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The Four Horsemen of Failed Partnerships

We humans are nothing if not social. Our lives are about searching for connection and maintaining relationships. Thus, there is a formidable amount of research devoted to human relationships, be they friendly, familial or romantic. But, one might be left wondering: where does one’s business partner fit in all this?

A business partnership is a relationship like any other, it requires certain formalities that most of our casual relationships lack. “Communication, respect, humour, common challenges and missions (e.g. children, projects, products, customers, etc.) are all integral to creating a sense of team and a good and productive family environment,” says husband and entrepreneur Joaquin Ruiz. Business partners often find themselves needing to be more communicative about their relationship and its intricate complexities. Just like a marriage or a long friendship, though, there are steps one can take to make sure that one’s business relationship is the healthiest it can be. Today, we’re going to explore the 4 major predictors of divorce and how lessons from that can help us maintain a better relationship with our business partners.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

According to Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher in psychology, the four horsemen of the apocalypse (when it comes to marriage) are as follows: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (Gottman, 1993). “[The Horsemen] are part of the human condition”, says Ruiz, “and are sometimes accentuated by close familiarity with co-workers”. Let’s break it down and see how these relate to business partnerships.


No one likes being criticized, and repeated criticism delivered in an offensive fashion is a surefire way to destroy a relationship, no matter what type. Gottman believes criticism is destructive enough to be one of the largest contributing factors to divorce.

In a business partnership, it seems almost unavoidable that one party or the other will have feedback that may come off a little snarky. To maintain a healthy relationship and avoid unnecessary hurt, reconstruct criticism to be delivered without the sting. If you’re wondering how to do that, Marshall B. Rosenberg has nailed the how-to guide in his book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”. No time to read it? Here are the cliff notes: speak in terms of observations, feelings, needs and requests. Following this basic format will help transform your criticism into digestible morsels of feedback. Let’s see it in action:

Criticism: “Why aren’t these projects complete yet? You’re not doing them fast enough, you’re slacking off.”

Constructive communication: “There are a few outstanding projects left to complete, and I feel anxious about that. I need them to be completed by Friday, could I ask for your help on that?”


Next up is contempt. While we might see this in a marriage or familial relationship with relative frequency, it is also not uncommon for feelings of contempt and vestiges of bitterness to be present in business relationships. Contempt, according to Ellie Lisitsa (2013), is a sure way to make your partner feel “worthless” in a marriage. In a business relationship, contempt can be triggered from comparison and competitiveness, for example; one side thinks they are doing more than their counterpart or feels like the workload and stress are unevenly distributed.

To mitigate feelings of contempt in this example, it is important to communicate transparently about each individual’s responsibilities; project management tools, and clear and regular communication can avoid misunderstandings in this area. There is no harm in having a balance other than 50-50, as long as everyone is aware and accepting of the roles upfront. Displaying contempt can be remedied with the same principles as fighting criticism. Change your language surrounding the issue at hand, and you’ll find both you and your partner will react more positively to the issue at hand.


Defensiveness comes from a place of pride and perceived confrontation, both highly detrimental to the longevity of relationships. In a marriage, you may be feeling defensive about your behaviour or actions if you are called out on them by your spouse. This is not different in a business relationship: the decision-making process is crucial to business, and having your abilities questioned can invoke a need to prove you know what you’re doing. Before responding to a perceived attack, analyze the situation. Assume the person meant no harm or insult in the statement (if they undeniably did, you may have other problems), and own your actions. A defensive person may shift blame and attack their partner. In the world of business, ownership is associated with leadership qualities, and shifting the blame will only make you seem untrustworthy.


This leaves us the last Horseman: stonewalling. According to Lisitsa, stonewalling is when “in a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker” (2013). Leaving the house during an argument, shutting the door to your shared bedroom, or, in the case of a business relationship, replying to a 300 word email with the word “ok”. For any relationship to work, there has to be a flow of communication, much like a river. Who knows what could happen if all that water becomes stagnant? Nothing good. Keep the water of your business flowing by continuing to communicate openly and willingly, and pushing through blockages with clear, concise language.

The gist of it

As with all great relationships, a business relationship must be founded on a basis of mutual respect and understanding, as well as great communication skills. According to Ruiz, the quickest way to ruin a business relationship is “creating a one-sided relationship, infrequent and sloppy communication, disrespect, finger-pointing at the first sign of issues, and not assigning relationship owners”. If you feel like you and your partner are not on the same page, start mending your communication style by speaking with intent and ownership. Much like a good marriage, good partnerships need to be nurtured and cared for, for it is a mutually beneficial relationship like any other. A house of cards cannot rest on a shabby base, and neither can your business.

Gottman , J. M. ( 1993 ). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7 , 57 – 75.

Lisitsa, E. (2021, February 19). The Four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, & stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved September 25, 2021, from ontempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.

Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press, 2015.

The Cofounder's

An A-Z guide for those in, or searching for, a business partnership.

The Cofounder’s Handbook provides insight, practical advice, and proven tips from actual real-world cofounders on how to build and maintain a rewarding partnership.

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