There are four signs based on how a couple communicates that can predict if they'll break up with over 90% accuracy, according to research from John Gottman, Ph.D., co-founder of the Gottman Institute, which provides couples' counseling and educates mental health care providers.
The good news? There are ways to address these issues head on.
Toxic criticism is the first indicator of a problem that needs to be addressed, Kim Polinder, the host of the podcast “Engineering Love” and a relationship coach based in Long Beach, California, tells TODAY.com.
She warns against criticizing your partner too often or doing so generally and unfairly. She explains that making generalizations such as, “You never take out the garbage,” isn’t conducive to constructive communication. “When you use the words ‘never’ and ‘always,’ you’re commenting on someone’s character versus focusing on the issue at hand,” she explains.
Defensiveness, Polinder says, is about making excuses without demonstrating any sort of accountability for one’s own actions. She advises to “learn to take accountability for your part in your partner’s complaint,” — even in situations when it’s a very small part. “I like to refer to the 1% test,” she continues. “Is 1% of what your partner is complaining about true? If so, take accountability for that 1%. Couples get so busy defending themselves that empathy gets lost in the conversation.”
Stonewalling, Polinder explains, is about shutting a conversation down completely and even physically turning away from your partner. Some couples also engage in the silent treatment.
“When it comes to stonewalling, both partners need to understand the importance of deescalating fights and learning to recognize when one partner is overwhelmed,” she says. “And if you do take a break, it should never last more than a day, and frequent check-in’s should be happening during the break.”
Signs of contempt include sighing, rolling your eyes, mocking your partner, engaging in cutting sarcasm, or demonstrating an all-around dislike of your partner or the things they value, Polinder says.
“Out of all of (the warning signs), contempt is the most dangerous predictor, and it’s referred to as the relationship killer,” she says. “Left unaddressed, these behaviors will eventually evolve into percolating resentment over the years.”
Instead, she advises, “learn to speak your feelings rather than communicate in passive-aggressive ways.”
Dr. Donald Cole, the current clinical director of the Gottman Institute, tells TODAY.com that three of the four warning signs occur from time to time in most relationships, but contempt is the most worrisome.
“It is not unusual for even satisfied couples to occasionally slip into criticism and defensiveness. Even occasional stonewalling has been observed. Contempt, however, is only observed in couples whose relationships were on the path to failure,” he explains.
How to fix these communication troubles
Polinder says the best way to address any of these issues is to do so head on. “If you notice any or all of these arguing styles in your relationship, the best way to approach it is to talk about them with your partner,” she advises. “These behaviors are indicative of underlying sentiments and feelings that are going unexpressed.”
Cole agrees that addressing problems as they arise is critical. “Repair is an essential skill for all couples to be successful," he says. "A gentle approach is essential when someone is bringing up an issue to their partner.”
To do this, he recommends following this three-step model:
- State your feeling, such as "I’m worried."
- Describe the situation, such as "About the way we’ve been arguing."
- Express your need, such as, "I need us to find a way to make our conversations go better."
In addition to dealing with obstacles head on, Polinder recommends proactively fostering a stronger connection with your partner.
“The No. 1 skill you can cultivate to improve your relationship is to learn to empathize with your partner,” Polinder says. “Research shows that individuals will not move forward in a conversation until they feel that the other party understands their position.” And until the person feels understood, they'll be less inclined to compromise or listen to another point of view.
“Validating feelings is all about focusing on your partner’s emotions, not their thoughts or judgments about you,” she says. “You don’t have to agree with their conclusions, but you do need to agree with the emotional pain that they’re experiencing. Empathy has become a lost art amongst couples, and it is a key piece to emotional intimacy.”
Polinder also recommends daily 10-minute check-ins with no distractions to make sure resentments aren’t building and getting professional help, either as a couple or alone. For example, "many stonewallers benefit from individual therapy to teach them how to practice communicating through conflict and to understand the root of their trauma,” she says.
Cole recommends couples learn stress management techniques to help them stop taking out individual frustrations on each other and to increase the amount of time they spend together.
He also points out that showing public signs of affection "seem to have a very positive effect on the emotional connection of couples" and that, above all, it's crucial to "cultivate a culture of appreciation and fondness" within your relationship.
You can do this with small actions, such as placing notes around the house, sending a thoughtful text or leaving a loving voicemail during the workday.
“All of these small things can really add up," Cole suggests. “Successful couples tend to spontaneously say things and do things designed to make their partner feel loved and appreciated.”