The Four Horsemen of Divorce: Predicting Divorce and Break-ups

Understanding Dr. John Gottman’s Predictors of Divorce and Break Ups

People crave simple answers—especially when examining why relationships turn sour. This hunger drives sales of countless self-help books, most of which ultimately boil down to get-happy-quick schemes pushed out by armchair psychologists and wannabe gurus. Well, mostly. Dr. John Gottman’s decades of research on relationship longevity just might be the exception.

His four-point model for assessing whether or not a relationship will last has decades of research behind it. After originally publishing his findings in the 1970s, Gottman claimed his self-described Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could predict the ability of a couple to stay together—regardless of age, sex, or orientation—by 93%. Using four traits as some sort of crystal ball for relationships sounds simple, but it’s a deceptively complex system.

Approaching this model as a short-and-sweet listicle completely destroys the nuance, the interrelated nature of these predictors. Ignoring the shades of gray within this groundbreaking work could actually do more harm than good for those looking for help. If you want to get a better picture of what the Four Horsemen are, you must look at how they relate to other, equally important, findings on the mechanics behind successful relationships.

Disagreements are not inherently bad within a relationship. They are totally normal. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse centers around how a couple handles conflict. Let’s take a look at what they are.

Credit: Mark Leishman
Credit: Mark Leishman

The Four Horsemen Explained

The First Horseman: Criticism

When a conflict starts to emerge, criticism operates as a globalized reaction to a particular incident. These definitive, negative statements of a partner’s character typically include words like “never” and “always.” For instance, if a loved one left their clothes on the floor after a workout, a criticism would be:

“You’re always turning the house into a mess. You never think about how I’m the one who has to clean up after you!”

This way of using a singular problem as an indicator of the other person’s greater character doesn’t solve the difficulty at hand. It invites more conflict and can morph into a larger issue of how two partners deal with disagreements in the future. 

The Second Horseman: Contempt

Contempt operates as a more insidious escalation of the first horseman, Criticism. When communicating in this way, a person is at their nastiest. It goes beyond basic statements of character. It is an attack, a way for someone to say “You are less than me.”

Using the same example of dirty clothes on the floor, Criticism sounds like this:

“You’re always turning the house into a mess. You never think about how I’m the one who has to clean up after you!”

Contempt, however, contorts this same problem into:

“What a surprise. More dirty clothes on the floor. You know, sometimes it feels like I live with a toddlerand a dumb one at that. How many times do I have to tell you to stop being such a slob?”

Body language is also a key component of contempt. Eye rolling and sneering convey disgust in these situations. Expressing frustration in this way doesn’t happen overnight, though. It usually emerges after a long pattern of consistent, failed attempts at conflict resolution.

According to Gottman’s research, contempt is the strongest predictor of divorce. Once it’s there, trying to break out of this communication method with a partner is also particularly difficult.

The Third Horseman: Defensiveness

Defensiveness functions as a response to conflict, unlike Criticism and Contempt, which typically operate as instigations of conflict. Similar to the previous two horsemen, the crux of Defensiveness works to shift blame. It pushes the onus of an issue onto someone else instead of recognizing another’s frustration or pain.

If approached with a request to pick up gym clothes off the floor, a defensive response would be:

“I only left them on the floor because you’re rushing me to get ready for dinner. If they bother you so much, it wouldn’t be too hard to pick them up yourself, would it?”

By using an excuse like this, a person effectively tells their partner their needs are not a priority. The defensive response above shifts blame onto the significant other. With this reaction, one isn’t solving a conflict. Instead, they are practically guaranteeing additional disagreements, resentment, and frustration for both parties down the road.

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling happens when the listener shuts down, stops listening, and refuses to communicate further. Usually, this Horseman is a response to Contempt, to biting attacks on an individual’s character. Although the way a person Stonewalls varies—some may cross their arms and wipe all expression from their face, others may storm out of the room or start a new, distracting activity like playing a video game—the source of this response is the same. The conflict with their partner becomes too overwhelming to handle.

Typically, Stonewalling emerges after Criticism, Contempt, and Defensiveness come into play. This physiological response strikes down the conversation without a resolution, and like the other Horsemen, increases the likelihood of future conflicts.

Credit: Seth Macey
Credit: Seth Macey

Putting The Four Horsemen In A Larger Context

When reading about the Four Horsemen, one could get the impression that simply avoiding these reactions to conflict will make a relationship last forever. But, there are so many factors that go into why people approach disagreements this way.

Although there are “antidotes” to these four poisonous behaviors, using a strict, straightforward application of Gottman’s findings ignores the reasons why a couple communicates like this in the first place. No one falls in love hoping to one day get in a fight that devolves into hateful insults. We want to connect, to feel close to our partners. Addressing conflict isn’t a skill definitively assigned at birth—it’s something curated over time. Decades of research certainly agree.

A wide spectrum of studies point to how childhood experiences, especially conflicts in the home, have lasting impacts on relationships. Research conducted by Narayan et al. (2017) examined the paths of 137 participants from infancy to adulthood. People who grow up exposed to interparental violence as toddlers are more likely to enter abusive or violent relationships as adults. 

Does this mean all children from chaotic homes are doomed to a life of damage? Absolutely not. But, this research does point to how we learn conflict and relationship dynamics at an early age. Finding healthier ways to resolve fights can be more difficult depending on one’s upbringing, genetics, and health. A simple, cut-and-dried approach to avoiding Gottman’s Four Horsemen ignores the ways history influences the future. Thankfully, there’s much more to relationships than conflict management.

In addition to looking at how relationships come apart, Gottman’s team has also investigated how successful couples build strong relationships together. As seen with the Four Horsemen, these findings are deceptively simple.

Hoping to see examples of healthy marriages in action, Gottman set up a study centered around a bed and breakfast retreat for newlyweds. Within this controlled environment, Gottman observed a telling trait within the couples who stayed together years after the study took place.

Throughout the day, researchers observed how people would try to get the attention of their significant other. These requests, or bids, for recognition were often simple, such as pointing out a beautiful bird flying by or making a joke. How the partner reacted served as a key indicator of their relationship’s overall health. 

How often couples engaged with their partner's bid for attention:

0 %
Lasting Couples
0 %
Divorced Couples

Couples who consistently responded to these bids for attention with warmth and genuine interest were more likely to stay married. Specifically, those who divorced had partners who engaged with bids only 33% of the time while lasting couples expressed interest 86% of the time. By brushing off vies for attention, a person turns away from their loved one’s interests and therefore indicates they aren’t a priority. This attitude, in turn, influences approaches to conflict.

Building a strong relationship boils down to the little things in a big way. Making sure to pay attention to someone you love is a simple task in theory, but it requires a daily dedication to recognizing how your attitude directly impacts your partner. Especially in the context of work, family, and an infinite number of digital distractions, taking the time to be present within a relationship is a lot of effort. Like many things requiring a high level of commitment, the attention you pay to your partner is definitely worth it. Gottman’s findings aren’t magical solutions, but they make a difference where it matters most.

The infographic below shows more information about what the Gottman Institute has learned from their decades of research.

Credit: The Gottman Institute
About the author: Maylin Pavletic Author Verified
Maylin Pavletic is a writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated cum laude with a BS in Psychology from Union College. Throughout her life, she's used her passion for writing and research to create things that help people, no matter how strange or different they may be, feel less alone in the world.
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