Four Ways to Ruin, and to Repair, Your Relationship

The behavioral patterns poisonous to relationships and their antidotes.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Can this relationship be saved?
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Every couple messes up every day. What matters most is the ability to repair things when they go wrong. What are the big four predictors of divorceMarriage researcher John Gottman (1999) identified “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” relational behavioral patterns that can run your intimate life into the ground in no time—criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.

Criticism is an attack on your partner’s character, suggesting that there is something wrong or defective inside them. Criticism Is characterized by the use of “always” and “never” resulting in a massive generalization that’s probably not true. Criticism also comes in the form of questions that are not really questions; you are not seeking information or clarification, just making a harsh declaration in disguise. It’s important to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing. A critique or complaint is directed toward a specific issue or problem, not your partner’s character deficit.  This is a criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. You always think of yourself! You never think of me!”

This is a complaint: “I got scared when you didn’t show up on time, and you didn’t call. I thought that we’d agreed that we would tell each other when were are running late.”  If you and your partner are critical of each other, your relationship is not doomed to fail.  The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes a frequent habit, it makes the victim feel rejected and hurt.

The antidote to criticism is a gentle or soft start-up. John Gottman found that the way that a discussion starts determines what will happen and how it goes in 96% of cases. A harsh start-up is an attack (e.g., “What is WRONG with you?”) and suggests that your partner’s personality must change—right now. A softened start-up rephrases the problem or complaint specifically, taking the blame out of it, and includes how you think and feel, and may even give an appreciation first. First, ask yourself “What do I feel? What do I need?”  Second, express a positive need (what it is you want, framed in a positive way towards a possible solution). Example: If your partner has been very busy lately, and you have felt neglected, you would not want to say “Everyone comes before me, and I always come last! You suck!”  Who wouldn’t get defensive to that? A softened start-up would say “I’ve been feeling lonely lately, I’ve been missing you, and I need more of you in my life.  How can we do that?”  You get bonus points by referring to some time you’ve had together recently that your partner liked, appreciated, and would like to do again.

Couples can fall into an escalating pattern where criticism reappears with increasing frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to the next horseman, contempt, the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt is treating others with disrespect, mocking with sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, and meanspirited humor. Contempt is corrosive to your emotional and physical wellbeing. Partners that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to get infectious illnesses, such as the common cold, or the flu, due to weakened immune systems. Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship. One way to do this is to regularly express gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner. This creates a positive perspective that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt. Here is contempt: “You left the shirts in the clothes dryer too long! They shrank and are wrinkled again. You never learn!  You are so lazy.” (Rolls eyes.)  And the antidote? “Thank you for doing the laundry so we have clean clothes to wear. Could you please remember to take the shirts out of the dryer so they don’t shrink or get wrinkled? I would appreciate it.” The antidote here works well because it shows appreciation immediately, and does not come from a position of “superiority” or resentment. It also begins and ends with statements of appreciation.

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Stonewalling: Tuning out, and turning away.
Source: Priscilla DuPreez/Unsplash

Often a response to contempt, stonewalling  occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall “tune out," turn away, or act busy. Stonewalling may appear to be an “understandable” solution when one feels stressed, overwhelmed, or flooded with negative interactions, stimuli, and physiological arousal.  But used too often, it becomes a bad habit. The antidote to stonewalling is to practice physiological self-soothing, and the first step of self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion and call a timeout, hopefully without just walking away. “Sweetness, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need a break. Can you give me 20 minutes and then we can talk?”

Lastly, defensiveness is when a partner wards off a complaint or criticism by putting it back on a partner. When we feel unjustly accused, we may offer up excuses and play the innocent victim so that a partner will not blame us. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes. Question: “Did you call Dan and Sue to let them know that we’re not coming to their party tonight as you promised to do this morning?” Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. You know what?  You know how busy I am.  Why didn’t you do it?”  See the blame reversal?  The partner has just tried to make the situation the other partner’s fault.  Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective. Example: “Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. My bad. Let me call them right now.” Although it is perfectly understandable to want to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical partner does not stop criticizing or does not apologize.  The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for just a part of the conflict. If an irritated partner chooses to be fair and reasonable, the couple can work towards a compromise.

In sum, when things start to go off the rails, couples can do repair work and get back on track. Further, John Gottman and his colleagues discovered that a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions in a relationship helps it succeed. If you have five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction, then you’re maintaining the positive perspective and good feelings in the relationship, and it can survive the occasional conflict or mess up. If you think you'd benefit from additional help for your specific relationship challenges, seek out a qualified couples therapist.

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Gottman, J. & Gottman, J.S. (2007). Ten lessons to transform your marriage. Harmony Books.