4 Behaviors That Sabotage your Relationships (Part I)


Criticism and Contempt

One of the biggest complaints I hear from people all the time have to do with their relationships (whether it’s about family, partners, co-workers, or friends). Having positive relationships is one of the key ingredients to happiness, so experiencing recurrent conflicts in our relationships is a sure-fire way to keep us from being happy.

One of the most helpful learnings during my Coaching Training on Relationship Systems was Dr. John Gottman’s research. Gottman, a leading research scientist on marriage and family, has studied relationships in his “love lab” to the point where he was able to predict whether a couple will stay together or not with 91% accuracy after observing them for just 5 minutes.

In this process, he uncovered 4 behaviors (which he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse) that greatly contribute to relationship conflicts. And these behaviors do not just show up in marriages, but in other relationships as well:

1.       Criticism

We all have complaints, but it is a very different thing if a complaint about something turns into criticism. Oftentimes, criticism comes in a “you always” or “you never” statement.

Let’s say your partner invited someone over for dinner without checking with you. A criticizing statement would be: “Why do you always put your friends ahead of me? I always come last on your list! You never think of me! We were supposed to have dinner alone tonight.”

The problem is that criticizing statements blame the other person without us taking any of the responsibility. But taking self-responsibility can be very empowering. What if we took responsibility for expressing what we need in the relationship?  It could be as simple as starting our sentences with “I wish…” or “I would like” instead of “You never.”

For example: “I wish you had checked with me before inviting anyone over for dinner. I was really looking forward to spending time alone with you tonight.”

2.       Contempt

Criticism can often lead to contempt – a lack of respect for the other person. The underlying message is “I’m better than you.”

When we communicate with contempt, we can become mean, using sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, eye-rolling or mockery. Unfortunately it’s impossible to resolve a problem when the other person is getting the message that you do not respect them.

Let’s say your partner or roommate did not do the dishes and you are feeling fed up that you always end up doing them. A reaction filled with contempt would be: “’ (In a mocking voice)Oh, I forgot again!” You are so pathetic! I’ve been running around all day at work and am trying to keep this place clean, and you just flop down on the sofa and play your idiotic video games! I guess I am the only adult around here! Can you be any more insensitive?”

Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the other person and is the single biggest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman.  Without mutual respect, relationships cannot survive. We can begin by focusing on the positive: ask yourself what you respect or admire in the other person.

Practicing self-responsibility is very important here as well – oftentimes we get so fed up that we blow up and use criticism and contempt, rather than expressing our needs and wants and taking care of ourselves.

Are you noticing any of these patterns in any of your relationships?

Continue to 4 Behaviors That Sabotage your Relationships (Part II) to learn about the next 2 behaviors (Defensiveness and Stonewalling).


Manuela loves helping smart and creative women bring more balance, happiness and success into their lives through Professional Life Coaching!


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