The 4 Scientific Reasons Your Last Relationship Failed

BY CHRIS DANILO — First appeared on my personal blog

I have no idea if these two are actually fighting. But they could be, and that’s what makes a great Medium stock photo.

John Gottman can predict whether or not your relationship will survive the next 5 years with 85% accuracy.

Isn’t that insane?

85% accuracy!

What makes John and his wife Julie’s research so consistently significant?

They’ve narrowed down the predictability factors down to 4 main symptoms. Gottman calls them the ‘4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’

If you do these 4 things in ANY of your relationships, you’re at risk for a break-up:

1. Criticism

You always leave the toilet seat up.”

You never listen when I talk.”

You’re the type of person who loves their mother a little too much.”

We’ve probably all had similar thoughts run through our heads, often because this kind of language makes it simple to determine who is right or wrong.

SPOILER ALERT: there’s no right or wrong, just everyone’s personal relationship preferences. Making someone right or wrong isn’t healthy, it just alienates the other person.

The goal is to confront the problem, not criticize the person.

Try this instead:

“When X happened, I felt Y, I’d really prefer Z”

Focus on the behavior, not the person. Talk about how YOU felt. Make it clear what you want.

2. Defensiveness

I get this wrong all the time.

After being cheated on in an early relationship, I’ve realized that I’m still super sensitive to being abandoned or betrayed. So I jump to my own defense, to protect myself from being hurt again.

Any of these sound familiar?

It’s not my fault I did X, Jesse was really pushy and I didn’t want to make anyone mad.”

“Well, at least I didn’t X while you Y’d for 3 months last year.”

“I did X because you did Y.”

Watch out for excuses about external pressures influencing your decisions — you’re responsible for your behavior.

Are you listening to your partner, or are you just waiting for them to stop talking so you can chime in or repeat yourself?

This is classic ‘cross-complaining,’ where you meet your partner’s complaint with your own. Are you arguing like adults or playing ping-pong?

No ‘yes-butting.’ Don’t agree and then end up disagreeing.

3. Stonewalling

My Italian family can be incredibly skilled at this one.

Ever get that ice-cold stare from someone?

How about the non-verbal withdrawal or disapproving look?

Ever gotten the silent treatment?

This is an unhealthy strategy for avoiding conflict. It’s intention is often to maintain neutrality, but instead; it conveys disapproval, disconnection, separation, or even smugness.

This shit’s bad news.

4. Contempt

Gottman mentions in his book that this might be the most rotten of the 4 horsemen.

Contempt is “attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse.”

It sounds like this:

  • Name calling. “Bitch.” “Bastard.” “Jerk.” “Lazy.”
  • Sarcasm or mockery. “Oh, okay, sure.”
  • Sneering or rolling your eyes.
  • The snide curl of the lip.

But how can we start having healthier relationships despite the inevitable roadblocks?

Here are 4 antidotes:


1. Listen.

Listening means not talking, and understanding someone else’s perspective. It means letting them talk until they’re finished. It means validating their feelings by empathizing with their situation.

Listening is a critical part of building a ‘safe space’ for you and your partner to talk about tough issues. If your partner doesn’t feel like they can come to you with a problem, they probably won’t. If you freak out every time they tell you something, they’re going to stop telling you stuff.

Listen, empathize, and create a safe-space to have the argument.

2. Take responsibility.

No excuses.

Don’t blame external factors. Own your behavior and your decisions.

Your follow up questions in these situations should be: “what can I do about this?,” and “what did I learn from this?”

3. Let go of shit that doesn’t matter.

In the end, the only thing that matters is whether you and your partner are committed to each other.

That’s it.

There are a ton of conflicts that surface that really sound important but aren’t, like:

“I could never date someone who listens to that kind of music,”

or “I don’t think this is a good time in my life for this,”

or how about “we’re too far apart.”

This also means practicing un-defensiveness.

Let go of meaningless, anger-fueled, shot-from-the-hip utterances. Separate the person from the behavior, especially when you’re both in bad moods. The fuse is always shorter in those situations, for all of us.

Seriously, grab a goddamn Snickers or something.

4. Appreciate.

At the end of an argument, it’s helpful to mix in some positivity.

What are 5 things you appreciate about your partner?

Gottman recommends using the 5:1 rule, having 5 times the positive feelings/interactions as negative.

This helps remind you both that there’s a bigger world out there than just this argument and that you still love each other — despite your flaws.


If you want to dig deeper (and who wouldn’t?) check out Gottman’s book on the 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking something like:

Why aren’t they teaching us this in school??

But that’s another post. :)



Thanks for reading!

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