Latalia White, AMFT

John Gottman is one of the country’s leading experts on what makes romantic relationships work. He and his wife, Julie Gottman, have conducted research at their Love Lab for decades and created the Gottman Institute. The following findings come from Gottman’s own research and are found in his bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. This is part one of a two-part blog series.

We don’t set out aiming for our partnerships and marriages to fail, but inevitably that happens to most of us at least once in our lifetime. While it’s unrealistic to expect to be a fortune-teller, there are telltale signs that a relationship is headed for a split. It’s important to spot signs of trouble before they have taken over your entire relationship so that you can get your partnership back on track. Dr. John Gottman, who claims he can predict divorce with 91% accuracy after observing a couple, has outlined the following signs as predictors of divorce:

Harsh Start-Up

When you want to begin a conversation with your partner, how you talk about your perspective greatly impacts how the conversation goes – perhaps even more than what you say. A harsh start-up uses accusations and criticisms as weapons against your partner and sets them up to be defensive, leading to a troubled conversation. For example, if one partner wants to discuss distribution of household work, that person should let their partner know they want to discuss something that they’d like to change about chores; next, the other partner should listen and add in their input without making sarcastic remarks about what the other person is doing wrong. Fun fact about the importance of your start-up: 96% of the time, Gottman can predict the outcome of a conversation based on its first 3 minutes.

Four Horsemen

Gottman identified four major flags that spell divorce or breakup if not addressed within the couple. Take note that all of these appear in most relationships at one point or another; the takeaway is that familiarity with these kinds of negative interactions is usually highly problematic.

Criticism: While complaints address a behavior or event that happened, criticisms attack someone’s character. A constructive complaint tells your partner how you feel about something specific and expresses a need. In contrast, a criticism often contains words like “always,” “never,” and “every time” to make sweeping statements about someone’s personality. Here’s an example of the difference:

Complaint: There are no ingredients in the fridge or pantry for dinner. I’m frustrated that you did not buy groceries at the store like you said you would. Could you please order a pizza for dinner tonight and pick up groceries tomorrow?

Criticism: Why can’t you remember anything I tell you? You always ignore what I’m saying about household responsibilities and tune me out when I’m talking about meal planning. This is the millionth time this has happened.

Contempt: Contempt looks like superiority, sarcasm, cynicism, and ultimately indicates some disgust at your partner. It shows up a lot in body language – eye-rolling is a classic example. Gottman also notes that belligerence is closely related to attempt and indicates aggressiveness and anger.

Defensiveness: Simply put, defensiveness is blaming your partner for something and removing responsibility from yourself. While it feels good to defend yourself against attacks that feel unwarranted, it is guaranteed to exacerbate your conflict.

Stonewalling: Stonewalling, the fourth horseman, often occurs after the first three have been present in the relationship for some time. This consists of disengaging from your partner and offering them no feedback when they try to interact with you. When you stonewall, you block out negative interactions and emotions as well as positive ones.

Check out part two of this blog series to learn how harsh start-ups and the four horsemen can lead to more predictors of divorce – flooding, negative body language, failed repair attempts, and bad memories.