When a couple comes in for treatment, I can often see behaviors that undermine the relationship within just a few minutes of speaking with the couple. Specifically, there are four distinct behaviors that spell doom for any relationship. In the first few sessions, I will usually explain these harmful behaviors and help the couple to catch themselves in the act.

In the previous post, the Triangular Theory of Love, I mentioned Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who specializes in research about marriages and relationships. In his years of research he has identified these four types of relationship behaviors (which he called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and based on their presence, has been able to predict within 90% accuracy which relationship will succeed and which will fail. These behaviors all consist of ways that people react when dealt with adversity or conflict in the relationship. In other words, Gottman claims that it is not the underlying problem, but the ways that the couple reacts to the problem which determines the fate of the relationship. He found that all of these four behaviors were common in marriages that ended up in divorce.

The behaviors are:

1. Criticism– this is when one partner constantly criticizes the other and makes it personal. For example, instead of criticizing a mistake, the partner will attack the personality or character of the partner instead of just the action. This is most commonly a behavior trait of women.

2. Contempt– this is when the criticism gets particularly hostile, including name calling and cursing. This indicates a total lack of respect within the relationship.

3. Defensiveness– when one partner, instead of facing a problem, avoids it by making excuses or denying blame. This leads to avoiding or even enhancing the problem, rather than dealing with it directly.

4. Stonewalling– this is when defensiveness goes to an extreme level and one partner just refuses to communicate or discuss an issue at all. Commonly used as a tactic by men when dealing with a criticizing women.

When you are trying to sort out the difficulties in your relationship, can you identify any of these behaviors in your communication? If so, how can you go about communicating with your partner in a healthier way?

In future posts, I will discuss specific strategies to help couples avoid the Four Horsemen and get their relationship back on track with healthy and more intimate ways of communicating and resolving conflicts.