Because we feel that it is important to “know thine enemies,” in today’s blog post we will share Dr. Gottman’s greatest relationship killers that he has discovered in his 40+ years of research. These venoms, with which you can poison your relationship, can all be characterized as ways of “turning against” each other’s bids for emotional connection. We do this in the hope that the examples below will allow you to recognize these behaviors in your interactions with your partner, allowing you to catch and learn to reverse these toxic patterns of behavior in order to stop them from causing serious damage to your relationship. 

For the sake of simplicity, we will make the bid in each of these descriptions the same – a totally harmless request for a helping hand.  Note: the bid we use as an example is a small request – the bigger the request, the more destructive the respondent’s turning against can be!

Contemptuous Responses 
The respondent makes hurtful disrespecting comments aimed at the person bidding for connection. Such put-downs are often delivered with an air of superiority, as if the speaker wants to put some distance between him/herself and the bidder, and intentional insults will do the trick:

Zoe: “Could you help me with the dishes?”
Mark: “Is that all you can ever say to me?”

Belligerent Responses
The respondent is provocative or combative. You get the sense that the speaker is looking for a fight. He or she would argue with whatever the bidder says, regardless of content. Belligerent responses often involve unfair teasing or a dare:

Zoey: “Could you help me with the dishes?”
Mark: “What’ll you do if I say no? Yell at me again and turn up that stupid music?!”

Contradictory Responses
The respondent seems intent on starting a debate or an argument. This is less hostile than a belligerent response, but it still blocks the bidder’s attempt to connect:

Zoey: “Could you help me with the dishes?”
Mark: “Why the dishes? Why can’t I just take out the garbage like I always do?”

Domineering Responses
The respondent attempts to control the other person. The respondent’s goal is to get the bidder to withdraw, retreat, or submit. You often hear a parental message in these responses, whether the speaker is a parental figure or not:

Zoey: “Could you help me with the dishes?”
Mark: “Don’t be ridiculous! You can do them all by yourself without me holding your hand!”

Critical Responses
The respondent makes broad-based attacks on a bidder’s character. They’re different from a complaint, which focuses on a particular event or specific behavior. When people are being critical, they frequently speak in global terms, saying things like “you always…” and “you never…” Often you’ll hear statements of blame or betrayal in these responses:

Zoey: “Could you help me with the dishes?”
Mark: “You’re so lazy and self-centered, I’ve got to do real work right now!”

Defensive Responses
The respondent creates a sense of separation by allowing the speaker to relinquish responsibility for matters at hand. If the bidder is upset about something, the respondent may act like an innocent victim of misplaced blame:

Zoey: “Could you help me with the dishes?”
Mark: “Don’t look at me, I’m tired. You’re the one who made the kitchen a mess anyway.”

These examples may remind you of experiences you’ve recently had in your relationship, the emotional response ranging from a simple frustration to one that is deeply hurtful. You are by no stretch of the imagination alone – we all experience these kinds of responses all the time! But in our most intimate relationships, the build up of such responses creates enormous and inevitable rifts. The more of these responses you experience, the more likely they are to destroy your relationship entirely.

Learn to recognize and avoid what Dr. Gottman refers to as “turning against” or “away” from each other’s bids. Choosing to “turn towards” these bids for emotional connection will naturally bring you closer to each other, building strong bonds of love, friendship, and support in your relationship. In our post on Wednesday, look forward to a posting that dives deeper into understanding bids and explains that what you hear from your partner may not be what is intended.

More in The Archives
Turning Against Bids: The Ultimate Relationship Killer

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.