The First Sign: Harsh Startup
When a discussion or argument begins with criticism and/or sarcasm (a form of contempt for the partner) it has begun with a “harsh startup” according to John Gottman, Ph.D. Arguing and conflict is not a bad thing, actually normal and part of any relationship. But it is the sarcastic tone and intent to criticize that sets the stage for a negative outcome.
The Second Sign: The Four Horsemen
Gottman believes that certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are extremely destructive to a relationship. He refers to these toxic behaviors as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They often creep into a marriage or intimate relationship in the following order.
Horseman 1: Criticism
We will always have complaints about our partner. However there is a difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed, such as not remembering to take the trash to the curb on Monday evening. A criticism is far more global, generally adding some negative words that attack your partner’s character or personality, perhaps in saying something like “… you never show any respect for maintaining our home and following through on chores… you are so lazy…”
Criticism is very common in relationships. We all fall into its trap from time to time. So if you find that you and your partner are at times critical of each other, don’t assume that you are headed for divorce. Gottman believes that the biggest problem with criticism is that when it becomes a pattern, it paves the way for other far deadlier horsemen.
Horseman 2: Contempt
Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt, in whatever form, is the most dangerous of the four horsemen because it implies disgust. Attempting to resolve a problem with spouse when he or she knows of your disgust leads nowhere.
Horseman 3: Defensiveness
Defensiveness on the surface appears to be a way to defend yourself again hurt, disappointment, and unmet needs. However, research shows that defending one’s self seldom has the desired effect of self preservation. The attacking spouse generally does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. Defensiveness merely escalates a problem.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling
Stonewalling is tuning out the other person, and usually arrives later in the course of a marriage than the other three horsemen. The purpose of this behavior is to avoid conflict and disengage from the partner, and is more common among men than women.
The Third Sign: Flooding
Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling flooded. Flooding means that your partner’s negativity — whether in the form of criticism, contempt, or even defensiveness — is so overwhelming, and so unexpected, that it leaves you stunned. When we feel defenseless against such an attack it feels safer to avoid a counterattack and withdraw into safety. There is then the potential to become hypervigilant against further attacks, and the stonewalling becomes a pattern and way to disengage emotionally from the relationship.
“A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted, then, by habitual harsh startup 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.”
The Fourth Sign: Body Language
Physical and physiological changes during arguments and states of flooding are very clear and visible indicators of a seriously distressed relationship. Signs like increased heart rate, sweating, downcast eyes, tense body posture, and backing away, etc., are all suggestive of significant disconnection between the partners.
The Fifth Sign: Failed Repair Attempts
“Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes (“Let’s take a break,” “Wait, I need to calm down…”) to deescalate the tension during a touchy discussion — to put on the brakes so that flooding is prevented. Repair attempts save some marriages not just because they decrease emotional tension between spouses, but by lowering the stress level they also prevent your heart from racing and making you feel flooded.”
If there are no repair attempts made or heard, a relationship is in grave danger.
The Sixth Sign: Bad Memories
Couples who are deeply invested in a negative view of their partner or their relationship often rewrite their past. When a marriage is not going well, history tends to get rewritten for the worse.
“When the four horsemen overrun a home, impairing the communication, the negativity mushrooms to such a degree that everything a spouse does — or ever did — is recast in a negative light.”
Gottman, John M. & Silver, Nan. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.