Four relationship killers

written by Jessica Lau

Psychologist Dr John Gottman noted four behaviours that kill relationships. He called them the four horsemen. Named after the story in the bible, the four horsemen bring about the ‘end of times’. In relationships, they’re predictors for divorce.

These relationship mistakes can bring up lots of feelings for us, triggering wounds of unworthiness from our past. Counselling can help you unpack some of these feelings so you feel more secure, despite the difficulty of your relationship.

Criticising your partner, instead of addressing a specific behaviour.

Has your partner told you’re inconsiderate? Maybe they called you selfish, stupid or useless. And understandably, that hurt.

When our partners tell us things like this, it can leave us feeling judged, hurt, anxious and discouraged.

And this is amplified when paired with words like ‘always’ or ‘never’. You’re always inconsiderate.

Absolutes like ‘always’ and ‘never’ escalate conflict. In moments of high emotion it can be easy to use language like this, but it only creates a bigger divide between us and our partner, preventing us from coming back to a place of peace.

What would a healthy dynamic look like?

Instead of saying you’re inconsiderate, our partners might address the action that caused this feeling-

When you don’t tell me you’re coming home late from work, I feel upset because I thought we had planned to eat dinner together.

This would allow space for you and your partner to address concerns in a constructive way.

Showing contempt.

Contempt shows up in the form of unpleasant comments, or disrespect that is communicated through gestures like eye rolling.

Contempt might be conveyed as unkind, mean comments, or passive aggressive statements.

Usually contempt comes from issues or feelings that have been suppressed over time. Contempt conveys superiority – it tells us that our partner thinks they’re better than us, and is a recipe for arguments.

It might come out like this – Are you really talking to Mark again? Maybe you should have married him instead, paired with an eye roll.

Sarcasm is a common form of contempt – your partner may mask it as humour, but it’s just as damaging as contempt.

When our partners show us contempt, it can leave us feeling bitter, hurt and worthless.

Contempt can be transformed by using an ‘I’ voice instead of ‘you’ which allows space for needs to be addressed in a more constructive way.

I feel insecure about your relationship with Mark. Can we talk about it?

Defensiveness and avoiding accountability.

Defensiveness may come up in response to us raising an issue with our partners. They may deny they did anything wrong, deny the words we quote back to them, minimise our feelings or reverse the blame.

In some instances, they may really believe that they didn’t say it like that, but regardless, denying our experience makes us feel unheard, hurt and angry.

Often, this might be paired with a statement about us; I didn’t say it like that. You’re too sensitive.

This can be deeply painful to hear.

In contrast, taking accountability for actions, words and behaviours (even if the effect was unintentional) sends a message to us that our partners care about our experience of our relationship.

Stonewalling: withdrawing from your conversations:

Stonewalling is when someone withdraws from a conversation. Often stonewalling occurs during a difficult discussion or argument – it’s when our partner stops listening or responding to what we are saying.

Some people might pretend to be busy and ignore your messages, or they may walk out of the room, or simply stop discussing the issue.

Stonewalling can leave us feeling hurt, helpless, lonely and frustrated.

Stonewalling is very different from needing to take a healthy break from an argument. Taking breaks from arguments can help de-escalate feelings and prevent unhealthy communication like shouting.

The key to taking a healthy break from an argument is letting our partners know we will come back to the issue within a certain timeframe – 20 minutes may be a good starting point, but you may need longer.

Relationship difficulties vs abusive relationships.

It’s important to note that this is much more complex in abusive situations. Though these behaviours can be present in healthy relationships, they are often present in unhealthy or abusive relationships.

In abusive relationships you might be on the receiving end of criticism or contempt.

You may have tried to protest about abusive behaviour and in return received mistreatment from your partner.

Your partner may be defensive when you have tried to raise issues; they may reverse the blame so well that you feel you were being defensive and that the abuse was actually your fault, even though it was not. You may have ended up feeling like you were criticising them wrongly.

Stonewalling is also common in abusive relationships.

Abuse can make us doubt our own experience. If you think you might be being abused, it’s important to get support.

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