How to Mess Up Your Marriage and
Achieve Divorce in a Masterful Way
What causes break-ups and divorce?
Many books have been written about relationship deterioration, quoting ideas of what goes wrong when a relationship dies. You may have heard some of these hypotheses on afternoon talk shows or in relationship advice columns of magazines. They usually go like this:
- Gender differences, i.e. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
- Extra-marital affairs and inappropriate relationships
- One spouse controlling or dominating the relationship
- Poor problem solving or inadequate conflict resolution
- Problems with extended family or unresolved childhood issues
- High expectations or inability to change
The list can go on and on… While many of these ideas sound logical, they are often flawed.
What is really dysfunctional when a relationship is ailing?
That was the question that relationship experts and researchers John and Julie Gottman (www.gottman.com) have studied for the last 30 years. Here is a list of relationship “ailment” indicators that they have found to be true in their lab. This list is based on some of the Gottman’s writings as well as training materials.
- More Negativity than Positivity. Couples in stable relationships maintain a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative interactions while couples in ailing relationships have a 0.8:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. These couples usually, at some point in their relationship, end up heading for divorce if that ratio does not change. Interestingly, this also means that negativity is important in relationships. The idea is not to always stay positive, but to use negativity to weed out what doesn’t work, address and seek healing from past hurts and betrayals, and adapt to the requirements of the relationship.
- Escalation of Negative Affect: “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling; these are part of a pattern of negative escalation. The Gottmans have analyzed the sequence of thousands of relationship exchanges and have found that what predicted divorce was not the presence of negativity or anger, but the escalation of them. When negativity and anger escalate, people tend to turn away from one another instead of toward an emotional connection with their partner. We will address all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are major predictors of divorce, separately, in future blog posts.
- Emotional Disengagement and Withdrawal. The Gottmans have found that couples that are headed for divorce not only have escalated negativity in their relationships, they also lack positive affect in their relationships. They don’t express affection toward one another, they stopped having fun together, and they don’t share common interests, support, or empathy. The Gottmans labeled these patterns as “turning away” patterns in contrast to “turning towards” patterns.
- The Failure of Repair Attempts. Couples and relationship therapists often make the mistake of attempting to get partners to stop fighting. This tends to be unsuccessful, as no relationships are completely conflict-free. Instead, successful couples learn to process their fights and hurt feelings to repair their relationships.
- Negative Sentiment Override. This concept, first described by Robert Weiss, is a common phenomenon in relationships where one partner interprets the other partner’s neutral or positive interaction as negative. Negative Sentiment Override is related to the development of negative attributions about one’s partner and the relationship.
- Diffused Physiological Arousal. This is the body’s “fight-or- flight- or freeze” response. When a partner feels extremely overwhelmed and flooded his or her body calls for this “general alarm” response. When this physiological arousal accompanies conflict in relationship defensiveness, decreased ability to problem-solve or to be open to accepting influence from the other partner.
- The failure of men to accept influence from their women.
Use negativity to weed out what doesn’t work, address and seek healing from past hurts and betrayals, and adapt to the requirements of the relationship.
The good news is that the presence of these predictors of divorce does not necessarily mean that divorce is inevitable. When people recognize the troubling presence of these behaviors on their relationships, they are uncertain what to do about them. They often desperately try to stop them or to develop new behaviors, which may or may not last very long.
If you are struggling in a marriage that is characterized by perpetually gridlocked problems, poor conflict management, turning away instead of turning towards, or negativity, please give us a call. Many of our therapists are trained and qualified to do an Official Gottman Relationship Assessment and help you and your partner work on developing functional behaviors.