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  • Writer's pictureKristen Rocco

The 4 Most Toxic Relationship Killers

The last thing you want to think about when you’re engaged is your marriage going south. Unfortunately, statistics around divorce are frightening with about half of all couples splitting up.

That’s a scary reality. And one that I know is faux pax to even discuss while you’re happily in love and planning the most special event to celebrate your love. But, as they say, knowledge is power and understanding what the four most toxic relationship killers are can help you circumvent them in your marriage.

These relationship killers are known as the four horsemen by Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute. He’s one of the most renown relationship experts in the world for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. He has studied couples and conducted breakthrough research for over 40 years and says the relationship killers I’m point out today predict divorce 90% of the time.

Toxic Relationship Behavior #1: Criticism

Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone based on their perceived faults or mistakes. In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman defines criticism as a global attack on personality or character.

We can all think of a time when we felt criticized and hated how it made us feel…small, defensive, undermining our confidence are some emotions that come to mind. Even between two well meaning and loving partners, criticism can rear its ugly head. It takes emotional intelligence and practice to frame your complaint as it relates to the situation rather than target the person’s character.

Can you think of a time when these statements or variations of them were said to you or you said them:

“You’re so lazy you can’t even move to change the channel.”

“You always spend all of our money and we never get to take a vacation.”

“You never listen to me and that’s why we’re in this dilemma.”

“You’re just like your mother.”

Do you see how these statements aren’t just about a specific situation? They are attacks on someone’s character. They’re offensive to the person on the receiving end. They all have one thing in common and that’s the use of the word “you” at the beginning of the statement, which indicates blame right off the bat. Another common pitfall of criticism is the use of “always” and “never.”

Criticism ultimately erodes a relationship because it causes the person who’s being criticized to become emotionally distance. No one wants to open up to someone who puts them down.

Toxic Relationship Behavior #2: Contempt

Couple in argument ends in contempt

Dr. Gottman calls contempt “the kiss of death” and notes it’s the worst of the four relationship killers. It’s especially toxic because one partner sees him/herself as more superior and as a result is less likely to be empathetic toward his/her partner.

Dr. Gottman’s blog says, “Contempt isn’t ‘I hate you.’ It’s something much worse. Something insidious and gross. Contempt is ‘I’m better than you.’ If betrayal is a question of trust, contempt is a question of respect. Contempt says, ‘I don’t respect you. In fact, I’m going to actively disrespect you.’”

If that doesn’t sum up why contempt is so destructive, I don’t know what does.

Contempt is displayed in behaviors like making insults and name-calling, hostile humor that mimics someone else, statements that establish superiority and nonverbal signs like eye rolls, snarled lips and a sarcastic tone.

“You’re still on the couch, how pathetic are you?”

“I’ll handle the lease negotiations since I have the business degree.”

“She can’t remember anything; she has sticky notes everywhere.”

“You would forget your name if it weren’t on your driver’s license.”

These statements demean and disrespect the targeted person. This is poisonous to any relationship because it conveys disgust and superiority and if it’s not turned around quickly, it will lead to an extremely unhealthy relationship with negative outcomes.

Toxic Relationship Behavior #3: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack.

You may be tempted to see defensiveness as an acceptable reaction to criticism and you think, “well of course I have to stand up for myself.” The problem is that defensiveness also comes into play in response to a complaint, which isn’t harmful to a relationship. Defensiveness has a negative impact on your relationship because it’s perceived by the other person as blaming them rather than accepting responsibility for your part of the conflict.

Dr. Gottman says defensive behavior is really about saving face, not making the other person feel better. Take this scenario for example:

Complaint: Did you pay the bills that were due today?

Defensiveness: You know how much I have on my plate, why didn’t you pay them to help me out?

The defensive partner is blaming her partner instead of accepting responsibility for breaking a previously-made arrangement. The problem is not resolved; rather it’s only escalated paving the way for other relationship killers to take course. When this is a partner’s way of approaching conflict, they are threatening their relationship, possibly beyond repair.

Toxic Relationship Behavior #4: Stonewalling

Perpetual conflict is a form of conflict that doesn’t have a clear cut answer. It happens around fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. This type of conflict is the hardest to resolve and unfortunately, it represents 69% of all conflict.

Stonewalling is a common response to this type of conflict. It’s defined as self protection in the form of delaying or blocking your partner by refusing to answer questions or by giving evasive replies.

It’s plain and simply a refusal to consider your partner’s perspective. You can see this coming from a mile away when you hear phrases like these:

“Get out of my face…”

“That’s enough…”

“Just leave me alone…”

“Do whatever you want…”

“End of conversation…”

It’s ok for someone to need some time to collect their thoughts and come back to the conversation. This isn’t stonewalling. Stonewalling is a blatant disregard for the issue. Usually, the stonewalling partner becomes so overwhelmed that they feel a heightened psychological response and it’s too overwhelming to engage in the conflict so instead they disregard it and leave, either mentally or physically, the situation altogether.

You may be thinking, “holy crap, these relationship killers can really mess up my relationship, what can I do about it?” The good news is that you have already taken the first step of becoming aware of them. There’s always more research you can do. The Gotten Institute website has plenty of great resources for you on their website, particularly the blog.

Practice makes perfect and nailing down these techniques will help you build your marriage muscle for a happy and healthy relationship that lasts a lifetime.


Kristen Rocco


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