Behind the prelude to a divorce are four major destructive behaviours which can prevent the couple from keeping their enthusiastic promise of staying together …for better or for worse, till death us do part.

In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. John Gottman from Washington University provocatively calls these four factors “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse”. According to Gottman, who dedicated dozens of years to conduct research in the field of relationships, marriage and divorce, the way to divorce is paved with defensive attitudes, criticism, stonewalling and contempt. “These predict early divorcing—an average of 5.6 years after the wedding.”

The four “horsemen of the Apocalypse” in a relationship:


Fiery and honest discussions about differences and problems occurring between a couple have their beneficial role in a relationship. Experts at the Florida State University noticed that these disputes may send signals to the partner about their unacceptable behaviours, something which can lead to a change for the better. However, when these discussions are rather an attack on the other person, not a signalling of disturbing behaviour, then the dispute turns from constructive into toxic criticism. “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish”, is an example of toxic criticism which causes the relationship to grow cold, Dr. Gottman says.

Defensive attitude

Phrases like: “It’s not my fault, it’s yours” are extremely dangerous for the health of the harmonious couple relationship. Coming up with excuses or passing on responsibility for a negative event prevents us from listening to our partner’s grievance, suggests Ordell Kemp, personal development advisor. Our “self-defensive” attitude gives the other the impression that they are the only one making mistakes and fuels their anger because they are not allowed to enunciate the things that bother them in the relationship.

Stonewalling, another “symptom” of a marriage doomed for divorce

This behaviour develops because of a lack of emotional involvement in the interaction with one’s partner. “When blockages occur regularly, you withdraw from marriage, instead of getting involved in solving problems. Stonewalling is a very dangerous trait, because it causes you to emotionally abandon your partner and leave problems unresolved”, Kemp writes.


“Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated”, Dr. Gottman says. This behaviour, the opposite of respect towards one’s partner, may often degenerate into verbal violence, offences and hostile attitudes. There are four ways in which we express contempt to our partner, says Professor Preston Ni, in an article for Psychology Today. One of these is criticism, when the border between a negative behaviour and the general character of the other disappears. For instance, instead of a general offense brought to the partner in response to a mistake (“You did not do what I asked, you are no good”), a constructive reaction may be beneficial (“I noticed that you did not do that thing I asked you to take care of”).

Another method is represented by those phrases filled with criticism that begin with “You” and which, usually, convey accusation or instructions which may generate conflicts: “You must understand…”, “You are not good enough…” To this we can add those declarations expressing a generalization: “You never do…”, “You are always wrong…”, “We all know that you are…” Last but not least, contempt results from ignoring or minimizing the magnitude of the other person’s feelings or even by inserting negative comments about them, Prof. Ni says. In this category we can place words like: “Who cares how you feel?”, “You’re exaggerating”, “Your concerns/feelings/words are worth nothing to me”.


Preventing divorce—a lifejacket for marriage

Other elements which destroy romantic relationships can be added to the four factors that signal the decline and possible end of a marriage. A small part of these include the end of teamwork, the absence of compromise, unresolved conflicts, giving up, the presence of lies between the couple, or unfaithfulness.

Although there’s no universal recipe to guarantee that you will live “happily ever after” alongside the person with whom you have united your destiny, there are a number of “ingredients” that strengthen the connection between partners. One of these has to do with the way in which the two look at the relationship and the way in which they love each other. If both partners choose to give without waiting or asking for something in return, then the chances for success in the relationship increase considerably, believes Adam Grant, author of the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Multiple studies conducted for the purpose of discovering how to achieve harmony in the couple have shown the importance of focusing the partners’ attention on positive events, keeping standards high when it comes to the expectations they have from the relationship, and acknowledging the fact that the partner is only responsible for part of your happiness while the rest depends only on you.

Last but not least, for preserving a healthy relationship, it is vital that each partner knows those things that the other wishes for in the relationship.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.

divorceYou might also want to read: How to restore trust in a romantic relationship