4 Habits that Signal Relationship Doom. ~ Sara McKeown

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 10
Shares 3.2
Hearts 1.0
Comments 1.0
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
5 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

As someone who has long struggled with trying to be the “Valedictorian of Everything,” my ears pricked up when John Gottman was mentioned in one of my graduate counseling classes.

Gottman is famous for being able to predict with 98 percent accuracy—(98 percent! My birth control isn’t even that reliable!)—whether a couple will divorce or not.

In other words, he’s the Valedictorian of Couples’ Counseling.

I had to know more, not only because I wanted to be such a skilled clinician, but because I was curious whether my then relationship was doomed or not (it was, but that’s another story).

So, I dug into his research. And it turns out that after interviewing and following thousands of couples over many years, his results aren’t all that complicated (in theory).

He and his team discovered four conflict patterns that are strong predictors of the end of a relationship. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as they’re nicknamed include:


This is when a complaint is delivered as an attack. It makes someone right and someone wrong.

Why is this so bad?

One, it’s unproductive. And two, it adds fuel to the conflict fire. When we lead with what a lazy ass our partner is they’re likely to respond by pointing out what a lazy ass we are, which we’ll then criticize as being a total exaggeration and not at all right, which our partner will then criticize as… well, you get the point.

Using sentences that start with: “you always…,” “you never…,” “you’re a person who…,” “why are you so…” are signs this Horseman is present.

As a then “Valedictorian of Everything,” I was intimately familiar with the tactic. It was a favorite of mine, pointing out how wrong my partner was and how perfect I was. Score one for the Horsemen!


Using this tactic during disagreements is actually the strongest indicator of not only divorce, but of disease. It literally eats away at our partner and our relationship.

Contempt creates an air of superiority and undermines respect, a key factor in relationship success.

Insulting, name calling, mocking, sneering and eye rolling are all signs of contempt. And exactly what my boyfriend did when I started in with the criticism. Another point for the Horsemen!


This tactic prevents partners from working together. It places all the blame and responsibility on one party, creating a victim and perpetrator, which is not at all helpful when trying to hash out disagreements, because whether we want to admit it or not, it does in fact take two to tango.

Making excuses, cross-complaining (answering our partner’s complaint with a complaint), yes-butting, whining and repeating ourselves without listening to our partners are all tools of this Horseman.

And usually what I resorted to when the criticism escalated. Because clearly I was the victim, and if he just fixed his problems all would be well. Horseman: three. Sara: zero.


This is withdrawing from the relationship. Walking away, not responding, changing the subject and using the silent treatment are all in this Horseman’s arsenal.

While it may seem that we’re trying to be neutral when we use this tactic, the damage it inflicts is that of separation, disconnection, iciness and disapproval.

Which is what I felt when my boyfriend walked out and slammed the door, cutting off my criticism and defensiveness.

So, what was I do? We scored four out of four on the Apocalypse scale, so clearly the end was near.

Or was it?

According to Gottman there are also habits we can cultivate to keep the Horseman at bay.

They include: being gentle when bringing up issues, taking responsibility for our part in the argument, wanting to learn more about our partner’s complaint and participating in the conversation.

I was not particularly interested in doing any of these at the time, because I couldn’t bring myself to use the most important skill. The skill that sends the Horseman fleeing when they show up, as they are apt to do in all relationships at some point, and that’s repairing.

Repairing the relationship means saying, “I’m sorry. I screwed up. Let’s talk about it.” It creates openness, vulnerability and a common shared story. It means not being the “Valedictorian of Everything,” but being the “Valedictorian of I’m Imperfect Let’s Work on this Together.”

This is a lesson I’m still learning, and one my current partner often reminds me of while rolling his eyes.



The Real Reason Most of Us Stay in Bad Relationships.

4 Reasons Why Relationships End.

Letting Go in Relationships: A Buddhist’s View of Attachment. 



Sara McKeown is just like every other yogi, except she hates coconut water. When she’s not perfecting her Downward Facing Dog or teaching other people how to perfect theirs, she can be found eating avocados, doodling in her journal, talking with her hands, microwaving her non-dairy ice cream, daydreaming about having Ira Glass’s babies, debating which book to stick her nose in or helping people live their best lives through her work as a counselor and wellness coach. Send her love notes at [email protected] or come along with her on her journey by checking out her blog, My Great Leap.


Editor: Brianna B.

Like elephant Love on Facebook.

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 10
Shares 3.2
Hearts 1.0
Comments 1.0
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
5 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

Read The Best Articles of January
You voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares.

elephant journal

Elephant Journal is dedicated to “bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society.” We’re about anything that helps us to live a good life that’s also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant’s been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter’s Shorty Awards for #green content…two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter. Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive—and get your name/business/fave non-profit on every page of elephantjournal.com. Questions? Send to [email protected]

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

anonymous Mar 13, 2016 11:34am

Magnificent web journal. I appreciated perusing your articles. This is really an extraordinary read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am anticipating perusing new articles. Keep doing awesome!

anonymous Feb 23, 2016 3:00am

Indeed, this post is so intriguing and helpful to me. A debt of gratitude is in order for the creator. I exceptionally value your work. Continue sharing to everybody. Much thanks.

anonymous Feb 23, 2016 1:24am

I'm confounded, I require talk. Every once in a while do I happen converse a site that is pretty much as educative further beguiling, further inadequate as to an incertitude, you acknowledge slug the catch on the skull. The inconvenience is an option that is other than unobtrusive bundle kindreds are speaking cunningly about. I am to a great degree joyful that I blundered backwards this all through my mission for something relating to this.

anonymous Feb 23, 2016 12:57am

Your website has the steady advise as extra engineer just i inclination your promote.

anonymous Feb 15, 2016 10:02am

Its constantly pleasant when you read something that is enlightening as well as captivating. I will bookmark it. I have been scanning for data about this topic for quite a long time and yours is the best I have found. I truly making the most of your site post.

anonymous Jan 5, 2016 1:10am

Some individual essentially endowment to force impressively creations I would articulate. That is the chief rhythm I frequented your labyrinth dispatcher additionally to this bit? I flabbergasted along the investigation you made to relieve this sure telecast fantastic. Popular opportunity!

anonymous Dec 29, 2015 2:19am

My stbx was guilty of the first three, i was guilty of the fourth. I had to stonewall to mange my sanity, I had already spent six months under medical observation, due to constant anxiety and panic attacks. Fending off hourly, criticism, and abusive remarks. In the end i just gave up and agreed externally just to appease her. She was impossible to talk to because she was always right and never apologised for anything. I just got an unexpected xmas card from her, telling me she thought I am and was a great guy. My first compliment in four years of marriage , go figure! I never want to touch or go near a another woman for as long as I live.

anonymous Sep 6, 2015 9:51am

When two are in a heated discussion, upset, or angry at one another and one chooses to disengage, that is not stonewalling as the other may say or as said in this article. This can be a method for choosing to back off and regroup.

But yeah, this is a good article.

anonymous Aug 19, 2015 1:25pm

Really a actual nice website and acceptable admonition and it is nice to apprehend the admonition provided and such these types of websites aswell admonition to acceptance to acquisition the able way for their carrier and it is bigger access to backpack on the apprenticeship and basically abstraction for the acknowledgment blush of the acceptable anticipate accommodate by writer.thanks

anonymous Aug 8, 2015 9:20am

I have noted all habits

anonymous Aug 7, 2015 9:51am

The truth is… I gave my substance abroad a pine date back, my ideal soul… further I never really got it back..

anonymous Aug 7, 2015 9:20am

Your organization flourishes you have a various of involvement in this point. Can you express me to further questions about this? I slant propose this report to my buddy's also.

anonymous Jul 27, 2015 5:21am

This site is in light of a decent data. The writer has expounded on enormous occasion. Gardenroots members will join in the opposition and have been told about the outcomes. A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing.

anonymous Jul 17, 2015 3:51am

Your web journal has the steady illuminate as extra designer just i inclination your promote.

anonymous Jun 22, 2015 2:29am

I am extremely littered with perusing this content. entrancing post and that i am excited about your wrestle the issue. much obliged such parcels, keep it up, do additional endeavors in future.

anonymous Mar 18, 2015 10:29am

How do you not stonewall when your partner is drunk talking out of his ass. it's the only time we argue

anonymous Mar 5, 2015 12:55am

Well, we're doomed…have been for 30 years! 🙁

Singles' Day Nov 8, 2016 6:10pm

Awesome article. Thank you for your words I like it. Here is a new born in the world of relationship: www.contactmeapp.com