4 Solid Predictors of a Relationship in Trouble

Did you know whether our marriage would survive? It’s a question couples have often asked me after they have experienced a positive change in their relationship. I think it is an interesting question.  However, if I were to allow myself to predict an outcome, I would be doing our profession a disservice.

I believe in the process of therapy and that change is possible! I have observed when couples identify where they learned much of their behavior patterns. It serves as an awakening and an opportunity for them to decide to do things differently. I hold the belief that when couples do the necessary work, their relationship can be stronger than before therapy. But it is important for me to state, when abuse (of any kind), addictions, affairs or agendas are present these behaviors need to be assessed for severity, then addressed and eliminated for a relationship to be healthy.

When a relationship is in severe trouble there are four communication styles that The Gottman Institute research identifies as predictors that a relationship will end.  John Gottman calls them The Four Horsemen – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

  1. Criticism is distinctly different than stating a complaint. It is an attack on the partner’s character, with the intent to harm. It is crucial to learn the difference between complaining and criticizing.
  2. Contempt is treating the other with disrespect, ridicule, name-calling, and sarcasm. Its intention is to make one feel worthless. Contempt is the single predictor of divorce. This communication style needs to be addressed and eliminated.
  3. Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism. It happens when a partner feels wrongly accused and finds excuses. The intent is to get the partner to back off. Defensiveness is necessary at times but, when used in a stressful situation, may increase the conflict.
  4. Stonewalling is typically a response to contempt. The partner stops listening and responding. They back off or shut down from any interactions with their partner. The intent is to avoid addressing a difficult issue. It is crucial during this time to recognize the behavior, ask for a break, and return with a more open attitude.

I write about the Four Horsemen because they are the most common indicators that therapists use to identify a relationship in trouble. These communication styles are not difficult for therapists to identify when working with a couple and yet they can be the most challenging to change. Fortunately, when a couple comes in wanting to improve their relationship and does what is necessary to change, they can create a new relationship.



Dr. Laura L. Bokar                  LMFT, LCPC, ACS










Dr. Laura Bokar can be reached by phone at 630.718.0717, ext. 202 or email drlaura@fvinstitute.com. For immediate assistance to schedule an appointment, please connect with one of our Client Care Specialists at 630.718.0717, ext.240.


Resource: The Gottman Institute