Every relationship — whether it be friendship, parent-child, siblings, or marriage — runs into snags from time to time. In our most intimate relationships, the stakes are higher. When we share our lives, raise children, co-mingle households and money, we hand over a certain amount of autonomy to our partners, and we trust they will not abuse that intimacy. But how do you know if a relationship is really in trouble, or if you’re just working through issues that most couples go through as they learn and grow together?
According to relationship expert John Gottman, there are four major signs that indicate a couple is moving towards irreconcilable differences: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Gottman calls these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because of their deadly effect on relationships.
Criticism: Far more than voicing a difference of opinion or a complaint, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character. “Criticism makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt,” Gottman writes. “It 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 (the next horseman) contempt.”
Contempt: According to Gottman, “while criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them… When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.”
Defensiveness: “Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.”
Stonewalling: This horseman arrives “when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.”
When these four core conflicts arise on a regular basis, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s going on beneath the surface of your marriage. Whether you decide to continue the relationship or not, it may also be time to get professional help to determine next steps.