There are specific ways we say things that can make the conflict worse. Dr. Gottman’s research has uncovered four behaviors that will end a marriage in less than 6 years:
When we are critical of the person we love, it guarantees that they’ll be defensive. If they fight back with a counter-attack, you’ll find your relationship caught in a toxic cycle of the “blame game,” arguing with each other over who is more wrong or flawed.
Eventually, one partner becomes disrespectful and starts to talk down to their partner with contempt. Dr. Gottman’s research discovered that contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce. It’s a form of talking down to your partner from a place of superiority.
The partner who is the receiver of contempt feels humiliated and shamed.
It’s no surprise that someone’s stonewalls when their partner is contemptuous. This creates the “pursue-withdraw” pattern, one of the more difficult relationship patterns to escape.
The partner who is reactive with rage is then met with a lover who is physically present but emotionally absent. Hopelessness and despair consume the relationship. When this happens, partners lose their capacity to stay calm around each other.3
Stage 4: Emotional Flooding
“Pleasure of love lasts but a moment. Pain of love lasts a lifetime.” – Bette Davis
Imagine you’re sitting in your living room, talking on the phone to a friend. You’re laughing and having a fun time. You feel safe and relaxed.
Then all of a sudden water starts flooding in your window, ceiling, and doorway.
What do you do?
You panic. All you can do is focus on the situation. Your heart is pounding, you can’t hear your friend on the phone asking you if you’re okay, and you forget about your ability to communicate. You think, “I have to get out of here.”
This is the same experience people feel in nasty cycles of conflict.
Since you feel under attack, you emotionally shut down, or you ramp up and attack in an even worse way.
When we are flooded, the caveman inside of us comes out. It doesn’t care about your partner, it cares about your survival. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, calls this part of the brain the “primitives” because it’s an old brain whose goal is to keep you safe at all costs.
How it works:
- The alarm system goes off when something appears threatening.
- It prepares the body to fight, flee, or freeze to protect you.
- You attack or run.
When your primitives are activated, they respond by smashing your partner with a verbal club (attack: criticism, contempt, defensiveness) or run away (stonewalling).
Flooding makes it impossible to listen, respond calmly, engage, or resolve conflict.
Repeated experiences of flooding make partners feel incredibly distressed in the presence of each other, heightening the risk of flooding the next time a couple is around each other and much harder to resolve conflict.4
Stage 5: Failed Repair Attempts
“Relationships are like glass. Sometimes it’s better to leave them broken than to try to put them back together and end up hurting yourself.” – Unknown
When repair attempts fail, a relationship enters dark waters. Despite using criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, 84% of couples who were able to repair had stable and happy marriages six years later according to Dr. Gottman’s research.
Unhappy marriages, in comparison, perpetuate nasty cycles of conflict with failed repair attempts. Dr. Gottman says that “the more contemptuous and defensive the couple are with each other, the more flooding occurs, and the harder it is to hear and respond to repairs.” When the repair is ignored, conflict continues to escalate until one partner withdraws from the interaction.
The key to a successful repair attempt is not what is said or done, but the strength of a couple’s bond.
Again, it is not the conflict that ruins a relationship; it’s a disconnection, a lack of a strong friendship.
When I meet with couples who have reached the stage of contempt and withdrawal, I actually see a lot of repair attempts. But because there is a history of mis-attunement and disconnection, partners often ignore the repair and keep trying to resolve the issue in the way they’re fighting, even though it’s not working.