Is your relationship headed for disaster?
John Gottman, PhD, is a leading psychologist in the area of marriage and relationships. Over the years, he has researched countless couples and has been able to predict with surprising accuracy which relationships survive and which fail.
I know you are busy and may not have time to read his books, so I want to give you a little summary of the red flags that he’s found so that you can see if you are dealing with them in your relationship. By the way – if you do have time, I highly recommend his book “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work” – it’s a quick and easy read and offers some great information.
First off, if you are experiencing any of these ‘symptoms’ of a relationship headed toward disaster, fear not. You have time to reverse your path. Awareness is key – so talk to your partner about your concerns and see if you can do something about it.
The Warning Signs
1.) Negativity significantly outweighs positivity
Let’s face it – all couples, happy and otherwise, have negative feelings in their relationships. There is a place in every relationship for anger, hurt and disgust. After all, we’re only human and we all screw up and do things that piss each other off. What counts is how much negativity there is in relation to positivity. The goal is to keep the scale in favor of how positive we can be.
Gottman and his colleagues found that in stable relationships, the ratio of positive to negative during conflict is 5:1, which means there is 5 times as much positive interactions than negative ones in stable couples when they are in conflict. That ratio in couples who get divorced is much less – 0.8:1 or less, so there is greater negativity than positivity in similar conflicts.
What this means is that couples in happy relationships tend to be much more forgiving and understanding of each other, even during conflict, significantly moreso than those couples headed for break-up. This may be obvious, but I think the fact that Dr. Gottman is able to pin down exactly how much negativity a relationship can tolerate before heading into the danger zone is pretty amazing – and helpful.
The take home message is to keep your positivity 5X or greater than your negativity when you are arguing with your partner. This helps keep your relationship in the safe zone. In other words – when you are arguing with your partner, instead of telling him how stupid he is, try to throw in an “I can see what you’re saying,” or, “ok, that makes sense.” If you share a sense of humor, hopefully you can be more playful with each other and maybe joke with her about the issue (as long as it’s not condescending or only funny to you). Hopefully the favor will be returned by your partner and you’ll both survive these conflicts with much more ease and keep your relationship out of the danger zone.
This information may not save your relationship or may not even be possible to implement without more help if you are deep into a hostile pattern with each other, but I think it’s interesting and can be useful.
2.) “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse”
The second warning sign is actually a set of behaviors that Gottman has referred to as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These 4 interactions have consistently predicted failure in marriages and so are to be avoided and eliminated at all cost in your relationship.
What are these four horsemen? Basically, these four markers can arise in escalating negative interactions. All couples get hostile with each other, but when the negativity escalates and is marked by the following four “horsemen,” it is a sign that your relationship is in trouble:
- Criticism – partners who criticize each other and take personal attack on each other are in trouble. While it may be tempting to let your partner know how stupid they are at times, it is very damaging to your relationship. The best way around this is to complain, but don’t criticize. So, if your partner forgot to pick up that important grocery item, instead of letting them know how much of an idiot they are, let them know how you feel (disappointed? angry?) and feel free to complain about this mistake. It may not go over well, but it’s much better than calling them a stupid asshole. None of us like to be personally attacked, especially by the person who knows us better than anyone and is supposed to have our backs.
- Defensiveness – look, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. I’m guilty as charged and hate admitting when I’m wrong because it’s so rare (haha), but it’s something I’ve worked on. Let your guard down and be real with your partner. Take the wall down and don’t be so defensive.
- Contempt – even the word itself is scary, it’s such an ugly feeling. This one is probably the trickiest of them all – how do you not feel contempt for someone if the contempt is there? There’s no easy solution here and contempt has been shown to be one of the most dangerous feelings in a relationship. If you are experiencing this in your relationship, this may be one sign to get help fast.
- Stonewalling – this is when the wall goes up for one of you and you can’t reach the other person. When someone stonewalls you, it is agonizing. You can’t get in there and it feels like they don’t care. Stonewalling is really a way that your partner might be protecting himself. Granted, it’s not the best for your relationship, but just because you are getting a blank stare doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. In fact, Gottman and his colleagues have physiologically measured stonewalling partners who don’t let on that they’re feeling anything, and consistently found that despite appearing like they have no cares in the world, these partners have elevated blood pressure and pulses.
Chances are, if there is stonewalling in your relationship, your partner cares more than you realize. If your partner is stonewalling you, you may feel yourself escalating to try to get a reaction from him. My advice: slow down. I know – you are frustrated, angry, maybe desperate and scared – you just want to get a reaction from him. But let me tell you, in more cases than not, if you continue to escalate and make a lot of noise, it’s going to keep him further blocked off from you. Take a step back and see what happens. I’m not guaranteeing that there will be any magic, but try another approach and see if he will come out of his shell.
If YOU are a stonewaller, I challenge you to take a step back and try something else. Instead of letting your wall go up, or instead of letting it go up all the way, see if you can show a sign to your partner that you do care, you are just feeling ________ fill in the blank (overwhelmed? Attacked? Hopeless? Accused? Something else?) Letting your partner know that your wall is just something you need right now to keep cool is great, it is much better hearing that from someone than getting a blank look or no response whatsoever.
Now you can at least identify these “four horsemen of the apocalypse” and hopefully slay these monsters if they appear in your relationship. Just because you may be experiencing them doesn’t mean you’re headed for divorce. You’re obviously interested in making things better, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, so carry on and stop the criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
3.) Turning away
This is kind of like stonewalling, and is pretty self-explanatory. If your partner comes to you, particularly when trying to connect with you, and you turn away, this is not a good sign. Even if you are upset or angry, it is best to let your partner know than to turn away. Being ignored is hurtful and painful. Instead, try to turn toward your partner.
Perhaps your partner turns away from you. Again, just because you are getting no response from him, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care. Please try to remember that – it is so painful to be ignored and feel invisible or like you don’t matter. It’s most likely not that your partner doesn’t care, but that he is feeling overwhelmed himself and doesn’t know what to do. Perhaps he feels he can’t get it right with you and figures it’s best to say nothing at all. Sometimes those who turn away are actually trying to preserve the relationship by preventing an all out blow out. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on, but rest assured, something is happening other than your partner just not caring.
4.) Turning against
This one’s also self-explanatory. Instead of turning away as discussed above, some partners turn against each other. One person goes to their partner to seek support or comfort and gets barked at in response. Those who turn against are basically irritable and cranky with their partners. It’s not a good sign. If this is a problem you face, take a deep breath before responding. Watch yourself. If you are getting barked at, let your partner know the effects it has on you in an honest, non-critical way, and maybe even say that this is a warning sign for divorce! Hopefully your partner will be willing enough to take a look at this behavior and take a deep breath before responding to you when feeling irritated.
5.) Failure of repair attempts
All couples argue and get into it with each other. The healthiest of couples argue with the best of them. The difference is that stable couples know how to make up, or “repair,” when things go wrong. This is such an important skill in relationships, and a warning sign if it’s absent. Humor, honest apologies and not taking yourselves too seriously can go a long way in this regard. You don’t need to avoid fighting or hurting each other – let’s face it, it’s going to happen. Simply make sure you both can make up when things get rocky and you will be on the right track.
6.) Flooding of negative feelings & attributions about one’s partner
Unfortunately I see this all the time couples who come to therapy. Basically, what this means is that in distressed relationships, neutral or ambiguous signals from one partner are interpreted as negative by the other. What’s really common is that one partner will say something to the other – without any feeling positive or negative – and the partner who hears this will assume it is negative. Couples in stable relationships will either hear this same thing as neutral or even positive. So – watch yourself. When you are with your partner and feel like they are being hostile or especially negative, is there any chance that you are simply flooded with negativity that might not actually be present in that very interaction? Take a step back and try to be more objective in each instance and see what you find. Talk to your partner about this phenomenon and encourage them to do the same and start giving you the benefit of the doubt.
7.) Heightened & maintained physiological arousal
I think we all know what it’s like to be in a blood boiling fight. We call it blood boiling because physiologically we are aroused – our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we may be in “fight or flight” mode, our pulse is racing, breathing may be difficult, and we could be sweating bullets and hot as hell. If you and your partner go here and stay here in this blood boiling zone, you are stuck in the danger zone. No good will come of this, so get out!! Take a break from each other and cool off. When we are physiologically activated like this, our brain is foggy and we can’t be rational. Before you’re going to see any resolution, you have got to calm down, so get out of there. Create a sign that you and your partner share, whether it’s a stop sign, a time out, or whatever, that signals to the other that you are activated and need to cool off. I know this can be frustrating if you just want to hash it out, but if your blood is literally on fire, chances are it’s not going to work. Hash it out when you’re both breathing a bit easier.
8.) Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA)
This is a phenomenon that is bad for our health, whether we are in a relationship or not. Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) is when we have a higher baseline of physiological activation than is ideal. It is adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint in that an increased level of vigilance translates to better preparedness for surrounding danger, but in this day and age, most of us do not live in an environment in which we need to be on our toes to stave off danger (I recognize that some of us do, unfortunately).
People with DPA, in addition to other chronic physiological states, have higher heart rates, more constricted arteries, more blood volume with less concentrations of oxygen in the blood, increased stress hormones like cortisol (which has been associated with all kinds of health problems), increased activation of the amygdala in the brain (the amygdala is the emotional arousal center and is highly involved in signaling danger), and less activation of the part of the brain that is responsible for judgment and planning (the frontal lobe).
In relationships, DPA can have a serious negative impact. For example, with decreased ability to plan and judge, those with DPA have a harder time taking in information and have less flexible views of things. Flexibility is really important in relationships. It’s also harder for someone with DPA to be humorous and affectionate when things are difficult. Similarly, someone with DPA may be more likely to continually state their position on something and think that their partner will suddenly understand them after hearing them repeat themselves ten times. You can see how this is a problem.
If you or your partner have DPA, it’s really not your fault. Remember, this physiological arousal is something that has helped us survive as a species over the years. Stress management can be helpful – think about exercise, mindfulness meditation, yoga, or whatever works for you.
9.) In heterosexual relationships, when men can’t accept influence from their female partners
Gottman and his colleagues discovered 2 classic problematic patterns when men reject influence from their female partners:
- When men emotionally disengage (eventually their partners do too)
- When men escalate with negativity in response to their female partner’s feedback, even if it’s just her mild complaining
Heterosexual men who are in more harmonious relationships are open to influence and feedback from their ladies – big surprise, right?
Quick story to illustrate this point: I was at a comedy show one time when they played some “how well do you know your partner” kind of game. There were the newlyweds, the 5-10 year married couple and the veteran couple with 35 years strong. They asked the veteran couple the advice they had to the younger couples and the big guy said, without even thinking, “Keep Mama happy.” Well, there you have it!
So, keep an eye out for these 9 danger signs. Please remember, all of these warning signs appear in relationships from time to time and when you notice them, it doesn’t mean that you are destined for failure. However, if you notice that your relationship is overwhelmingly suffering from any of the above warning signs, sit down with your partner and have a serious chat about your plan to get them under control.
Even better? Check out my workbook to finally get love right.
Cheers to your best relationship,