Relationship in crisis? Watch out for the 4 horsemen of doomed romances

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Kayleigh Dray
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A divorce expert has revealed the four red flags that all couples should watch out for.

When we were growing up, many of us learned about love from the sugar-coated world of Disney. But, as it turns out, nailing that happy-ever-after ending is a lot harder than Cinderella made it seem.

Real relationships take a lot more work than a magical meet-cue and true love’s kiss – and that is something relationship coach Alex Scot has made all too clear in her latest viral TikTok video.

“Sadly, society has normalised [certain toxic] behaviours,” she says. “But I’m here to shine a big red flag so that you can stay away from them.”

Check it out:

Scot goes on to detail the “four horseman” (as in, yes, the “four horseman of the apocalypse”) that make it all too easy to predict which relationships don’t have what it takes to go the distance; contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, and criticism.

In fact, based on these indicators alone, Scot is able to predict with 93.6 accuracy whether a couple is going to divorce or not.

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Of course, those who have studied psychology will recognise these “four horsemen” as being the same as those coined by John Gottman, a professor who specialises in marital stability.

As he explains in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman says that he has followed couples across decades in many psychological studies to see what kinds of behaviours predict whether they will stay together, or split.

So, without any further ado, here is what you need to know about the “four horsemen.”

1. Criticism

Everyone complains; it’s a natural part of our day-to-day life. And complaining about someone is, of course, absolutely fine; it would take a very strong person to resist commenting on the fact that their partner is “always late”.

However criticism is very different; it’s corrosive, and it’s an attack on your partner’s core personality. For example: “You’re late because you don’t care about me.”

It specifically frames the complaints in the context of a defect in your partner, strikes at their heart, and signals the end of your relationship is set to come sooner rather than later.

2. Contempt

Two figures arguing
“Contempt is when you talk down to your partner as if you are superior and they are less than,” explains Alex Scot.

Gottman explains that ‘contempt’ can take the form of “name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour.”

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He adds: “In whatever form, contempt – the worst of the four horsemen – is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust.

“It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”

3. Defensiveness

Woman looking defensive
Alex Scot warns that, if your partner is bringing up an issue and your respond defensively, instead of hearing what they have to saying and understanding the situation, it’s a bad sign.

When we become defensive, we fail to recognise our own faults, instead making excuses to explain away our actions.

In doing so, we often find that we are pushing the blame onto other people – and, in failing to take responsibility for our behaviour, we damage our relationship.

“You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you, Gottman writes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

“Defensiveness escalates conflict rather than helps to solve it, and it involves rejecting any responsibility for problems, and thereby putting all the responsibility on your partner.”

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling essentially means withdrawing from a conversation, even if physically present.

There are no nods of encouragement to their partner as they speak, no attempt to empathise, and no effort to respond or connect; it is a metaphorical raising of the drawbridge, cutting off all communication.

While this may feel like the only response to a worsening situation – particularly from someone who is anxious, frustrated, or upset – it can be extremely harmful to a relationship, as it prevents conflict from getting resolved.

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Gottman explains that marriages are successful only when couples are “emotionally intelligent” enough to accept one another as they truly are.

However, if you do spot any of the four horseman popping up in your relationship, he suggests that you search for their healthier counterparts.

For example, engage in “physiological self-soothing” (taking calming breaths and mindfully relaxing) when you find an argument to be too intense, rather than stonewalling.

And, instead of phrasing complaints as criticism of your partner, raise complaints about the situation or the behaviour instead.

He also encourages couples to stop using the word “you” in arguments, and choosing instead to use the word “I” – and to work on their marriage each and every single day, rather than just when it is in trouble.

“Reunite at the end of the day and talk about how it went,” he says. This will help to bleed off stress from the day, and stop it from negatively affecting your relationship.”

Hmm. That’s definitely given us food for thought…

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This article was originally written in September 2016, but has been updated throughout.

Images: Getty


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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