While 39% of marriages are destined for divorce in America, it doesn’t have to be that way. Not if you watch out for these four signs, according to Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., co-founder of the Gottman Institute, a center that shares a research-based approach to relationships.
Gottman, who founded the institute alongside his wife, Julie Gottman, is known as the relationship therapist who can predict whether a couple will divorce with over 90% accuracy. In his research, Gottman noticed four negative communication patterns that can predict divorce, which he calls the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
But not all is lost, he’s also shared ways to combat the horseman and improve your relationship. Here are the warning signs:
The problem: criticism
The first horseman and perhaps the most common is criticism. Whereas a complaint is about a specific issue, criticism is an attack on your parent’s character. Finding yourself critical of your partner isn’t the end of the world, but if it becomes pervasive, it could lead to other trouble within the relationship.
“It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt,” Ellie Lisitsa, a doctoral student of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University and former staff writer at The Gottman Institute, writes in a blog post on the topic.
The antidote: complain without blame
Instead of launching into attack mode, experts suggest using a “gentle start-up,” or the Gottman Method approach “that makes a straightforward comment about a concern and expresses a need in a positive fashion.” This requires using “I” statements to share a need and avoiding “you” statements, which insinuates blame.
The problem: contempt
The most destructive of the Four Horsemen, according to Gottman, is contempt. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed, Gottman writes: “When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you’re feeling upset. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act. This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason why contempt ought to be banned from marital interactions.”
The antidote: build fondness and admiration
Gottman claims that one of the best ways to build fondness and admiration within the relationship is by looking to the past and recalling what made you fall in love with your partner in the first place.
The problem: defensiveness
Criticism can often lead to defensiveness, which is another way of blaming your partner. Instead of admitting responsibility, a person decides to play the victim and tries to make the issue their partner’s fault. Defensiveness most often occurs when a person is feeling attacked or criticized by their partner. This can also include gaslighting, denial and manipulation.
The antidote: take responsibility
“The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility for your role in the situation, even if only for part of the conflict,” writes Lisitsa. “In healthy relationships, partners don’t get defensive when discussing an area of conflict.”
Taking responsibility requires showing an interest in your partner’s feelings and acknowledging the role you played in the conflict. This enables you and your partner to talk through the issue and work as a team to resolve the problem.
The problem: stonewalling
Stonewalling, which typically happens in response to contempt, is when a person withdraws from a conversation, shuts down or stops responding to their partner altogether. This can look like “tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors,” writes Lisitsa.
The antidote: take a break
Instead of shutting down mid-conversation, experts recommend deciding on a neutral signal, such as a word, phrase or hand motion, to signify that you need a timeout.
“So, if you are stonewalling and feeling flooded, say that you need a break using whatever signal, word, or phrase you and your partner have decided upon. Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” suggests Lisitsa. “Then, you need to walk away and do something soothing on your own. This break should last at least 20 minutes since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.”
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