4 Behaviours That Could Mean The End For Your Relationship

Relationships take work, and, at times that work can seem endless, but conflict in relationships is normal and it happens in even the strongest of relationships.

However, the problems start when the conflict gets too much.

If you're at the point where you're arguing with your partner more often than not, it may be time to look at the conflict in your relationship and, more importantly, the way you manage it.

Dr John Gottman, world renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, has identified 4 types of behaviours used in conflict situations which can mean big trouble for your relationship unless they are identified and managed as soon as possible.

Much like the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse, believed to signal the end of the world, the 4 behaviours detailed below are known as the 4 horsemen signalling the end of a relationship.

Criticism - the 1st Horseman

It's hard to have any type of long term relationship with another human being without finding fault somewhere. There are bound to be times when your partner does or says something, or doesn't do or say something that causes you frustration or upset, but there is a big difference between complaining to your partner and criticizing them.

Complaint - Making a statement that something is unacceptable or not to your liking

Criticism - Attacking someone's character or personality

Complaining to your partner is about letting them know your feelings, your needs and how something can be done to better support them, whereas criticizing your partner is an attack on them as a person. This type of behaviour is unfair, unkind and usually triggers a defensive response. Criticism is the 1st horsemen identified by Gottman and a warning sign that the way you communicate and manage conflict isn't great.

Antidote to Criticism = Complain

If you recognise criticism within your relationship you need to tackle and change it as soon as possible.

The main difference between a criticism and a complaint is the outcome it receives. A criticism is most likely going to result in a defensive response, whereas a complaint will most likely be met with understanding and consideration.

So, instead of jumping to attack your partner and tell them how bad they are, instead, tell them how you feel, what you need and how you can both get there. You can still tell them what the problem is, but avoid any blame, avoid name calling and avoid any criticism of them as an individual. Try to stay away from words such as 'always' and 'never'.

For example:

Criticism: "You are so heartless, you never think about me when you make plans, you're always so selfish"

Complaint: I feel hurt and left out when you don't ask about my plans before you make decisions. I would feel a lot better if you ran things by me first, then we could make plans together"

Note - If criticism has been a welcome guest in your communication for quite a while, it may take some practice. Your partner's response may still be defensive at first, but that's because they will likely be predicting an attack, give it time, it takes work.

Defensiveness - the 2nd Horseman

As mentioned above, defensiveness is usually a response to criticism but not always. It can also occur when someone is used to being criticized by other people in their lives. Defensiveness can be a learned reaction from other experiences and used as a way to avoid conflict. However, as the 2nd horseman it's not a healthy tact to take.

Defensiveness happens when you concentrate solely on shifting the blame from yourself onto someone else, usually your partner. This not only stops you from taking any responsibility for your own actions, it also stops you listening to what is being communicated and instead focuses your attention on finding an excuse or reason not to be held accountable. Defensiveness causes huge problems in relationships as it becomes evident that you are not working towards the greater good of your paring and instead are more concerned with appearing blameless.

Antidote to Defensiveness = Take responsibility

In most cases, where we are being complained to, there if often some truth to what is being said. Therefore the antidote to defensiveness, is to own that and hold your hands up. Taking responsibility for your mistakes and errors in judgement shows your partner that you value them and want to make your relationship work. No one is perfect, no one, so why pretend to be. You don't have to take their wrath or beg forgiveness, but you do have to be adult enough to take responsibility for your actions and their consequences.

For example:

Defensiveness: "I thought about you before I made plans, but you weren't here, I didn't know where your diary was and you weren't answering your phone, you always say you don't want to go anyway"

Taking responsibility: "I'm sorry I felt rushed to make a decision and wanted to give an answer. I should have told them I would let them know and asked you what you thought first"

Note - When communication breaks down it can quickly feel like a game where every interaction is a point scoring system of who is right and who wins. You need to remember and remind yourself that you are in this together. You choose to be in a relationship with this person, you should want to make each other happy and that means owning your faults and admitting when you are wrong.

Contempt - 3rd Horseman

When contempt creeps its way into your relationship, it's very hard not to notice. Contempt is where your behaviour and words are used to ridicule and demean your partner.

Contempt: "Oh, I am so sorry your highness, that I didn't think to let you know the second I dared to make plans with someone else. It's not always about you, you know"

Sarcasm and belittling statements are a sign of contempt, they undermine your partner and make them feel like their feelings, thoughts and emotions are not valid. Again, you want to be with this person, therefore you shouldn't want to hurt them in this way.

Other examples of contempt include eye rolling, sneering, name calling, hostile or cruel humour, and comparisons or how much worse or better you are.

Antidote to Contempt = be kind & Compassionate

Humour and Sarcasm can add to fun conversations with your partner and sometimes eye rolling and sneers can be automatic reactions, but if this is the only way you are communicating, or you are doing it more often than not, you need to change it.

Contempt breeds negativity, resentment and anger and it's not something that you want in a happy relationship. Instead you need to show respect for your partner, celebrate their wins, show your appreciation for them and the things they do, be affectionate, and create a kind and considerate culture within your relationship.

For Example:

  • Congratulate their achievements, let them know you appreciate their hard work and you are proud of them.

  • Support their goals and help them work towards them

  • Listen to their stories about their day, ask questions and follow up

  • Make small gestures to show affection such as hand holding, kissing, and anything else you know will make them smile

  • Recognise when they may be feeling down, frustrated, emotional etc. and ask if you can do anything to help

  • Talk them up to your friends and family, share your pride and respect with those around you

Note - Sometimes romantic relationships grow from existing friendships which may have had a strong element of sarcasm and joking involved, or both of you may be from a culture, location or background where joking and sarcasm are the social norm, in these cases you have to recognise the balance of sarcasm and joking in relation to respect and affection. Its one thing having a laugh at your friend's expense when the joke is shared or accepted but when romance is involved the expectations change and what used to be acceptable may no longer be the same.

Stonewalling - 4th Horseman

The 4th horseman is deemed to be the most damaging behaviour for a relationship. Stonewalling happens when you or your partner experiences emotional burnout, AKA psychological flooding, and can no longer face the argument or confrontation. Instead you choose to ignore it completely. This can be seen when someone walks away from an argument, offers the silent treatment, talks over the other person and refuses to acknowledge what is being said or disregards what the other person is saying i.e. "yeh, yeh whatever".

When stonewalling occurs it signals that the person is no longer doing the work required to maintain the relationship, this could be because they no longer know how to make it work, they may be mentally exhausted by repetitive rows or they may have lost interest all together. Whatever the reason, it's not good.

Antidote to Stonewalling = Recognise it fast and act before it happens

Unfortunately once the act of stonewalling has begun, there is little that can be done to stop it but there are ways to ease the tension and to make it easier to come back from.

First up, don't follow your partner, chase them or try to force the conversation. Recognise that they need a time out and give them it. Similarly if you feel you cannot discuss something and you need a break, say so, but make sure you let your partner know you will come back to it at a different time. Sometimes where issues are persistent and need to be discussed there may be more groundwork that needs to be done before you have the conversation.

For example: Steve and Jane have been arguing about the same thing for 6 months, Steve wants to move house to a better neighbourhood closer to his work but Jane feels they don't need to rush into a decision. Whenever Steve brings it up, Jane stonewalls the conversation stating she is "not doing this again" and leaves the house for a few hours.

Both Steve and Jane need to recognise that there is an issue and it isn't going to go away, therefore they will need to confront it at some point. However, as Steve is the one initiating the conversation, there may be some things he can do to make the situation easier.

  1. Timing - Pick a day and time where the couple can speak without interruption and when other stresses are few. Steve may want to suggest a walk or a specific spot where the couple usually feel calm and relaxed.

  2. Give Notice - Steve should let Jane know in advance that he would like to discuss this and agree the day, time and place.

  3. Agree rules and boundaries - For example, if the conversation becomes heated or one of them feels they need a break, the couple should have a code work or action that signals this. They should both then agree to take a time out. Other ground rules should be discussed and agreed to ensure any usual patterns of negative communication are avoided - Basic ground rules should include, allowing each other to speak, not speaking over one another, respecting each other's points of views and not disrespecting each other etc.

  4. No decisions - The couple should agree not to make decisions during the conversation unless they both feel totally comfortable doing so. During difficult conversations, emotions usually run high which can cause a number or physiological changes, including confusion, sweating, a racing heart etc. These things can make people rush to say things they may otherwise not. The couple should agree to go away and think about it for a few days before having another chat.

Regardless of how good your relationship is, there will always be difficult conversations to be had and hard decisions to be made, so it's important to recognise your needs and your partner's needs.

People need time to process the information they're receiving alongside their own thoughts and feelings, they need to be prepared and not feel attacked and they deserve to be respected at all times, regardless of whether or not their opinion is what their partner wants to hear. If your partner feels comfortable and understood they are much less likely to exhibit stonewalling.

If you would like any more information about the 4 horsemen and the ways in which you can avoid them or if you would like support improving your relationship and working through any difficulties, please check out the rest of my website where you can contact me or book a free 30 minutes consultation. Alternatively you can read more about about Dr John Gottman and his work at

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