Find A Therapist Near Me - CounselingCalifornia > Mental Health Matters > Relationships > The Four Horsemen

Mental Health Matters

The Four Horsemen

The "Four Horsemen Traits" That are Problematic in Relationships

It is no surprise that arguments arise every so often in romantic relationships. As partners progress in their relationships, disputes can become commonplace. Although disagreements occur, there are four distinct traits that psychologists have identified as being the most toxic in romantic relationships. These four traits are known as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in romantic relationships. The following traits should be avoided to maintain a loving and healthy-functioning relationship.


Criticism is defined as attacking a partner’s character or personality instead of the behavior itself. When we criticize our partner, we are dismantling their whole being rather than isolating the situation. Examples of criticism are phrases like, “You are careless!” or “You never think about the other person!”

Solution: It is important to know the difference between criticism and complaints. Criticisms usually begin with “you” statements. Instead, rephrase statements to begin with “I feel” to avoid making global attacks on your partner’s personality while still being able to express you concerns.


Sarcasm, eye-rolling, name-calling, and sneering are all examples of contempt. Contempt involves treating our partner with disrespect, disgust, ridicule, or making condescending statements. Passive aggression can also be traits of contempt.

Solution: Instead of keeping score of your partner’s flaws, recall positive traits that you like about them. Pay attention to your behavior to avoid physical expressions of contempt.


When we feel criticized or attacked, we may retreat to defensiveness. The act of defensiveness involves deterring responsibility and redirecting the blame onto the partner. Avoid phrases like, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” or sarcastic comments such as, “Oh, it’s always me and never you!” If a partner expresses a complaint, avoid redirecting the blame and listen to their side of the story. Defensiveness infers to your partner that you are not listening to their concerns or taking them seriously.

Solution: To address defensiveness, listen to your partner until they finish expressing their concerns. When appropriate, take responsibility and apologize and suggest solutions for their concerns.


Stonewalling occurs when we withdraw from a dispute and simply stop responding to our partner. When we shut down and refuse to confront our partner’s issues, we inherently state to our partner that their concerns don’t matter or aren’t worth listening to. Stonewalling behaviors include tuning out, turning away, or engaging in other behaviors to distract us from our partner.

Solution: If you feel overwhelmed during a dispute and feel yourself tempted to stonewall, consider asking your partner to take a 20-minute break and circle back to come up with a solution. This way, you can take 20 minutes to do something that calms you and revisit the problem after you’ve calmed down.

Repeated acts of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling towards one’s partner leads to a higher rate of divorce. The “Four Horsemen” can be especially problematic because expressing any one of the four traits has a high potential to fuel the other traits, and can result in a deep, repetitive cycle. If you and your partner are experiencing repeated disputes that impair the quality of your relationship, contact one of our MFTs for more advice and quality therapy. Visit our directory for a list of qualified therapists in your area who can help.


Find a Therapist