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4 Signs Your Relationship Is Failing

Before hurling insults at your partner for inadvertently frustrating you, it's worth considering the repercussions. Why? Because name-calling constitutes criticism, which, aside from being unkind, falls under the category of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" - the four detrimental communication styles that may signify the impending demise of a relationship. Coined by psychologist Dr. John Gottman, these Four Horsemen are metaphorically named after the biblical concept representing the "end of times" - conquest, war, famine, and death. In the context of relationships, however, they manifest as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

However, these behaviours don't necessarily indicate that your relationship is on the brink of collapse. These behaviours are present in every relationship, but for certain couples, they can cause significant turmoil. In healthy partnerships, couples can recognise and mend the way they handle conflicts, mitigating the impact of the Four Horsemen. The crucial aspect is recognising them early and being open to addressing them collaboratively.

1. Criticism

The initial horseman is criticism. Distinguishing between criticism and offering a critique or expressing a complaint is crucial. While the latter two focus on specific issues, criticism constitutes an ad hominem attack, targeting your partner's core character. Essentially, it dismantles their entire being when you engage in criticism.


It's essential to discern between expressing a complaint and criticising:


Complaint: "I felt scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed to do that for each other."

Criticism: "You never consider how your actions affect others. I don’t believe you're genuinely forgetful; you're just selfish. You never think about anyone else! You never think about me!"


If you and your partner often engage in criticism, it doesn't automatically mean your relationship is destined to fail. However, the problem with criticism lies in its propensity to pave the way for other, more destructive horsemen. It leaves the recipient feeling assaulted, rejected, and wounded, often leading to an escalating cycle where criticism recurs with increasing frequency and intensity, ultimately culminating in contempt.

2. Contempt

The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this manner, we demonstrate genuine meanness—we show disrespect, employ sarcasm to mock, ridicule, use derogatory names, and display negative body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The recipient of contempt is left feeling scorned and devalued.


Contempt surpasses mere criticism. While criticism assaults your partner’s character, contempt assumes a stance of moral superiority:


"You're 'tired?' Spare me. I've been with the kids all day, hustling to keep this household running, and all you do when you return from work is plop down on that couch like a child and indulge in those mindless video games. I don’t have the patience to deal with another child. Could you possibly be any more pathetic?"


Studies even indicate that couples exhibiting contempt toward each other are more susceptible to infectious illnesses (colds, flu, etc.) due to compromised immune systems. Contempt is fuelled by deep-seated negative sentiments about the partner, culminating in an attack from a perceived position of superiority.


Crucially, contempt is the primary predictor of divorce. It must be eradicated.

3. Defensiveness

The third horseman is defensiveness, often triggered by criticism. Defensiveness is a common reaction when relationships face turmoil. When we feel unfairly targeted, we tend to search for excuses and adopt a victim mentality in hopes that our partner will relent.


Unfortunately, this tactic seldom yields positive results. Our excuses signal to our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and are unwilling to acknowledge our errors:


Question: "Did you inform Ana and Dan that we won't be attending tonight as you promised this morning?"

Defensive response: "I was swamped today. You know very well how packed my schedule was. Why didn't you handle it?"


In this instance, the partner not only responds defensively but also shifts blame, attempting to deflect responsibility onto the other partner. Conversely, a non-defensive approach involves owning up to mistakes, acknowledging fault, and empathising with your partner’s viewpoint:


"Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to handle it since I knew I'd be busy. That's on me. Let me give them a call right away."


While it's natural to defend yourself when feeling stressed and under attack, this approach often backfires. Defensiveness tends to escalate conflicts unless the critical partner retreats or offers an apology. This is because defensiveness essentially blames your partner and obstructs healthy conflict resolution.

4. Stonewalling

The fourth horseman, stonewalling, often arises in response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when the listener disengages from the interaction, closes off, and ceases to respond to their partner. Instead of addressing the issues with their partner, individuals who stonewall resort to evasive tactics like mentally checking out, turning away, feigning busyness, or immersing themselves in obsessive or distracting activities.


It takes time for the negativity instigated by the first three horsemen to reach a tipping point where stonewalling becomes a perceived escape route. Yet, once established, stonewalling often becomes a recurring behavior pattern. Regrettably, breaking this habit is challenging. Stonewalling typically stems from feeling overwhelmed physiologically, and in such a state, rational discussion may seem impossible.


If you recognise yourself stonewalling during a conflict, it's advisable to pause the conversation and request a break:


"Alright, I'm too upset to continue discussing this right now. Can we take a break and revisit it later? I believe it will be more productive once I've cooled off."


Take around 20 minutes to engage in a solitary activity that helps you relax—whether it's reading, going for a walk, jogging, or any other calming pursuit—before returning to the discussion with a clearer mind.


The Remedies for the Four Horsemen

Recognising the presence of the Four Horsemen in your conflicts is crucial for addressing them, but mere awareness isn't sufficient. To dispel harmful communication and conflict dynamics, you must supplant them with constructive, beneficial alternatives.


Thankfully, there exists a proven positive response for each horseman that effectively counteracts negativity.

Come back here next week to learn about the antidotes.


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