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.
Stage 6: A Negative Love Story
“The scariest thing about distance is you don’t know if they’ll miss you or forget about you.” – Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook
When negativity dominates a couple’s interactions, it puts their entire relationship on trial at all times. Research on the brain tells us that when we recall memories, we alter them with our present experiences. When repairing a relationship, this can bring healing to attachment injuries and help a couple reconnect.
When a couple is disconnected and caught in nasty cycles of fighting, the brain focuses on all the negative moments of a relationship and neglects the good.
With this mindset, partners question every action or comment. Every response is seen in the worst possible light and any benefit of the doubt goes out the window. Partners start believing that their lover is “intentionally” hurting them.
Robinson and Price discovered that when a couple was unhappy, the partners viewed even neutral and sometimes positive interactions as negative. They actually miss 50% of positive moments of connection that outside observers noticed.
Stage 7: Detachment
“Detachment is not about refusing to feel or not caring or turning away from those you love. Detachment is profoundly honest, grounded firmly in the truth of what is.” – Sharon Salzberg
With the inability to resolve conflict and a negative “Story of Us,” couples hit the lowest of lows: despair. They give up hope and begin to live in quiet separation.
Some people do this by legally divorcing, and others by emotionally breaking-up and living parallel live in the same house. When couples reach this dark place of hopelessness, talking about problems seems useless and both partners accept the loneliness that comes.
This is when some partners violate the boundaries of the relationship because they are starving for emotional connection and feel hopeless about reconnecting with their life partner. (5)
The Snowball Effect
“Love is unconditional. Relationships are not.” – Grant Gudmunson
The decay of a relationship tends not to be a one-time blow-up; rather, it is like a snowball rolling down a hill. The red flags begin with how partners talk to each other, then the inability to repair leads to repeated instances of flooding and finally a negative perspective of the marriage.
Dr. Gottman’s research has proven that with a habitual use of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling it takes about 6 years for a marriage to end.
There are also couples who are not nasty and have very little negativity. These conflict avoiders can have healthy marriages if they have a lot of positive interactions, but if there is very little responsiveness or affection, that type of relationship will die within 16.2 years.
These are years of interactions gone wrong, not days.
What To Do Now
“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?” – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
If you recognize your relationship in any of these stages, you are not alone. A lot of couples struggle between steps 1-4.
My intended purpose for sharing how love dies is to give you some insight into the cascade that ends relationships, so you can take that knowledge and save your love life. It will take hard work and personal growth to save and repair your bond.
Dr. Gottman reminds us that “Even a marriage that is about to hit bottom can be revived with the right intervention.”
The biggest barrier I see to save marriages is partners’ willingness to risk the vulnerability to reconnect. To properly forgive, repair, and strengthen a bond that has been weakened by a lack of knowledge and experience on how to replenish love, affection, and care.