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While you cannot predict the future, there are scientifically-proven telltale signs that a relationship won’t not last long. Behavioral theories suggest that conflict behaviors have significant implications for couples’ evaluations of their futures. For example, one study of 373 recently-married couples found that couples who yelled at each other, shut off communication about a touchy subject, or demonstrated contempt for each other within the first year of marriage were more likely to divorce as far as 16 years in the future.
You might want to understand predictors of divorce in order to recognize and correct certain behaviors, or you might simply want to anticipate divorce down the road. Either way, there are certain behaviors that experts agree are the most consistent predictors of a California (or elsewhere!) divorce. Destructive behaviors like yelling, throwing insults, criticizing, and hostility accurately foretell an increased likelihood of divorce. Destructive behaviors are overtly negative reactions to problems in the marriage.
Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist at the University of Washington and founder of the Gottman Institute. He also happens to be a renowned relationship expert. Dr. Gottman identified four markers of marriage failure with a 93% accuracy in predicting divorce. He and psychologist Robert Levenson were able to predict with striking precision which couples in their 1976 study would eventually divorce.
In Gottman’s research on marriage, he found that not all negative behaviors are created equal. Four stood out as being the most destructive, and thus the most effective predictors of separation. He dubbed these “The Four Horsemen” after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Conflict alone does not indicate a broken relationship. In fact, conflict is healthy in a relationship if it produces communication, understanding, and results. The Four Horsemen, on the other hand, are counterproductive behaviors. These styles of communication are usually only negative.
Let’s take a look:
To criticize is to make statements about your spouse’s character based on his/her conduct or behavior. When you criticize your partner, you do so in a way that implies something is inherently wrong with him/her, usually in the form of an unnecessary verbal attack. Common examples are beginning a statement with “you never…”, “you always…”, and “why are you so…” Criticism is not constructive advice about a bad habit or annoying behavior. Rather, it is meant to make your spouse feel small, hurt, and rejected. Complaining to your spouse about a specific issue can be healthy, but criticism does nothing more than attack a his/her personality or character, i.e., who a person is.
For example, a critical wife might verbally attack her husband about leaving his dirty socks around the house. She insists on knowing why he is always so dirty and lazy rather than respectfully requesting he acknowledge and correct his conduct. Criticism is only constructive when you carefully choose your tone and words. A healthy way to correct criticism is to morph it into a specific complaint; “X happened, which made me feel Y, so I need Z.”
Criticism elicits a defensive response from your partner and sets the tone for an argument. It might surprise you that criticizing a spouse has a negative effect on both parties. The criticizer often feels unheard, and both spouses begin to feel badly above themselves when around the other. The criticized partner might want to withdraw from interaction entirely.
Criticism can result in an endless cycle of attacking met by defensiveness. This behavior eventually creates a noticeable amount of disconnect and distance in a relationship. Sometimes referred to as the first horseman, criticism is the first behavior a couple will use in conflict. Criticism is also known to pave the way for the most ominous of The Four Horsemen: contempt.
Contempt is a deadly combination of anger and disgust. It involves any statements or behaviors that assert superiority to a spouse. Contempt is much more destructive than temporary distaste or general frustration. It means you look down on your spouse—someone you once considered an equal partner.
A contemptuous spouse is more concerned with conveying feelings of disgust and superiority than trying to understand his/her spouse. This makes the attacked spouse feel disliked and misunderstood. He/she is stripped of a safe space in the relationship. Dr. Gottman labels contempt “the kiss of death” in a relationship because, he claims, it comes down to a superiority complex. The contemptuous spouse has closed him/herself off from the other’s needs and emotions, and eventually stops empathizing with or trying to understand his/her spouse’s perspective
How do you know if you are exhibiting contempt in your marriage? If you have known yourself to roll your eyes, sneer, make jokes or use sarcasm at your spouse’s expense, or show blatant disrespect for your partner, you might be a contemptuous spouse. If you are emotionally closed off to your spouse, you are displaying contempt. Additionally, if you find you have begun feeling better than, smarter than, or more intellectually or emotionally superior to your spouse, or if you see his/her opinions as invalid. You have probably also begun dismissing your spouse, or worse, emotionally abusing him/her. You might not have even noticed.
It is essential to completely eliminate contempt. A marriage cannot survive without appreciation, tolerance, and respect.
Defensiveness is attempting to shield yourself from and ward off a perceived attack. While this might not seem so menacing to a relationship, the biggest problem with defensiveness is that it causes you to tune out what your partner is saying. Becoming defensive is natural and easy when confronted with conflict, especially when you think you have been wrongly accused or misunderstood. However, defensive strategies are rarely successful.
A defensive partner regularly plays the victim, blames others (often the spouse), and makes excuses in uncomfortable situations. An example of common defensive behavior is being the first to say, “it wasn’t my fault!” Failing to take responsibility inflames already-negative communication and fuels a bad exchange. You could be guilty of defensiveness if you consistently play the victim instead of listening to or working with your spouse—even when your partner is criticizing you.
Other defensive behaviors are repeating yourself, thinking only of what you want to say without listening to your spouse, and “yes-butting”. One way to successfully curb defensive behavior is to take responsibility for your role in difficult situations. Try listening to your spouse’s critique and taking accountability.
It is normal for spouses to call timeouts or to take time alone to collect their thoughts or to calm down after an argument. Stonewalling—or simply, unresponsiveness—is different. When you stonewall, you are refusing to cooperate or communicate, dismissing your spouse, and refusing to consider his/her perspective. A “stonewaller” shuts him/herself off to a spouse and completely withdraws from interaction. The stonewalled spouse is left unheard and frustrated, and the stonewalling spouse is burdened with having been confronted with presently-unresolved issues.
A common example of stonewalling in today’s world is when a person pulls out his/her phone and begins texting or browsing in the middle of an argument with a spouse. Other examples include simply walking out of the room or ignoring a spouse as soon as things get heated or conflict is imminent.
Blocking off communication when faced with an argument might not seem that damaging compared to more overt behavior like criticism or contempt. However, stonewalling can be just as lethal to a marriage because it prevents a couple from working through a contentious issue. If you stonewall regularly, you are removing yourself from the relationship rather than trying to work on it. No couple likes to argue, but communication—no matter how uncomfortable or intense—leads to positive solutions.
All marriages have some degree of these characteristics, so if you and your spouse don’t have a “perfect” relationship, don’t despair. Where you have to take heed is when several of the above behaviors are present, or when one is unyielding. It’s when your marriage sees more negative behavior than positive that you might have reason for concern.
If you are realizing that these styles of communicating are prominent in your relationship, it is never too late to implement more effective ways to communicate. Learning how to reduce or eliminate these behaviors will allow your marriage to emerge stronger than ever. Realizing that certain behavior is hurting your marriage is the first step to righting it.