Four Negative Communication Patterns That Accurately Predict Divorce 95 % of the Time

Jessica Lynn

Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

When I found out my husband of ten plus years had an affair with a mother of a student at my daughter’s preschool, the affair I could get past. However, how we had been communicating during the last part of our marriage was a gap I found impossible to bridge.

There is something about the seal of marriage, the legality of “I do,” that grants permission, for some, to act subpar with their partner — to give the best of themselves to everything in their lives — except their spouse.

Far too often we bring the best of ourselves to our work, friends, colleagues, children, even to our hobbies, but to our partners, we bring the leftovers.

Your friends won’t take subpar; your boss certainly won’t take subpar, but at home, you think you can treat people poorly, put them down, ignore them, disqualify them, shout at them, and neglect them.

Words spoken with indifference, or worse, with contempt create disconnection. You can never take anything back once said. Sure, you can apologize, but the words are out there, hanging in the air, clinging to the surfaces in your home.

Negative communication styles, or what Dr. John Gottman calls “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” used as a metaphor, describe communication styles that predict, according to his research, the end of a relationship.

“The Four Horsemen” are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Gottman can predict the failure of a relationship with over 95% accuracy if these negative communication behaviors are not changed.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


Example — “You’re an idiot. Why the hell did you forget to do…”

Criticizing your partner is an attack on their character. Putting them down for every little mistake, “How could you forget to take out the garbage again,” instead of something more understanding like, “next time babe, can you set a reminder, so you don’t forget,” doesn’t foster connection.

Why save your harshest criticism for your spouse? Instead of focusing on something that bothers you about your partner, try instead to talk about how you feel using “I” statements, “I feel…” and then express a positive need.

If you look closely behind a complaint, there is usually an ask or a wish for something deeper from your partner.


Example — “It’s not my fault we are always late.”

Defensiveness is self-protection through righteous indignation or playing the victim.

When one is defensive in an argument, this does little to solve the problem a couple is grappling to address. Defensiveness is just an underhanded way of blaming your partner for the disagreement.

The antidote for defensiveness is to accept responsibility even if it is for only part of the conflict. Accepting responsibility is owning your shit on your side of the street. When you take responsibility instead of shifting blame, not only does it free you, it’s empowering.

Here are examples of taking responsibility, “I could have handled things better with more patience,” and “I could have given you a little more warning.”


Example — “Forget it. Never mind.”

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation all together without resolving anything. Stonewalling equates to shutting down, not allowing your partner in, at all, to repair with sweet and tender bids for communication.

It can become a habit if the couple is in a high conflict relationship where arguments occur often. You shut your partner out, preventing the cycle of connection, disconnection, and repair — the triad of relationships — to play out as healthy relationships do. You’re done, and you don’t allow the other person in to repair. Stonewalling can become a habit.

The antidote to stonewalling is to take a break from the difficult conversation you are having with your partner for at least 20 minutes, calm down, and then return to the conversation.


Example — “You are so selfish. I hate you.”

Contempt is the kiss of death to a relationship. It is one of the hardest things to get past once you have reached a feeling of this magnitude toward your partner because it involves a profound sense of dehumanization.

It is often a sense, from one partner, of superiority and will often come across as sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery, and hostile humor.

It is easier to come back and repair from other negative styles of communication in a relationship, but because contempt often involves belittling, infantilization, demeaning, and degrading your partner — all forms of abuse in various degrees — the relationship usually ends. The person abused may have to protect themselves by leaving the relationship.

One antidote for the feeling of contempt is to treat your partner with respect and build a culture of appreciation around them.

For example, “Thank you for trying.”

Antidotes for “The Four Horsemen”

Appreciation for your partner

  • say nice things to them
  • use “please” and “thank you”
  • compliments
  • handholding
  • kissing
  • stroking
  • send sweet notes
  • prepare breakfast
  • bring your love coffee in bed
  • writing love letters
  • touch
  • humor
  • recognize your partner at their most authentic self
  • let your partner know you are thinking about them randomly

Daily appreciations — the small things — work wonders to repair and go a long way.

Brené Brown, the author of The Gifts of Imperfection, says,

“shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.”

The art of speaking and listening

Take responsibility for how you communicate — it is freedom. Be the best version of yourself with your partner and encourage them to be the best version of themselves. It is that basic. Treat the other how you wish to be treated; it is that simple to make a relationship sustain itself and be more nurturing.

People so often bring only the leftovers to their partner while at the same time wanting their relationship to be glorious and amazing — claiming it is the most important thing to them.

So often people say, “my partner is my best friend,” while treating them horribly. I often want to respond, “you treat your best friend like that. I doubt it.”

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Writing on all things California and Texas. It unfolds here. Your daily dose of local news. From politics to food, from celebrity culture to current events. Follow me for the latest updates. Twitter: @girl_thriving

Los Angeles, CA

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