How to Have a Successful Relationship: Part 2 – Behaviours that predict the end of a relationship

This three-part series delivers tips on relationships from Dr. John Gottman, a world renowned expert on relationships and marital stability, having researched the subject since the 1970’s. Gottman is most famous for his ability to predict if a couple were going to divorce based on his observations of their interactions and behaviour. This three-part series covers relationship myths; behaviours that predict the end of a relationship, and principles for a happy relationship.

Dr. John Gottman is known for his ability to predict with relative accuracy whether a couple are destined to separate or stay together. He believes it’s not the amount of arguments a couple have, or the subject of the arguments, it’s the way they argue that is the indicator. The following list describes the sort of behaviours that may lead to relationship breakdowns if used repeatedly over a sustained period of time.

Harsh startups – Discussions that begin with harsh criticism, sarcasm, or contempt

Criticism – Personal criticism is different to a complaint. A complaint is a reference to a specific action by a partner, however criticism is more generalised and personalised

Contempt – this includes gestures such as eye rolling, sneering, mockery and name calling, or assuming the attitude “So what are you going to do about it”

Defensiveness – denying or defending involvement in an issue, often laying blame on the other person

Stonewalling – stonewalling often results when one partner experiences many of the above behaviours for a sustained period of time, and involves disengaging or “tuning out” of the relationship in order to protect themselves from further hurt. Gottman estimated that in 85 percent of relationships it is the male that engages in stonewalling due to the male cardiovascular system’s tendency to recover from stress more slowly. This also may explain why women are often left to be the ones that raise the issue of conflict in a relationship whereas men will try and avoid it

Flooding – flooding occurs when one partner becomes overwhelmed by verbal attacks from the other and is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and the release of adrenaline. This results in the activation of the fight or flight response and often the flooded partner withdraws from the relationship

Failure to attempt to repair – happy couples have the ability to stop an argument from escalating using circuit breakers like asking for time out or employing humour. If necessary, they return to the issue when emotions have had the opportunity to calm and a more civilised discussion can take place

 It is normal and sometimes even necessary for relationships to experience conflict in order for issues that arise from personal differences to be resolved. Dealt with the right way conflict can lead to the improvement of a relationship, moreover, relationships that appear to have no conflict may in fact be harbouring deep resentment under the surface. Realistically, most relationships will experience some or all of the behaviours described, it becomes a problem when the behaviours are persistent.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Gottman describes defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”. In the face of sustained exposure to these behaviours the accumulation of negative experiences begins to overtake the positive and resentment builds. Partners tend to disengage and stop trying to repair the relationship, opening the door to seeking comfort from others outside the couple. Gottman believes affairs are often the symptom of a dying relationship rather than the cause.


The following and final part of this series will introduce Gottman’s principles of a happy relationship – what you can do to affair proof your relationship.

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