What makes a relationship tick? Well, there are many things I can list down. But, knowing what types of behaviours shake up the foundation on which a relationship is built is more important to steer clear of such tendencies.
Let us view these behaviours from the eyes of John Mordecai Gottman, a highly regarded American psychologist who is revered for his work on marriage stability. Gottman aptly names his findings on behaviour patterns that can damage a relationship as ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’
Apocalypse here refers to the end of a relationship. And, the four conflict response types that can be attributed to this are:
⦁ Criticism
⦁ Contempt
⦁ Defensiveness
⦁ Stonewalling
Each of these is deeply ingrained in how we address our partners day in and day out. We do it every time and don’t realise that each time, it chips away a little bit from the relationship that we hold so close to our hearts. So what can we do to unlearn these behaviours?
Before we begin, let me tell you, I am glad you are here today because you are about to find out how you can turn around your relationship by making small changes. Let’s begin!
1. Criticism:
Criticism is a slippery slope once you go that path. What may seem like a simple remark can take the shape and form of an attack on a person’s character very quickly without the person criticising and realising what they are doing.
You might ask what’s wrong with complaining once in a while? How would my partner know he/she is in the wrong? It is not always natural to hide dissatisfaction.
As explained in Gottman’s findings, couples often criticise as opposed to complaining. But what’s the difference? And, how do you know?

As a rule of thumb, try and spell the problem rather than accuse the person. In other words, be very clear about where your dissatisfaction stems from. For instance, you can say: “We couldn’t get the front row seats because you were late.” vs. “You are always late, you don’t care about how I feel. Why do you do this to me? You are so selfish!”

The difference is quite clear. While the former version states the problem, the latter, accuses the person.

2. Contempt:
Contempt takes it to the next level and should be avoided at all costs. Simply put, it is the belief that one person is superior to the other. The body language that reflects this belief and the words that follow can really hurt an individual at the core. We may not be aware, but such behaviour is enabled by everyday comparisons that don’t seem like an insult. But, slowly and surely they build this image of one being the authority at everything.
What can you do to avoid such behaviour? Every time you are on the verge of saying something you will regret later, take a deep breath. Take 5 minutes to detach yourself from the negative train of thought that you want to hop onto and remind yourself of the positive things your partner brings to the relationship.
3. Defensiveness:
Every time we sense an attack, we put our guards up and are ready to defend ourselves even in instances where the blame is rightfully placed. This behaviour can in due course send a wrong message to your partner that you don’t care, you are not ready to take responsibility and for you, ego supersedes the health of your relationship. None of these is true but, that is what is conveyed through your defensiveness.
What can you do to avoid such behaviour? Offer an apology where it is due. Apologising does not disvalue your role in the relationship. In fact, it says that you care about the relationship and your partner’s feelings.
Don’t read too much into it. It is unnecessary to plunge into the downward spiral of thoughts where you feel, “Why should I apologise, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Instead, validate your partner’s perspective and if you are wrong, apologise and move on!
4. Stonewalling:
This is the behaviour when one of the partners decides to avoid confrontation or conflict. He or she seems dismissive, distant or simply not present. On the outside, it comes across as if the partner does not care or is too busy to participate but, in reality, they are just overwhelmed and in shock as to how to respond to the situation. The other partner is, however, unaware of these feelings and therefore, has a huge misunderstanding.
What can you do to avoid such behaviour? Don’t shut down. Instead, communicate with your partner. At the moment, it may seem too big a task but, your partner will understand if you are honest with them.
“ Hey! I feel a little overwhelmed right now, I want to step out for some time and get back to discussing this matter with you.”
Now, let’s summarise. Use this list as a daily reminder to train your heart and mind to respond in a way that allows you to communicate effectively without negativity.
✅Do complain to communicate your concern/dissatisfaction
❌Do not criticise and put down your partner
✅Do appreciate what your partner does for you and your relationship
❌Do not compare. You are both equally important
✅Do apologise if you are in the wrong
❌Do not defend yourself just for the sake of it
✅Do communicate honestly with your partner
❌Do not shut down.
All behaviours mentioned above as Gottman’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ can be unlearned using the antidotes as mentioned in the research and explained here. They are simple yet highly effective behavioural corrections that you and I can make with a little effort, mindfulness and kindness.