Couples face conflict for all sorts of reasons, and no two relationships are exactly alike. With that being said, there are some commonalities among most troubled relationships. These patterns and habits don’t relate to specific instances, such as unfaithfulness or loss of income, but everyday behaviors and actions which can chip away at mutual respect and love over time. If you and your partner are facing any of the relationship habits below, it’s possible you could benefit from relationship counseling to put an end to negative patterns once and for all.

Frequent Negative Exchanges

Research clinician John Gottman, who specializes in couples’ relationships, says that happy couples have a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions. Conversely, troubled couples tend to have more negative exchanges, which pile up and ultimately set the tone for a negative overall climate.   The positive regard for one another erodes to a consistently negative regard.  

Quick Escalations

Couples are bound to disagree, but the way in which volatile topics are brought up and handled says a lot about the relationship. If topics are introduced negatively from the start, or if exchanges become heated quickly, it’s more likely to cause marital distress than those that are discussed with less intensity or at a slower pace. 

“The Four Horsemen”

Gottman has also discovered four detrimental behaviors which can ultimately lead to a relationship’s demise, aptly named “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These include:


  • Criticism: Consistently placing blame on a partner criticizes their character and sending the message that something is inherently wrong with them. Criticisms are often delivered through blanket statements, such as “you always do this” or “you never do that.”


  • Defensiveness: Many partners who experience criticism develop defensiveness as a result. This is the natural, predictable response to criticism.  They may deny or deflect, which can lead to even more intense arguments. If you or your partner is engaging in defensiveness, It’s probably due to either criticism, or the defensive person feeling criticized (it’s not the same thing).


  • Contempt: Contempt occurs when one individual makes their partner seem or feel lesser than themselves. Behaviors that characterize contempt could include eye-rolling or mockery. Contempt is the outcome of consistent negative exchanges as discussed above.  


  • Stonewalling: The act of withdrawing from another partner is known as stonewalling. It’s often used as a defense mechanism when the stonewalling partner feels flooded by the other’s negativity. 

Perpetual Problems 

Gottman found that couples suffer from two types of problems-perpetual and solvable.  Solvable problems are what it sounds like-where to go eat, where to go on vacation, how to spend your money etc.  These are problems that couples can negotiate and come to an agreement. 

Perpetual problems are those disagreements in the relationship that are based on the fact that the two people are different.  They may have different likes and dislikes, parenting differences, different relationship needs and different styles of communication.  These are just a few examples of the common perpetual problems I see in my office.  Gottman found that couples who have perpetual problems (and every couple does, because every couple is two different people) can learn to discuss the problems and achieve compromises and mutual understanding  so that these problems are able to be discussed in a way that does not cripple the relationship.  Recurring arguments, especially about situations that appear to not be changing, can indicate a perpetual problem.  

Are All Troubled Couples Doomed?

Nope. While most troubled relationships are characterized by these negative patterns, the good news is that it’s possible to break free of them. Understanding the differences between solvable and perpetual problems, developing new perspectives on these issues, fostering positive exchanges, and finding ways to communicate effectively without escalations can all help to rewire a relationship for the better.