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How To Divorce-Proof Your Marriage Today

9 mins

Using negative communication patterns dubbed The Four Horsemen by psychologists is the death knell for any relationship but you can divorce-proof your marriage with these expert tips

After a whirlwind romance, Ceri and Julian had a no-expense-spared wedding, but now, after just five years, the cracks are showing in their relationship.

‘Julian has something negative to say about everything I do, say and wear,’ confides Ceri, a 32-year-old researcher. ‘If I leave a room in our apartment, he asks why I never close doors behind me. He says I always leave the bathroom a mess, I never put my clothes away, or the milk back in the fridge, I eat way too much sugar and I do too much for my parents and friends.

‘But when I try to talk through how I feel when he has a go at me, he either starts listing the times I’ve criticised him, and we end up in an almighty row, or he gives me the silent treatment, which he keeps going for weeks. I feel like he’s a bully.

‘I’m getting to the stage where I dread coming home, and I don’t want to spend any time with him because when I do, I end up feeling really down about myself.’

The Four Horsemen

woman ripping up wedding photo as didn't divorce-proof her relationship

Sadly, Ceri and Julian are already using negative communication patterns dubbed The Four Horsemen in modern psychology. When used regularly, these four habits – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – have been found to be the death knell for any relationship.

American psychologist Dr John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington in the US, has borrowed the term to warn of impending doom – the end of a relationship. After more than half a century of research, Dr Gottman believes he can predict whether a relationship will stand the test of time by how prevalent these four patterns are.

Dubai-based life coach Amanda Davies explains: ‘The Four Horsemen can wreak havoc. They can severely damage any relationship, even platonic and professional ones, but they’re most prevalent in romantic, personal relationships.

The Four Horsemen are habits – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – that when used regularly have been found to be the death knell for any relationship

‘They can be deliberate – when one partner doesn’t temper their emotions. Also, they’re not always seen in isolation – one often leads to another. But the common thread is attacking someone’s character and personality, instead of the issue, showing disrespect, deflecting responsibility and shutting down communication.

angry couple stonewalling each other in bed as didn't learn to divorce-proof realtionship

‘They create an environment of disrespect, blame and alienation, instead of nurturing, understanding and resolution.’

Divorce On The Rise

couple divorcing with rings and contract in front of them

With 43 per cent of US marriages dissolved, according to the latest research from Forbes, it’s worth looking at the way we communicate to see how we can divorce-proof our relationships. Second and third marriages were found to be at far greater risk, with 60 per cent of second marriages failing, and 73 per cent of third marriages ending in divorce. 

But can changing the way we communicate really save the day? According to Amanda, awareness is key, and once we’re aware of The Four Horsemen, we can replace them with more constructive communication to divorce-proof our marriages.

‘Criticism is the adult equivalent of a baby crying, and it can be a trait in people who weren’t listened to as children, or those who grew up in a critical household’

‘Once we recognise our toxic patterns, we can find ways to turn them around before they cause irreparable damage,’ she says. 

Divorce-Proof Tactics

So how can we identify The Four Horsemen and replace them with healthier communication to divorce-proof our marriages and relationships?


This is when we attack or undermine our partner’s personality, character or experience.

‘It usually comes with a ‘never’ or an ‘always’ says UK relationship coach Julia Chi Taylor. ‘We might say: ‘You never empty the dishwasher,’ ‘You always leave the towels on the bathroom floor’ or ‘You talk too much.’ 

‘It’s the adult equivalent of a baby crying, and it can be a trait in people who weren’t listened to as children, or those who grew up in a critical household. The adult is trying to say they want you to do something different, but they’re using accusatory language.’

Amanda says criticising is when we focus on a character trait, such as laziness, ingratitude or lack of consideration, rather than focusing on or addressing a specific behaviour.

‘We might say: “You never help around the house” and “Why don’t you ever load the dishwasher? You always leave it for me. You’re so inconsiderate.” Or we might give someone labels such as “You’re so awkward among new people,” and “You never make an effort with my friends. It’s so rude.”

TIP: Don’t get personal. Talk about specific situations, like taking it in turns to load the dishwasher, and don’t launch into character attacks, such as “you’re so lazy,” says Amanda.

‘Use ‘I’ statements to explain how you feel, rather than accusatory and blaming ‘you’ statements,’ she says. ‘So instead of saying: “You always ignore me,” try saying: “I felt hurt when you didn’t listen to me.”


We’re being defensive when we’re on the attack, refusing to take responsibility for our actions and making excuses when we’re confronted about something.

Julia says: ‘Defensiveness usually comes after criticism. We push straight back and defend ourselves, saying: “It’s not my fault” or “I have been really busy” or  “You’re also lazy/boring/untidy.” It can escalate into a big row.

‘It can be a common behaviour among people who don’t feel good enough. If we’re happy with ourselves and someone criticises us, we just laugh it off, but if the criticism hits a nerve, we get defensive and fight back.’

Amanda says we’re guilty of defensiveness if we say things such as: “It’s not my fault the house is a mess. I work all day and it’s the cleaner’s week off.”

woman putting ripped photo back together symbolising fixing relationship
Couples should work on their communication to divorce-proof their relationships

She adds: ‘Someone who’s defensive might be unable to accept feedback. When told they’ve behaved in an impolite way, they might fire back: “I’m not rude. You’re just too sensitive.”

TIP: Repeat it back. Use a method called intentional dialogue to clarify what’s been said and what you’ve heard, suggests Julia.

‘Listen carefully and repeat back to the person what you’ve heard,’ she suggests. ‘You could say: “So you don’t like the way I never take you out for dinner” or ‘You don’t like the way I watch TV instead of talking to you.” It could be that you’ve completely misunderstood, and your partner didn’t mean that at all. And just repeating the dialogue back can change the energy between the two of you.’


This is when we treat our partner with disrespect, mock them or ridicule them, or use sarcasm that belittles or degrades them.

Julia explains: ‘This can be speaking about your partner in a contemptuous way – gossiping about them with friends, or getting the family to gang up on them, or it can be eye rolling or sighing when our partner speaks. You might say: “For goodness sake…” when they start to talk or tell them to “stop being silly” when they’re trying to explain how they feel.

‘It can be prevalent in people who have an idea of how life should be, or how their partner should behave, and when life or their partner disappoints them, they behave in a contemptuous way. It can be a trait in couples where one has lost respect for the other.’

Amanda says sarcastic putdowns or mimicking or mocking a suggestion can constitute contempt ‘You might make backhanded jokes or mock their interests or background, or laugh derisively at someone’s appearance or personal choices,’ she says, ‘or you might send them intentionally abrupt, terse emails and texts.’

TIP: Be a role model. Behave in the way you would like to be treated, and model the respect you want to receive to divorce-proof your relationship, recommends Amanda.

‘Remember that you came together in love and respect for each other,’ she says, ‘so replace put-downs, insults and mocking with empathy and understanding. Calmly call out behaviour such as eye-rolling, sarcasm and hostility, in an even tone, without being critical. Use ‘we’ language – you’re a team and a partnership, not adversaries.’


When we withdraw from interaction, shut down emotionally and refuse to communicate, we are guilty of stonewalling.

‘You can stonewall in a relatively small way by blanking your partner when they ask you to put away your dry cleaning,’ says Julia, ‘or you might ignore what someone has just said. But you might also refuse to communicate with your husband or wife for many weeks.

‘This behaviour can be common in people who, as children, went quiet or took themselves off somewhere when things weren’t going their way. It’s a form of withdrawing or exiting.’

Amanda adds that stonewalling can range from tuning out and acting distant or disengaged, to turning on the television when someone is talking about something important.

‘You might ignore emails or texts, abruptly leave conversations and physically walk away when your partner is trying to have a discussion,’ she says. ‘Or you might be unresponsive or disinterested when your partner wants to talk about personal matters.

TIP: Set a timer. If you’re tempted to stonewall your partner, or you’re with someone who stonewalls, be prepared beforehand, advises Amanda.

‘Practise some stress-reducing techniques like deep breathing before stonewalling starts,’ she says. ‘Agree to take a short break of 20 minutes but set a firm time to re-engage later to continue to resolve the issue, using a soft, non-confrontational tone. Stay engaged through eye contact and open body language.’

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