Signs of a troubled relationship

upset couple begins to recognized the signs of a troubled relationship

Most couples think that communication alone is the reason for a relationship’s demise. However, research has shown that there are other signs that indicate a troubled relationship.

Psychologist John M. Gottman has conducted extensive work for more than four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability. Gottman’s research has concluded that four signs are evident to troubled relationships – Harsh Start-Up, Flooding, Body Language, and the Four Horseman.

Harsh start-up is how one approaches his or her partner with a problem, which may involve sarcasm, negativity or accusatory language. Flooding is when one may feel both psychologically and physically overwhelmed, which further indicates emotional distress in a person. Body language refers to those couples who displayed certain bodily changes during tense discussions, which resulted in the fight or flight response, and can lead to the use of the Four Horseman.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that, according to his research, can predict the end of a relationship.

Although this metaphor sounds harsh, the good news is that Dr. Gottman provides antidotes for each example. When the correct antidote is used, even the unhealthiest of relationships can endure the Four Horseman.

What are The Four Horseman of relationships?

#1 Criticism – We all have complaints about our partner or relationship. However, there is a difference between complaints and criticism. Simple complaints focus on how a person feels, a very specific situation, and what they need or want from the other person. Criticism, on the other hand, is an attack on the other’s personality or character. Often time, criticism uses what is referred to as definitive language, like “never” or “always”.

Antidote: Softened or Gentle Start-up. When discussing feelings and emotions, use “I” statements and express a positive need.

#2 Contempt – Contempt is considered criticism, only much worse. Typically when a person is feeling contemptuous toward his or her partner, they have begun to build resentments. Contempt is considered a form of disrespect and often is seen as one partner having a sense of superiority over the other. Contempt may include sarcasm and mockery, eye-rolling and name calling.

Antidote: Build Culture of Appreciation. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and focus on gratitude for your partners positive actions or behaviors.

#3 Defensiveness – Often times, defensiveness is our natural response to both criticism and contempt. However, this can only further escalate the conflict. Research has shown that defending oneself rarely has the desired effect.

Antidote: Take Responsibility. Acknowledge and accept your partner’s perspective and apologize for any personal wrongdoing.

#4 Stonewalling – In relationships where criticism, contempt, and defensiveness are present, often times one partner will become overwhelmed or flooded with emotions and will shut down. The behavior of stonewalling is exactly that – one person becomes a stonewall and does not respond or give feedback to his or her partner. Stonewalling typically may be noticed later in a relationship or marriage compared to the first three horseman.

Antidote: Physiological Self-Soothing. Take some time to yourself to engage in positive exercises that may be distracting or soothing.

Simply saying that poor communication is causing the demise of a relationship is very broad. The Gottman Method further defines conflict in your discussions and provides solutions for eliminating them – but keep in mind that in order to drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.

The Four Horseman is one of the key elements of the Gottman Method. All of the couples therapists at Kent Psychological Associates have completed at least Level 1 Gottman Training. If you’re interested in learning more, we recommend you contact our office to schedule an appointment.

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Crown.
The Gottman Institute. (n.d). Retrieved from