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The 4 Horsemen of Divorce


Renowned psychologist and marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman observed four components among relationships that were predictors of divorce. According to Gottman, combinations of these factors or “horsemen” in marriages and relationships can lead to separation or divorce.

The 4 horsemen of divorce include:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling


When it comes to couples, offering feedback on a certain behavior or voicing a complaint about something specific is different than criticizing your partner. Criticism implies attacking a person's character, beliefs, personality, appearance, or overall being, and offering feedback or complaints that are more focused on these particular issues. This kind of attack can leave deep wounds and can undermine the trust and confidence in a relationship. It's important to remember that criticism isn't just an issue in marriage, but it can affect other relationship dynamics too.

Examples of criticism may include:

  • “You are lazy, and you never clean up after yourself.”
  • “You never spend money on the right things, all you do is waste it.”
  • “You always make the wrong decisions.”

Ultimately, when people focus on criticizing someone rather than expressing how they feel about particular situations, it can have damaging consequences.


Communication that involves contempt can be extremely damaging and can tear apart relationships if it is not addressed effectively. These tactics may start off small but can grow over time and have serious consequences for relationships by causing the target to feel disrespected and insignificant.

Examples of contempt may include:

  • Name-calling
  • Mimicking
  • Eye rolling
  • Scoffing
  • Sarcasm

It is important to differentiate between criticism and contempt in communication. Understanding the differences between these two terms is key to learning how to best address communication without resorting to destructive tactics. While criticism attacks a partner's character, contempt stems from a place of superiority. Demeaning behaviors of contempt undermine a partner’s worries or concerns.


Defensiveness is the third horseman of relationship breakdowns, and it occurs when people feel criticized. It is an attempt to reject taking responsibility for mistakes by accusing others, playing the role of the victim, or just outright denying there is a problem at all. However, this attitude rarely helps to fix the underlying issues in a relationship, as it simply reinforces that the person doesn’t understand or respect their partner's grievances. Finding better ways to communicate with your partner can help avoid falling into such a defensive stance and prevent further damage.

Defensiveness may sound like:

Person A: “Have you taken out the trash yet?”

Person B: “I’ve been too busy to take out the trash today. My schedule is so full. Why didn’t you do it yourself?”

In some cases, a partner may not only respond defensively, but also reverse the blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault. Gaslighting can also be another defensive mechanism used to manipulate and misdirect another partner.


The fourth horseman that may lead to separation is stonewalling in communication. This is usually a response to feeling contempt from the other person. A person engaging in stonewalling may tune out, turn away, act too busy, or resort to distractions. Stonewalling can be a reaction to the presence of one of the other horsemen but can quickly become a bad habit.

Stonewalling examples may include:

  • Giving the silent treatment
  • Refusing to make eye contact
  • Walking away from stressful conversations

This habit can be difficult to break because it's often a response to feeling very physiologically flooded, meaning it may not even be possible to engage in conversation during these episodes.

Ending a relationship is an incredibly difficult situation, but it's important to remember that the 4 horsemen of divorce aren't the only factors in divorce. Learn more about the grounds of divorce in New York here.

If you’re considering filing for divorce or have been served papers, it is critical to understand the implications of the decision and find appropriate legal representation and guidance. At The Law Office of Dennis R. Vetrano, Jr., LLC, we approach each divorce case with legal expertise and passion for helping our clients through this complicated and often tumultuous part of their lives. We are here to provide support throughout the entire divorce process so you can rest easy knowing your rights and interests are being defended from start to finish.

Call today at (845) 605-4330 or contact us online for a consultation.