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