How to Stop Sabotaging Your Relationship

Image by niekverlaan (Pixabay)

Image by niekverlaan (Pixabay)

The 4 Biggest Relationship-Destroying Bad Habits
In my last blog post, I discussed how you can recognize relationship-destroying behaviors in your relationship--what Dr. John Gottman coined, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse". I would like to continue this series by discussing what Dr. Gottman has identified as methods for eliminating The Four Horsemen in your relationship. 

The methods I am discussing in today's blog post will help you stop yourself from sabotaging your relationship--especially when you are highly emotional, seeing red, or vulnerable to making bad decisions. We've all been there. You're hurt. You're angry. You're at risk for saying or doing something you can't unsay or undo.

The Main Goals 
1. Stop quarrels from escalating. Walk away when you're upset. Nothing good will come from having a discussion when one or both of you are feeling heated. 
2. Identify your own destructive patterns (the Four Horsemen). See my last blog post on "The Four Horsemen".
3. Learn how to manage The Four Horsemen using their "antidotes" (see below)

Manage Conflict, Even When you Can't Resolve Conflict
Remember that the best of relationships have their problems. Conflict is essential for a healthy relationship, but how you do it is essential. The how is the make or break part. 

How you manage conflict predicts the success or failure of your relationship. As a therapist who uses the Gottman method of couples therapy, I tell my couples that you are better off learning how to manage conflict because you can't always resolve it. 

There are a thousand ways to react in a way that hurts a relationship. Thankfully, there are just a few helpful ways to keep things on the right track.

Identify the Four Horsemen In Yourself
The first step in managing conflict is to identify and fight The Four Horsemen in yourself during an argument. Awarenes is a pre-requisite for changing anything. 

Below, I am going to share examples of ways to stop The Four Horsemen when they show up in your relationship: 

The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

# 1 Criticism - The Complaint-Turned-Personal-Attack
Complaints are very different than criticisms, which are unhealthy, and the first of the Horsemen. When you make a complaint, you focus on your partner's specific behavior, while a criticism is when you attack the character of your partner. 

A complaint is a healthy, normal part of every relationship. It's when your partner forgets to pick up her socks and you ask her nicely to do so. It's being assertive, getting your needs met, not asking someone to read your mind. It's about asking for something you want to change, but not demanding it or attacking someone to get it.

Stopping Criticism
The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using I statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?

What Criticism Can Look Like: “You always show up late. You are so careless.”

The Antidote To Criticism: “I felt worried when you were late. I'd appreciate it if you could call next time if you are running late."

# 2 Defensiveness - The Self Preservation Instinct Gone Wrong
When defensiveness, the first horseman of bad relationship behavior, trots into a relationship, one person views themself as the innocent victim, without any responsibility whatsoever. We all do it sometimes, because we are wired for self-protection, which is the natural desire to ward off perceived attacks. Unfortunately, it's very ineffective in actually resolving any conflict. 

Stopping Defensiveness
It's normal to become defensive when you feel like you're being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. And it really hurts relationships. Defensiveness is about blaming your partner and avoiding any responsibility. When you're defensive, you're saying, "It's not me, it's you". 

When a couple struggles with defensiveness, the problem never gets resolved, and the conflict only gets worse. The best way to stop defensiveness is for you to accept responsibility, even if most of the problem was your partner's fault. It's important to take responsibility for your part--however small--for part of the conflict. 

What Defensiveness Can Look Like: “It’s not my fault that we can't go to dinner. You blew the budget this month. It’s your fault.”

The Antidote To Defensiveness: “Well, some of this is my problem. I need to think more where I've been spending money.”

# 3 Contempt - The "I'm Better Than You" Stance
Contempt is the deadliest of the Four Horsemen. It's when you act superior around your partner. It's when you're sarcastic, call your partner names, roll your eyes, make faces of disgust, mock, or use hostile humor to humilate your partner. 

Dr. John Gottman found in his couples research for the past several decades that when contempt is present in your relationship, divorce is highly probable. If it is present at all in your relationship, it must be eliminated. The way to get rid of it is to start building a culture of appreciation and respect.

What Contempt Can Look Like: “You’re so stupid. I just loooove being married to you."

The Antidote To Contempt: “I loved how you stood up for yourself at work." (building a culture of respect)

# 4 Stonewalling - "Ms./Mr. Shut Down"
If you've ever withdrawn from your partner, and figuratively "put up a wall" between you and them, you've stonewalled. Not the healthy withdrawing, to just cool down so that you can get back to resolving issues like an adult. Stonewalling is the unhealthy form of withdrawing, becuase you're too upset and don't practice physiological self-soothing. 

When you get overly flooded with difficult emotions such as anger, frustration, disgust, fear, etc., you are simply too upset and will likely do what any human being will do, given enough time; you will either explode (yell) or implode (stonewalling). Neither will help your relationship resolve (or simply manage) a conflict. The only way you can stop the crazy train from running both you and your partner over is to tell your partner that you're getting too emotional and that you need to take a break. 

Step Away, and Put Down The Gasoline
The first step of physiological self-soothing is to step away from the conflict discussion, but not forever. Back away from the fiery conflict that is about to blow up. Put down the gasoline. As much as it might feel good to blow up, it will only hurt the relationship. As much as it might feel good to "punish" your partner with icy silence, that will also hurt the relationship.

And there are plenty of good-intentioned people who unfortunately think that they are helping a relationship when they stonewall. They frequently think they're "being the better" person by shutting everything down. The problem is that stonewallers don't really come back to the conflict discussion, or to the relationship, once they shut down. The problem doesn't get resolved, partners feel disconnected, and intimacy deteriorates. 

Just Remember to Step Back In
If you have a tendency towards stonewalling, remember that the key is to just step away for at about twenty minutes or so. That's how long it typically takes your body to physiologically calm down. Take a walk or something. Just do something relaxing. anything to not continue brewing and ruminating about the fight. 

It's crucial that when you take your time-limited break, you try to avoid thoughts of righteous indignation ("I shouldn't have to put up with this") and innocent victimhood ("Why does she never do what I ask?"). Most of all, remember that this is the person you love, not your enemy.

When couples first come to see me for relationship or marriage therapy, part of their assessment is to discuss something that they normally fight about. Per the Gottman method, I hook each of them up to a finger "pulse oximeter" which measures their pulse rate and blood oxygen levels, and it starts to alert me when they are getting "emotionally flooded". Sometimes it's obvious when they're flooded--they're yelling. Sometimes, however, it's subtle. They look so calm but they are freaking out on the inside. This is typically when they start stonewalling.

Here's what it looks like in a session: "Whatever (silence)". Then, sure enough, beep beep beep. The sound of the pulse oximeter going off like a fire alarm. They've shut down because they're too emotionally flooded, and the distance starts to grow between the partners. 

Once I teach couples healthy conflict, I show them how to stop the stonewalling by first learning the importance of taking that break. Then, when they started talking about their problems again, their heart rates is lower, they are able to have a real conversation, and their whole discussion starts to actually get more positive and productive.

What Stonewalling Can Look Like: "Oh I'm fine (gets the room, but starts to "check out")

The Antidote to Stonewalling: "Honey, I'm getting a little flooded. I'm going to step away and cool down but I'll be back in about 20 minutes and we can start talking about this then."

In my next blog posts, I will continue to talk about healthy relationship skills, including conflict in more details about the Four Horsemen and how to combat them. If you have any suggested topics for future blog posts, please email me at 


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.