How to Ruin your Relationship in Four Simple Steps

Writing well before the age of clinical psychological research, the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, opined that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Perhaps Tolstoy was right about unhappy families, but it seems that he was wrong about unhappy couples. People whose relationships are headed for ruin are alike, they tend to use the same four toxic communication styles.

Relationship research supremo, John Gottman, has carried out an almost countless number of studies observing couple after couple relating in real-life scenarios. With the years’ worth of footage that he compiled, he’s identified the four communication styles which characterise unhappy couples: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and, the particularly dire, contempt. He labelled these the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and they really do spell disaster for your relationship. Gottman can predict a ruinous relationship from merely watching five minutes of interaction 91% of the time.

Let’s look at these horsemen in detail.

Criticism is negative, judgemental complaints to your partner which leaves them feeling belittled, attacked or undermined. Using words like “you always”, or “why can’t you…” are signs of a criticism. Blaming, shaming, naming-calling and character assassinations are all forms of criticism. Arguments often start with a criticism, and then move onto…

Defensiveness often directly follows criticism and escalates the argument. Rather than taking ownership, apologising or asking not to be spoken to harshly, the defender will nit-pick at the criticism, try to justify themselves, or counterattack, often much in a louder and tougher manner than the original criticism.

Stonewalling.  Zoning out, zipping the lip, walking away, placating. This is an overwhelmingly male communication strategy (90% of the time it’s a man). According to Gottman, verbal spats are much more physiologically taxing on men than women. The stonewaller disengages to avoid escalation. In my experience, stonewallers justify their reactions by saying things like “there’s nothing I can say that will make her happy” and “she just won’t listen anyway”.

Contempt. The big-daddy, boss of them all. Using this strategy spells bad bad news for a relationship. Contempt is sneering, looking down your nose, using condescending or demeaning names, speaking sarcastically, rolling your eyes while emitting a loud sigh. Contempt conveys disgust with your partner and is the most reliable sign of a relationship on the rocks.

So, what can we do?

Read the above list, recognise which ones you use (there will always be at least one) and STOP IT! Work out which one(s) your partner uses and gently tell them that you don’t want to be spoken to that way. Gottman’s research says that the one of the most helpful things you can do is increase the number of positive interactions that you have with your partner. This could be by having a hobby together, talking about fond memories, having sex, etc etc etc. Seeing a relationship counsellor can help to navigate your way to a better partnership.

But, speaking as an individual therapist I have to say that many of these communication strategies seem to be driven by individual personality features, or underlying schema. For example, people who criticise often have difficulties speaking assertively. They may have Self-Sacrifice or Subjugation schema. Stonewallers, are often less in touch with their vulnerable emotions, the Emotional Inhibition or Emotional Deprivation schema seem common for these people. People who use contempt may have an Entitlement, Unrelenting Standards or Punitiveness schema. Addressing these individual factors could help change your relationship.

There you go, how to (not) ruin your relationship in four simple steps.

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