Today I’m going to let you in on the signs by which Gottman can so accurately predict whether a marriage is headed for doom.
It turns out that it all has to do with the way partners handle conflict. Gottman writes that most arguments between partners cannot be solved, because they are rooted in the fundamental, individual differences of their personalities, lifestyles, or values. He found that the success of a relationship lies not in the absence of conflict, but in the way partners live with it, and whether they maintain their honour and respect for each other throughout it.1 Thus the crucial point is not if a couple argues; but how.
Gottman’s first sign that predicts a relationship’s future failure is a harsh start-up to an argument. If the discussion begins with heavy negativity, accusations, sarcasm, or blame, this harsh start-up will almost ensure that the discussion will not resolve the issue. In fact, Gottman advises that if you recognise that an argument has a harsh start-up, you are better off walking away from it and making another attempt later.2
The second sign is what Gottman calls the four horsemen. These stand for forms of negativity that are lethal to relationships. No. 1 is Criticism. This is essentially an attack on the character or personality of your spouse; often the ingredient that ensures a harsh start-up. The skill required to overcome this horseman is to learn to differentiate between a complaint and criticism. A complaint specifically addresses an action or behaviour in which your partner failed. A criticism blames not a specific failure but the spouse’s whole person with an emphasis on something being wrong with them. This first horseman is extremely common in relationships and on its own does not predict divorce, Gottman advises. However, if it is has a strong and frequent presence it will give way to the other horsemen.3
Horseman No. 2 is contempt. This includes sneering, mocking, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humour, sarcasm, and eye-rolling. It conveys disgust for the partner and is the most poisonous of four horsemen. The presence of contempt makes problem solving almost impossible because the message sent is that the partner is disgusting. Contempt seeks to demean him or her.4 The opposite of honour and respect, contempt can be difficult to recognise behind ‘innocent’ statements that display a higher moral ground, in subtle ways which dress the other down, or hidden in so-called humour which is in fact nasty or provocative. “You care for no-one but yourself.” “Here we go again with your need for space.” “What are you going to do – put me in a cage?” “I don’t share your materialistic mentality.”
Horseman No. 3 is defensiveness. Unfortunately, Gottman writes, defensiveness rarely has the effect of the other partner backing off. Taking a defensive stance in fact escalates the conflict further, because in not ‘taking on’ what is being said, one invites further attacks. Gottman stresses that criticism, contempt and defensiveness are not orderly in rearing their heads; “they function more like a relay match”. However, as they go round and round they prevent issues from being solved.5 Just this morning my partner found it necessary to remind me of my lack of self-belief and my procrastination methods with which I delay what I want to achieve. I found that unfair; particularly coming from him who tends to do very little toward achieving his goals. My first reaction was to become defensive; but then I decided to listen to what he was saying. This enabled me to get over my initial anger and concede that in many ways he was right.
The last horseman, No. 4 is stonewalling. In relationships characterised by a harsh start-up, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness going round in circles during conflict, the eventual result is that one partner ‘tunes out’. According to Gottman, men are more likely to be the stonewallers in a relationship because they become more easily emotionally overwhelmed. Stonewalling means to stop responding; to emotionally if not physically withdraw from the partner; to look away, no longer seeming to care about what is being said; and to block the other out.6
And this brings us to Gottman’s third sign: emotional flooding. This happens when a partner cannot handle the situation, when they become overwhelmed or shell-shocked. At this point they emotionally disengage and shut down in order to protect themselves. The more often a partner feels flooded, the more likely they are on the lookout for the next onslaught. Gottman found:
A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted, then, by habitual harsh start-up and frequent flooding brought on by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during disagreements. Although each of these factors alone can predict a divorce, they usually coexist in an unhappy marriage.7
The fourth sign is body language. Flooding is not only experienced emotionally but also physically, leading to increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and hormonal changes, in which adrenalin rushes lead to a ‘fight or flight response’. Thus flooding is so stressful that the body reacts in a similar way as if we were face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger. If this is a re-occurring event for one of the partners, it will have a disastrous outcome for the relationship, Gottman warns. Firstly, the flooded partner will feel severely stressed and inclined to want to flee or fight, which secondly, will make problem-solving close to impossible.8
Gottman’s fifth sign is failed repair attempts. This is an effort by either partner to put the brakes on a discussion before flooding occurs, which the other then promptly ignores. Yet it is successful repair attempts that save marriages, according to Gottman. He notes that repair attempts are highly unique: she might stick out her tongue at him, he might grimace like a goof; one might say “sorry” or “you are getting off the topic”, or offer a smile.9 The importance of repair attempts during disagreements cannot be underestimated; therefore we need to both offer and accept gestures and statements that are aimed to remind us of the love and friendship we share with our partner.
The last and final sign is bad memories. Gottman found that in relationships with a lot of negativity, there is a danger of history being re-written. Forgotten are the positive aspects of the initial qualities that attracted the couple, their courting or wedding. Left are only negative memories to do with each other. When the relationship reads just like a negative script it is doomed.10
I hope you find Gottman’s signs of foretelling separation worthy of your consideration. My reason for sharing them is that a positive romantic relationship can sail us into a harbour of happiness, but negative one can sink our boat in an ocean of misery. For anyone in a partnership that could be improved, Gottman’s insights may inspire increased sensitivity and reflection on how they behave during disagreements. Let us remember to begin gently and reduce the criticism. Let us refrain from being contemptuous and overly defensive. Let us offer and accept repair attempts, and notice when there is a danger of emotional flooding in either of us. Let us be willing to drop the issue if either of us cannot take any more – then there will likely be a tomorrow.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015