Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute in Seattle found that if a couple exhibits 4 behaviors - criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness - that he could predict with over 90% certainty that they would divorce. Gottman found that if some, or all of these behaviors were present with enough frequency, the connection and friendship at the heart of a marriage would die. And once that happens, it's hard for couples to turn the relationship around or stay in the relationship.
Criticism occurs when you make harsh judgments about your partner's thoughts, feelings, character, appearance, and behavior. An example of criticism is, "Oh, so you're just going to sit on the couch today again, huh? You are such a lazy person, you never do anything to help, you're such a blob." Criticism is mean, nasty, and often an extreme take on a situation. Criticism deeply damages a relationship because it conveys judgment and a lack of acceptance. If you do not feel accepted and liked by your partner, you will not feel comfortable sharing with them and your emotional connection will deteriorate rapidly.
Contempt is a more extreme version of criticism. We act with contempt when we convey, through our words or facial expressions, that our partner is worthless, disgusting, or less than. An example of contempt is, "I cannot believe I married such a disgusting person. You've really let yourself go. Looking at you repulses me." Gottman found that contempt is the number one predictor of divorce within the first six years of a marriage. Contempt is poison to a relationship. You cannot love someone that you do not like or feel safe with. It is hard to like or feel safe with someone who constantly tells you how flawed and damaged you are.
Stonewalling happens when we turn into a “stone wall” as our partner is talking to us. We shut down, withdraw from the conversation, check out, and stop listening or responding. A person who gets up from a conversation, walks into the other room, and shuts the door without saying a word to their partner, is stonewalling. Stonewalling is so deadly for a relationship because we need to feel that our partner listens to us and cares about our feelings. If our partner just walks away from us, we do not feel heard, we do not feel understood, we do not feel validated...and we start to feel very unloved and disconnected.
Defensiveness is when we immediately begin to defend ourselves during a conversation without listening to our partner or taking any responsibility for our contribution to a problem. If your partner is sharing why they are hurt by something you did and you quickly launch into every explanation for why it couldn't be done, odds are you are being defensive. Defensiveness is problematic for a relationship because both partners need to feel like they can influence the other in order to feel safe in a relationship. If you don't feel like you can ask for something or influence your partner, you will feel powerless and less connected to your partner.
So what should you do if you are doing these things or notice your partner is doing these things?
Once you know about these 4 behaviors (which Gottman calls the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse), be mindful and pay attention to how you and your partner communicate. Is your partner being overly critical? If so, ask them to give you feedback in a kind and gentle way. I absolutely believe there is a kind way to say anything. Challenge yourself to do this.
Are either of you acting with contempt? If so, be mindful of how poisonous this is to your relationship and push yourself to communicate with compassion and respect. Contempt can be expressed in facial reactions, like eye-rolling or a sneer, so monitor yourself for these responses. If you see your partner doing these things, share with them how that behavior makes you feel. Ask for the change you want, e.g., I'd really like you to not roll your eyes when I talk about my mum because it makes me feel like you don't like her.
If you or your partner is being defensive, try to catch yourself. People need to be listened to and validated before they hear any explanations or arguments. So ask yourself: did they fully express their idea and did I validate their feelings? If so, then it's ok to offer your explanation. If not, stop and listen before saying anything else. And if your partner is being defensive to you, ask them to stop and listen for 1 full minute without interruption. Express your whole idea and then ask them to validate your feelings (i.e., point out what they heard that made sense and was reasonable) before explaining or excusing.
If either of you is stonewalling, try asking for a break instead. Many people stonewall when they feel emotionally overwhelmed during a conversation. Instead of just getting up and checking out, ask for a break and then go to a quiet place and calm yourself down. Music, meditation, deep breathing, and napping help us calm quickly. Then return to the conversation when you feel ready to continue. Don't just drop it and pretend nothing happened.
Note that each behavior is problematic in and of itself. If you have more than one, it's a more urgent problem. I would be most concerned about contempt because it is so toxic.
Can a relationship be saved once its been hurt by one the 4 behaviors?
Oh yes, there's always a way to come back and heal. If someone finds they are doing one or more of these behaviors, I'd urge them to take action now - not tomorrow, not next week - to fix it. Start by paying attention to YOUR behavior first. If you're doing any of these things, reverse course now and swap out the unhealthy behavior with the alternatives listed above. If your partner is doing one of these things, ask for the changes you need. I am a big fan of asking for what you want in a relationship, it's so much faster and more efficient than hinting or waiting for your partner to figure it out.
I made a post about this concept on TikTok and it went viral... I was really surprised by some of the responses.
@drkathynickerson These are known as Gottman’s Four Horsemen. Do you struggle with any of these? #affairs #affairrecovery #cheating #relationshipadvice #marriageadvice ♬ original sound - Dr Kathy Nickerson
I was quite surprised that many people proudly said, "Oh yes, I do all of these and I've been married for 45 years!" My thought was, "Why? Why are you treating someone you love like that?" In my mind, love is a state of mind and a behavior. It's not enough to just tell your partner that you love them, how you treat them matters. I don't think it's a sign of strength to say that you hurt each other and you're both fine with it. Can a plant survive if you pour bleach on it every day? Well, maybe it can, for a while... but why would you want to do something that you knew was harmful? Can a relationship survive toxic behaviors? Sure, for a while, but why not do the work to make it a happier, healthier relationship? Both of you will feel so much better!
Many people also responded with "Well, that's marriage," and this made me very sad. Clearly many people are in unhappy marriages and that is a very painful place to be. I love love and I love marriage. Marrying my husband was perhaps the best decision I ever made. I believe in the healing power of relationships and that any relationship can get better. But you have to do the work and you have to be intentional about it. I'd encourage anyone who is just sitting at home waiting for things to get better to do something - today - to make it better. It doesn't take much to start turning a relationship around. Start with being more positive, kinder, more helpful, and more complimentary to your partner. Try to generate some goodwill and then add some fun into the mix - watch a new program together, play a game, go for a walk. The combination of positivity and fun is very healing for a relationship.
Remember - there is no perfect person, there is no perfect relationship or marriage. Your relationship can be as happy and healthy as you want it to be... if you pay attention, listen, validate feelings, and act with compassion and care. If you face a challenge and don't know what to do, go in search of the answer. There are many wonderful self-help books, articles, online courses and the like that can help. The only notable exception is an abusive relationship. If your relationship is physically or emotionally abusive, please seek professional care and guidance.
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