What makes relationships fail?
Are there specific behaviors that spell out disaster when it comes to love in the long term, and if so, how can we avoid them?
The answer is YES. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Love Lab, have dedicated their careers to understanding the science of relationships. They’ve identified relational behaviors they call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” which are the major contributing factors to why relationships end. ¹
Their brilliant research inspired what I’m covering today because in more than 2 decades in my own practice and educating women the world over, I’ve seen these specific behaviors block intimacy, communication, and healthy love again and again.
That’s why in today’s episode, I’m breaking down the 4 dysfunctional behavioral patterns that can decimate love relationships. Raising your awareness of your own behavior can help you put your energy into what makes real love last.
The Gottmans have been taking a research-based approach to relationships for more than 30 years. By systematically observing and collecting data on thousands of marriages to understand what makes relationships work (and what contributes to their demise), they became well known for the ability to predict within a 94% accuracy if a couple would eventually divorce.
What the research shows is when these 4 factors are present within a couple’s dynamic, it can deeply damage and be a precursor to the end of a relationship. The common denominator is that each is a dysfunctional communication style, which makes a lot of sense.
In all my years of practice and of research, I’ve learned that effective and kind communication creates healthy and truly loving relationships.
Dysfunctional and ineffective communication is the biggest relationship killer, so let’s move into what that can look like:
“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”
The Top 4 Relationship Killers
If talking true and nurturing real intimacy inside your relationship is a goal, disappointments, hurt feelings and conflict will inevitably come up. It’s important to make a distinction between voicing a complaint and criticizing. A healthy critique or complaint is about a specific behavior. Criticism attacks the character, integrity, and even the core of who your partner is.
Here’s what that looks like:
A complaint and a boundary request:
“You told me you would call if you would be late and you didn’t. I didn’t like how that made me feel. Can we agree that the next time you’ll be late you will call to let me know?”
“You didn’t call me even though you said you would! You never think about how what you do is going to impact me. You are so selfish and inconsiderate.”
Even if you do have a legitimate case, can you see how criticism could immediately shut down any healthy communication or connection? Assassination of the other person’s character is ineffective in the moment and damaging in the long run.
Contempt goes beyond criticism and is so toxic that it is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Gottmans’ findings. Contemptuous behavior includes treating your partner with disrespect, mocking or ridiculing them, name-calling, or using disparaging sarcasm. It can look like mimicking them, eye-rolling or scoffing. Bottom line: it’s mean.
When you’re on the receiving end of contempt, it can feel like the other person despises you or that you are stupid or worthless. Contempt is not only attacking the other person’s character, it’s assuming a moral and intellectual superiority over the other.
When your partner comes to you with an issue about a choice you made or an action you took, do you feel like you immediately have to justify your reasoning or defend yourself? Do you start listing all the reasons for why you did what you did? Or perhaps this describes their behavior.
That is being defensive. The problem with defensiveness is that it divides and polarizes your relationship. To quote one of my personal mental health heroes, Dr. Harriet Lerner, “Defensiveness is the archenemy of listening.”
It is impossible to actively listen while being defensive. For many folks, fear of being blamed or “being in trouble” activates defensiveness. It is worth working to understand your own relationship to defensiveness because authentic listening is the bridge to real intimacy.
This is when the listener withdraws, stops responding, ignores, or gives one-word answers. It could look like you being withdrawn in anger or sadness, but saying you’re “fine”…even when you’re clearly not. Rather than confronting an issue in the relationship or having a tough conversation, stonewalling is almost like one person decides to just disappear and shut down.
While this might seem like a passive response to conflict, it’s actually a power move. If stonewalling is your modus operandi inside your relationship, you might be using this behavior to control the situation and avoid conflict or emotions that feel threatening.
Stonewalling can be a physiological freeze response and you (or your partner) might need more time to process.
Do any of these resonate with you? If so, I’ve created a cheat sheet with the “antidotes” or “fixes” for each of the top 4 relationship killers with ideas on how to disrupt dysfunctional behavioral patterns so you can begin to move into more effective, loving communication with your partner.
Remember, knowledge is power and awareness is the first step to changing anything, so if you did recognize yourself or your relationship in these descriptions, hope is not lost! You can download your cheat sheet right here.
It is my intention that this episode adds value to your life, so if it did please share it with your people.
As always, take care of you.