Five Things that Will Kill Your Relationship

If you want to keep your marriage healthy and happy, there are four things you definitely do not want to do, so says John Gottman of the Gottman Institute.

1.  Criticism.  This is criticism of your partner, not their behaviors, but an aspect of their personality or their character.  The one who is doing the criticizing is implying “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

2.  Contempt.  This is criticism but taken to a higher level.  This is when you insult or attempt to tear down your partner in an openly disrespectful manner.

3.  Defensiveness.  When you feel defensive, you begin to “shut down,” or become ungrounded.  You are tense and/or you can’t process what is going on between you two because you’ve become reactive.

4.  Stonewalling.  The refusal to respond.  Sometimes it is okay to disengage from a discussion that is going nowhere.  However, it can also be a manipulative form of withdrawal.

5.  BONUS:  Later, researchers added belligerence.  This is provoking a partner, challenging their authority and power.

marriage counselingThe first four processes, as Gottman calls them, relate to what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  These processes predict who will divorce or break up versus which couples won’t.  Along with belligerence, these 5 traits spell D-o-o-m (with a capital “D”!) for your relationship.

Along this line of thinking, is the concept of negativity.  It is said that when you first enter a relationship, the amount of positive things versus negative things you say to your partner numbers 5 to 1.  Those are great odds for keeping the love alive!  However, these odds turn around to 1 to 5 in three years time if you aren’t consciously aware of your interactions.

There are other behaviors associated with the eventual ending of a relationship.  Off the top of my head, I can think of devaluing a partner, a lack of honesty, lack of commitment, and rejection of a partner where you don’t even acknowledge them (beyond withdrawal).

When we first meet this person, we are so in love with them, but things can turn sour and then this beloved person becomes like an enemy.  You aren’t a team any longer, it is you vs. them.

We often will resort to behaviors like this because we are reenacting behaviors we saw modeled in our childhood.  Did you see your father act like this?  How about your mother?  It doesn’t matter about the sex, by the way; you can behave like your father even if you’re a woman.  These can be the only tools we know, but unfortunately they are inadequate and ineffective for the job of connection and intimacy.

Your marriage and relationship can be a wonderful connecting source of love and support, but it needs nourishment.   You can’t connect by being critical or defensive–that brings you the opposite of what you desire.


Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., & Carrere, S. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal Of Marriage & Family60(1), 5-22.

4 thoughts on “Five Things that Will Kill Your Relationship”

  1. I LOVE LOVE this book. I think it is a MUST for married couples. I look at my first marriage and all the sad signs were there – and an unhappy marriage it was. Now? My husband and I are both so careful to avoid those pitfalls – or at least be aware of them and work towards not having them. It makes such a difference!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve read some of the research on it (the “dry” part)–I’ll have to read the book!

  2. Yes to every last one of these! I’ve learned that I can be passive-aggressive and do a couple of these things either because I’m hurt or because I want to hurt my husbands. You tell the truth on these!

    1. I think the important thing is to be aware of it–then you can change it. Or, own it afterward and apologize. No one’s perfect. I look at relationships with your partner as sacred. You really have to consciously treat it with love and respect or it can slip into disrepair and taking each other for granted.

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