How to Combat the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse… in Bed

You’ve probably heard of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — these are the four types of behavior that, when they occur on a regular basis in a relationship, are a good predictor of divorce, according to psychology professor and bestselling author John Gottman, Ph.D. According to the Gottman Relationship Blog, “The Four Horsemen typically come as a sequence of interactions that start with criticism and spill over into defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.” You’ll find hundreds of articles online about how to combat these behaviors in your own marriage — everything from keeping a gratitude journal about your spouse to learning how to “mirror” your partner’s complaints. Today, however, we’d like to talk about the things you can do in your sex life to protect your marriage from these four bogeymen.

First, a quick summary of the original Horsemen: CRITICISM is when you attack your partner’s character or personality rather than complaining about a specific instance where they have failed. Criticism often begins with the phrases “You never…” and “You always…” DEFENSIVENESS is exactly what it sounds like — instead of acknowledging that your partner just might be right about something you’ve done, you point out something they did earlier. CONTEMPT is a set of (mostly non-verbal) behaviors that communicate your, well, contempt of your partner: sneering, sarcasm, name-calling, eye rolling, mockery, condescension, etc. — you get the idea. Finally, STONEWALLING is when one partner simply tunes out of an argument — usually after a bunch of criticism, defensiveness, and contempt — and refuses to engage with their other half.

So here are four things you can do in bed to avoid a Gottman-predicted divorce


Think about the kind of damaging, unhelpful, negative criticisms that couples might level at each other regarding sex: “You never do what I want”; “We never try anything new”; “You’ve never cared about my orgasm.” Head these kind of criticisms off at the pass by fulfilling one of your partner’s fantasies. That means that first, you’ll have to get them to share a fantasy with you first. We recommend a date night and a sultry cocktail or two to help lubricate this conversation.


When you’re defensive, you’re demonstrating to your partner that you’re not listening to them. Counteract this by learning how to really listen to each other — and to each other’s bodies — in bed. You can do this verbally by talking to each other in bed, making the communication as dirty as you dare. “Tell me what you want me to do now”; “Do you like it when I do this?”; “Do you want it harder? Softer? Faster? Slower?”; etc. You can do this non-verbally with a simple experiment, taking it in turns being the giver and the receiver: the giver does something to their partner (oral sex, manual sex, using a toy, deep sensual kissing, sensual massage, intercourse, etc.) and the receiver has to guide their partner using only their body. No words allowed!


It’s as simple as it sounds: tell your partner exactly what you like about their body — ideally during sex, and ideally using your best dirty talk voice. Don’t worry, you don’t need a porn star‘s vocabulary or Demi Moore’s husky tones to accomplish this — simply complimenting your partner’s body, very specifically, during sex, counts (it’s okay to whisper, or even “murmur,” a la Christian Grey, if you’re feeling shy).


If stonewalling is turning away from your partner, then what you want to do instead is turn toward your partner. Lean into the sex, if you will. This means initiating sex in some way other than simply turning to your sweetie at eleven p.m., when your heads are already on the pillows, and saying, “How about a quickie before lights out?” Even just suggesting sex before your brush your teeth and change into your PJs is an improvement!

Want more tips on staying together?
10 Things to Say to Your Partner Instead of “I Love You”