Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington says there are four attitudes which he has found to predict relationship failure. These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. When these attitudes are present in a relationship, especially when more than one is present, then there is a very good chance that the relationship will not survive. Here is a breakdown of those attitudes, give yourself an honest look at which one you have a tendency to play in your relationships (either married or dating).

  1. Criticism: Criticism is the fault finder or the one who judges unfavorably. When you criticize your partner, you attack your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making yourself right and your partner wrong. I refer to this as “Character Assassination”. When we criticize we use generalizations such as “you always…”, “you never…” and “you’re the type of person who …”
  2. Contempt: Contempt is a feeling of disdain or scorn. Contempt attacks your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her. Typical contemptuous comments made by partners include insults and name calling, hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery as well as contemptuous body language and tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip.
  3. Defensiveness: Defensiveness is seeing yourself as the victim and warding off a perceived attack. When partners are defensive they are not open to learning and are also not able to access the vulnerable feelings underneath. Some typical defensive responses are:
    • Making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way) “It’s not my fault…”, “I didn’t…”
    • Cross-complaining: meeting your partner’s complaint, or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner said.
    • Disagreeing and then cross-complaining “That’s not true, you’re the one who …”
    • Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing.
    • Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying.
    • Whining “It’s not fair.”
  4. Stonewalling: Stonewalling is withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. In the counseling setting I find that men are more prone to stonewall than women are, yet women can also stonewall in their own way. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness. Some typical stonewall responses are stony silence, monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject and removing yourself physically. Stonewalling is considered to be the most “dangerous” of the four horsemen.

After taking a look at these attitudes, it is easy to see that they can be detrimental to the marriage relationship. If you are struggling with one or more of the above relationship attitudes, it is time to do something about it and get your relationships on a course for success.