The Four Behaviors That Will Make or Break Your Marriage

If you want to stay married, look out for these four common behaviors and replace them right quick.

Four Behaviors That Make or Break Marriages

by Michael Ansaldo

photo courtesy of Nemanja Glumac

filed under Advice, Fighting, Science of Love

If you’ve ever watched friends go through a divorce, you’ve likely reflected on whether you own relationship could someday suffer the same fate.

While there are many warning signs that marriage is in trouble, renowned researcher and therapist Dr. John Gottman—who in one study of couples predicted with nearly 94 percent accuracy which ones would divorce—has identified four behaviors that are particularly caustic. He dubbed them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because like their biblical counterparts, they are harbingers of the end.

The horsemen are part of a pattern called escalation of negativity. To drive them from your relationship, you first must recognize them. Here’s a primer on these destructive communication styles, and their antidotes.


Couples often resort to criticism when they try to voice a complaint. But whereas a complaint identifies a specific behavior you’d like to change (“I’m really upset you forgot to do the dishes again”), criticism is a direct attack on your partner’s character (“Of course you forgot to do the dishes again—you’re a thoughtless, selfish jerk!”).

Criticism cuts your partner to the quick, making them feeling like they, rather than the behavior, are the problem. This paves the way for the other three horsemen. The antidote for criticism, according to Gottman, is to complain without blame: Use “I” statements to express a positive need. This gives your partner an opportunity to “fix” the behavior or issue without any loss of self-esteem.


The second horseman is a way of shielding yourself during an argument. You can be defensive in many ways: counter-attacking, playing the victim, or acting indignant, to name a few. But in any form, defensiveness is a way to abdicate responsibility for your role in the conflict.

The antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility for your part in the issue your partner is presenting: “Yes, I realize I’ve forgotten to do the dishes a couple of times this week. From now on I’ll do them in the morning before I get busy.”


Contempt is an indirect way of telling your partner “I’m superior to you” or “You’re beneath me.” It can be as subtle as an eye roll or a sarcastic quip or as brazen as name-calling or making a threat. Regardless of its form, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce, according to Gottman.

The antidote, Gottman says, is to build “a culture of fondness and admiration.” Eradicating the other three horsemen is a good start, as are expressing affection, giving compliments, and otherwise showing appreciation for your partner. If you feel the relationship damage is beyond these repairs, Gottman suggests it’s time to consider couples therapy.


Gottman describes stonewalling as “when the listener withdraws from the interaction.” In other words, during a discussion or argument, one partner (Gottman has found men are the stonewallers 85 percent of the time) gets emotionally overwhelmed and stops responding. This can involve silence, physically turning away, or playing with your smartphone. This escape from addressing conflict can become habitual, Gottman suggests, and is usually a response to the built-up negativity caused by the other horsemen.

While responding may seem to be the antidote, that will likely result in you criticizing, getting defensive, or showing contempt because of your emotional state. Instead, the antidote is to self-soothe. Let your partner know you’re feeling flooded and have to stop the discussion for now. Distract yourself with another activity for 20 minutes or so to give yourself a chance to calm down before you resume the discussion.



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