The “kiss of death” In Relationships!

The “kiss of death” In Relationships!

I recently came across an article on the internet that caught my eye.  It talked about a behavior that is referred to as the “kiss of death” by Dr. John Gottman.  Dr. Gottman conducted a study of marriages over the course of 16 years where he identified what he refers to as the Four Horseman of Apocalypse.  The Four Horseman are behaviors that when they become embedded in a relationship or marriage mark the potential end.  The Four Horseman are contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  These behaviors, left unchecked, often end in separation or divorce.  In fact, Dr. Gottman can observe a couple’s communication patterns for the Four Horseman and within a few minutes is able to predict with 91% accuracy if that couple will eventually divorce.


When you stop for a moment to think how accurately Dr. Gottman can predict divorce based on the behaviors of the Four Horseman it is staggering.  The good news is that even if the Four Horseman are present in your marriage or relationship it does not automatically mean all is doomed.  In fact, couples who get help from a marriage counselor or a marriage therapist can beat the odds.  However, couples who do not have an intervention and who have the Four Horseman knocking on their door or already in their house will eventually succumb.

The Four Horseman


The first horseman is criticism. Criticism goes beyond complaints in that you attack your spouse or partner as if they are defective.  Complaints focus on a behavior you desire to be different.  An example of a complaint is, “I wish you would put the mayo jar away when you’re done using it.”  A criticism, on the other hand, attacks the person’s character.  An example of a criticism is, “You’re a slob.  You never remember to put the jar away.”  Criticism tends to be more global whereas complaints are directed towards specific areas.

The problem with criticism is that it tears down the connection and positivity in a relationship.  No matter how much we do not like to admit it words really do hurt.  Especially the words of the people that we are closest to.  Criticism sees the other person as the problem versus seeing the issue at hand as the problem or the larger pattern of interaction as the problem.


The article I read identified contempt as being the  “kiss of death” in marriage and relationships.  I think of contempt as being a more intense form of criticism.  Contempt involves making threats, name calling and insults, and just downright treating your spouse or partner with hurt and meanness.  It has all the characteristics of criticism plus a whole lot more negativity.  Couples that are stuck in contempt often see each other as the enemy that they need to fight and protect themselves against.  It is no surprise than that according to Dr. Gottman contempt is the single greatest predictor to divorce.


Defensiveness involves not owning your stuff.  Defensive people do not take responsibility for their actions and emotions and often will blame the other person.  It can happen when the person feels under attack or criticized.  It can also become habitual and an automatic response so that even when there is no real threat a person can respond with defensiveness.  The problem with defensiveness is that it blocks any real chance at problem solving and resolution because their is no ownership.

One of the biggest problems with defensiveness is that it causes the argument to escalate fast.  Couples spin back and forth between being critical and defensiveness thus creating very rigid patterns of interaction.  The more one partner criticizes the more the other defends.  And the more the partner defends the more the other criticizes.  A vicious cycle takes root putting the marriage or relationship further at risk.


The 4th and final Horseman is stonewalling.  This is a more intense level of defensiveness.  This is when a person has withdrawn from the relationship.  They are shut down, closed off, and emotionally distant.  The message is often seen as “I don’t care” or “I won’t let you hurt me anymore.”  Stonewalling is certainly dangerous for couples in that it can often mark the beginning stages of separation and divorce.

There is Hope!

If you recognize the Four Horseman in your marriage or relationship you are not alone.  All couples will do these behaviors from time to time.  The problem is when the Four Horseman take root in your relationship and they become the norm rather than the exception.

Marriage and couples counseling that focuses on ways to overcome the Four Horseman can help couples to learn better ways of solving problems and communicating.  The most helpful marriage and couples counseling focuses on not only changing behaviors but also on issues pertaining to the heart.  What we know is that the couples who get stuck in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling ultimately do not feel emotionally safe, secure, and connected to one another.  The goal is to help couples find their way to a mutually loving, caring, and supportive connection.

To learn more about overcoming the Four Horseman call one of our marriage and couple’s therapists located at our Phoenix and Scottsdale Relationship Centers. We understand that the decision to seek relationship therapy, couple’s counseling, or marriage counseling can be intimidating, which is why we offer a complementary 20-minute phone consultation.  This gives you the opportunity to understand how we can help you and your partner specifically, in your unique situation.  When you are ready to take steps toward strengthening your relationship, feel free to call contact us at Crossroad’s Counseling by calling us at 623-680-3486, texting 623-688-5115, or emailing and ask to speak with one of our counselors for couples.  We offer a 20 minute complementary phone call.  You can ask all the questions you have and see if couples counseling at Crossroads is the right fit for you.

Schedule Couples Therapy in Phoenix Scottsdale or online throughout all of Arizona

Marital issues can be highly complex and are often rooted in our deepest emotional attachment needs. Whether you have identified specific issues to address or feel unsure why you feel disconnected from your partner, meeting with a couples counselor can greatly benefit your marriage. 

By creating a space for you and your spouse to safely address your concerns, your counselor can assist you in finding resolutions and healing to help your marriage flourish. Our offices are conveniently located throughout the Valley of the Sun including Phoenix, Anthem, Scottsdale and online in all of Arizona.  would be honored to support you in better understanding your relationship. You can start your therapy journey by following these simple steps:

  1. Contact Crossroads Counseling
  2. Meet with a couples therapist near you
  3. Begin addressing your relationship