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Why do some relationships fail? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Carole Nyman   

Why do some relationships fail?

I’m often asked what are the reasons for relationship breakdown.

Of course, the reasons are infinitely varied, but we do have the benefit of findings from the research of John Gottman, an American highly respected marital therapist and behavioural scientist.  He found that there were four predictors of divorce, which he called:

‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse’.

They are basically not good news in a relationship, but with the caveat that no relationship is perfect and it would be boring if it were, use this information to the extent that feels right for you now.  Maybe watch for these slowly creeping into your relationship, or try to reduce their toxic occurrence if they are already present more than you would like.

1. Criticism

2. Contempt

3. Defensiveness and needing to be right

4. Stonewalling

You know that it cuts both ways, so on the basis that you are reading this and therefore have some degree of willingness to be self-reflexive, I will pose some questions from the viewpoint of yourself and you might also imagine how they would be answered by your partner.


Some people are inherently more prone to being critical generally and some reserve criticism for their partners. Gottman once said that we as couples have all the skills that are needed to have great relationships; we practice them on our friends!

If you think that too frequently being critical applies to yourself, ask yourself questions like:

  • Who else would see you as critical?
  • What do you think that they don’t know about you that the critical part of you is covering?
  • What do you think your partner might say you are not seeing in them because criticism is getting in the way of your seeing the bigger picture?
  • What do you think you’re partner is not seeing in you because criticism is getting in the way of your partner seeing your other parts?
  • Thinking about your family that you grew up in, who was the most critical?
  • And who was the least critical?
  • And what would each of them say now about your being critical?


This is very highly toxic. It may be shown by rolling of the eyes when the partner is talking, or sneering or curling up of the lip, for instance.

What triggers it and what is underneath it?

Does your partner trigger some memory of a previous relationship or remind you of someone else from way back?

Try to ask yourself if there were something deeper beneath the momentary feeling, what might it be?

When are you most likely to show this response and when the least likely?  You can think in terms of who else may be around, or a location or an occasion.

Are there times when Contempt doesn’t show up at all and are there times when it is nearly always there?

Is it more or less frequent nowadays?

The next two - Defensiveness (always needing to be right) and Stonewalling go together as part of a power struggle between partners, an interactive pattern. That is good news in the sense that if you are dancing with someone and you change your dance steps, your dance will change.  You may be able to easily identify your dance or you may find it beneficial to find an objective outsider of your relationship to help you to identify it, but once you have done so, you can interrupt that pattern or dance.

It seems to be a fairly uncaring world out there and we all need a sense of being cared about and we have a sense of how our partner ought to show caring to us.  If defensiveness or stonewalling are part of your relationship, what sort of response do you give back?

Whenever you show your worst side, is there inner turbulence going on? And what might you show on the surface?  Or is a non-reaction shown?  That is a signal that you need to urgently work on your relationship.

We all need daily strokes and yet lives can be so busy, we don’t get the attention or privacy time that we need so we are not able to be reflective as to our part in the relationship pattern and that may be at the same time that we really most need that quality of good attention ourselves. And we can feel deeply hurt if we do not get back the response from our partner that we want.

We all have our miserable or negative moments, when we’re tired or challenged or stressed and see things as all bad. In a way, they serve an important purpose; we need to be able to see the negatives so that we can protect ourselves against them. But is it out of control, churning around and around in your head, seriously messing with clear thinking and stopping you seeing clearly or making sensible decisions? A good indicator that this is the case, is if you are making a lot of black and white thinking statements or maybe a lot of drama or taking things to the ultimate level (‘That’s it, I want a divorce!’), just to get some sort of reaction out of your partner.

We know from the field of neuroscience now that focusing on negatives is a problem and so is constantly firing off the stress response.  There is a part of the brain that can help with clarity of mind during upset, or bring warm-heartedness and wisdom of emotions and that there are ways of building up that part of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex).  We also need to down-regulate the amygdale, which is the part of the emotional brain that is constantly scanning the environment for danger.

The key to all of the stresses and strains of daily life and relationships is to practice some type of meditation or relaxation visualisations as well as the deliberate use of attention to focus on appreciations. That is in relation to your relationship and also in your own life, with regard to your own inner resources.


I have made some relaxing downloads because people who learn breathing techniques have a wonderful way to give the mind a regular (preferably daily) experience of quietness.  That is a skill and with practice, you can learn to just allow stressful thoughts to pass by in the mind.  Just as a film can be violent, it doesn’t hurt the screen itself. Relaxation through the breath can be helpful immediately, and also over time the effect can build up as an antidote to the constant accumulation of stresses.  Probably you learned this from ante-natal classes or you can use a relaxation CD or go to a yoga class.  Alternatively, you can take up an activity that you would enjoy, such as singing or walking.

I have recorded a spoken visualisation to relaxing music for relaxation which is available as a FREE MP3 download for Haringey Families members.

If you would like this FREE and you are a member of Haringey Families,

send an email to carole@carolenyman.co.uk subject heading ‘send me relaxation MP3 Track 3’




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