How to Survive The 4 Horsemen of Failed Relationships

Business owners and professionals often get locked into the financial and technical aspects of business. If you have a business degree or an MBA, you took classes that explored profitable business models, accounting rules and Key Performance Indicators.

And while all of those things are important for a successful business, they don’t cover a fundamental truth… a truth that generally isn’t covered in any business degree that I’ve heard of.

What is that truth? That business success starts with and requires strong and positive relationships. Relationships with customers, with vendors and partners and most of all, relationships with employees. If you don’t have good relationships, then you don’t have a business.

Plays Well With Others

This occurred to me as I was reading Eric Barkers new book Plays Well With Others – the surprising science behind why everything you know about relationships is (mostly) wrong. It’s not strictly a business book, but when you consider the importance of relationships when it comes to building a business, it kind of is…!

Quick overview of the book – for starters, I’d highly recommend it. Eric’s writing is very entertaining – he does a great job of mixing in a lot of stories and then backing up his point with even more science and studies. The overall format of the book is a review of commonly held wisdom when it comes to relationships:

  • Can you ‘judge a book by it’s cover’?
  • Is ‘a friend in need, a friend indeed’?
  • Does ‘love conquer all’?
  • Is ‘no man an island’?

He then takes the framework and runs it through the equivalent of a ‘Mythbusters’ approach – generating a lot of great background before honing in on specific ideas that you can use to help be more adept at making and keeping relationships.

The 4 Horsemen of Failed Relationships

In the section about love conquering all, he digs into some of the ideas from John Gottman. Gottman is one of the foremost researchers on relationships and marriage and he’s spent a lifetime researching why marriages succeed and why they fail. In fact, he’s gotten so good at this topic that he can predict couples that will be divorced within 3 years… with a 94% accuracy rate!!!

This is a guy who really understands what makes relationships work (or fail).

And if you boil his hard earned wisdom down, he’s discovered that unhappy couples tend to make the same 4 mistakes. These 4 problems he calls the 4 Horsemen and they predict divorce 83.3% of the time. In other words, if you can avoid these mistakes, you increase your odds of a successful relationship by a lot. What are these issues? Here’s a quick rundown of the 4 Horsemen of Failed Relationships:

Criticism (versus complaints)

Complaining in a relationship is actually healthy – it’s critical to be able to share problems (perceived or real) and have open communication. But criticism is not healthy. What’s the difference? Complaining is when I say you didn’t take the trash out. Criticism is when I say you didn’t take the trash out because you’re a horrible person. A complaint is about an event, a criticism is about a person.

As you might imagine, people generally don’t respond well to attacks on their fundamental personality. Try to stay focused on the event and avoid the personal criticisms.


The 2nd problem that tanks relationships is stonewalling. This is when one person essentially shuts down or tunes out their partner on important issues. Ignoring an issue doesn’t make it go away – in fact it tends to make it worse. This behavior is more likely for men (whereas women tend to be more likely to fall into criticism). Some of this is due to how you might respond to emotional hijacking (when your emotions / anger gets the better of you).

One way to help manage stonewalling is to agree to take a break and let the emotions settle down – and then you can hopefully continue the discussion without feeling like you have to shut down.


Gottman defines defensiveness as anything that conveys ‘No, the problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ It’s basically pouring gasoline onto a fire by making excuses, denying responsibility (for everything and anything) and pointing the finger at your partner. As you might imagine, this escalates things – often to a point where the relationship breaks.

If you’re feeling defensive your best bet is to listen, acknowledge your partner’s issues (even if you don’t agree with them) and wait your turn to continue the discussion. Let them be heard and they are much more likely to ease up and be willing to listen to you.


If you had to pick one of these issues as the heavy hitter, it would be this one. According to Gottman’s research, contempt is the single biggest predictor of divorce. Contempt is anything that implies your partner is inferior to you. Calling them names, ridiculing or putting them down, even eye-rolling are all examples of contempt. It’s so bad that Gottman refers to it as ‘sulfuric acid for love’.

Bottom line – healthy relationships are built on respect and contempt is the opposite of respect. If you want to keep the relationship, you have to lose the contempt. Try to look for ways that you appreciate different aspects of your partner along the way.

So those are the 4 Horsemen – criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness and contempt. As Gottman’s research has revealed the presence of these horsemen is a very likely sign of an impending divorce.

But you’re not married to your employees (generally) so does this really apply to the workplace?

I think it does – maybe not to the same extent as a personal or romantic relationship, but the underlying principles are the same even for professional relationships.

Think about someone you work with and maybe have some issues with. If they tend to criticize you, or they don’t respond to you, or you get defensive every time they bring up a problem – then you’re on shaky ground with that person. And, even worse, if they clearly don’t respect you or vice versa… it can be almost impossible to get anything done if you have to work together.

If you want to build a better business, then you need to be more successful with your professional relationships – and you can start by avoiding the 4 Horsemen as much as possible. It’s not an easy thing to do, but awareness can go a long ways towards changing a situation. And if you want to go a bit deeper – here’s a good article on specific antidotes for the 4 Horsemen.

What do you think? Have you ever dealt with any of these issues at work? How would you apply these ideas? We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment if you get a chance.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach