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Relationship Warning Signs

Relationship Warning Signs

by Margaret Fiero

Is it possible to predict whether a marriage or long-term relationship will succeed or fail? John Gottman believes so. No, Dr. Gottman isn’t a fortune teller, he’s a renowned psychologist specializing in marital stability, who has used numerous techniques to study relationship patterns in married couples. Gottman also claims to be able to predict which couples will divorce within six years, with 80% accuracy within 15 minutes of meeting them. Though this video may look dated, the information gathered from his studies on newlywed couples is timeless.

Relationship warning signs from Gottman’s research:

Harsh Startup

Conflicts can go from bad to worse quickly when a critical tone starts off the confrontation, as it quashes open and honest communication. Try to start with an appreciative statement before diving into a complaint. Rather than using accusatory “you” statements, express your thoughts and feelings through “I-statements.”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: When you hear these guys clomping around, it’s time to take stock.


Attacking your partner’s character, constantly needing to be right, negative generalizations. (Learn how to avoid the blame game).


Attacking your partner’s sense of self with intent to insult or psychologically abuse by name-calling, hostile tone of voice, sarcasm, mocking body language, and eye-rolling. Gottman stated that among the four horsemen, Contempt was the strongest indicator of a broken relationship.


Taking on the victim role, always warding off a perceived attack by way of making excuses, cross-complaining (meeting your partner’s complaint and upping that with your own), “yes-butting” (start off agreeing but end up disagreeing), repeating yourself without listening, whining. (Learn how to fight right.)


Possibly due to flooding (see below), Stonewalling communicates distance, disapproval, iciness, as well as possibly smugness. Conveyed through stony silence, monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject, the silent treatment, and leaving the scene of the conflict.


It is easy to get overwhelmed during an emotionally charged confrontation with an intimate partner. Flooding occurs when an individual shuts down completely and is unable to stay engaged in the moment. Similar to shell-shock at its most severe, it can lead to dissociation, which may result in memory loss of the incident. Though it functions as self-protection, it impedes effective communication. The key is to avoid getting to this point or finding a way to work through the flooding to get to a place of resolution.

Physiological Response

It’s exhausting just to hear about relationships ridden with constant conflict; I can’t imagine the physical toll it takes on the individuals in the relationship. Somatic symptoms can crop up in response to the unrelenting stress, taking form as muscle tension, stomach upset, and panic attacks. These symptoms may also appear in body language, which researchers looked at during Gottman’s studies as well.

Failed repair attempts

Early in the relationship, conflicts are usually resolved by one partner finding a way to bridge the gap with the other through efforts to reconnect and break through emotional tension. As conflict in the relationship becomes the norm, the partners will begin to defend themselves against further pain and disappointment by rejecting repair attempts.

Bad Memories

All couples experience conflict. Those with healthy relationships, however, are still able to recall memories of shared happy events. As a relationship gets more and more mired down in negativity, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw up those good, sustaining memories. Partners may still recall positive events, but they connect these to negative emotions.

If you recognize any of these aspects in your relationship, don’t give up hope as many people come into couples counseling with these problems. In my blog post titled, Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work, we detail the steps Gottman provided for healing relationships and making them work! Also, we have resources if you are curious about learning more about what marriage counseling is like, wanting to make a counseling appointment, simple ways to improve your relationship, or see more about our therapists.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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