Marriage and relationship expert John Gottman has spent years analyzing relationships to figure out what makes them work, and what types of interactions between couples signal danger. Based on studying thousands of couples and how they interact, he’s able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will divorce. He’s identified six signs, described below, that a relationship is in trouble. If these issues aren’t addressed, chances are the relationship will fail.
Please don’t get discouraged if you recognize many or all of these signs in your relationship. They are all very common, and diagnosing underlying problems in your relationship is the first step in mending things with your partner. Once you’ve identified what the problems are, there are concrete steps you can take to solve these problems.
1. Harsh Startup: Startup refers to the way a conversation begins, and a harsh startup occurs when a discussion begins with criticism or sarcasm or contempt. According to Gottman, discussions that begin with a harsh startup inevitably end on a negative note, regardless of how much you try to make amends in between.
Statistics tell the story: 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction! A harsh startup simply dooms you to failure. So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over.
2. The Four Horsemen: The four horsemen is the term Gottman uses to describe the four signs that, if go unchecked, doom a relationship, hence they are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen appear in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Horseman 1: Criticism. Every couple has some complaints about their partner, but there’s a difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint regards a specific action your partner has done that bothers you. It relates to that action, not your partner’s character. A criticism goes beyond commenting on what your partner has done, and is a judgment about your partner and their character. For example:
Complaint: I was disappointed that you didn’t help clean up after dinner and would appreciate it if you’d help out in the future.
Criticism: You never help with the housework. Why are you so lazy all the time?
Horseman 2: Contempt. Contempt involves responding to your partner with sarcasm and cynicism using things such as name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour. Gottman finds contempt to be the most serious of the four horsemen, due to its tendency to lead to greater conflict rather than reconciliation. He says contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust and it’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her.
Horseman 3: Defensiveness. When your partner communicates to you with criticisms or contempt, the natural response is to become defensive. Although defensiveness may be natural, it doesn’t solve problems and just escalates the conflict, making things even worse.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling. In marriages in which couples begin discussions with hash startups, and engage in criticism and contempt that lead to defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. Once one partner begins stonewalling, there is no chance to resolve relationship issues since one of you is no longer willing to engage in discussions about the relationship.
3 Flooding: Stonewalling arises as a means of protection against what Gottman calls “flooding.” Flooding occurs when your partner’s attacks and negativity is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you feeling traumatized. You become hyper-vigilant and on guard for signs your partner is going to attack again. In order to protect yourself from these attacks, you begin disengaging emotionally from the relationship.
If you experience recurring episodes of flooding, the relationship becomes doomed for two reasons: because at least one of you is going through severe emotional distress when dealing with the other; and because the physiological responses to flooding make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion while you’re in that state. Gottman describes flooding below:
4. Body Language: It is these physiological responses that Gottman regards as the fourth sign your relationship is in trouble:
When a pounding heart and all the other physical stress reactions happen in the midst of a discussion with your mate, the consequences are disastrous. Your ability to process information is reduced, meaning it’s harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying. Creative problem solving goes out the window. You’re left with the most reflexive, least intellectually sophisticated responses in your repertoire: to fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall). Any chance of resolving the issue is gone. Most likely, the discussion will just worsen the situation.
In 85 percent of heterosexual relationships, the stonewaller is the man. The reason lies in our gender. A woman is more able to quickly soothe herself and calm down after feeling stressed. In contrast, a man’s adrenaline kicks in quite readily and does not calm down so easily.
During relationship stress, men have a greater tendency to have negative thoughts that maintain their distress, while women are more likely to think soothing thoughts that help them calm down and be conciliatory. While these rules don’t hold for every male and every female, Gottman has found that the majority of couples do follow these gender differences in physiological and psychological reactions to stress.
Given these dissimilarities, most heterosexual relationships (including healthy, happy ones) follow a comparable pattern of conflict in which the woman, who is constitutionally better able to handle the stress, brings up sensitive issues. The man, who is not as able to cope with it, will attempt to avoid getting into the subject. He may become defensive and stonewall or even become belligerent or contemptuous in an attempt to silence her.
5. Failed Repair Attempts: Repair attempts are statements or actions that a couple use to prevent negativity from escalating out of control. Gottman finds that when couples have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other overt or subtle repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way.
Repair attempts can be statements like, “I see your point,” or “Can we take a break for a minute?” or little jokes to lighten the mood, or gestures like gently touching your partner or holding their hand. But when couples are stuck in negative patterns, even a repair statement as overt as “I’m really sorry” is not likely to succeed in salvaging a discussion.
It takes time for the four horsemen and flooding to ruin a marriage or relationship, but Gottman has learned to predict the end of a relationship by simply listening to a single conversation between a new couple and judging their repair attempts and ability to de-escalate the tension during a discussion in order to put on the brakes and prevent flooding.
6. Bad Memories: Gottman finds that once a relationship’s present becomes filled with negativity, the past is also affected. Memories of dating, getting married, the first years together, etc., take on a negative slant that overshadows any positive memories. By listening to how couples discuss their past together, Gottman is able to predict the chance of divorce, even if he doesn’t know what is currently going on and how they are feeling about the relationship.
If you’re experiencing some or all of these negative signs in your relationship or marriage, there are steps you can take to turn things around. The sooner you learn to deal with these issues, the better chance you have of saving your relationship. In the next post we’ll look at the Gottman’s seven principles that make a relationship or marriage work.