Written by: Andrea Potthoff, PhD LP

Conflict is a normal part of any relationship and is to be expected between couples. However, couples fight in very different ways. Researchers have found that certain behaviors couples engage in during conflict can predict what couples will stay together. In his groundbreaking research, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that were related to divorce in couples. Here are the four behaviors known to predict divorce:


Our partners do not always do things we like and one of the best ways to improve a relationship is to communicate with your partner when this happens. However, it is important to distinguish between a complaint and criticism. It is fine to let your partner know you are annoyed at something he or she did, but it is not okay to attack your partner by criticizing his or her character. Criticism often includes the words always or never and makes negative claims about someone’s personality. Complaints, on the other hand, are usually specific and do not include negative assumptions about your partner’s personality or character.

Criticism Example: “You never take out the trash, you dirty slob.”


Of the four behaviors, this is considered the most problematic. Contempt is intended to damage and hurt the other person. It includes any show of disdain or disgust toward your partner. Of the four behaviors, the presence of contempt is the most predictive of divorce. Mockery and sarcasm are common examples of contempt. Spiteful acts, such as name-calling and physical destruction of your partner’s possessions, are also examples. Any physical abuse falls in this category.

Contempt Example: “Try to be more pathetic (eye roll).”


I have not met a couple yet who does not acknowledge engaging in some defensiveness during disagreements. It is a natural human reaction to defend your actions, but it tends to lead down an unproductive road. When you are more concerned with the next point you want to make than what your partner is saying, it is unlikely anything will get solved.

Defensiveness Example: “I may have done that, BUT you did this.”


This is the hardest one to describe, but couples usually recognize it in their partners pretty quickly. Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws or disengages from the discussion. They may do this by turning away or distracting themselves with their phone or other items. Stonewalling is more commonly displayed by men and is thought to be a reaction to becoming physiologically overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this type of behavior tends to escalate a disagreement and can lead to what psychologists call a pursue-withdraw communication pattern.

Stonewalling Example: “Whatever.”

Fortunately, there are concrete ways to overcome these communication challenges. If you have questions or are interested in therapy for addressing communication issues within your relationship, consider reaching out to us at 612-470-4099. We also offer the Couples Check-Up, a two-session assessment that can provide you with specific feedback about these communication patterns and recommendations for improving your relationship.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s