Do You Know the Signs of a Relationship Apocalypse?

This July, Strong Is Our Sexy is focusing on themes related to independence. While individually, everyone possesses a unique strength and has special independence that should be celebrated, we can’t deny that interpersonal relationships – romantic, platonic, working, and otherwise – are an essential aspect of being human. Even the most independent of us still depend on each other to some extent.

From the beginning of human history, people have been programmed to affiliate – that is, to forge relationships and create groups, organizing a social structure. Today, the entire field of social psychology is devoted to understanding the impact of the social environment on individuals and their behavior.

What does this mean for our relationships, romantic or otherwise, as well as our sense of selves as individuals? From my perspective, it means that we should treat our relationships with the utmost care. This includes monitoring our own behavior within the relationship, as well as frequently checking in on the health of the relationship. There is no recipe for the perfect healthy relationship; however, there are some telltale signs that things are going awry.

Psychologist John Gottman is a renowned couples’ therapist who developed, through a great deal of research, a list of “red flags” that signal a relationship in distress. While he originally developed these with intimate partners in mind, I find that these “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are also applicable to friendships and family relationships.

The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse


The common thread in all the horsemen: ineffective communication.

1. Criticism.
Pointing out flaws in one another’s personality or character is an ineffective approach to problem solving. Even criticism delivered in a joking or teasing way can take its toll on a relationship over time. Talking about specific behaviors or using “I” statements to convey concerns is much more effective.

2. Defensiveness.
We instinctively protect ourselves when we feel we are under attack. Unfortunately, that also means that we tend not to hear what the other person is expressing. This is often why minor disagreements snowball into major blowouts.

3. Stonewalling.
Withdrawing from interactions, such as employing the silent treatment or simply “checking out” of the conversation, can drive a huge wedge between two individuals, and is usually an ineffective way of expressing anger or frustration.

4. Contempt.
This often shows up as threats, name-calling, and insults, but can also be more subtle, like teasing, mocking, or even eye-rolling. While the other horsemen may exist in healthy relationships, contempt must be eliminated as quickly as possible if the relationship is to survive.

Despite the ominous name, the presence of one or more horsemen does not guarantee that a relationship is hopeless or doomed.

The common thread in all the horsemen: ineffective communication. Improving communication is the single best way to turn an unhealthy and hurtful relationship into one that is healthy and thriving. Communication is also the key to maintaining your independent voice in the midst of a relationship with another person.

If you notice that a relationship is giving you trouble, or you feel like you are losing yourself in a relationship, I strongly encourage you to consider the Four Horsemen and to think about how communication is happening in your relationship. Not only will this improve your relationship, but it will help you express yourself more effectively and in a way that is heard by your friends, relatives, and partners. Only through communicating your needs, thoughts, and values can you be your best self as an individual nested in a social world.

Depending on others is natural. Losing your voice is optional.

How do you find your voice in your relationships? Comment below to share.

Would you like more tips on effective communication? Let us know so that we can bring you what you want to hear on SIOS!

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