The 4 Predictors of Relationship Demise
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
If you are in a relationship, you may wonder if it is going to last, or whether it is doomed. Thankfully there is ample research on romantic relationships, so we can draw conclusions about the factors differentiating a good from a bad relationship, the necessary prerequisites for happiness in relationships as well as the signs of impeding failure.
John and Julie Gottman are a couple of relationship therapists that have developed the Gottman method for couples counselling. They have defined the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for relationships- that is, the 4 predictors of relationship breakup that we will focus on in this blog post.
Contrary to what many believe, conflict in itself is not negative. In fact, conflict is inevitable between people that come emotionally close to each other, simply because we are all different!
It is impossible to never disagree or tread into conflict with your partner, and it is actually an excellent opportunity for communication, understanding and growth.
Not only this, but no conflict in a couple may reflect lack of communication and lots of secrets.
There are, however, right and less right ways to argue… And this has a lot to do with the different communication styles we employ during conflict.
The Four Horsemen of Relationship Demise
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament were a metaphor for the factors bringing humanity’s demise- and these were conquest, war, hunger and death.
In parallel, the 4 horsemen of relationships, the predictors of the collapse of a romantic relationship, are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.
All 4 of these signs are occasionally present in any relationship. They are very human defenses and ways of dealing with conflict. However, when they occur often or even worse, when they represent the norm of the interaction between two romantic partners, this is a sign that the relationship may not last long unless action is taken.
Criticism is when you are critical and hostile towards your partner.
There is a difference between using criticism and simply voicing a complaint to your partner, and this is crucial.
When you are expressing a complaint, you are being specific about something tangible that bothered you- while when you are critical, you are accusing and attacking the other as a person and making absolute statements about them as a whole.
Criticism: I just can’t believe how forgetful and careless you are! How could you forget that we had plans for tonight? You are so selfish, all you ever care about is just yourself! I am fed up with you never taking me into consideration!
Complaint: I feel quite hurt that you forgot our special dinner plans for tonight. It makes me doubt whether I mean enough to you. Could you please try to note it down when we plan something special?
The difference is quite obvious, and this is really the antidote to criticism: namely, a gentle start-up, like Drs Gottmans call it.
A gentle start-up means making a complaint without blame.
You use more I statements
You focus on how the specific behaviour made you feel, instead of making a you-statement that is usually accusatory and blaming towards the other
It is significant to also express what you need in a positive way
When there is no blame or criticism, a complaint is prevented from escalating into an argument and your partner can listen to you more effectively when they don’t feel cornered and attacked.
In order to reframe potentially harmful criticism into a constructive complaint, consider the questions What do I feel? and What do I need?
We are all critical sometimes, so don’t panic with thinking that your relationship is doomed, if you or your partner are critical to each other.
Yet the problem with criticism is when it becomes so usual and pervasive, that it basically characterizes a wide range of interactions within the couple. What happens then is that the “victim” feels rejected and hurt, and the criticism pattern is escalated and reappears with greater frequency and intensity.
It then paves the way for the second horseman to appear: Contempt.
Contempt is the single greatest predictor of separation, so better try to eliminate it if you would like your relationship to last!
Contemptuous communication is malicious, because your aim is to hurt the other person. You recognize contempt by:
calling nasty names
mimicking the other
It goes beyond criticism in that it assumes a position of superiority over your partner.
The powerful antidote to contempt, is creating an atmosphere of appreciation and respect in the relationship.
Contempt: Oh so you were way too tired to put a hand in the house chores? Boo-hoo-hoo cry baby, has it even occurred to you that I am also busy and tired from work? Oh how lazy you are, it’s unbelievable- I am sick and tired of you always doing nothing at home. *eye-roll*
Appreciation and Respect: I understand you are busy and tired lately, I get it you’re under great stress from work just like I am. However I would really appreciate it if you could remember doing the dishes when I come late from work- that way it is less overwhelming for me to get dinner ready when I am home.
Research shows that couples for which the ratio of positive to negative interactions is the magic number 5:1 (meaning, 5 positive interactions for each negative one) have a greater chance of flourishing and staying together.
Therefore don’t forget to show appreciation for every little thing you love about your partner as often as possible, and try to be respectful and understanding of them even when you have to express something that bothered you.
The third horseman for relationship demise is defensiveness, typically a response to criticism (or perceived criticism).
It is natural that if one partner is systematically aggressive and hostile to the other, the other will take a position of defense.
Yet going into the victim role is unlikely to help, when a climate of criticism is already established. It is only going to escalate the conflict. The result is that the other partner feels unsafe to express a complaint or different point of view, and communication erodes.
The reason for this is because it creates the impression that you do not want to take responsibility for your own contribution to whatever the problem is, and also when you get defensive, you immediately become indirectly attacking to the other. "It’s not me- it’s you! Look at what you are doing!" is just throwing the ball to your partner into a blame game that can escalate rapidly.
The antidote to defensiveness is accepting responsibility for what your partner is trying to express to you, instead of snapping back and getting them where it hurts.
This reflects that you are listening to them and attempt to be understanding of how they feel.
Something significant to remember is that you can't argue about the way someone feels- only about facts. The way the other feels is a reflection of their own selves triggered by external situations, therefore it can be helpful to understand how your own behaviour contributed in them feeling as they did, even if this happened unintentionally.
Partner A: I felt hurt the other day when you didn’t return my phonecall. It made me feel you don’t care about me. I wish you’d just let me know that you were busy and could not return the call instead of ignoring it.
Partner B: Oh there we go again. It should be obvious to you that I was busy, that’s why I didn’t call back. Why are you so needy? It is as if you’re trying to control me- if I call and you don’t answer, my reaction is normal and I don’t assume the worst, why can’t you just do the same?!
Partner B: I am sorry you felt like this, it was not my intention to ignore you. I honestly didn’t think it would bother you, I got caught up in my work and just skipped calling back. In the future I will try to bear your need in mind.
Stonewalling is emotionally withdrawing from an argument, as if building a wall behind which you hide to protect yourself.
Your partner cannot reach you there anymore; you’re gone. It can take the form of the silent treatment or complete disconnection from the other. You shut down, stop interacting with them, stop talking to them.
Stonewalling happens when you become so overwhelmed and flooded by a heated conflicting interaction with the other, that you just cannot take it anymore. You’re done and out, disengage and drift off. Maybe you turn away, you start to get busy with irrelevant little things or distract yourself completely into something else, ignoring your partner. Your partner may make continuous attempts to get you involved with them again, but it doesn’t work.
This can feel very defeating, dismissive and rejective to the partner who is closed out. It feels as if they don’t matter to you and cannot reach you anymore.
Some research findings about stonewalling:
Men are much more likely to stonewall (85% of stonewallers are men)
When women end up doing this systematically, it is quite predictive of separation. It reflects a state of hopelessness and resignation.
Male stonewalling is very upsetting for women and it actually intensifies their pursuit of the issue. Bear this in mind, guys, if you use stonewalling to avoid conflict: it has quite the opposite effect!
The antidote to stonewalling is physiological self-soothing by taking a break.
It’s ok to be overwhelmed, but you can make a conscious effort to communicate this to your partner and request to take a break instead of closing off completely with no explanation.
In fact, research has shown tremendous results when couples were forced to stop arguing for a while and resume the argument discussion after having taken a break- then their interaction was much more positive and productive and they had better chances of conflict resolution.
The reason for this is that each of the partners had a chance to cool down from the hyperaroused state of conflict, and could later return to it with a clearer head.
(argument is on, both partners are overwhelmed and hyperaroused)
Stonewalling: The guy just stops responding altogether, shuts down, withdraws and completely disregards the presence of his partner in the same space. He acts as if the other is not there at all- he simply checks out emotionally
Self-Soothing: "I am getting a bit tired right now, this whole argument has exhausted and overwhelmed me. I need to take a break from it, is it ok that we return to it in a bit?"
Informing your partner that you’ve had enough for now instead of just shutting down and stonewalling them can really do wonders for your relationship.
It reflects respect for yourself and your partner; you respect them enough to express your need for a break, and yourself, for asserting this need
You show them they matter to you enough if you provide an alternative to return to the problem discussion with a clearer head
Requesting to take a short break from the argument during which you can both immerse yourselves into other distracting activities (e.g. go for a walk, do the dishes, write in your journal, walk the dog or whatever self-soothing activity works for you), will allow for the tension to dissipate
When you get back to it, you will be more able to engage your rational mind (frontal lobe) and gain control of the emotional part of your brain into the discussion.
Is stopping the Four Horsemen enough for relationship happiness?
If you are invested in your relationship and would like to make it last, becoming conscious of the Four Horsemen and their antidotes is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Research shows that couples who stick together and have happy relationships:
Do not swipe arguments under their carpet and bottle up their emotions, but rather return to conflicting discussions with calmness and keep discussing them until a resolution is found. Avoidance does not work!
Know how to negotiate and find middle ground
Provide comfort and support to each other, even during conflict
Claim responsibility and make amends when they do something that hurts the other.
Use assertive communication skills
The more positive interactions there are, especially during conflict, the better this is for the overall quality and survival of the relationship.
How to be positive during conflict, you may wonder? Well, expressing sympathy and understanding, using humor from time to time, and having code-words and actions to alleviate tension when things start to get out of control are all quite helpful approaches.
It is really powerful to consider the actual argument (the issue at hand) as the enemy of the couple, and not each other.
Happy relationships are the ones where the Five A’s (Attention, Affection, Appreciation, Acceptance and Allowing) are as much fulfilled by and for both partners as possible.