The four things that kill any relationship

Advice from the man who can predict divorce in 93.6 per cent of couples

Elsa Vulliamy
Saturday 16 January 2016 12:32 GMT
(Martin Lee/REX Shutterstock)

John Gottman, a professor of psychology who specialises in marital stability is able to predict with 93.6 per cent accuracy whether a couple is going to divorce, according to a 1992 study.

He doesn’t do this just using guesswork – instead when he observes couples he looks for specific indicators that suggest there are problems in the relationship that could lead to divorce.

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which was first published in 1999, Gottman outlines what he is looking for when he predicts who is going to split up and who will stay happily together.

There are four indicators – Gottman calls them ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’ – which will lead to an unstable relationship.

These four horsemen are essentially barriers to resolving conflict. It’s normal for couples to fight, but if the couple is then preventing the fight from being resolves, this is likely to lead to serious problems.


Criticism is complaining, but complaining in such a way that specifically frames the complaints in the context of a defect in your partner.

For instance, while “there are no clean bowls and I’m hungry” might be fine, “you’re so useless, you missed your turn doing the dishes again” isn’t likely to go down well.


When you get defensive, this gives the message that you don't care what your partner has to say, and you don't care how they feel. Waving off any criticism or concern can be detrimental to your relationship, because it shows a lack of responsibility.

“You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you, Gottman writes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

"Defensiveness escalates conflict rather than helping to solve it, and it involves rejecting any responsibility for problems, and thereby putting all the responsibility on your partner."


Stonewalling means withdrawing from a conversation, even if physically present.

People often get anxious, upset and frustrated which means they can no longer engage in the conversation properly. This causes them to stonewall.

Though it is a natural response, it can be very harmful since it prevents conflict from getting resolved.


While the other three are normal even in healthy relationships, contempt needs to be dealt with and eliminated as soon as possible.

Contempt is a symptom of an abusive relationship - it involves putting someone down as though they are beneath you in an intellectual or moral sense. Things like making fun of your partner in a mean way or correcting things they say unnecessarily are signs of contempt.

“[Contempt] is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her," says Gottman.

The 'four horsemen' Gottman outlines are barriers to resolving conflict. However, that's not to say married couples should, or can, live conflict free. The majority of disagreements, according to Gottman, will never get be resolved.

“Most marital arguments cannot be resolved… Disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality or values.

"You need to understand the bottom line difference that is causing the conflict between you and to learn how to live with it by honouring and respecting each other.”

The difference between happy couples and couples doomed to failure is the ability and willingness to send what Gottman calls 'repair attempts': these are a "secret weapon" according to Gottman.

A repair attempt can make many forms. Perhaps you might throw in an inside joke during an argument to try and make the peace, you might do something silly like make a funny face to make your partner laugh - or perhaps you might just say "I'm sorry".

"When a couple have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts and sending each other repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way."

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