These Four Behaviors Predict Which Marriages Will End In Divorce

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Scientist Dr. John Gottman and his wife, clinical psychologist Dr. Julie Gottman, know more than most people about healthy behaviors that keep couples together — and toxic behaviors that predict a future divorce. John and Julie have been studying and treating couples for almost five decades. Together they founded The Gottman Institute, which uses the power of scientific research combined with hands-on clinical practice to help couples build healthy relationships and strengthen marriages.

In his book "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell described John: "He is a psychologist by training, but he also studied mathematics at MIT, and the rigor and precision of mathematics clearly moves him as much as anything else."

John is often mentioned in the media, along with Robert Levenson, as the brains behind the Love Lab at the University of Washington. They became famous for using mathematical models and equations to predict with 94% accuracy which married couples observed in the laboratory would end up divorcing. "There were four things that were the best predictors of divorce and continued misery if they stayed together," John told NPR. "And we call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Criticism is the first sign that a marriage is headed for divorce

In an interview on Brené Brown's podcast, John Gottman described the first of the Four Horsemen: criticism. "The disaster couples in the lab [Robert Levenson] and I created are pointing their fingers at their partner and saying, 'As far as I can tell I'm pretty much perfect, but you're defective. Here's what's wrong with you.' And they list all these characteristics that they want their partner to change."

Critiquing and complaining is not the same as criticizing. A critique or a complaint tends to focus on one specific behavior or action, while criticism attacks an individual's entire character and leaves the person feeling worthless and castigated. It's the difference between "I need you to take out the garbage," (complaint) and "You never take out the garbage because you're always incredibly lazy" (criticism). According to the Gottman Institute's blog, "Words like 'always' and 'never' imply that the other person has a consistent and negative personality flaw."

Julie Gottman described to Brené Brown how criticism has increased dramatically during the pandemic: "The phrase 'people getting on each other's nerves' doesn't match it. It's people getting on each other's souls in a negative way, people beginning to see everything that's wrong with their partner rather than what's right with their partner."

Criticism is the most common of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's particularly dangerous because, if left unchecked, it usually escalates and leads to the three other negative behaviors — and, ultimately, divorce.

Contempt in a relationship is the biggest predictor of divorce

The next of the Four Horsemen is contempt, and this toxic behavior is also the worst of the bunch. "Contempt is our best single predictor of divorce," John Gottman told NPR, calling it "sulfuric acid for relationships."

Name-calling, eye-rolling, scoffing, sneering, belittling — these are all ways that contempt rears its nasty head, along with sarcasm, mockery, and hostility. The Gottman Institute's blog says, "The horseman of contempt carries with it a poison that seeps into our interactions, turning them into something ugly and toxic."

At its core, this relationship killer is all about expressing disgust. One partner feels superior and wants to make the other feel inferior. On Brené Brown's podcast, Julie Gottman described contempt as "looking down our nose" at one's partner, which is "even more of an aggression" than criticism.

In addition to predicting divorce, the presence of contempt in a relationship also leads to the partners more often catching infectious illnesses such as colds and the flu. Clearly, contempt is harmful to one's health in every way — physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

Defensiveness is often the reaction to criticism and contempt

Defensiveness is the third of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Gottman Institute's blog defines it as "self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack." At its heart, defensiveness is all about shifting blame or responsibility onto one's partner. It can look like counterattacking, lashing out, whining, refuting, or rebutting.

"The reason it's so toxic is that people are not taking responsibility for a part of the problem," John Gottman explained to Anderson Cooper. Then he offered a healthier alternative: "You're kicking around the problem together. It's like you're playing soccer and kicking a ball around together. You're a team, working on this joint problem. Defensiveness gets in the way of that."

On Brené Brown's podcast, John gave an example of what a partner in a "master" marriage might say when faced with criticism: "Here's what I'm feeling, and here's what I need from you." In contrast, a partner in a "disaster" marriage reacts by getting defensive and attacking: "You're not so perfect, either. Here's what's wrong with you."

The final predictor of divorce is constant stonewalling

Finally, the last of the Four Horsemen is stonewalling. One partner builds a metaphorical wall to block out the other partner, which might look like not responding, ignoring, shutting down, turning away, or pretending to be otherwise occupied.

"The stonewaller is really trying to calm down and not make it worse, but when you're faced with somebody who's silent like that, you escalate, so it's a very destructive pattern," John Gottman explained to Anderson Cooper. John noted that in heterosexual couples, 85% of stonewallers are men, and that "what predicts stonewalling is a heart rate above 100 beats a minute."

Julie Gottman described to Brené Brown what happens: "You're feeling more attacked and more attacked, more criticized, more put down, and your heart rate is skyrocketing, you're going into fight-or-flight while you're sitting there." After this type of physiological response kicks in and stonewalling happens, any hope of a rational or respectful discussion disappears.

When criticism, contempt, and defensiveness recur and escalate in a relationship, stonewalling can become an understandable — but hugely toxic — habit, which develops as an unhealthy way of coping with the three other toxic behaviors.

Can divorce be prevented if all four behaviors are evident?

"Many of us have less-than-ideal intimate relationships," Julie Gottman wrote in The Washington Post. "We may relate more to 'Marriage Story' than 'Sleepless in Seattle.'"

There are many reasons that marriages fail — and many secrets that divorce attorneys know and should share with the rest of us — but those less-than-ideal relationships aren't necessarily doomed. Even partnerships that display all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can sometimes be saved if both partners are willing to work at it while focusing on being kind and communicating with each other.

"These habits of communication prevent poisons like criticism, contempt, and violence from toxifying the air a couple breathes. They create warmth, safety, and nourishment instead, so partners can relax and grow individually and together," Julie wrote.

The Gottman Institute's blog has articles about topics such as accepting responsibility and learning how to handle conflict in a healthy way, and the Gottmans have penned several books about relationships. In his bestseller "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," John Gottman wrote, "Happily married couples aren't smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage."

And, he wrote, couples can learn emotional intelligence. "As simple as it sounds, it can keep husband and wife on the positive side of the divorce odds."