Relationship researcher John Gottman was able to predict whether a married couple will divorce with 90% accuracy by studying the way they communicate. He found that people are very stable, 80% stable to be exact, in the way that they discuss conflict over the years of long-term relationships. Since people are so consistent in how they communicate, Gottman was able to identify four communication styles that will ultimately lead to a breakup if they’re not eliminated. He calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
Criticism is critiquing your partner’s character. This happens when critiquing something a partner did goes too far. An innocent complaint becomes an unnecessary snide remark about who they are as a person. It’s when “you didn’t call” becomes “you never call because you only care about yourself.” It’s natural to try to rationalize and wonder why someone is doing something that bothers us, but try not to overthink it until you get a chance to discuss. It’s unhealthy to make assumptions about them because this often turns into a very personal attack. Always make sure to give your partner a chance to explain before you throw out accusations or use words that harm their character, such as calling them dishonest, lazy, or unfaithful.
Contempt is acting with hatred towards your partner and is the greatest predictor of a breakup due to the lack of basic respect. This happens when instead of talking about issues as they arise, disappointments build up until they turn into anger that you can’t hold in any longer. It can easily bring out the worst of us and reveal everything we hate about our partner that we never got a chance to tell them. So we figure, “why not tell them all at once?” Sarcasm, name calling, and taking a position of superiority fall under this category. It’s when “you didn’t call” becomes “what the hell else were you doing? You don’t do anything all day except sit on your lazy a– and play video games. You’re worthless.” To avoid this, try bringing up your complaints as they come, from the very beginning. In a new relationship, you may not want to rock the boat, but it’s important to set a foundation for communicating problems in a timely manner and in a healthy way.
Stonewalling is removing yourself from an argument physically or mentally. It’s when eyes glaze over or stay very still, the face tenses up, and the rest of the body does with it. Then, you just detach. You freeze, or stare out the window, or obsessively clean, or leave the room entirely. The physiological response that the body takes to the argument is overwhelming, so in this scenario, it’s critical to give each other some time to cool down before returning to discuss within the hour. If you need more than an hour, that’s cool too, just be sure to communicate those needs to your partner.
Defensiveness is trying to protect yourself in a way that invalidates your partner’s complaints. This is one of the most common responses during arguments because it is very natural to try to insist upon your innocence when someone has a complaint. This happens not only in relationships but also families, friendships and workplaces. It’s when “you didn’t call” becomes “well I was doing [x] and [y], which I already told you I’d be doing, and don’t you forget to call me too, sometimes? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?” This is when you hear the “it’s not my fault” responses. The desired effect is that your partner realizes that you are not in the wrong and they apologize for blaming you, but the actual effect is an implication that your partner is the one in the wrong, that they should have known your unique situation and acted or forgiven accordingly. An unfortunate downfall of defensiveness is that it is easily paired with criticism. Make sure you let your partner feel heard by owning up to your mistakes and taking the responsibility to repair that. Isn’t that what you would want to be done for you? You can still explain why you messed up while also acknowledging that you messed up.
If you express any of these communication styles, know that they’re often very natural reactions. The silver lining is that you can learn healthy communication styles to better express your emotions and complaints. Read “How to Communicate When Something Bothers You” to gain more insight on how to address concerns in a healthy way, which is an amazing general life skill that goes beyond romantic relationships.