4 Toxic Communication Styles That Lead To Divorce

According to research by Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute, there are four communication styles (The Four Horsemen) that can predict divorce with 90% accuracy. These four toxic communication styles are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Learn more about each of these communication styles, as well as how to counteract their effects, below.

1. Criticism

What it is: Criticism is not the same as expressing a crossed boundary, asserting oneself, or speaking up about a concern. Rather, criticism is a blatant attack on your partner’s character. For example, if your partner struggles with tardiness, criticism of this trait might sound something like, “You are always so late to everything. You’re so careless.” What to do about it: According to Gottman, the fix to criticism is to gently express concerns using “I” statements and positive language surrounding needs as well as not saying “you” to avoid directing blame on your partner. For example, if your partner is consistently late to date night instead of saying something like, “You’re always late, do you even care about me at all?” you could say, “I really need to get to our dinner reservations on time so we can spend more time together and be less stressed. Can we work on that together?”

2. Contempt

What it is: The next of the Four Horsemen is contempt. Contempt is asserting moral superiority. For example, sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. According to Gottman’s research, contempt is the most destructive of the Four Horsemen and the number one indicator of divorce. What to do about it: In order to combat contempt in your marriage, you will need to focus on rebuilding respect and appreciation in your relationship. Some ways to do this would be acting more affectionately, expressing more gratitude, and respecting one another’s boundaries.

3. Defensiveness

What it is: Defensiveness appears usually in response to the first horseman, criticism. It usually is done to shift blame back to your partner when you feel you are being unjustly criticized. What to do about it: In order to help curb defensiveness, it is vital to look at a situation from your partner’s perspective as well as take responsibility for any role you played in a given conflict.

4. Stonewalling

What it is: Stonewalling is basically the silent treatment on steroids. It’s when you completely stop interacting with your partner following an argument and shut down like a vault and refuse to try and solve the problem. What to do about it: The best way to counteract the effects of stonewalling is to take a step back and spend some time solo to self-soothe. Gottman recommends at least 20 minutes in order to help bring your heart rate down and diminish lingering anxiety you may be experiencing from the conflict. *** The presence of The Four Horsemen doesn’t mean your marriage is necessarily doomed, but it does mean some work may need to be done in order to strengthen your relationship and have a healthier partnership.

About the author

Molly Burford

Writer. Editor. Hufflepuff. Dog person.