Relationships Spouses & Partners Marital Problems Predictors of Divorce According to Science By Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT Marni Feuerman is a psychotherapist in private practice who has been helping couples with marital issues for more than 27 years. Learn about our editorial process Updated on June 30, 2021 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Adah Chung Fact checked by Adah Chung LinkedIn Adah Chung is a fact checker, writer, researcher, and occupational therapist. Learn about our editorial process Print PeopleImages / Getty Images The extensive research of Drs. John and Julie Gottman have provided us with four primary predictors of divorce. They have termed these four main predictors, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Four Horsemen That Predict the End of a Marriage All relationships have some degree of these characteristics. However, if more than one is present or one is unyielding, there will be doubts about the viability of your marriage. Here are some ways that these characteristics can signal trouble. Criticism Some criticism is unavoidable in a relationship, but it becomes unhealthy when you do it in a way that implies something is inherently wrong with your partner. You may also be attacking your partner’s personality or character. The intent is to win the argument or prove your spouse wrong. For instance, saying, “you always…,” “you never…,” or “you’re the type of person who …” or “why are you so …” will make the spouse feel attacked and is likely to elicit a defensive response. These bad patterns cause you both to not feel heard. You both may start to feel bad about yourselves when you are around each other. It is critical to make a specific complaint about your partner’s behavior and not attack their personality. For instance, saying, "When A happened, I felt B," or "I need C." How Nitpicking Your Spouse Can Ruin Your Marriage Contempt Contempt is the scariest of the bunch. It concerns any statement or behavior, verbal or nonverbal, that asserts superiority to your partner. Examples of such behaviors may be mocking your partner, name-calling, eye-rolling, showing hostility, insensitive joking, hurtful sarcasm, sneering in disgust, and so on. It attacks your spouse’s sense of self. It is also intended to put down or emotionally abuse or manipulate him or her. Couples must work to completely eliminate such behaviors. A culture of respect, appreciation, tolerance, and kindness is a basic requirement in marriage. Defensiveness Defensiveness arises from a perceived attack with your own counter-complaint. It is also another way to act like a victim or not to take responsibility for your mistakes. Such behaviors include making excuses or saying things like, “It’s not my fault.” It can also involve cross-complaining. This is when you match your partner’s complaint or criticism with one of your own. You then ignore what your partner said. Other defensive behaviors are “yes-butting” or simply repeating yourself without really paying attention to what your spouse is saying. Aim to slow down and try to listen to your partner’s perspective. You do not have to be perfect. Consciously communicate by speaking honestly and listening well. Don’t forget to validate your partner by letting him or her know you get what they are feeling. Stonewalling Complete withdrawal from communication (and essentially the relationship) as a strategy to avoid conflict is called stonewalling. It may take the form of physically leaving or completely shutting down. Stonewalling might be giving the “silent treatment,” monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject, or storming out. This might be an, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to calm oneself when overwhelmed, but it conveys disconnection, disapproval, distancing, and arrogance. The antidote to stonewalling is to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed. It’s a good idea to verbalize that you feel overwhelmed. You can both agree to take a break and that the conversation will resume when you are both calmer. Use Your Knowledge to Improve Your Relationship There are ways to better control these behaviors in your relationship. After an argument, claim responsibility for your piece in the escalation. What can you learn from it and what can you do about it? There are many things you can do to help reduce tension or de-escalate an argument. For instance, apologize, express your understanding, or demonstrate your concern. There is no good reason to push buttons or purposely escalate the argument. Virtually all negative interactions with your partner are really a self-perpetuating cycle that thankfully you can exit from. When one of you gets triggered, the other reacts, there is a reaction to the reaction, so on and so forth. Slow things down and self-reflect by figuring out what you might actually be feeling underneath. For instance, are you really hurt when you yell in anger? You need to get comfortable expressing that deeper part of yourself. All of us have a lot to learn and to benefit from the Gottmans' research. But, if you still find the "Four Horsemen" are ruining your relationship, it’s time to seek out a skilled marriage therapist. 6 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Fowler C, Dillow MR. Attachment dimensions and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Communication Research Reports. 2011;28(1):16-26. doi:10.1080/08824096.2010.518910 Peterson-Post KM, Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, Markman HJ. Perceived criticism and marital adjustment predict depressive symptoms in a community sample. Behav Ther. 2014;45(4):564-575. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2014.03.002 Schriber RA, Chung JM, Sorensen KS, Robins RW. Dispositional contempt: A first look at the contemptuous person. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2017;113(2):280-309. doi:10.1037/pspp0000101 Fischer DJ, Fink BC. Clinical processes in behavioral couples therapy. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2014;51(1):11-14. doi:10.1037/a0033823 Haase CM, Holley SR, Bloch L, Verstaen A, Levenson RW. Interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health: A 20-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples. Emotion. 2016;16(7):965-977. doi:10.1037/a0040239 Davoodvandi M, Navabi Nejad S, Farzad V. Examining the effectiveness of Gottman couple therapy on improving marital adjustment and couples' intimacy. Iran J Psychiatry. 2018;13(2):135-141. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Relationships Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.