Updated: Nov 20
A conversation that could have been productive instead ends in a screaming match or angry silence. If this sounds like you and your relationship with your partner, you might want to indeed tackle and resolve the issue growing like a wildfire. Maybe your impulsive mind wanted to walk off the person or the relationship in the middle of verbal war, but your rational mind stopped you from exhibiting such extreme actions. Well, the good news is, it is found that loving relationships do not follow any experts’ rule of communication when they argue. They bash out when triggered. But they still are able to resolve their conflicts.
The key to tackle and solve difficulties is to learn a new approach to settling the conflict. The common method spoken is to show empathy by attempting to put oneself in their partner’s shoes while listening intently and communicate with them the dilemma and difference in perspective. However, it is also found that not many couples are capable of this empathetical conversation.
Fortunately, to make this easy, John Gottman, an American psychologist, created a list that predicts a breakup/divorce. Gottman is “The” guy who can predict divorce with 90% accuracy, found the following as a warning sign for a couple to part ways:
First sign: Harsh start-up
The most obvious indicator that a discussion (and the marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins.
Statistics say that 96% of the time, one can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen minutes interaction. If the discussion begins with a harsh startup, it is inevitably going to end up on a negative note. No amounts of attempts later can help make the discussion any better.
Second sign: The four horsemen
Gottman found that not all negatives are alike. Four of them stood out as being the most destructive and the biggest predictor of divorce and separation
After the warning bell to an alarm that the couple may be having a serious difficulty, the four horsemen unfold themselves. The horsemen are the following, unleashing in the same order:
Most healthy relationships don’t usually use these deadly weapons. Even if it is used, they do more to repair and set things right immediately.
Horseman 1: Criticism
Of course, you will have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between complaining and criticism.
❖ Complaint: “I was worried when you were not attending my calls and texts while you were running late. I thought we had agreed that we do that for each other”
❖ Criticism: “You never think how your behavior and actions are affecting other people around you. You are only selfish! You never even think of me!”
As seen above, criticism is like calling for war. While complaining only addresses the specific action and doesn’t attack the partner’s personality on the whole.
The problem with criticism is that, when prevalent, it paves way for the other deadlier horsemen to follow. It makes the victim feel rejected, cornered, and hurt. This can lead to an escalating pattern, where the first horsemen reappear with greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to the next horsemen, Contempt.
Horseman 2: Contempt
Going by the literal meaning of contempt, it means the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration. When communicated with this state, it can make a person feel disrespected, and mocked with sarcasm or ridiculed or any other possible gesture to belittle them.
Contempt can go far beyond criticism. It is considered poisonous to any relationship since it conveys disgust for the other partner. Such thoughts are likely to occur if the differences are not resolved in the relationship. As disagreements and criticism pile up, complaints turn into global criticism, which eventually can lead to disgust in feelings and thoughts.
Horseman 3: Defensiveness
With ingredients such as criticism and contempt added in a conversation, it comes as no surprise when one turns to become defensive. But is it really helping the situation?
Question: “Did you purchase the grocery that I had asked you to?” Defensive answer: “I am just too busy today. You have been looking at how my schedule has been, why don’t you just buy them?”
This partner here is not only getting defensive but also attempting to reverse blame, to make the partner feel it was their fault.
Well, as seen above defensiveness merely escalates the conflict. It is another way of blaming the partner. It keeps the partner from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication. The antidote to this weapon is to try to hear the partner's complaints and to take some responsibility for the problem.
Although it is understandable to be defensive when stressed and feel attacked. Unfortunately, this approach will get the desired effect.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling
Dictionary explains stonewalling as a refusal to communicate or cooperate. Intentionally shutting down during an argument can be frustrating, and harmful for any relationship.
When the discussion ignites with a harsh startup, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, eventually one partner turns out. That’s when the four horsemen enter.
Non-verbal signs of stonewalling are lack of eye contact, arm crossed, looking away, pulling away from physical contact. In short, the stonewaller is physically in the room but mentally out of the room.
Similar to defensiveness, stonewalling can be another form of self-protection. It is a result of feeling psychologically flooded, which blocks the rational flow of thoughts.
Third Sign: Flooding
When the criticism, contempt, or defensiveness is so overwhelming, it could feel defenseless for the partner. They might eventually learn to do anything to avoid a replay. Unable to handle the hostility, such couples eventually separate.
A meltdown of a marriage can be predicted by harsh startup and frequent flooding brought by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during discussions and disagreements.
Fourth Sign: Body language
When couples are observed for bodily changes during a heated discussion, it can be seen how physically distressing, flooding is. There are hormonal changes observed including secretion of adrenaline which eventually kicks in the fight or flight response. Blood pleasure also mounts. Such are the biological changes if a partner is frequently flooded during marital discussions.
It is studied that recurring episode of flooding leads to divorce for 2 reasons:
❖ They signal that at least one partner could feel severe emotional distress while dealing with the other.
❖ The physical sensation of feeling flooded makes it almost impossible to have a productive and problem-solving discussion.
The consequences of flooding are disastrous. The ability to process information is reduced and creative problem-solving ability goes out of the window. What is left is a reflexive and least intellectual sophisticated response, losing any chances of resolving the issue.
Fifth sign: Failed repair attempts
Repair attempts save the relationship most times, by lowering the stress level, and reduces the chances of flooding.
However, when the four horsemen rule a communication, repair attempts often don’t get noticed. The more contemptuous and defensive the couple, the more flooding occurs which makes it harder to hear and respond to a repair.
According to Gottman, the presence of the four horsemen alone predicts divorce with only an 82 percent accuracy. But when you add in the failure of repair attempts, the accuracy rate reaches into the 90s.
Whether a repair succeeds or fails has very little to do with how eloquent it is and everything to do with the state of the marriage. The more repair attempts fail, the more these couples keep trying. What predicts the repair attempt to work is the quality of friendship between the couple and the positive sentimental override.
Sixth sign: Bad memories
When immersed with negativity, the couple’s present and future life are put at risk. Most couples enter marriage with high hopes and expectations. In a happy marriage, the couples tend to look back on their earlier days fondly. Even if not for the details, they mostly remember the highlights rather than just the low points. They also remember the excitement and admiration they had felt for each other.
But when a marriage is not going well, history gets rewritten – for worse. When the horsemen overrun the house, the negativity creeps up to such a level that everything a spouse does or even did is viewed in a negative light.
When a marriage gets to the point where the couple has rewritten their history, even their minds and bodies make it virtually impossible to communicate and repair their current problems. It is almost bound to fail. They are bound to withdraw from the relationship.
Some couples decide to part ways through a divorce. But some others begin to lead a parallel life. With loneliness sinking in due to a broken relationship, the partner seeks companionship outside the relationship – an affair. An affair is generally a symptom of a dying marriage, not the cause.