According to renowned marriage therapist John Gottman, there are four behaviors that can reliably predict the end of a marriage — and you’re probably guilty of them.
For 40 years, the psychology professor and his team at the Gottman Institute have studied couples’ interactions to determine the key predictors of divorce — or as Gottman calls them, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” The communication sins are more mundane than you’d think: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (emotionally withdrawing from your partner)
Below, experts trained in the Gottman Method of couples therapy share their best advice for avoiding these behaviors in your own marriage.
Criticism isn’t simply complaining to your spouse about their dishwashing technique or smartphone use. As Gottman Institute staff writer Ellie Lisitsa explains, “a complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person.” In other words, it’s a verbal attack meant to inflict emotional pain.
How to avoid it:
1. Think about what’s really bothering you before criticizing your spouse.
“Before approaching your partner, take a few moments to figure out what the issue you need to bring up actually is. Then, take time to change your criticism into a complaint: Instead of saying ‘You always leave your shoes on the floor,’ say, ‘I’d appreciate it if you put your shoes in the closet.’” — Danielle Kepler, a therapist based in Chicago, Illinois
2. Don’t say everything that’s on your mind.
“In other areas of our lives we are able to filter how we tell someone else we are upset with them. For example: If we are upset about something at work, we don’t just storm in our boss or colleague’s office and tell them exactly what we think. We often think it through, maybe vent to a friend and then really prepare what we are going to say to them. This same kind of filtering needs to happen in our marriages.” — Christianne Judy, a therapist baed in in O’Fallon, Illinois
3. Turn your criticism into a wish.
“More often than not, hidden beneath the harsh words of criticism are tender feelings and needs. Instead of being critical, try to gently share what you’re feeling and what you need most from your spouse.” — Robert R. Rodriguez, a psychologist based in Chicago, Illinois
How to avoid it:
1. Instead of telling your partner what’s wrong with them, tell your partner what’s true for you.
“Criticizing your partner from a place of superiority is a surefire way to destroy the love. You can guard against the dangers of contempt by developing a habit of describing your feelings and needs as opposed to describing your partner’s faults.” — Robert R. Rodriguez
2. Make a point to show how much you value and appreciate your partner.
“Contempt develops when either partner feels unvalued. Make it a habit to tell your partner one thing they do each day that you appreciate. It can even be something small, like making you coffee in the morning.” — Danielle Kepler
3. Remember: Delivery is everything.
“When you’re contemptuous, you’re saying: ‘I think you’re beneath me.’ Is this really the message you want to send to someone you love? I tell my clients to stop putting the problem on their partner. Your partner isn’t the problem — the problem is the problem.”— Elizabeth Earnshaw, a therapist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
According to Gottman’s official site, defensiveness is essentially “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” When you play the blame game, you’re engaging in defensiveness.
How to avoid it:
1. Try to be sympathetic toward your partner.
“Slow down and listen for something, anything, you can agree with that your partner is saying. Try to take responsibility for a small part of the issue. ‘I see your point’ goes a long way.” — Danielle Kepler
2. Tell your partner you’re feeling under attack.
“We often get defensive even when our partner isn’t attacking us. If they are upset that you didn’t do something you promised to do, say something like, ‘Please don’t attack me. You are right I didn’t get to call the plumber today, I have been really busy, I’m sorry. I will definitely call them tomorrow.'” — Christianne Judy
3. And be big enough to apologize.
“It’s natural to defend ourselves when we feel attacked or criticized. However, Gottman’s research shows that the ‘masters of relationships’ don’t react this way. Rather, they take responsibility for their part. They hear the issue, take a deep breath, and say ‘I’m sorry baby, I can take responsibility for that. Let’s figure this out.'” — Elizabeth Earnshaw
Stonewalling occurs whenever you turn away from your partner rather than confronting the issue. When you give your spouse the silent treatment and retreat to the bedroom, you’re stonewalling them.
How to avoid it:
1. Recognize the physical signs.
“The first step is to develop an awareness that you’re body is having a physiological reaction to an upsetting issue within the relationship. It’s important to recognize the signs — racing heart, shallow breathing, difficulty processing thoughts — and to learn to self soothe.” — Elizabeth Earnshaw
2. Come up with a safe word that conveys your need for a break.
“When you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, communicate it to your spouse with a signal. Once you are both calm, continue the discussion.” — Danielle Kepler
3. When you start to tune out, call a timeout.
“Stonewalling is usually the result of being so emotionally and physically worked up that you can’t engage with full attention. If you find yourself shutting down, ask for a break of at least 20 minutes (but no longer than 24 hours) in order to re-center yourself before returning to the conversation. But be sure you return to it! Timeouts are best used for calming, not for avoiding.” — Robert R. Rodriguez
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