The 4 Behaviours That Destroy Relationships (And How To Avoid Them)

Simon Samuels
5 min readSep 25, 2020
Photo: Eric Ward @ Unsplash

The Four Horsemen of a relationship are the four behaviours (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, & Stonewalling) that are the most corrosive and destructive to any relationship. Their presence over time they can predict breakups and divorces with an accuracy of over 80% (according to Gottman institute research.) You’re going to learn what they are, how to manage them, and the best ways to help prevent these destructive behaviours.


Never admit your own part in arguments? Never think you’re at fault for anything? Always try to argue your corner? Then you’re stuck in defensiveness.

When you are defensive you will argue that you did nothing wrong when your partner is upset about one of your actions. You won’t admit your part in their hurt feelings and instead play innocent.

Defensiveness is corrosive over time as it only intensifies and perpetuates arguments. It leaves no room for deescalating the conflict. When one partner becomes defensive it invalidates the upset partner’s feelings and is a sign that they haven’t been heard.

The key to becoming less defensive is to own up immediately to the part you are playing in the argument. If you were too critical own up to it and apologise. If you forgot to do something important own up to it and apologise. No matter what it is that you did that hurt your partner own up to it. When your partner sees you validate their position (that they are upset about one of your actions) then they will be much more likely to calm down as they feel seen and heard. You will then be able to repair the conflict and work on future solutions together.

Defensiveness causes the opposite of this as it’s a signal to your partner that they aren’t being heard. This leads to their hurt feelings perpetuating or escalating. Even if you are in the right and they are upset at you for something unreasonable, it’s vital for you to validate their emotions and the part you have played in them instead of denying you did anything wrong.


Always telling your partner they did something wrong? Think your partner never does anything right? Then you’re stuck in criticism.

Criticism causes a lot of damage in a relationship. It makes your partner feel under attack and on the defensive, it also makes your partner feel not valued. At its heart criticism is an attempt to get your partner to do something (or not to do something) in order to meet your needs. The problem is that it often does the complete opposite and makes your partner less likely to meet your needs as it hurts them! Also in the long-term people stop listening to criticism especially if it’s constant; people will tune out to it.

The key to overcoming criticism is to learn how to communicate your needs better. Framing your needs positively, and as being about what you need instead of what your partner has done wrong, will instantly get you better results and not leave your partner feeling attacked.

Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example “I’m feeling lonely and I need more time together” rather than “You’re going out all the time and I’m lonely because of you, you never spend any time with me…” As you can see the first “I” statement is simply stating a personal need whereas the “You” statement is immediately accusatory and critical. Avoid “You” statements and instead focus on framing your needs from your own perspective with “I” statements.


Always think your partner is useless? Don’t respect your partner at all? Then you’re stuck in contempt.

Contempt happens when you see your partner in a constant bad light. It’s an evolution of criticism in which you can no longer (or rarely) see the good in your partner.

Contempt is very damaging to a relationship as it tends to leave no room for kindness, empathy, gentle communication, and all of the necessary actions you must take every day to maintain a healthy relationship.

The key to overcoming contempt is to look for the good parts of your partner every day. It might be that they cook well, or that they are organised, or that they cleaned the kitchen. It could be anything no matter how small, as long as you like it then try to notice it.

It’s also important to address the reasons why you are feeling contempt. Having a gentle and open discussion about any problems you have in your relationship, and working on solutions together, can help break the cycle of contempt.


Ignore your partner when they ask you questions? Get fed up with your partner and don’t acknowledge them? Then you’re stuck in stonewalling.

Stonewalling is the worst of all the four horsemen of a relationship. It happens when one partner decides to ignore the other partner either out of being upset or out of contempt. The amount of stonewalling that happens in a relationship is directly correlated with divorce rates. The higher the amount of stonewalling the greater the chances of your relationship ending.

Stonewalling is so damaging because it’s a signal that you don’t care about your partner, that you are so apathetic or angry that you’d rather ignore their existence. People hate being ignored more than anything and when their partner does it it’s even more hurtful.

The way to overcome stonewalling is to learn how to communicate your feelings. If you’re angry it’s better to say you’re angry and need to go take some time to cool off than ignoring your partner altogether. By communicating your emotions you are showing respect for your partner; that they are a person with feelings too and you value and care about them.

Learning to navigate criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling is all about communicating well. When you have healthy communication in your relationship the four horsemen will rarely visit and you’ll have a firm foundation for those times when you do have passing arguments. Utilising some of the strategies you’ve learnt you’ll be able to turn around these destructive forces in your relationship and make it healthier and stronger.



Simon Samuels

Relationship Researcher & Coach: Creating Healthy Relationships @