Four Sure Signs Your Relationship is on the Rocks cover image

Four Sure Signs Your Relationship is on the Rocks

Dorian Minors • February 11, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

In 1994, prominent couple psychologist John Gottman realised that there were four sure signs that a relationship was about to break down. Gottman is such an expert on relationship breakdown that he claims he can tell you whether a relationship will be ended within four years by observing just a couple of minutes of your time together. So take stock and strap in for the so-called 'four horsemen of the Apocalypse'.

  1. Complaining/criticising - you're spending a lot of time complaining about your partner. 'You never…', 'yes I do!', 'No you don't and you always do ...'. You also find yourself telling your partner 'I don't like the way you do this', 'I don't like the way you dress', 'I don't like how you're always…'. Lots of ongoing, heavy complaining and criticising is the first sign a relationship is a sinking ship.
  2. Defensiveness - you're not looking to fix things anymore. Not asking for more information, not looking for the causes of complaints. Nope, it's straight to the defensive and back to the attack; 'no I don't! Besides, you're always doing…'.
  3. Contempt - this is when it gets serious. Contempt isn't usually a verbal sign. Mostly, this is communicated through the body language, the tone, the eye language (paralanguage). The eyerolling, the eyebrow raise, the gesture.  Remarks will be quite humiliating. It's all about power. Contempt is a sign that they think they are superior to you and they can tell you what's wrong with you. This sort of thing leads to what Suzanne Retzinger calls 'shame-anger' spirals. This is where after one party shames the other (you're much uglier than your friend), the other person feels what's called 'humiliated fury' and responds in kind (you think I'm ugly? Have you looked at yourself) and on it goes. These kind of shame spirals are very hard to recover from, such is their toxicity. Contempt is not a place you want to be in a relationship.
  4. Finally we come to stonewalling, something we'll mention a few times here. Now stonewalling in and of itself isn't a problem. As we've said before, it can be a natural response in a relationship. It's only when it follows the big one, contempt. In the face of an attempt to reason, to address the conflict you get a blank slate, a distanced partner.
“First comes criticism, then defensiveness, then the killer; contempt. The final nail in the coffin is stonewalling. These four elements in order mean there’s something seriously wrong.”
Gottman argues that these four elements occur in a cascading pattern. First the complaining, then the defensiveness, then the contempt and finally the stonewalling. When these things are all lined up, he'd call it game over. Hopefully you can now recognise the signs and go about repairing the damage that's been created or maybe, simply moving on rather than following the path through more hurt and pain than either of you need to experience. You know what else causes arguments in a relationship? Sex. Check out how men and women get turned on and turned off here. Or maybe it's because you you're hoping 'love' will fix it. If so, see how important love really is(n't) here! Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.