4 Relationship-Destroying Behaviors Every Couples Therapist Looks For

The Look of Love (#41035) by   mark sebastian

The Look of Love (#41035) by mark sebastian

Where Did You Learn Your Bad Relationship Behavior?

If you are like most adults, you picked up some not-so-healthy ways of being in a relationship. Maybe you got it from your parents, your past relationships, Hollywood movies, or just a lack of role models. Destructive, unhealthy conflict styles can break apart even the best of relationships. Everyone has been guilty of sabotaging their relationship with their own bad behavior at some point in time.

If you want to keep your relationship healthy, and prevent it from falling apart, take some time to invest in it by learning what you're doing wrong. Learn the most common types of bad habits may be subtly (or not so subtly) killing your relationship. 

A Relationship is Like A House... It Will Always Need Repairs

The early part of a relationship is like buying a beautiful new house with everything you've ever dreamed of. It has the picket fence and all that. And like any house, no matter how new and shiny at first, there is the inevitability of wear and tear and time.

Like a house, relationships start to reveal some problems, whether it's some serious cracks in the foundation, or just some minor repairs. Depending on how much you know about creating a healthy relationship, you could feel confident, confused, or daunted by the process of "working problems out". 

You may be tempted to just ignore the needed repairs and pretend everything's okay. Or you go with a quick fix that doesn't really solve the problem. Just use, duct tape, right? Wrong. Or maybe it overwhelms you so much that you decide to just pack everything up and leave every time a place need fixing.

But a trained eye knows when a house is falling apart, and a trained eye knows how to fix it. The same is true of relationships. Sometimes a therapist is needed for guidance or education. But sometimes you can learn how to be your own handyman.

Thankfully, There Are Relationship Geniuses In Seattle

Dr. John Gottman, a relationship researcher and psychologist at the University of Washington, is who I refer to as "the genius of relationships". He discovered these four observable signs of relationship demise, which he appropriately calls, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

The Four Horsemen are so important that if they exist in your relationship, you need to eradicate them now, because just the mere presence of it in your relationship successfully predicts the demise of relationships with 93% accuracy!

Gottman's research first made predictions about married couples, but he has since studied cohabitating couples, LGBTQQI couples, and couples of many socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Their wisdom really applies to all romantic relationships in general. What they found is that the most satisfied, sustainable, and happiest relationships avoid The Four Horsemen like the plague!

The Therapist Is Always Looking For These Bad Behaviors

In my Atlanta counseling office, when couples first sit down with me for their first session, I ask them to discuss their relationship history, what brought them to counseling, etc. Because I practice using the Gottman method of couples therapy, I am trained to look for any signs of the Four Horsemen in every couple I see.

I closely watch each partner. The way they talk to one another. The way the talk about each other. What they say. What they don't say. How they say it. I'm especially sensitive to the Four Horsemen because they are the very worst kinds of habits. I urge my couples to not only learn how to identify these behaviors, but how to eradicate them. It is essential in order for their relationship to survive.

Whether or not other couples therapists are willing to admit it, they are looking for these bad habits, too. When the Four Horsemen rear their ugly heads, which they almost always do at some point, I know that a couple's relationships is in real danger if they don't learn a better way of communicating. We all have a tendency towards at least one of these Four Horsemen, but if a couple shows more than two at a time, their relationship is in serious trouble.

Two of The First Lessons I Teach Every Couple:

1) Spot the Four Horsemen 

2) Eradicate them from your relationship ASAP!


The Four Horsemen (The Worst, Relationship-Destroying Behaviors)

#1 Criticism

What it is: Verbally attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making yourself "right" and your partner "wrong".

What it looks like: (Generalizations) “You always/never…” “you’re the type of person who …” "why are you so …”

#2 Contempt 

What it is: Verbally or non-verbally attacking your your partner (especially who they are as a person) with the intention to insult them or psychologically abuse them.

What it looks like:

  • Insults and name-calling: “bitch, asshole, fat, stupid, ugly, disgusting, lazy…”
  • Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery
  • Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip

#3 Defensiveness:

What it is: Seeing yourself as the victim, being on guard as though you have to ward off a perceived attack from your partner, to reverse the blame as being your partner's fault.

What it looks like:

  • Making excuses (example: some circumstances were allegedly beyond your control and "forced" you to act in a certain way; “It’s not my fault…”, “I didn’t…”)
  • Cross-complaining: immediately meeting your partner’s complaint, or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner just said (not really listening, just waiting for them to stop talking so you can "counter" their point of view)
  • Disagreeing and then cross-complaining: “That’s not true, you’re the one who …” “I did this because you did that…”
  • Yes, but: You say you agree but you don't agree
  • Repeating yourself: while not paying attention to what the other person is saying, you reiterate what you say to try to "break" the other person.
  • Whining: “It’s not fair" (again, taking on the "victim" role)

#4 Stonewalling:

What it is: Withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict and discomfort, or to punish a partner. If you do this, you may think you are trying to be “neutral”, but stonewalling conveys disapproval, smugness, "icing someone out" with distance, separation, and/or disconnection:

What it looks like: 

  • Silent treatment
  • Monosyllabic replies "Mhmm" (followed by silence) "Yes. (followed by silence)"... "No. (followed by silence)
  • Changing the subject (to avoid the difficult topic)
  • Removing yourself physically (not just for a "time out" to cool down, which is actually very healthy for a relationship... you just leave because don't want to ever talk about it)
  • Stone-faced silence (staring at someone without any expression, barely responding to them when they try to engage with you or ask you a question).

Here is a video by Dr. John Gottman himself! In it, he disucsses the Four Horsemen and their consequences:

In my next blog posts, I will be discussing the Four Horsemen in more detail, including how to get rid of them in your relationship.

Need help? Don't wait another day. If you would like to get help for yourself or your relationship, please consider individual or couples therapy. Call me at 678-999-2290 or email me at Stephanie@CounselingATL.com to schedule an appointment.

ABOUT: Stephanie Cook, LCSW, provides in-person and online counseling services to adults, teens, couples, and families; she specializes in working with young adults and couples on improving themselves and their relationships. Stephanie owns a small private practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an intown-suburb of Atlanta, GA, near Emory University. Her blog is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and relationships.