Relationship Killers

by: Leslie Becker-Phelps

People usually begin romantic relationships with great hopes. They don’t expect that their love will end. But, unfortunately, that is sometimes the reality. And often, there are warning signs that the relationship is headed in that direction.

Relationship researcher John Gottman offers four such indicators, which he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Below are Gottman’s four warning signs – and adjustments you can make if you see them in your relationship:


When a partner attacks the other person’s character. Criticism is different from complaining, which focuses on a particular problem or behavior. “You are such a slob” or “You always leave the house a mess” are criticisms. “I’m tired of finding your dirty socks all over the floor” is a complaint. It is difficult to have any constructive response to a criticism, but you can work cooperatively to address a complaint.

Commit to making complaints rather than criticisms. If your partner tends to criticize, talk with them about the difference between these two ways of addressing problems and make an agreement for you both to complain rather than criticize.

Criticism taken to the next level – a person is attacking their partner as a whole person. Contempt is insulting, demeaning, and is intended to put the criticizer on a higher level than their partner. It might include name-calling, mockery, sarcastic humor, or body language such as eye-rolling or sneering.

Lower the tolerance for contempt. Actively work on building a healthier respect, more effective communication, and greater appreciation of each other. Given that this is the most problematic of all the horsemen, a relationship that involves contempt will probably need couples therapy to help them make positive changes.

Responding to an attack by defending yourself and then attacking back. Your defense might involve making excuses, disagreeing, ignoring the attack, or taking on a victim role.

Truly listen to your partner’s complaint, empathize with their distress, and take some responsibility for the problem. You can give your side of the story, but only after honestly showing compassion for their distress – that is, after showing that you really want to soothe their suffering.

Withdrawing from a conversation or the relationship as a protection from being hurt. The person may physically leave or just stop following the conversation. The person often looks like they don’t care even though the real cause is that they are overwhelmed.

Talk about this pattern together and work on being able to identify when the stone-waller is becoming overwhelmed. Also, develop a plan for how to give them some space, such as agreeing to take a break for some allotted amount of time. Make sure to come back at some point to the problem at hand.

It is best to identify these patterns early. The longer they continue, the more they can damage your relationship. If you find that you keep repeating the same old patterns despite doing your best to nurture healthier ones, it may be time for couples therapy.

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