You’re so wrapped up in yourself that I don’t even know if you’re capable of listening to me, let alone understanding me. It’s like you’re living in your own world. Yes, we’re married and you say you love me. But what’s the good of you loving me or of us being married if you only think of yourself all of the time. I used to think you had such a big heart. Where is it now? What keeps blood pumping through those veins of yours? Remember when I would rest my head on your chest in bed and listen to your heartbeat? I don’t think I’d hear anything now, not that you’d let me try given that you’ve taken sex out of the equation for the past six months. We’re drowning in this relationship and you’re the anchor.

The Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse

This is the first in a new series of blog posts on four of the most destructive behaviors to relationships: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The toxic relationship effects of these behaviors, dubbed “The Four Horsemen” by relationship researcher John Gottman, have revealed that these behaviors are four of the most powerful predictors of relationship dissatisfaction and divorce.

If The Four Horsemen are all too familiar to you (and your partner), my hope is that reading this blog series will provide some clarity about why these behaviors are so common and how a relationship can heal from their devastating effects.

Masters and Disasters

One of the more comforting of Gottman’s discoveries is that all couples fight, even those couples whose relationships remain stable and comparatively happy over time. This means that conflict on some level is unavoidable and should not be interpreted as a death knell for a relationship. Therefore, Gottman and his colleagues have shown that it is not if couples fight, but how couples fight that distinguishes the “masters and disasters of relationships.”

The Criticism Reflex

When we get into a fight with our significant other, it is natural to fall into an attack-defend conflict style. Because most of us do not resort to physical violence in these fights, one of the more common ways we attack our partner is to criticize him/her. Unfortunately, criticism is not an effective conflict resolution strategy. In the context of partner conflict, Gottman has defined criticism as stating a problem in the relationship as a defect in the partner. Since criticism and the attack-defend conflict style are tied to our hardwired fight-or-flight instinct, it can be difficult to learn new ways of responding to conflict.

Complain Without Blame

Instead of criticizing our partner during a fight, we need to learn how to complain without blaming our partner. As incredibly difficult as this skill can be to learn, it is well worth the effort. Complaining without blame transforms hurtful and hopeless fight dialogue in to productive—albeit intense—conversation. The following are some examples of criticism turned into a complaint.

Criticism Complaint
1. You’re clueless! No wonder you were an hour late picking up the kids. This can’t keep happening. I need to know that you will be there on time to pick up the kids.
2. Talk about somebody who is fatally flawed. You wouldn’t know how to love me if I spelled it out for you! We’re just not on the same page. I want to feel loved. Will you work with me on this?
3. If you would just figure out how to talk to me, we’d be fine. I’d like to share few things that you can say to me when we fight that I think will make things better. Is that all right?


I have had many conversations with clients about how difficult it is to stop using criticism in fights. Many of us struggle mightily at first to learn how to complain without blame. In these moments I remind my clients that as difficult as it may be to learn how to overcome the urge to criticize, it is far more difficult for us if we fail to do so. Gottman’s research has shown that there is little reason to hope that a relationship will be satisfying if partners regularly criticize one another.

Once we do learn how to change the way we fight, avoiding the use of criticism at all costs, conflict sounds and feels much different:

I don’t think we understand each other anymore. It feels like we’re living in separate worlds. I’m glad you say that you love me. Please know that I love you, too. It’s just so confusing because of where we’re at now. I hate what we’ve become. It would be great if you checked in with me more. I don’t think we really talk, at least not about things that bring us closer. I want things to get better. I believe you do, too. I miss spending time together. I miss having sex with you. Remember when I would rest my head on your chest in bed and listen to your heartbeat? It was so good. I want to hear it again with my head on your chest, knowing that you feel loved by me and that I feel loved by you. Let’s work on this together.