The 'Four Horsemen' Relationship Theory That Can Tell You When You're Headed For A Breakup

Everyone wants to live happily ever after, but the truth is that no one has a crystal ball to predict the future. You may turn to anything from astrology to snooping on your partner's phone to see if "engagement rings" pops up in their search history (though, friendly reminder, you shouldn't check anyone's phone without their permission) to try to uncover what the future holds for your relationship.

These attempts may not tell you much, but what might forecast the future is how you and your partner treat each other. It's no surprise that cheating can destroy a relationship — a 2014 study published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice confirmed that divorce rates are significantly higher when one partner has committed infidelity, especially if the affair was kept secret. But everyday, seemingly harmless actions can also spell trouble for relationships. The "four horsemen" theory pinpoints four behaviors that are associated with breakups — and you might be using them in your relationship.

What the 'four horsemen' theory means

Pioneer relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman has built his career on studying couples in real-life situations, observing how they connect and interact with one another. According to The Gottman Institute, he's able to predict if a married couple will stay together or divorce with over 90% accuracy by watching how they behave during conflict. According to his theory, lovers who use four specific communication styles, known as the "four horsemen," are much more likely to break up than those who rarely follow these patterns.

The four horsemen are named after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a biblical metaphor for the signs that the end of the world is looming. Similarly, Gottman's four horsemen represent the warning bells couples should pay attention to — if they don't, their relationship may be doomed. The original four horsemen — conquest, war, hunger, and death — were clear threats to humankind. However, the relationship version of the four horsemen — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — can slowly wreck your love life without you or your partner even noticing.

The first horseman: criticism

Whether you're giving them or receiving them, constructive complaints can be difficult to deal with, especially in intimate relationships. Still, it's necessary to tell each other when needs aren't getting met or when a behavior can no longer be tolerated. This type of honest, clear feedback is essential, but it's important to not mistake it for criticism.

Criticism, the first of the four horsemen, is when one person attacks another's character. Rather than complaining about your partner forgetting your anniversary, for example, you call them lazy or selfish, belittling them as a person. Psychology Today points out that criticism tends to come first, paving the way for the other three horsemen.

Though criticism can be damaging to relationships, many people may not realize they're being critical or why. As licensed clinical social worker Erica Cramer told PsychCentral, "When someone is overly critical, chances are it has more to do with them than you." Constantly finding fault in others can become a coping strategy, especially for people who suffered disapproval from a parent or partner in the past.

The second horseman: contempt

According to The Gottman Institute, the second horseman, contempt, is the most damaging and may even up the risk of suffering from infectious illnesses due to the stress it causes. Contempt, put simply, is communicating that you believe the other person is inferior to you. Hostile sarcasm, mocking, eye-rolling, and insults are all examples of contempt.

Couples may turn to making contemptuous comments in the heat of the moment, later telling each other (and themselves) that they didn't really mean what they said. But once contempt comes into the picture, it's hard to undo the damage. Moreover, contempt may signal deeper problems in the relationship. "Contempt comes from issues that build up and aren't addressed," couples therapist Tracy Ross shared with The Knot. Once you start using searing sarcasm or name-calling to express your frustration, Ross explains, "It becomes a habit. You start giving yourself permission to act a certain way with your partner." Then, basic respect and kindness fly out the window, leaving only relationship-wrecking hostility and anger.

The third horseman: defensiveness

Defensiveness, the third horseman, is often used in response to criticism. When one partner attacks, the other counters, giving their case for why they're innocent. Choosing Therapy lists several ways defensiveness can show up in arguments, such as making excuses, shifting blame onto someone or something else, or gaslighting the accuser. No matter what it looks like, defensiveness is always the opposite of taking responsibility — and the reality is that in almost every relationship conflict, both partners play a role.

Still, people become defensive for many reasons, BetterHelp explains. Defensiveness may be a way to avoid listening to criticism, or even valid complaints, from a partner. It's also a typical response when someone doesn't want to compromise or doesn't feel ready to work through a problem. Rather than facing the issue, they hide behind excuses and justifications for their behavior. In the end, this traps couples in a gridlock where no one can move until both people lower their defenses.

The fourth horseman: stonewalling

The final horseman identified by Dr. John Gottman is stonewalling, where one person shuts down and stops interacting during a conversation. The silent treatment is a quintessential example of stonewalling, though the horseman may also include leaving the room during an argument or changing the subject whenever an uncomfortable topic is discussed.

While stonewalling may seem like the least aggressive of the four horsemen, it's still just as much of a threat to relationships. "Stonewalling can be incredibly harmful to a relationship. It can be interpreted as a lack of care about the other partner's feelings and an unwillingness to collaborate and find solutions," licensed marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie told Insider.

Not only that, but stonewalling makes it impossible to overcome issues as a couple. Stonewalling can keep you and your partner in a cold war where you never make any headway on major issues. Meanwhile, hurt feelings and distrust hang around, ignored, until they eventually destroy the love you once shared.

How to keep toxic communication from harming your relationship

While the four horsemen may predict future breakups, that doesn't mean you should try to avoid conflict altogether. There are benefits to arguing with your significant other when done right. "Fighting allows us to work things out," psychotherapist and executive coach Daryl Appleton, Ed.D, LMC, explained to Good Housekeeping. "It's important how we fight, though, because it could lead to a bigger problem if it's toxic fighting — whereas in a healthy relationship, a problem is seen, it's overcome, and people learn new ways to communicate."

The Gottman Institute offers alternatives to each of the four horsemen. If you tend to use criticism, try a gentle start up instead, where you use "I" statements to share your perspective — not focus on the other person's flaws or shortcomings. For contempt, practice gratitude and express your appreciation for your partner. If defensiveness is your go-to, look for ways you can take responsibility instead. When you stop pointing the finger and admit your own wrongdoings, the other person may also be more likely to do the same. Finally, habitual stonewalling should be replaced with a structured break. Let the other person know you're stepping away for 20 minutes or so, and use the break to listen to calming music or take some deep breaths.