How to tell if you’re going to break up, according to a psychologist who’s studied couples for decades


Have you ever been in the middle of a heated argument when the other person suddenly pulls out their phone and starts texting?

This behaviour, known as stonewalling, fits into a category that marriage therapist John Gottman has identified as one of four signs a couple is headed for a breakup.

Gottman is a psychology professor at the University of Washington and has been studying couples for decades.

Gottman and University of California Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson spent 14 years studying 79 married American couples to find out what — if anything — those who divorced had in common.

The couples who split by the end of the study tended to display one of four behaviours which Gottman called “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. But Gottman also told Business Insider that there are ways to spot these behaviours early and work to change them for the better.

1. Contempt

Contempt alone, Gottman told Business Insider, is “the kiss of death” for a relationship. He described the behaviour as a virulent mix of anger and disgust that’s far more toxic than simple frustration or negativity. It involves seeing your partner as beneath you, rather than as an equal.


The reason contempt is so powerful, Gottman said, is because it means you have closed yourself off to your partner’s needs and emotions.

If you constantly feel smarter than, better than, or more sensitive than your significant other, you’re less likely see his or her opinions as valid. And more importantly, you’re far less willing to put yourself in his or her shoes and try to see a situation from his or her perspective.

To combat this behaviour, partners need to be open to seeing things from the other’s point of view.

2. Criticism

Like contempt, criticism involves taking something your partner did and turning into a statement about their character or the type of person he or she is.

Say your partner has a habit of leaving used dishes around the house. Do you calmly tell them that the behaviour bothers you, or do you think to yourself, “Why am I dating the type of person who is so careless that they leave their dishes everywhere?” If you’re in the latter category, Gottman said these reactions can feed darker feelings of resentment and contempt.

The next time you find yourself criticising your partner’s character, then, perhaps take a moment to question why you’re doing it. Are you trying to avoid addressing a bigger issue?

3. Defensiveness

Gottman found that couples who divorce within the first several years of marriage — one of the times when divorce rates are highest — tend to slide easily into emotionally-charged situations.

Couple arguing

One partner in these dangerous scenarios, he said, often plays the victim and becomes defensive.

For these couples, “entering negativity is like stepping into a quicksand bog. It’s easy to enter but hard to exit,” Gottman said.

To avoid a situation like this, he advised taking responsibility for your role in a tough situation. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s often what keeps a bad situation from escalating, he said.

4. Stonewalling

You know when an argument is about to start — you can feel your heart rate increase and your voice get a bit louder. But if things start to get heated, do you walk away or simply ignore your partner?

Blocking off conversation can be just as toxic for a relationship as contempt because it keeps partners from addressing an underlying issue, Gottman said. So if you find yourself shutting down, pause and think about how you can stay open to what your significant other has to say.

The takeaway

Gottman isn’t the only researcher to highlight these signs that all is not well with a couple. A recent study of close to 400 newlyweds found that couples who yelled at each other, showed contempt, or shut off conversation about an issue within the first year of marriage were more likely to divorce as far as 16 years down the road.

Still, keep in mind that it’s ok to occasionally display one of these behaviours. If get frequent enough to replace more positive interactions, however, that can be cause for concern.

Simply recognising that you’re doing something negative is the first step to combating it. If you can figure out how to avoid a behaviour or replace it with a more productive one, you’ll probably make your relationship stronger.

In fact, Gottman said that partners in the couples he’s studied who succeed in staying in love have both cultivated what he calls “the magic trio”: calm (even during conflict), trust, and commitment.

Those traits are essentially the opposite of the “four horsemen,” and they involve building a safe haven with your significant other — a place where you feel comfortable, nurtured, and free to express yourself without fear of retribution. Gottman likened the idea to the actor Tom Hanks’ monologue about his late wife in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle.”

“Hanks says something like — meeting her was like finally coming to ‘a home, but a home I had never known before,'” Gottman said.