In a landmark study mentioned in the Malcolm Gladwell book, BLINK, a psychologist, John Gottman studied hundreds of couples and thin-sliced one hour each of a random conversation between the two. The study’s findings were startling: by studying that thin-slice of conversation you can predict with a 95% accuracy who was going to divorce or not. Gottman did this by extricating patterns of behavior–verbal and non-verbal cues, facial expression, heart rates, and fidget counts (how often and to what extent one or both of the couples fidget in their chair). He found out that what happens in just that hour of conversation is sacramental of where the whole relationship is and is predictive of where the relationship is going.

Thinslicing has been described by Malcolm Gladwell as our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience. In other words, this is an idea that spontaneous decisions are often as good as, or even better than‚ carefully planned and considered ones.

He looked at verbal and nonverbal cues, behaviors, ticks, and he found out that there are four main predictors of couple separation. These are the tell-tale signs that the couple will not last: the Four Horsemen of Relationships:

1) Defensiveness
2) Stonewalling
3) Criticism
4) Contempt


Defensiveness is the (usually) unconscious effort to protect yourself from anxiety, either by diversionary tactics, intimidation or by distortions of reality. People usually become defensive because they don’t want to experience uncomfortable feeling. The defense is their way of blocking the feeling they don’t want to experience. So they divert attention to other, less uncomfortable issues, they engage in a shouting match, or they dismiss the issue altogether, acting as if it doesn’t exist.

“Remaining non-defensive is the single most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness when working to turn conflict into collaboration.” [Judge Jim Tamm,]


This is better explained by differentiating criticism from complaint.

A complaint is specific. A criticism on the other hand is a generalization–attacking the partner’s personality/character/attitude and not the particular event that spurred the argument or fight. If you’re complaining you would say: “You forgot to buy groceries! I’m really mad right now because you didn’t do what you said you would.” A criticism is different. You criticize by saying, “You always forget! You can’t be counted on! I will never ask you to do anything for me again!” While a complaint is an attack on the event that happened, criticism is an attack on the person.


Stonewalling is the blunt refusal to cooperate in making the relationship work. In relationships where intense arguments break out, and where incessant criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, eventually one partner just tunes out of the relationship. This is what stonewalling is all about. When they say that hate is not the opposite of love, apathy is, they probably meant that one person is stonewalling the other.

Here’s the typical cycle: (1) Women criticize men, (2) Men become defensive and emotionally withdraw from criticism or conflict (research indicates that 85% of stonewallers in marriages are husbands). The stonewaller acts as if he couldn’t care less about what the partner is saying or doing. He (sometimes she) turns away from conflict and from the relationship. Any form of disengagement can be stonewalling.

Other behaviors:

  • Refusal to negotiate a conflict in good faith
  • Refusal to discuss honestly one’s motivations
  • Refusal to listen to another point of view with openness
  • Refusal to compromise
  • Refusal to collaborate
  • Refusal to support the other person’s plans


But the most critical sign is contempt.

Contempt is really a set of behaviors that communicate disgust: sneering, sarcasm, namecalling, eye rolling, mockery, hostile humor and condescension. It is primarily transmitted through non-verbal behaviors and as such is not easily addressed. It is a particular stance that has to do with how one partner looks at another. It is the most difficult to resolve because it has to do with respect — when one person has lost respect of the other, that is usually the beginning of the end of the relationship.

It does not move toward reconciliation and inevitably increases the conflict. It is always disrespectful. Research shows couples that display contempt for each other suffer more illnesses and diseases than respectful couples.


Check your relationship and see whether these four telltale signs are present. If these are present, it doesn’t mean you are going to separate (5% of the couples were still able to save their relationships somehow), but it surely means you have a lot of things to talk about with your partner if you are to have a chance at saving the relationship. You can probably ask for help from other people as well. Good luck!

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