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The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse

Let my begin by stating that this post isn’t about an actual apocalypse. Frankly, I didn’t even come up with the analogy but it’s an apt one that I think drives the message home. Many of us wonder if we’ll actually know when it’s time to move on from a relationship. As it turns out, there are four principles that forecast a relationship’s end.

The signs are:

  • Contempt
  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

Let’s break this down and where this concept of the four horsemen comes from.

The concept of the Four Horsemen is rooted in the New Testament of the Bible. Essentially, the idea is that Four Horsemen signify the “end of the world”. Now, you don’t need to buy into the (Christian) religion to get behind this relationship principle at all, but the point is to communicate where the symbolism came from.

That being said, this means that these signs (contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling) often forecast the end of a relationship. This research conducted by the Gottman Institute found that these traits are common in relationships that have ended (or are nearing their end). If you are wondering how serious your relationship troubles may be, then it may be worth it to consider how prevalent these dynamics are in your relationship.


We have all been subject to criticism in our lives. When we talk about criticism in this context we’re not talking about how your supervisor might correct an error you made at work. Criticism becomes a red flag in a relationship when there is a ongoing, pervasive need for your partner to belittle or shame you for some perceived wrongdoing. It’s an attack on your person and not just your behavior.

Here’s an example:

Standard complaint: “I’m upset you didn’t wake me up before you left the house this morning. I thought we agreed for you to do that as I have trouble hearing the alarm clock.”

Criticism: “You just don’t ever listen to me and keep up your end of the bargain. You’re so self-centered!”


Contempt takes negativity to another level. Contempt has often been described as a sort of seething hatred towards another person. It’s often the cumulative effect of disappointment and unchecked criticism over time.

Here’s an example:

“You really think you have it heard don’t you? The truth is you’re weak and pathetic. You’re just a momma’s boy who never actually became a real man. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand to look at your hideous face.”


It’s easy to be defensive in a relationship when you think that your partner often comes after you in fights. But, for some, being defensive isn’t just about self protection. Sometimes it is also about not taking accountability. In any event, if a partner isn’t able to take responsibility for their behavior then it’s a sign the relationship needs a healthy adjustment, and quickly.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Question: “Honey, could you make sure to take out the trash before you head to bed tonight? I don’t want to wake up to a stinky kitchen tomorrow morning.”

Defensive response: “Look, I said I was going to do it and I’m going to. I had a really rough day. Why are you even asking me about this now? This is ridiculous!”


Stonewalling is a really dated term (well, it is!) that essentially refers to the idea of someone shutting down, especially in times of conflict. Many times this is unintentional (or subconscious) but in other cases is wielded as a strategy in an effort for one partner to get what they want (to be left alone).

This can look like someone completely going silent during an argument, walking away, or simply acquiescing (and not working to problem solve) despite the problem remaining.

You can read more about these principles on The Gottman Institute. It should be said that we all have our bad days and might employ some of these tactics unconsciously from time to time. But, it’s important to be conscious and mindful about these to stregthen the relational bond.

If you’re concerned about your relationship, it is always helpful to reach out to a licensed therapist who may be able to offer you (or you and your partner) the support and resources necessary for the path forward.

You may also enjoy reading the following:

How to Handle Arguments in a Relationship

How to Apologize to Someone You’ve Hurt

What You Need to Know About the Silent Treatment

Author: Jor-El

Jor-El is Co-founder of Viva Wellness and a foodie and film buff. He most often writes about mental health, relationships, food and mindfulness. When he’s not busy working, he typically can be found lounging or walking around NYC with his pup Nomi.

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