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Four Predictors of Divorce and How To Combat Them

There are many common factors associated with divorce, including problems related to finances, sex, and infidelity however the way couple’s communicate and cope with these problems are what can destroy a marriage and lead to divorce.  Through his experience and research with couples, renowned author and marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman has identified four dysfunctional and problematic behaviors that lead to divorce when couple’s engage in and don’t get a handle on them.  In his book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How to Make Yours Last” (1997), Dr. Gottman termed these toxic behaviors “The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse” because of the harmful effect they have on relationships.  Learn about what these relationship-killers look like:

Criticism
Instead of focusing on a specific behavior that one partner finds problematic in his/her partner, criticism involves attacking a partner’s character and the core of who the person is. As you can imagine, being criticized can result in feelings of despair, hurt, and rejection.  When criticism occurs on a regular basis, it has the tendency to intensify in both frequency and intensity and can leave a partner feeling emotionally assaulted. 

Contempt
Partners who are contemptuous towards one another harbor negative feelings about one another and express it through a position of superiority via blatant disrespect and mean and hurtful comments. Contempt is exhibited through name-calling, sarcasm, passive aggression, mocking, and ridiculing. This form of communication can leave partners feeling worthless, unloved, and loathed in their marriage. Dr. Gottman has found through his research that couples who engage in contemptuous behavior tend to experience a weakened immune system resulting in them experiencing more illnesses and diseases.  According to Dr. Gottman, the presence of contempt in a relationship is the number one predictor of divorce because of how damaging it can be. 

Defensiveness
This behavior is a form of putting blame on a partner when one partner feels unjustly attacked or accused of something.  Partners who engage in defensiveness provide excuses in hopes that their partner will back down however this strategy is never effective because it can send the message that “you’re the problem, not me.” Generally this form of communication just breeds conflict and makes reaching a resolution that much more challenging. 

Stonewalling
This problematic behavior occurs when a partner chooses to avoid addressing concerns in his/her relationship and instead shuts down and withdraws from his/her partner.  Stonewalling can take the form of ignoring, tuning out, and focusing on other tasks when one partner is trying to engage in a conversation or interaction.  This lack of response is a response in itself and sends the message that what a partner is saying is not important enough to give attention to.   


One of the first steps in being able to combat the four horsemen is to recognize if and when they are present in a couple’s interactions.  However, just having awareness of these toxic behaviors is not enough to eliminate them but rather requires couples to replace them with healthier forms of communication.  Below about some strategies that can challenge and reduce the presence of the four horsemen in a relationship:

Criticism
In order to prevent attacking a partner’s character when a concern arises, practice engaging in expressing complaints about a behavior without blaming the partner.  This can be done by using “I” statements instead of “you” statements in order to verbalize a positive need based on how a partner is feeling.  

Contempt
Eliminating contempt in a relationship requires the replacement of negative feelings about a partner with positive feelings.  To do this, partners need to establish a sense of respect and appreciation for one another by highlighting and verbalizing actions, traits, and situations that are considered positive.  One exercise that helps to promote this involves identifying 5 positive traits for every 1 complaint a partner has about his/her partner.

Defensiveness
Defensiveness entails placing blame on the other person when feeling criticized or attacked therefore one strategy that can be used to avoid engaging in this behavior is to take responsibility for each partner’s role in the conflict. 

Stonewalling
Generally partners engage in stonewalling as a result of feeling overwhelmed or flooded with conflict and the presence of the three other horsemen.  Because withdrawing and shutting down are damaging responses to a relationship, couples should aim to acknowledge when a partner is becoming flooded and request to take a time out in order to self-soothe.  The time out should be used productively by engaging in activities that promote relaxation or distraction, not using the time to ruminate on negative thoughts or feelings of helplessness.  

As previously mentioned, criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness are extremely damaging behaviors to a relationship and often lead to divorce.  However, couples don’t have to fall prey to these dysfunctional patterns of interactions and can instead learn to become aware of when the four horsemen are present and begin to replace them with positive and healthier choices.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT