.



Statements that come from a position of superiority; acting as if your partner is below you or less than in some way. Some examples of displays of contempt include when a person uses sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. 

As a counselor, I see contempt a lot. When you are laughing but talking about something hurtful, you aren’t helping anyone to be willing to be vulnerable with you. Remember, even when you disagree or are hurting, your partner deserves respect. 

The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect.