4 Toxic Behaviors That Guarantee Your Marriage Will End in Divorce

Randy Withers

By Randy Withers, LCMHC


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Healthy communication is the foundation of any successful marriage. When partners listen to one another, they tend to resolve conflict before it gets out of hand.

Unfortunately, communication failures are a frequent factor in divorce. A breakdown in communication often leads to resentment, frustration, and toxic behaviors that only make the problem worse.

The results are tragic. Two people who once loved one another are now constantly at war. In desperation, many seek counseling to fix problems that have infected their marriage for years.

In this post, we will discuss what psychologist John Gottman calls The Four Horseman. These behaviors are so damaging to a relationship that they all but guarantee divorce.

Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist who has conducted extensive research on conflict in marriage. He also runs The Gottman Institute, where he works with couples on the brink of divorce.

In The Bible, the arrival of The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse signals the end of the world. They are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

In relationships, according to Gottman, The Four Horseman signal pending divorce.

Gottman uses the analogy of The Four Horseman to describe communication styles that are toxic, telltale signs of severe marital discord.

In this case, The Four Horseman are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

1. Criticism

The first horseman identified by Gottman is Criticism. While constructive criticism is valid, the criticism we are talking about here has a vicious, judgmental quality that creates a power imbalance ion the relationship

An overly critical partner is guilty of emotional abuse. The victim in this case often suffers from low self-esteem and a phenomenon known as "learned helplessness," where you feel like nothing you do will ever be good enough.

Before you are voice a complaint to your partner, stop and think. Is what you’re about to say coming from a place of love, or is it coming from a place of anger?

Gottman recommends that you start your sentences with “I feel” instead of “you”. This shifts the focus from what your partner has done wrong to what you need from them. Make sure to choose your words so that you are not causing your partner to feel hurt.

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse predict an ailing marriage: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. The worst of these is contempt.”
— John M. Gottman

2. Contempt

The second horseman is Contempt. When we communicate from a place of contempt, we are assuming we are superior to them.

Contempt stems from long-standing negative emotions about our significant other. When we communicate contempt towards our partner, we disrespect them. Sarcastic jokes, name-calling, scoffing, or eye-rolling are examples of contempt.

Research has shown that harboring contempt even leads to a weakened immune system! Additionally, out of all the four-horseman contempt, Contempt is the largest predictor of divorce.

To combat contempt remind yourself of what you love about your partner. Focusing on their good traits will let you feel appreciation, rather than contempt.

Positive thoughts about your partner will create positive feelings. Cultivating an atmosphere of positivity acts as a shield against contempt. When you feel positively towards your partner, you are more likely to work through conflicts as a team.

3. Defensiveness

The third of Gottman’s four horsemen is Defensiveness. It happens as a reaction to criticism. If we feel that our partner has accused us of something unjust, we resort to being defensive.

Defensiveness includes behaviors such as deflecting, making excuses, and playing the victim. Communicating with defensiveness shows you do not care about your partner's concerns. It also signals an unwillingness to take responsibility for our own mistakes.

Instead of being defensive, examine your own actions and acknowledge them if you are at fault. A simple apology and admission of fault can make your partner feel heard and understood.

4. Stonewalling

The fourth and final horseman is Stonewalling. Stonewalling usually occurs as a response to contempt. Stonewalling refers to when the listener stops responding and shuts down completely. This can include behaviors like turning away or acting busy with something else. It's also known as "The Silent Treatment."

Stonewalling is actually a response to being physiologically flooded. When there is too much negativity coming towards us, we instinctively tune it out.

When stonewalling is used as a coping mechanism during an argument, it can turn into a habit. If this has already become a habit within your relationship, it’s one you definitely need to stop.

Stonewalling can lead to frustration and conflict. Stonewalling can even have the opposite of its intended effect. It often intensifies arguments.

If stonewalling becomes a problem, take a break when things get heated. Take time to calm down and return to the conversation once your emotions are in check.

Final Thoughts

Positive communication is one of the most important aspects of a relationship. If we communicate positively with our partner, disagreements remain civil and healthy.

If you would like to learn more, visit Gottman’s website. There you will find in-depth information on each of the four horsemen, as well as situations where they may appear. You will also find practical tips on how to combat these toxic behaviors with more positive actions.

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Board-Certified and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Addictions Specialist. I write about mental health, therapy, substance abuse, and recovery. All opinions are my own.

Charlotte, NC

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