These four behaviors ruin marriages in less than 6 years (and what to do instead)


Kyle Benson

There are four toxic behaviors that harm all relationships. They are toxic because they take away the emotional safety required for emotional connection and conflict resolution.

Dr. Gottman calls these four behaviors the Four Horsemen. Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament, they symbolize the end of time for a relationship.

When these four behaviors become a habitual way of communicating problems, they end a relationship within 6 years, according to Dr. Gottman’s research.

Horsemen #1: Criticism

  • What it is: Expressing a frustration by focusing on your partner’s flaws instead of what behaviors you’d like them to do differently.
  • Example:“You’re such a slob. It’s like I have to pick up after two kids, instead of one.”
  • Solution:“I am frustrated that you left the dirty dishes on the coffee table. I would appreciate it if you would please put your dishes in the dishwasher after you watch TV.”

The way to avoid criticism is to focus on how your partner can change their behavior in a very specific way. Dr. Gottman calls this a gentle startup. Here are the 3 steps to do that:

  1. Focus on your feelings.Start by saying “I feel.” Avoid “you” statements, as they can feel like you’re blaming your partner.
  2. On a specific event.Describe the behaviors, not your partner’s character.
  3. Say what you need (not what you don’t).Think about what you’d wish your partner could do now to make things better. Think of it as giving directions to your heart:

It’s also helpful to say “please” or “I would appreciate it if…”

If you see your partner doing something well, verbalize your appreciation. This positive feedback is far more effective than criticism.

Horsemen #2: Defensiveness

  • What it is:A counter-criticism to feeling criticized or whining by acting innocent. It’s a way a blaming your partner for the problem.
  • Example (in response to criticism above): “I’m not a slob. You’re just a clean freak who always has to clean.”
  • Solution: “You’re right hon. I fell asleep and then when I woke up I forgot about the dishes. I’ll do my best to put the dishes away before I doze off.”

Defensiveness escalates conflict. Taking even a little bit of responsibility de-escalates it. Instead of fighting against your partner, you’re able to join their team to resolve the issue.

Horsemen #3: Contempt

  • What it is: Talking down to your partner from a place of superiority or authority.
  • Example:“You are financially illiterate. Do you even know math? I can’t believe you selfishly bought another TV.”
  • Solution:“I am upset that you bought another TV. I fear we are spending money unknowingly. Can we sit down tomorrow and agree to a budget on what we spend and save?”

Contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce, according to Dr. Gottman, because you’re in a mindset that focuses on your partner’s mistakes rather than what you like about them. Examples include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery, and hostile humor.  When contempt enters a conflict, it becomes impossible to resolve because your partner hears that you’re disgusted with them.

It’s only through respect, support, and safety that partners actually resolve issues in their relationship.

Contempt is a harsh mask for consistently unmet needs. To remove it from your relationship, focus on the gentle startup above (see #1). It’s also vital you begin shifting your mindset by building a culture of love and respect.

You can do this by expressing what you appreciate and admire about your partner. Even the little things are incredibly important. With the couples I work with, I have them use an Admiration Journal.

Horsemen #4: Stonewalling

  • What it is:Emotionally shutting down from a conversation
  • Example:Not paying attention, avoiding eye contact, or crossing your arms.
  • Solution:Calm yourself down and/or ask for a break

Stonewalling is a byproduct of constantly feeling criticized, which makes you shut down. But the more you shut down, the more your partner attacks. You might think, if I say anything, it’ll only make things worse.

This behavior is actually making it worse because your partner feels like you don’t care. Often, stonewalling is a sign you are emotionally flooded, which makes it impossible to listen or resolve conflict. If you reach this point, ask for a break. For solid advice on how to ask for an effective break that doesn’t cause your partner to chase after you, read this.

Removing these four horsemen from your relationship will do wonders for your emotional connection and intimacy. When advising couples who have nasty conflict, I advise partners to be the change they wish to see. Instead of calling your partner out on their defensiveness, focus on expressing your feelings and needs in a different way.

If you have a habit of using the four horsemen, don’t expect your partner to instantly change when you change how you communicate. They need time to trust that this new way of communicating is the new normal of your relationship.


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