How to kill a relationship in four easy steps

There are four sure-fire ways to kill a relationship. Most of us do aspects of each of them on a regular basis. And then we wonder why people are unhappy with us.

Dr. John Gottman is a long-time relationship researcher at the University of Washington and has written on what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — these four relationship killers. You can read his book or watch YouTube videos for helpful illustrations about each of them. But here they are:

1. Accusation/criticism. Too often, we get frustrated with other people and jump right into what we’re unhappy about. And guess what? They don’t like it.

Not only do we hit people with what makes us angry, but we use all kinds of language that accuses them. “That was so stupid.” “Why would you do something so dumb?” “You’re so rude!” “You ALWAYS do that.” “You NEVER clean up after yourself.” We raise our voices. We cuss. We point our fingers. And so on.

Gottman says that we shouldn’t avoid the truth, but we should avoid accusations. People who have healthy relationships always start gently. They make connections that assure the other that the truth they speak comes from love, not from venting anger. “Speak the truth in love.”

2. Defensiveness. Generally, we’re defensive when we feel attacked. So, accusation by one person often elicits defensiveness from the other. But even when one person starts gently, sometimes the other person will still be defensive.

Defensiveness is an inability to have perspective on one’s self, an inability to see one’s self at fault, an inability to learn.

Defensiveness not only fights back, but evades the truth. Seeking truth is therefore the opposite of defensiveness. People who have healthy relationships are both humble and curious about they can learn from others. Even if what is said to them is filled with distracting attacks and half-truths, they will always seek out what is true while shrugging off the rest.

3. Contempt. One form of defense that gets its own point is looking down on others so that what they say has less of a sting. If I think you’re an idiot, it doesn’t matter what you say to me, because I don’t need to listen to you.

These are the conversations where one person will correct the other person’s grammar or an unimportant detail in what is being said, causing the correcting person to feel superior and even to think that they’ve won the argument. This is where a rolling of the eyes, a sigh, a “Whatever!” work their way into our interactions.

People with healthy relationships always maintain the dignity of those they engage with. Respectful listening is essential to relational health.

4. Stone-walling. Yet another form of defense is a refusal to engage with someone. It’s hard to lose an argument you refuse to participate in.

This isn’t just a guy thing. Women give silent treatments plenty. But men who don’t feel articulate who are in relationships with women who excel at accusing often resort to stone-walling and feel justified in doing so. “Anything I say will only make things worse, so I might as well not say anything at all.”

Not just silence, but physical posture fits into this as well. Avoiding eye contact. Turning your back toward the other.

People with healthy relationships always move toward one another. When they find themselves avoiding one another or turned away from one another, they make the effort to turn and face and engage with one another.

As I look at myself, I find that I engage in each of the four relationship killers — some more than others. So, I try to keep these in mind:

Don’t accuse. Start gently.

Don’t defend. Discover what’s true.

Don’t have contempt. Be respectful.

Don’t stone-wall. Engage.

[Thanks to my sister, Linda Santucci Fries, for pointing me to Dr. Gottman’s research.]