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Over the years, researchers have learned a lot about what makes relationships work…and what leads to them falling apart. Some of the most well-known and thorough research in this area has been conducted by John and Julie Gottman, a husband and wife duo who have aptly named their research facilities “The Love Lab.” 

From their research, the Gottmans have identified four different toxic relationship patterns that, more often than not, result in relationship breakdown and dissolution. In fact, they have found these patterns of behavior to be so harmful that they refer to them as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” when it comes to relationships. Today, we want to share with you the first two Horsemen, discuss what they look like in action, and give you some alternatives to these harmful habits.

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Harmful Habit #1: Criticism

The first habit that will chip away at your relationship is criticism. Criticizing your partner means attacking who they are as a person. Rather than simply expressing dissatisfaction with their behavior, you tear down their character—their core self. Here’s an example: 

“How many times do I have to ask you to take out the garbage? You’re so lazy!” 

When you criticize your partner, you are using their bad behavior (or even just behavior that annoys you) to define them as a person. This is reductive and demeaning, and leaves you assuming the worst about your partner rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. Over time, criticism wears down on a person’s self-esteem and what they feel their worth is in a relationship. And the next harmful habit takes that even one step further.

Harmful Habit #2: Contempt

The habit of contempt is the biggest predictor for divorce in marriages.

Contempt comes after criticism in the Gottman’s Four Horsemen because it is often what happens when criticism goes unchecked. Treating your partner with contempt involves knowingly being mean, hurtful, and belittling. It intentionally places you on the moral high ground and shows your partner that you feel they are less-than. If we were to sprinkle contempt into our example above, it could look like this:

“You’re such a lazy idiot! I’ve asked you a million times to take out the trash, and all you ever do is sit there and watch TV. I take care of so much around here, and you can’t even do one thing! I’m tired of having to remind you to do everything. When will you grow up and get a life?”

This example may seem a little extreme, but contempt can show up in subtler ways as well, such as through body language. Eye rolling and scoffs are a non-verbal way to say, “I can’t even believe you!” It makes sense that developing and expressing contempt (verbal or non-verbal) for each other is, for married couples, the greatest predictor of divorce. Why would you want to stay with someone who makes you feel worthless? Or with someone you can’t remember even liking in the first place?

So what do we do when we notice our tendency to criticize our partner? Or catch ourselves acting like they are unworthy of our respect or love?

Helpful Habit #1: Complaints

Avoiding criticism does not mean that we are never allowed to disagree with our partner or dislike something they do. It is natural and healthy for partners to rub each other the wrong way every once in a while. The important thing is that when this happens, we discuss it in a way that focuses on behavior instead of character. This is the difference between criticism or contempt and complaint. Like we mentioned before, criticism and contempt both involve attacking who your partner is, not just what they do. On the other hand, a complaint identifies a specific behavior and how that behavior affects you. For example (going along with the issue of taking out the trash):

“When I have to ask you multiple times to put out the trash (undesirable behavior), I feel unheard and unimportant to you (effect of behavior). It’s really frustrating. I want us to be a team. Can we talk about how we can make that happen?”

In this version of our conversation, the message conveyed is wildly different from the first two. It shows your partner that, in spite of their undesirable behavior, you are seeking connection with them. You value your relationship and have hope for growth rather than just feeling disdain or dislike for who they are as a person. This is the power of an effective complaint.

Make a habit of nurturing love and appreciation in your relationship.

Helpful Habit #2: Nurture Love

But there is a relationship habit even more important for protecting your partnership than complaining effectively. When it comes to the relationships that mean the most to us, skills will take us only so far. The best way to fight the tendency to criticize or feel contempt toward your partner is to make a habit of nurturing the love and respect that you have for one another. This is something that happens over time, and requires consistency. Intentionally nurturing the love between you can look like:

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  • Frequently investing in each other’s Emotional Bank Accounts;
  • Expressing gratitude for your partner and what they bring to your life;
  • Reminding yourself what you like about your partner (especially when they get on your nerves); 
  • Continuing to learn more about each other;
  • Making and working towards goals for both self- and couple-improvement;
  • Having both planned and unplanned fun together; and
  • Repairing when you make a mistake.

When you make your love for one another the focus of your relationship, it becomes a lot easier to move away from criticism and contempt. And it makes it easier to recover when you make mistakes or fall into harmful habits. So, work to intentionally nurture the love and care that you feel for each other each day. And the next time you find yourself needing to call out your partner for one reason or another, use complaints to go about it in a way that brings you closer rather than drives you apart. You’ve got this!

Want to learn more about strengthening your relationship and how you and your partner can navigate challenges as a team? Check out our free workshop series, the R3 Academy.