If These 4 Behaviors Are Present In Your Relationship, It's Doomed

And how to turn things around.

couple Just Life / Shutterstock

Everyone argues, but we differ in how we deal with conflict. And it turns out that how we deal with conflict says a lot about the future of our relationships.

By watching couples fight, researcher John Gottman discovered what not to do if you want to make your relationship last, and published seminal research on what behaviors to avoid if you want a happy ending for your relationship. 

Gottman discovered that four behaviors are particularly detrimental to relationships.

He termed them “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," and they are:


1. Criticism

It’s okay (and can be healthy) to complain about what’s wrong in your relationship. The problem arises when complaining turns into criticizing. A complaint focuses on the event or behavior you want to change, while criticism attacks a partner’s personality.



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When you find yourself generalizing that your partner “always” or “never” does something, you are falling prey to criticism. For example, I may want to let my husband know that I find it annoying that we don’t travel very often. I could just tell him that I wish we traveled more. Or I could blame him for this problem and say, "We never travel because you are always so selfish and don’t care about my interests.”

To avoid falling prey to criticism in your relationship, try to state your complaint without blame. Let your partner know that you are unhappy about something, but don’t make it their fault, and avoid the terms "always" and "never."

2. Defensiveness

When someone suggests you've done something wrong, it's often an instinct to react quickly with, “It’s not my fault,” followed by some excuse. Sometimes people go so far as to do this preventively, defending themselves before even being accused.

Defensiveness also occurs when you respond to a partner’s complaints with complaints of your own — when your partner lets you know they find it annoying that you leave empty shampoo bottles in the shower, you respond by pointing out that you find it annoying when they don’t make the bed. 




The problem with defensiveness is that it doesn’t allow you to see your role in a problem and it's frustrating for the other person who feels like they aren’t being heard. Take responsibility. If your partner lets you know that something you do bothers them, consider if they might be right and look for your part in the problem.

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3. Contempt

Everybody has angry moments, but when you begin to feel contempt for your partner, that’s a clear sign that something needs to change.


Contempt is the best predictor of divorce. It's the feeling that you are better than your partner, and it comes out when you make derisive comments with the intention of being insulting. If you are calling your partner names, mocking your partner, and being sarcastic or rolling your eyes at him or her, you are likely feeling contempt.



Sometimes you might tease your partner in a spirit of playfulness, which is beneficial. But if you find yourself teasing in a mean-spirited way, such as making fun of something you know they are sensitive about, that is a sign of contempt. (And calling your partner an idiot, and meaning it, is a surefire sign your relationship is in the dumps.)

Instead of focusing on all the things that you hate about your partner, build a culture of appreciation in which you focus on what your partner adds to the relationship. If you are feeling contemptuous, perhaps you just need to take a moment to imagine what your life would be like if you’d never met your partner. 


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4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is not so much about what you do, but what you don’t do. Imagine how a stone wall would react to you when you told it how you were feeling. When you sit in stony silence or utter single-word answers, you are disengaging from an interaction. This happens in response to feeling overwhelmed by your partner’s strong negativity. (Gottman has found that men are more likely to engage in stonewalling than women.)

Instead of disengaging as a response to being overwhelmed, try letting your partner know that you need to take some time to calm down and plan to return to the conversation when you feel more relaxed.



The 'four horsemen' often go together.

Criticism from one partner may lead to the other’s defensiveness, which may promote feelings of contempt, and, eventually, stonewalling.


Couples who can joke, laugh, and share moments — a touch, a quick smile–during a fight are better at combating this negative cycle and happier in their relationships.

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Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., is a Research Scientist at the UC San Francisco. Her research focuses on understanding the social cognitive, affective, and biological factors that shape our closest relationships.