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4 Things That Can Kill Your Relationship Fast.

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Doing these 4 things is damaging your relationship, and according to years of research, need to be FIXED NOW if your relationship is going to last. This article will help you recognize these 'four horsemen,' learn 4 new alternative behaviors, and seriously improve your relationship.

After just completing the level 1 couple's therapy training at the legendary Gottman Institute, I was impressed with the amount of research devoted to understanding what makes a relationship work, and what key factors contribute to the demise of a relationship. The Gottman's really know their sh*t when it comes to couples!

One take-away from this training was how couples often engage in four very disruptive ways of relating to one another. The cool thing is, there is an alternative (or anti-dote) for each one of these 'four horsemen.'

Check out this short video, and/or continue reading to learn more:

1) The first of the four horsemen is Criticism: We've all done it, and we all know what it feels like to be criticized. Criticism is when someone attacks the other person's character, instead of addressing the problem at hand or stating their needs. Criticism is making the other person the problem, instead of focusing on the actual problem. It is the opposite of working together as a team. Criticism is poison for a relationship because it makes the other person feel small, belittled, insecure, and it can trigger old wounds which bring up feelings of unworthiness.

There is a difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint is something we hope our partner can do differently, for the health of the relationship. A criticism is more like an insult that attacks the person's character, in an attempt to make them feel bad.

What can you do instead of criticism? First, notice when you are criticizing your partner's character, or core. Once you notice that pattern, you are now better equipped to start making a different choice. The Gottman method suggests a 'softened start up' as the anti-dote to criticism. Instead of going into critical mode, you can try to rephrase your words more diplomatically and more gently, stating what you are feeling, why you are feeling that way, and what you're needing from your partner.


Criticism: 'What's wrong with you? Why can't your do your share of the work around the house? You are so selfish and lazy.'

Softened Start Up: I know you also have a lot going on, but I feel like I'm doing the lion's share of the work around the house. It feels frustrating because I want us to be like a team, sharing responsibilities. Can we talk about how we can address this issue so that we can be more like equal partners in this area?'

Your relationship isn't doomed for failure if criticism is a part of it. Just start practicing shifting to a softened start up, stating each person's need: I feel _____, because_____. I need ______.

2) Contempt is the second of the four horsemen. Contempt is the biggest predictor of relationship failure and divorce. It involves acting superior to your partner. It involves attacking the person's character, belittling them, making them feel worthless, and acting disrespectful (sarcasm, insults, name-calling, etc). It's actually quite mean, and can be acted out with body language like eye-rolling, scoffing at your partner as if what they just said is useless, etc.

What can you do instead? First, you can get clear on what behaviors of yours actually fall into this category, and then practice shifting into more respectful, appreciative behaviors. The anti-dote to contempt is to 'create a culture of appreciation and respect.'

How do we do this? Ellie Lisitsa, on the Gottman site, writes: We should practice 'Small Things Often: if you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt! Another way that we explain this is our discovery of the 5:1 “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions that a relationship must have to succeed. If you have five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction, then you’re making regular deposits into your emotional bank account, which keeps your relationship in the green.'


Contempt: 'If I had a dollar for every time you blew a job interview, I'd be rich. It's pathetic. When are you going to grow up?'

Culture of respect and appreciation: 'I know you're trying to get a job, and I know it must hurt when you get rejected time and time again. Keep getting on that horse, it takes courage to keep putting yourself out there.'

3) Defensiveness is the third of the four horsemen. This is when one person makes excuses, acts like a victim, or flips the conversation to attack the other (reverses blame to make the other person the one at fault). Although defensiveness is pretty natural, it really doesn't help to resolve the conflict. You probably know that anytime one person becomes defensive, the conflict almost never ends successfully. However, you also know that when one person accepts their role in the problem, or apologizes, etc, the conflict becomes much more manageable. That is why the anti-dote to defensive behavior is simply accepting responsibility, even just a little bit (partial responsibility).


Defensiveness: 'It's not my fault the house is always dirty! You're the one who doesn't clean up the dishes after dinner or throw the clothes into the laundry. Get off my case.'

Taking some responsibility: 'I understand why you're frustrated, and you're probably right, I could do more around the house. I will try to clean more often and keep my things more organized.'

4) Finally, we come the the fourth horseman, Stonewalling, which basically means shutting down. You know when things just become too much, too overwhelming, we just stop talking, look away, and go into shutdown mode, all while our partner insists on continuing to talk and work things out. Stonewalling can also look like acting busy, or being distracted with something.

Shutting down can be very adaptive. After all, who can connect with their partner when they are flooded with emotions? Shutting down is essentially taking a break, which can be an act of self care. The problem with stonewalling is our partner isn't sure what's happening exactly in that moment and it doesn't move the conflict towards a resolution. Stonewalling usually happens as a result of one or more of the other horsemen finally taking a toll, and one person becoming physiologically unable to confront and manage the conflict. This might involve increased heart rate, getting triggered, nervous system moving into fight/flight.

The anti-dote to this is self-soothing. This means having some tools to get back online and engaged. We can do breath-work, positive self-talk, and taking time-outs to help the nervous system reset. When we are flooded, our nervous system goes into fight/flight and intimacy, connection, and healthy communication become all but impossible. Learning how to self-soothe is vital for mental health and relational health.


Stonewalling: The man is staring down blankly, tuned out, while the woman continues arguing, even if she's the only one talking. Man thinking: I just need to put up with this for 10 more minutes, until the ball game begins and I can zone out with the game.

Self-soothing: Honey, I know this is an issue we need to resolve, but I'm feeling overwhelmed and unable to work on this now. Is it ok if we take a time-out so I can gather myself. Can we even pick this up after the game which will give me some time to gather my thoughts?

Now you know the four horsemen, and this is the first step to becoming a relationship master. More couples related content is coming soon.

In addition, the online course Lunch Break Therapy has one module dedicated solely to relationships and managing conflict. Enroll here to take a deeper dive.

As a licensed psychotherapist in Vietnam, I help couples manage conflict, create more intimacy, and navigate challenges with more skill, compassion and wisdom. Contact me to learn more.

Thanks for reading!

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Also, don't forget! If this content resonates, you can deepen your understanding and your healing journey by signing up to Lunch Break Therapy or the soon to be released

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