The prelude to a divorce often comprises highly destructive behaviours, which can prevent a couple from keeping their enthusiastic promise of staying together “for better or for worse until death do us part,” says American psychologist Dr John Gottman.

In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Gottman suggests there are four factors, which he calls “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, that decisively influence the health of a marriage. According to Gottman, the road to divorce is paved with defensive attitudes, criticism, emotional blockage and contempt. Dr. Gottman, who has spent decades researching the field of relationships, marriage and divorce, says these four behaviours lead to “premature divorce, on average, 5.6 years after the wedding.”

These are the four “horsemen of the Apocalypse” in any romantic relationship:


Intentional and sincere discussions about the divergences and problems that appear between a couple have a beneficial role in the relationship. Experts at Florida State University have noted that these disputes can signal to a partner what their unacceptable behaviours are, which can lead to a change for the better. But when these discussions are actually just an attack on the other, not a responsible signal of undesirable behaviour, then the dispute turns from a constructive critique into a toxic one. “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish,” is an example of harmful criticism that cools the relationship, offered by Dr. Gottman.

Defensive attitudes

Phrases like, “It’s not my fault, it’s yours” are extremely dangerous to the health of a relationship. Making excuses or evading responsibility for a negative event prevents us from listening to our partner’s wishes, suggests Ordell Kemp, a personal development counsellor. As a result, our attitude of “self-defense” is actually an attack on the other person, making them feel that you think they are the only one in the wrong. This fuels their anger, because they are not allowed to state the things that bother them in the relationship.

A lack of emotional availability

This behaviour translates into a lack of emotional involvement when interacting with your partner. “When blockages occur regularly, you withdraw from the relationship, instead of getting involved in solving its problems. The blockage is dangerous, because it causes you to emotionally abandon your partner and leave problems unresolved,” says Kemp.


“Contempt is the most important symptom of divorce and must be eliminated,” says Dr. Gottman. This behaviour, as opposed to respect for one’s partner, can often degenerate into verbal violence, insults, and hostile attitudes. There are four ways we convey our contempt to our partner, writes Prof. Preston Ni in an article for Psychology Today. One of these is when the boundary between a negative behaviour and the general character of one’s partner disappears. But, instead of a general insult to your partner after a mistake (“You didn’t do what I asked you to do, you’re good for nothing”), a constructive reaction may be beneficial (“I noticed that you didn’t do that thing which I asked you to solve”).

Another method is represented by those critical sentences, which start with “YOU” and which, as a rule, send accusations or instructions that can give rise to conflicts: “You have to understand”, “You are not good enough”. To these are added those statements that express a generalisation: “You never do…”, “You are always wrong…”, “We all know you are…”. Last but not least, contempt can be found in ignoring, reducing, and invalidating the other’s feelings, Prof. Ni says. This category includes words such as: “Who cares what you feel”, “You exaggerate”, “Your worries/feelings/words mean nothing to me”.

A lifeboat for marriage

The four factors that signal the decline and end of a marriage can be joined by other elements that destroy romantic relationships. These include the end of teamwork, the absence of compromise, unresolved conflicts, giving up, the appearance of lies in a couple, or cheating and infidelity.

Although a universal recipe has not been discovered to guarantee that you will live “happily ever after” with the one you’ve joined your destiny to, there are a number of “ingredients” that strengthen the bond between partners. One of these is the way the two look at the relationship and the way they love each other. If both partners choose to give, without expecting or asking for anything in return, then the chances of a successful relationship increase considerably, says Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Multiple studies conducted to discover how to achieve harmony in a couple have shown the importance of partners focusing their attention on the positive events they experience, while maintaining high standards and expectations, and always being aware that their partner is only responsible for part of their happiness. The rest is up to them.

Last but not least, in order to maintain the health of the relationship, it is vital for each partner to know what the other expects or wants from the relationship.

This piece is part to the #KeepThinking campaign. It will give voice to dozens of authors who aim to offer readers the opportunity to explore, in a deeper way, common or surprising topics that touch our lives, whether or not we notice them.