How to avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse this Halloween season

By Amy Smith

October is the month of all things spooky.  One famous Halloween tale is that of the Headless Horseman, a ghost who comes back to life on Halloween night in search of his missing head.  While folklore stories can be perfect for Halloween night, the scarier horsemen are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a term coined by Drs. John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, as these impact our real lives.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a term used to describe the four communication styles that are the most predictive of the breakdown of relationships. While the Gottman’s research was based in married couples, these communication styles can occur in the context of any relationship such as children, friends, family members, or co-workers.  Below is a list of The Four Horsemen, what they look like, and what we can do instead to improve communication in our daily lives.

Criticismcommunication styles graphic

Criticism refers to any instance where one person attacks the other person’s character.  Criticisms often occur in arguments in trying to make the other person seem like they are in the wrong and typically use phrases such as “you always/never….” or “you are so….”  Criticisms differ from complaints in that complaints target a certain action, behavior, or circumstance, but not who the person is.

Solution:  Criticism can be prevented in communication by using gentle startups. Gentle start-startups occur when a person uses an “I statement” followed by something positive that they need.  For example, a person might say something like, “I feel forgotten when you do not let me know that you are running late, and it would be helpful if you could text me to let me know when you will be getting home.”


Contempt refers to verbal or non-verbal communications which attack a person’s sense of self with the intent to insult or degrade the other person.  Contempt often appears verbally through sarcasm, insults, and name-calling.  Non-verbal actions such as rolling your eyes, sneering, or heavy sighs of disgust can also communicate contempt.

Solution: While it can be easy to notice the negative aspects of people in our life, especially if we are fighting with them, the solution to contempt is to remind yourself of the positive parts of other people.  If we can think of five positive things about a person for every one negative thing, we develop stronger feelings of fondness towards that person.  For example, it can be frustrating when a child refuses to clean their room but there are also other positive things that child might be doing such as offering to help a younger sibling with homework, always knowing the right joke to help cheer someone up, or being the first one to congratulate a friend when they have done something well.


Defensiveness occurs when one person embodies the role of the victim in the conversation, often in response to perceiving criticisms or contempt. Defensiveness often appears as making excuses such as “it is not my fault” or responding to a criticism or complaint with a criticism or complaint of the other person and ignoring what was originally said.  Statements such as “yes, but you…” or “it’s not fair” are also often defensive statements.

Solution: Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel under attack but it is not productive when trying to communicate and discover a solution.  Working to see the other person’s perspective and taking accountability for your own role in the situation can help to combat defensiveness.  For example, if a co-worker were to tell you that you sometimes talk too loudly on the phone at work, which is distracting, a defensive reaction would be to say, “No I don’t.”

However, taking a minute to see that your co-worker might be feeling distracted when overhearing your calls and saying something like “I do sometimes have a louder voice” could help in allowing for a productive conversation in finding a solution that would work for both parties.


Stonewalling occurs when one person withdraws from a conversation in order to avoid conflict becoming non-responsive and often communicating separation and lack of connection.  Stonewalling can appear as the “silent treatment” by physically removing oneself from the area or turning away from the other person, sudden change of subject, one-word responses, or refusal to make eye contact.

Solution: Sometimes we are just too overwhelmed to engage in a conversation which is often when stonewalling occurs.  Instead of withdrawing from the conversation, asking the other person if you can take a break and return to the conversation at another specified time can help both people to receive what they need.  While taking the break, it is important to do something that is calming and distracting, such as going for a walk or listening to your favorite music, instead of focusing on what it is that upset you and becoming further overwhelmed.

By identifying the Horsemen in our day to day interactions, and working to replace them with their solutions, we can enjoy more positive and effective conversations with the important people in our lives.


Gottman. J. S., & Gottman, J. M (2015). Ten principles for doing effective couples therapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Amy Smith is a second year graduate student working towards a PhD in Applied Developmental Science and a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy.  A Colorado native, she graduated from Colorado State University with a Bachelor of Science in human development and family studies and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology.  In both her clinical work and research, she is passionate about promoting mental and relational health specifically for adolescents, young adults, and families.  Following graduation, Amy hopes to obtain an academic position that allows her to combine her interest in research, teaching, and clinical work.  In her free time, Amy enjoys traveling and spending time with her family and friends (including the furry ones).

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