A new relationship—whether personal, romantic, or professional—is a lot like buying a new car. Driving off is pure bliss. As you look around, you can scarcely take it all in. Everything smells, sounds, and looks terrific. You coast through weeks or months—maybe even years— of happy driving before you’re aware of anything that needs fixing.
And like a car, when a relationship breaks down, it’s overwhelming; you’re left stuck on the side of the road wondering what went wrong.
A trained eye knows when a car is in trouble. From the sound of the idle to the color of the exhaust exiting the tailpipe, there are telltale signs of distress. The same is true of relationships, and you can be your own mechanic.
Researchers at the University of Washington discovered four clear indicators of relationship failure (dubbed “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”) so profound that they predict the future success of a relationship with 93% accuracy. The researchers in Washington conducted their studies with married couples, and their accuracy rate for predicting divorce has held up for more than 14 years after watching couples interact.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The Four Horsemen reveal problems for relationships of all types. They represent the counterproductive acts we can easily fall victim to this when our emotions get the best of us (aka, a lack of emotional intelligence). As you read each of the Horsemen and consider its relevance in your relationships, remember that conflict itself is not a problem.
Conflict is actually a normal and (ideally) productive part of two people with different needs and interests working together. The researchers in Washington found that the amount of conflict between two people had no bearing on the success of the relationship. It’s how conflict is handled that determines a relationship’s success, and the Four Horsemen’s presence means conflict is not being dealt with constructively or productively. Follow the strategies provided for overcoming each of the Four Horseman, and your relationships are bound to be successful.
The 1st Horseman: Criticism
Criticism is not to be confused with delivering feedback or otherwise seeking improvement or change in another person. Criticism becomes, well, criticism when it isn’t constructive. Criticism, in its most troubling form, focuses on the individual’s personality, character, or interests rather than the specific action or behavior you’d like to see changed. It’s one thing to criticize without being constructive; it’s another to go after someone for something they are unable to change.
If you find yourself criticizing when you planned on being constructive, it’s best if you don’t deliver your feedback and commentary unless you’ve planned ahead. You’ll need to think through what you’re going to say and stick to your script in order to remain constructive and avoid criticism.
It’s also best if you focus your feedback on a single specific behavior, as your reactions to multiple behaviors at once can easily be perceived as criticism. If you find that you cannot deliver feedback without generalizing to the other person’s personality, you’re better off saying nothing at all.
The 2nd Horseman: Contempt
Contempt is any open sign of disrespect toward another. Contempt often involves comments that aim to take the other person down a notch, as well as direct insults. Contempt is also seen in indirect and veiled forms, such as rolling of the eyes and couching insults within humour.