Most marriage therapists are familiar with the work of Drs. John and Julie Gottman, who have conducted the most extensive research on marriage to date.  In John Gottman’s bestselling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he outlines four research-based predictors of divorce including criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  • Criticism

When we criticize our partner when as a person, instead of criticizing a particular behavior, it creates damage to our relationship.  In this way, we imply that something is wrong with them, usually with the intent of making ourselves right and them wrong.  Some examples of criticism include using generalizations such as “you always…” “you never….” or “why are you so….?”

What to do instead: Try to make complaints about a specific behavior, not about your partner’s personality or character.  For example, “when X happened, I felt Y, and what I really needed in that moment was Z.”

  • Contempt

This is the most serious of the four risk factors and involves comments or behaviors that are meant to put us on a higher ground than our partner.  It shows an intention to insult or abuse our partner and can damage their sense of self.  These behaviors can include mocking, name-calling, eye rolling, hurtful sarcasm, disgust, etc.

What to do instead: Partners should work together to eliminate contemptuous behaviors and create an environment of respect, appreciation, tolerance, and kindness.

  • Defensiveness

This is when we attack our partner in an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived attack.  It can also include acting like a victim or whining in response to a complaint.  Often, it involves making excuses, or meeting our partner’s complaint or criticism with a complaint of our own (ignoring what our partner said).

What to do instead: Try to listen from your partner’s perspective, really put yourself in their shoes.  Slow down the process and remind yourself that you do not have to be perfect (nobody is!).  It’s also important to validate your partner – let them know what aspects of what they are saying make sense to you.  Show them you understand what they are feeling and are able to see things through their eyes.

  • Stonewalling, Shutting Down or Walking Out

Withdrawing from a conversation can happen in several ways including completely shutting down or physically leaving.  It is typically used as a way to avoid conflict or calm ourselves down when we feel overwhelmed, but is usually unsuccessful.  This behavior may feel like an attempt to remain “neutral” or calm, but actually conveys disapproval, distance, and disconnection, leaving our partner feeling shut out and alone.

What to do instead: It’s helpful to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner are starting to feel overwhelmed.  Instead of shutting down, come together and agree to take a break from the conversation and plan to resume when you are both more calm.  The important part here is communicating about being overwhelmed, and making sure to come back together to continue the conversation.

Have you noticed one of these in your relationship?  Don’t stress out just yet.  All relationships have some of these risk factors at one time or another.  If you are seeing these patterns often, or feel you have more than one of these risk factors, reaching out to a skilled couples therapist can help you get on the path to a more satisfying relationship.  For more information about Gottman’s research, the full book can be found here.