4 behaviors that lead to relationship failure and how couples therapy can help you avoid them

Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz-Gottman found that 4 behaviors in romantic relationships are associated with romantic failure and divorce. They researched how couples interacted with each other and managed conflict. In seven longitudinal studies, they could predict whether a couple would divorce with an average of 90% accuracy based on whether they demonstrated the 4 behaviors described below.

They did not find that conflict in and of itself is associated with relationship failure. Rather, they found that how couples manage the conflict is associated with whether the relationship ends in failure or divorce. They found that 4 ways of handling conflict that are associated with relationship failure and divorce are Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

1. Contempt

Contempt is essentially disdain or disgust for another person or coming from a position of superiority. An example of contempt may be something as simple as a look of disgust on a partner’s face during an argument or saying something that expresses general frustration for the partner as a whole. For example, sneering or eye rolling in disgust at a partner is a form of contempt. This is considered the worst out of all 4 negative behavior patterns associated with divorce.

2. Criticism

Criticism is stating one’s complaints as a defect in one partner’s personality. For example
calling the other person names or insulting them or saying to them “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood.
It includes trying to defend or explain your behavior rather than trying to listen to the other person or blaming the other person. For example, saying “It’s not my fault that you are always late. It’s your fault.”

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is emotional withdrawal from interaction. It can include completely ignoring the other person or shutting down your own communication with them. Examples may be that the listener is not giving the speaker the usual nonverbal cues that the listener is tracking the speaker.

Simply being aware of these behaviors and avoiding them can save a marriage from divorce or a relationship from failing. However, the Gottman’s found that one protection factor that is associated with stable marriages is having a positive to negative interaction ratio between couples of 5:1 during a conflict. That means that for every negative interaction during a conflict, there are 5 positive interactions. The ratio for unstable marriages is .8:1 That means that for every one negative interaction there is only .8 positive interactions.

Additionally, one way to avoid these behaviors is to use I feel and I need statements during an argument.

For example, instead of telling your partner, “you are being so mean right now and you are always mean to me”, you can rephrase that by saying:

“I feel like I am being attacked and hurt right now. I need you to speak to me with more kindness”.

These simple changes in the way we phrase or communicate our complaints, needs, or feelings during an argument can make the difference between escalating or deescalating the situation, which over time can make a difference between relationship failure or success.

For more information about the Gottman’s research you can visit:


Learning these new skills, understanding why these behaviors exist in the first place, and finding alternative behaviors to help save your relationship takes time and practice. Couples counseling is a possible solution to help give you extra support in working through these issues. If you are interesting in the cost and benefits of couples counseling, you can learn more at https://www.regain.us/advice/counseling/comparing-couples-counseling-cost-and-benefits/