Understanding the Four Horsemen of Marriage Decline

Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates

December 14, 2023

In the realm of relationship dynamics, certain patterns are more indicative of marital discord than others. The Gottman Institute's research on marriage and relationship stability has identified what Dr. John Gottman famously calls "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" in marital communication. These four behaviors are critical predictors of marriage decline and potential dissolution. At Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates, we implement the Gottman Institute’s research into all our marriage counseling sessions. In this blog post, we delve into what these Four Horsemen of Marriage Decline signify and how to address them effectively.

Understanding "Antidotes" to The Four Horsemen of Marriage Decline

While the Four Horsemen can herald potential trouble in a relationship, the concept of 'antidotes' emerges as a beacon of hope. In the context of marriage counseling and relationship therapy, 'antidotes' refer to specific behaviors and communication styles that counteract the negativity brought on by the Four Horsemen. These antidotes are not merely quick fixes but fundamental changes in interaction patterns that can heal and fortify a relationship.

The First Horseman: Criticism

Criticism involves attacking your partner's character or personality rather than expressing a specific complaint or asking for behavior change. This pattern extends beyond a complaint about a specific action to an implied flaw in the partner’s character.


Use "I" statements and express a positive need. For instance, instead of saying, "You never listen to me," try, "I feel valued when you actively listen to what I have to say."

The Second Horseman: Contempt

Contempt is an escalation of criticism and involves treating your partner with disrespect, ridicule, or sarcasm. It implies a sense of superiority over them and is the single greatest predictor of divorce, according to Gottman's research.


Build a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship. Remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities and express gratitude for them regularly.

The Third Horseman: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural reaction to being criticized or attacked, but it can prevent couples from addressing the underlying issues. It often involves making excuses, playing the innocent victim, or meeting one complaint with another.


Take responsibility for even a part of the problem. Acknowledging your role can defuse tension and open the door to constructive dialogue.

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from the interaction, shutting down dialogue and disengaging emotionally from the relationship. This often happens as a response to the overwhelming negativity from the other three horsemen.


Practice physiological self-soothing. Take a break if you feel overwhelmed, and do something that soothes you before returning to the conversation.

Improve Your Relationship with Marriage & Couples Counseling at Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & ASssociates

At Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates, we understand that recognizing and addressing The Four Horsemen in your marriage is a complex task. It requires self-reflection, a willingness to embrace change, and often, the guidance of a skilled marriage therapist. Our approach involves providing couples with the tools and strategies to replace these destructive behaviors with positive, relationship-affirming ones.

Through our work together, we aim to help couples identify these negative patterns, understand their effects, and learn healthier ways of communicating and connecting. The goal is not just to avoid the decline of the relationship but to build a stronger, more resilient bond that can weather the inevitable challenges that life presents.

If you recognize any of The Four Horsemen galloping into your relationship dynamics and want to learn more about how to counteract them, reach out to Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates. Together, we can work towards transforming these harbingers of decline into beacons of growth and understanding.

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