John Gottman, Ph.D., identified four key behaviors that can lead a relationship to its death. In fact, these behaviors have been shown to be predictors of divorce if not addressed. These four behaviors are destructive to intimacy and trust building, leading to disconnection. If these four behaviors are constants in your relationship, then something needs to change.
The first behavior of the Four Horsemen is criticism. No one likes criticism. Criticizing your partner feels like an attack to them, and most often is. Phrases like, “You never,” “You always,” “You’re the type to,” are very concerning when it comes to relationships. The golden rule in communication is to avoid using “all or none” language, aka “always or never.” This type of language puts your significant other in a box of good or bad. There is no nuance and often leaves your partner feeling shame or guilt, which is not good for breeding happy relationships.
The second behavior of the Four Horsemen is contempt. Just the word contempt brings up images of feelings of superiority and disgust. Can you imagine feeling that you disgust your partner? That hurts. When there is contempt in the relationship, whether, from both sides or just one, it is isolating. Contempt can make a partner feel less than, worthless, and gross. Contempt can be shown in several ways, like through eye-rolling, sarcasm, name-calling, and disdain. This emotion is not always verbal but rather shown through body language, and body language is easy to pick up on if your partner is paying attention. Contempt further isolates the both of you and increases the negative emotions between the two of you. Contempt is a sign of disrespect, and no one wants to feel disrespected in their most intimate relationship.
The third behavior of the Four Horsemen is defensiveness. This one is a behavior we all display at certain times, but if this behavior is constantly being presented, there can be no healthy communication between the two parties. Defensiveness says to a partner, “I have something to hide, so I’m going to put you down so you don’t challenge me,” or simply, “It’s not me, it’s you that’s the problem.” Defensiveness is one behavior that is often highly present in terms of a person who has an addiction, but if no addiction is present in the relationship and defensiveness is on-going, then there is a problem. Defensiveness reeks of avoiding responsibility, and no relationship can survive when someone does not own their actions and the consequences that come from them. Defensiveness is about that person being the victim. This behavior needs to be addressed, and change has to take place for the relationship to get back to stability. No relationship can survive when one partner blames the other partner for everything. The key is getting the defensive partner to see how their behavior affects those around them. This is not to say they are a bad person, just that they may not be aware of how their behavior is truly impacting the people they care about.
The last behavior of the Four Horsemen is stonewalling. This behavior is probably the most painful behavior for a partner to endure. Stonewalling is when one partner withdraws from the relationship and avoids conflict like the plague. Signs of stonewalling are, silence, changing the subject, disconnecting, and creating distance (whether physical or emotional). To a partner who genuinely wants to resolve the conflict at hand, when a partner stonewalls them it can feel crushing and isolating. The partner who tries to reach out can feel unimportant. If stonewalling is a constant behavior present in the relationship, the behavior needs to be addressed. This is one behavior that might need outside help to change, like couple’s therapy, because if one person is avoiding the conversation how can things change without intervention?
If any of these four behaviors are in your relationship, be aware of them. Ask yourself, how often are these behaviors present? Are these behaviors having a negative impact on the relationship? Have there been ways to address these behaviors? Relationships are about communication, trust, and bonding. Whenever an issue is present in a relationship, brushing it under the rug will only make the issue bigger. Addressing issues head-on, even if painful, usually, brings a better outcome for the couple, and can bring them closer once they communicate honestly about their feelings.