Home relationships How You Argue with Your Spouse Predicts Divorce: The Four Horsemen Test

How You Argue with Your Spouse Predicts Divorce: The Four Horsemen Test

by Marianne Navada
four horsemen divorce

Why do some marriages end in divorce and others thrive? That’s the question Gottman and Silver answer in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The researchers conducted a controlled experiment by placing couples in the love lab. They observe and analyze how couples interact. They can predict, with more than 90% accuracy, which couples will divorce or stay together by looking at patterns in the way couples argue. The Four Horsemen outlines how the way a couple interacts with each other goes through stages, leading to divorce.

Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. 

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert | John Gottman and Nan Silver 

The Harsh Start-Up and The Four Horsemen

A harsh start-up refers to how couples start their discussions. This is the first sign of a troubled relationship. When couples start off negatively towards each other when discussing issues, their marriage can spiral. Harsh start-ups often lead to the 4 horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Think of the four horsemen as a roadmap to how a couple or at least a spouse eventually disconnects and gives up on the marriage.


In an argument, instead of complaining and talking about a specific event, we criticize our partner. For example, here’s the difference between complain and criticism.

  • Scenario: You think your partner is spending too much money: 
  • Complain: “I’m worried about our finances. I think you’re overspending on eating out with your friends. I don’t mind you hanging out with your friends, but I prefer if you keep the spending to ___.” 
  • Criticism: “You’re an inconsiderate partner and lousy when it comes to money. What’s wrong with you?” 


Criticism attacks one’s character without regard for a solution to a problem. When criticism becomes the norm for couples and they continuously have negative thoughts towards each other, this leads to contempt. This is where couples are no longer trying to resolve their differences. Rather, they try to demean each other. 

  • Contemptuous statement: “You’re irresponsible and always think about yourself when it comes to spending. How could you be so selfish?”
  • Contemptuous rebuttal: “What are you going to do about it? Take away my credit card?


After contempt comes defensiveness. At this stage, you start blaming each other for your troubles. 

  • Defensiveness: “I spend the money eating out with friends because I need to unwind after work. And I make more than you.”


Eventually, one partner tunes-out. Stonewalling happens when a partner has disengaged and is unresponsive. This drives the other person to be more vocal. Fighting ensues. It’s possible that at some point, both disengage.

How we start a delicate conversation and the way we move it forward can make or break our relationships. When we are with someone, it’s easy to take them for granted. For example, sometimes, we are more understanding of strangers and friends than we are of our partner.  

If a guest leaves an umbrella, we say, ‘Here. You forgot your umbrella.’ We would never think of saying, ‘What’s wrong with you? You are constantly forgetting things.’

It means treating your spouse with the same respect you offer to company.

When it comes to living the good life, we know that our relationships predict our happiness level more than anything in our lives. While some scientists use chemistry such as dopamine to explain why we fall out love, some explanations are a bit simpler, more straightforward, and workable. Treat each other with respect and don’t let your relationship get to the point, where you feel indifferent towards each other. The good news, it takes time and continuous effort to break relationships. Knowing the four horsemen allows us to stop when we feel ourselves slipping.

Don’t be fooled by “couple goals” you see on social media such as couples vacationing or giving each other gifts. The heart of marriage happens in private, mostly at home. You can feel it in the most unglamorous places, such as walking down a busy grocery aisle, remembering what the other one needs and wants from the store and making sure you have it in the cart before checkout.

Commit to living.