Relationship Destroyers

In this article, I will talk about the behaviors that could potentially destroy relationships. These are toxic behaviors that all human beings might resort to in moments of weakness, anger or pain, but they are also behaviors that are abusive and a person who constantly uses them as the only way to deal with conflicts or to have their needs met is considered an abuser.

Dr. John Gottman, author of the New York bestseller “The Seven Principles of Making a Marriage Work” and the researcher who conducted the largest most in-depth research on marriage in the United States concluded that there are four major categories of behaviors that can potentially destroy a relationship. He called these behaviors “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as he borrows this metaphor from the bible. According to the work of Dr. Gottman, the four Horsemen are :

  1. Blame and Criticism.
  2. Contempt.
  3. Defensiveness.
  4. Stonewalling.

Let’s look at each one of these behaviors and give examples of what they could look like.

  1. Blame and Criticism: it is important to distinguish between those two terms, by blame I mean an attack on the person, while criticism is more of an attack of the behavior. Both behaviors are very devastating to any relationship whether at home or in the workplace. Blame or criticism can take the form of an aggressive attack, bullying, harsh ways of starting a conversation or what we call harsh startup, dominating and controlling behaviors, or being overbearing or overdriving. The body language in this situation is very antagonizing such as finger-pointing or putting your hands on your waist to make yourself bigger than the other person which can be quite intimidating.
  2. Contempt: Contempt is an expression of superiority that might manifest as sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, smearing, mockery, hostile humor, gossip, cutting others down, undermining, disrespect, and demeaning communication. In body language it might be the way we look down on someone or just an expression on the face and people will feel it even if we don’t say anything. Contempt is probably the worst relationship destroyer and the biggest predictor of relationship failure.
  3. Defensiveness: Defensiveness is defending oneself by getting into never-ending arguments and playing the victim. It is just an underhanded way of blaming the other. It is usually a reaction to blame and criticism and it hurts the relationship because when we are in a state of defensiveness, we are not open to influence.
  4. Stonewalling: stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversion and over time shuts down and is unwilling to engage in any future conversations or interactions. Stonewalling is a reaction to contempt. It also happens when the other three horsemen have been continuously happening over a long period of time. Stonewalling happens when we are psychologically flooded and manifests in the form of disengagement, passivity, going around the chain of command, withdrawal, avoidance, and “The silent treatment.”

These behaviors are natural human behaviors and people can resort to them from time to time. The point here is not to demonize these behaviors or reject them completely, but to become aware of them and of their impact on our relationships. It is important to identify which of these behaviors are often used against us, and which ones we use against others. Once we become aware of these behaviors, we can point out their existence and come up with agreements or protocols to manage our conflicts without the use of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

So what is the alternative to these behaviors? What do we do in order to save ourselves from their devastating effects?

The work of Dr. Gottman also shows us the antidotes to the four horsemen. These antidotes are positive behaviors that can be used in the place of the four horsemen and have the impact of increasing positivity in relationships and creating good problem-solving habits. Research shows that we need five positive interactions with a person to undo the damage done by one negative interaction that we had with them in the past.

The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen:


1- Antidotes to Criticism:

There are many antidotes to blame and criticism, some of the most important are:

  • COIN (Context, Observation, Impact, Next): This is an effective communication method in which you express your complaint without blaming the other. It starts with setting the context for the complaint, when and where, and under what circumstances did the negative behavior happen. Then the behavior is described as an observation rather than a judgment. The speaker goes on to describe the impact that the behavior of the other had on the speaker. Lastly, the speaker ends by stating what they need from the other person in the future. This structure is very similar to what is known as an I-statement. For example, your partner was late coming home and didn’t call to let you know that they would be late. Naturally, you got worried and were anxious because you couldn’t contact them as they weren’t picking up their phone. You could react by blaming them or criticizing their behavior and say something like “Where have you been? I was worried sick about you. Why didn’t you call me? How could you do that to me? You don’t care about me or my feelings.” or you could use COIN or an I-statement such as “This evening when you didn’t call to let me know you would be late and didn’t pick up your phone, I was so worried and I felt so anxious that I was about to call the police. In the future please call me and let me know what’s going on with you.”
  • Soft or gentle Startup: The way we start a conversation has a very powerful impact on how the rest of the conversation goes. A harsh startup is an attack on the other person and triggers defensiveness, both of which are horsemen. While a soft startup might trigger empathy and listening. A great way to start a conversation softly is to avoid starting your sentences with “you,” which feels like pointing fingers and blaming. Instead, start with “I.” Think about how you feel and what you need, and describe the behavior that annoyed you in a non-blaming and non-judgmental language. Simply describe the behavior as if it was being recorded with a camera. The general structure of an I-statement is :
    • When “something happens,” I feel “describe your feelings,” and the impact of this behavior on me is “ list the tangible effects of that behavior on you.” What I need from you is to “list your needs.” For example: “When the car isn’t refilled with gas, I feel frustrated because I have to stop for gas the next morning on my way to work. This will make me late for work and my boss will be upset with me. I need you to make sure that the car is refilled with gas before you come home.”
    • Another question you could ask yourself is “What is the dream behind my complaint?” Behind every complaint is a frustrated or unfulfilled dream. If you focus on describing your dream instead of criticizing your partner’s behavior, you will have a more positive interaction with your partner and give them a chance to be the hero who saves the day rather than the bad guy who ruins the day.
  • Feed Forward: Letting people know what you need from them in advance can be a great way to avoid conflict in the future. The I-statement can also be very helpful in feeding forward because it gives the listener a chance to help you and be there for you and feel like a hero rather than a contributor to the problem. For example, you can discuss an event that needs to happen in the future by asking for what you need from your partner or family ahead of time, so that you can avoid any problems happening on the day of that event.
  • CURIOSITY: curiosity is a great come-from place or “Meta skill” when going into a conversation. It affects the atmosphere of the conversation positively because the other person feels your genuine interest in understanding their point of view rather than your willingness to judge them.
2- Antidotes to Contempt:

Contempt is probably the most destructive of the four horsemen. Relationships, where contempt is expressed between partners, are indeed incredibly unhappy and abusive. In fact, research shows that couples who express contempt towards each other are more likely to experience health problems such as infectious diseases and other ailments. Some of the antidotes to contempt are:

  • Personal Development: Contempt is a personal issue that the individual needs to work on in order to grow and evolve as a human being. This could mean going to therapy or working with a life coach. It could also be reading self-help books or taking classes or courses designed to teach respectful communication skills. The key here is the willingness to change for the sake of the relationship.
  • Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect: Practicing respect and effective communication leads to building a positive atmosphere and helping the relationship to grow. If you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, respect, and affection to your partner you will gradually build a positive atmosphere in your relationship. It’s important to remember the ratio of 1:5. For every negative interaction with your partner, you need to have five positive interactions to counter the effect of that one negative interaction. Remember that trust is very hard to build and very easy to tear down.
3- Antidotes to Defensiveness:

Defensiveness manifests in the form of victimhood and indirectly blaming the other and not taking responsibility for your part in whatever is going on in your relationship. Therefore, the antidote to that is to take responsibility for your contribution to the conflict in your relationship. When we are being defensive, we are effectively saying “ït’s not me, it’s you.” As a result, the problem is not solved but rather it escalates. By taking responsibility for your actions that contributed to the problem, you can begin to move towards a solution. Also, it might help to remember that there is at least a 2% truth in what others say about us, even though most of it is projection.

When dealing with someone who is being defensive in an argument, it is very helpful to shift gears and focus on listening to them instead of talking about what you need from them or whatever the topic of the argument is. When someone is being defensive, they are most likely in a state of emotional flooding and need to feel that the other person is concerned about them and really wants to understand their point of view. In such a case, active listening is very useful. In active listening, you listen to the person with empathy and positive body language without breaking eye-contact. You then repeat back to them what you understood starting with the word “You.” You could say things like “You feel …,” or “What I’m hearing is that you …” and then rephrase what they just said according to your understanding. You can’t go wrong with active listening because the worst thing that could happen is that the other person will say that this is not what they meant and then they will correct you. Active listening is explained thoroughly in the work of Dr. Thomas Gordon in his many books and courses, such as Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training.


4- Antidotes to Stonewalling:

Stonewalling is one of the most difficult horsemen to deal with because when it happens, people are usually emotionally flooded and can’t interact with each other. That’s why the best thing to do is to take a break in order to relax and self-soothe. At a later stage, it might be helpful to find mediation to help people deal with the problem, such as hiring a relationship coach or therapist.

The following illustration summarizes the four destructive behaviors and their antidotes.

  • Relationship Fundamentals. Faith Fuller and Marita Fridjhon.
  • Parent Effectiveness Training. Dr. Thoman Gordon.


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