Four Signs of Serious Trouble In A Relationship

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

Every romantic relationship has its own unique arc. From the moment you first meet you’re on a path that literally no other couple has traveled. Certainly, your pattern might have begun similar to others’ — as so many people do, you met for coffee or happy hour, then followed with a text or a phone call. But soon, you began to forge your own special history. Weeks, months, years go by and you’ve created your own lovely masterpiece, albeit with ups and downs that are also yours alone. Or… perhaps, that creation is not so lovely. Perhaps the downs far outnumber the ups. In this respect, your relationship may not be so unique at all. With relationships that are in the process of falling apart, their uniqueness gives way to a far-too-predictable pattern.

Ellie Lisitsa, writing for The Gottman Institute, discusses a key concept developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman. It’s a concept that uses the biblical metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which describes the conquest, war, hunger and death associated with the end of the world. The Gottmans metaphorically describe the end of a romantic relationship being disastrously affected by Four Horsemen that doom a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

There is conflict in every relationship. But conflict can be manageable and even productive if done right. (Read my blog, The Key To Fighting Right: Listening.) The problem arises when other ugly emotions accompany the conflict. Lisitsa talks about the first Horseman, Criticism, by saying: “Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. It is an attack on your partner at the core of their character. In effect, you are dismantling their whole being when you criticize.”

A further problem with criticism is that it sets the stage for other negative feelings to develop. Perhaps the most harmful of these feelings is Contempt. There may be no worse feeling than recognizing that your partner holds you in contempt. “When we communicate in this state,” Lisitsa writes, “we are truly mean — we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.” If a relationship has deteriorated to this extent, the future does not look good. Counseling is certainly called for at this point, or at the bare minimum a true resolve on the part of both partners to admit that something is terribly amiss and the relationship is in dire need of healing. As an aside, the Gottmans’ research has identified contempt as the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt is that serious.

There’s a natural and predictable response to being treated with contempt: Defensiveness. Defensive behavior often begins with excuses but can often turn into reverse blame. It’s a slippery slope that leads nowhere. “Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize,” says Lisitsa. “This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.”

There is an alternative to defensives, although it’s equally harmful: Stonewalling. Basically, stonewalling is an indication that a partner has given up. They may not want to respond negatively or simply may not know how to respond, so they ignore their partner. In its own way, this has already led to the end of the relationship.

Fortunately, for couples who truly want to avoid the Four Horsemen, there are answers, even ways to heal a relationship. For those answers, read the Gottmans’ blog: The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes.