Why do relationships fail? 4 examples of toxic behaviours

Why do relationships fail? 4 examples of toxic behaviours

Julie and John Gottman, from the Gottman Institute, have researched relationship dynamics for decades and discovered four common toxic behaviours that underlie breakups and divorce. They call these behaviours the four horsemen of relationships, and have found that these horsemen drive us to disconnection, to disrespect each other, and to feel hurt, rejected, and unhappy.

4 common toxic relationship behaviours

If you find that your relationship is becoming more and more overwhelmed because of one or more of these specific behaviours, then, according to John and Julie Gottman, you are one step closer to getting a divorce or breaking up. But all is not doomed! Learning about these behaviours and actively working towards improving your relationship habits can help you achieve the relationship you want and deserve. So, without further ado, these are the four horsemen of relationships.

1. Criticism

The first common behaviour that can lead relationships to fail is criticism. So, what is criticism? First and foremost, criticism is different from complaining. When you complain about something you do not like in the relationship you are addressing the behaviour. On the other hand, criticism is about the personality of the partner.

For example, when your partner is late to an appointment and you complain, you are actually saying "I do not like when you are late and do not let me know beforehand." You might explain that you have been standing there, waiting for them to come, and worrying about them. You express that you felt lost, confused and lonely. This is complaining; stating that you did not like a behaviour and expressing how it made you feel. In contrast, criticism in these sort of scenarios can sound like this: "you are always late, you never care about me, you do not care about anybody, you are just a selfish human being that never cares about anybody in the world."

In this example, you can already see the difference between criticising and complaining. When you criticise somebody, you are implying that there is something wrong with them. A simple way to discern between criticism and complaining is to look out for the words "never" and "always." As you can observe in the example above, when we criticise, we tend to use these words a lot. We might say that this person never cares about anybody, is always thinking about themselves, and so forth. In this way, criticism is a form of overgeneralisation. When we overgeneralise, we take one or a couple of examples of past behaviour, project them into larger things and attribute them to the general personality of our partner.

In these types of relationship dynamics there is not much space for acceptance of imperfections. Criticism in relationships can be very hurtful and harsh as it overly focusses on blaming the other. This leaves the criticised partner feeling as if they can never do anything right and that their whole relationship is focused on their personal flaws. Meanwhile, the critical partner is feeling flooded, lonely and as if they have to do everything by themselves. In the end, both parties wind up feeling disconnected, hurt, and unable to resolve their relationship issues.

2. Defensiveness

The second unhealthy way of communicating in a relationship is called defensiveness. Personally, when I see couples showing defensive behaviour in therapy sessions, I call it “the court.” I use this metaphor because the only thing that the partners are doing when they are in this defensive state is stacking evidence and not listening to each other. It feels as if they are trying to convince a judge that they are right, and their partner is wrong. When we are acting defensively this is exactly what we do; we stack up evidence on what our partner has done right and wrong, and we throw it back at them.

These sorts of conversations are not only a waste of time and energy, but greatly unhelpful as no part is actively listening to the other. When one partner is talking, the other one is preparing their counterargument. They do not stop to discuss what the other has said. They are simply not listening, and resort to just rambling about their own ideas, opinions and evidence of their partner's past misbehaviour (known as kitchen sinking). For example, think back to a time when you were having a fight with your partner, and then it got so emotional that you just brought up all these unrelated events from the past (AKA the evidence) that you have been accumulating.

Also, when couples are acting defensively, they resort to deflecting their personal responsibility for their own mistakes. No part admits that they were in the wrong in something - they just self-protect, blame the other, and make excuses for their behaviour. Shifting the blame from one to another is not a successful strategy. Couples can engage in this ping-pong game for hours and nothing will come out of it, only hurt and pain. At one point, some couples begin scaling things up and becoming more insulting and hurtful in an attempt to win the argument and succeed at making the other partner end the conversation.

It is very possible that the couple will end this conversation feeling really hurt by the things that they have heard from their partner. It can leave us feeling bitterly surprised at the realisation that this is how our loving partner really sees us. In the end, engaging with one another in this way does not lead anywhere helpful. Maybe one party will win the argument, but, in the process, they have lost the relationship.

3. Contempt

The third toxic behaviour that can be detrimental to relationships is contempt. Julie and John Gottman call contempt the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt is any statement or non-verbal behaviour that puts yourself in a higher position than your partner. It is when you think that your partner is very likely to fail with whatever they are pursuing, and you respond by mocking them. For instance, it is when you use a sarcastic tone and eye roll at what they say. It can sound like: "Yeah, of course, of course, you would forget that, it is just so typical of you."

What we are doing when we communicate in such a way is indirectly telling our partner that we expect them to not do the right thing. That we expect them to fail and that they will not be able to be as good as we are. Naturally, this can be deeply hurtful for the partner listening to these rejecting and humiliating statements. However, at the same time, it can also be hurtful for the partner that is acting with contempt because with these put-downs they are creating a greater disconnection from their loved one and losing the feeling of admiration and respect they have for them.

How long do you think that love will stay in this relationship if there is no mutual admiration and respect? Not long, right?

4. Stonewalling

Finally, the fourth horseman of relationships is stonewalling, and it is exactly what you might think it is; stonewalling is when we feel that we are talking to a wall. It is what happens when a couple has an argument and, out of the blue, one side decides to shut down, either physically or emotionally. They might go to another room, become quiet, leave the conversation, tell you to “talk to the hand,” or that they are done with you and this conversation.

So, the person doing the stonewalling leaves their partner hanging with no explanation whatsoever. They leave the conversation without resolving the cause of the conflict and, even worse, they inflict further damage to the relationship as the other person is left feeling anxious, hurt and confused. The partner being stonewalled might feel as if they are not important enough to receive closure to the argument and that their loved one does not care about their feelings.

In the long term, this can negatively affect the relationship, as important arguments are not resolved and they might resurface in the future. Most importantly, the partner being stonewalled leaves with the idea that they are not important enough for their partner, which brews insecurity in the relationship.

However, on the other side of the coin, the person who is stonewalling is not resorting to this action because they do not care. Rather, they are physically overwhelmed, feel bombarded by questions and arguments, and need some time in order to process everything. But, the harm is inflicted by not directly communicating this.

The healthy way to go about this would be to state that they need some time to process everything they have discussed. In contrast, by stonewalling, the individual is not conveying the fact that they are feeling overwhelmed. And, in turn, the other partner only sees the shutdown and withdrawal of their loved one which can be distressing and confusing.

One must bear in mind that the partner performing the stonewalling does so usually when they are in a difficult conversation, discussing complicated feelings or feeling complex emotions that they do not know how to process and, thus, effectively communicate. In these situations, the best course of action would be to directly state that one is feeling overwhelmed, would like some time alone to think, will continue the discussion at a later time, and ask if this would be alright with the other partner.

Breaking away from unhealthy patterns

Effectively communicating how we feel with our partners is the key to healthy relationships. If you notice that you or your partner(s) is resorting to one of these behaviours, remember that all is not lost. By working together as a team you can achieve building a healthy, trusting, and loving relationship. In the process, remember to treat yourself and your loved one with compassion.

Vassia  Sarantopoulou


Vassia Sarantopoulou

Vassia Sarantopoulou is a Counselor-Psychotherapist with more than 15 years of experience, the Head Psychologist and founder of AntiLoneliness. AntiLoneliness offers individual and couples counseling, workshops and support groups, in...

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