Love is like an aging wine. But most often than not, it dies an unnatural death with the untimely separation of couples. The Death of Love Isn’t Natural: The 7 Steps to Separation
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, or tarnishings, but never a natural death.”
– Anais Nin
Marriages rarely end overnight. They tend to unravel over time, in ways that are now fairly predictable thanks to research by Dr. John Gottman. In 1986 Dr. Gottman and his colleagues built a Love Lab to learn the secrets of lasting love and understand why love dies.
By studying couples for over 40 years, Dr. Gottman could predict with a 90% accuracy which marriage would fail, and which would succeed. These are the factors he found most often contribute to the dissolution of a marriage.
7 steps to separation – how a relationship dies:
Step 1: A Lack of Emotional Support
A deep friendship is the best buffer against nasty conflict. Dr. Gottman’s research concluded that couples who last turn toward each other 86% of the time, while those separated turned towards 33% of the time.
A lack of responsiveness and affection creates ambivalence about the relationship.
- “Does my partner love me?”
- “Do I matter to my spouse?”
A research study that followed 168 couples for 13 years discovered that the number one predictor of why couples split was not how often the couple fought, but how little affection and emotional responsiveness they offered one another.¹
Additional research validates that relationship distress was predicted by a partner who was unsupportive in their response – by minimizing a problem, not wanting feelings to be expressed, offering unhelpful advice, and insisting on their partner using that advice.²
When we become deprived of the emotional connection in our relationship, we become insecure. We feel uncertain about the strength of our relationship.
- “Can I trust my partner to be there for me when I need them?”
- “Is my partner hiding something?”
Step 2: Escalating Conflict
Dr. Gottman says that the most obvious indicator that a conversation is not going to go well is the way it begins.
Within the first three minutes, Dr. Gottman could predict how a 15-minute conflict conversation would end. His research concluded that 96% of the time a conversation ends negatively because it starts negatively.
When a conversation begins harshly, it invites a harsh reply:
- “You never make time for me. All you ever do is work. No wonder we have problems in our marriage!”
- “Solving how we parent our kids would help our marriage, but when I try to tell you about our kids’ routines and what’s important, you don’t do it. I even write out step-by-step instructions, but that doesn’t even work. I have no idea how to get through to you.”
While your frustration about a lack of responsiveness and teamwork is valid, beginning a conversation with blame, criticism, and sarcasm is a sure way to derail a productive conversation into a fight. When this happens, it can lead couples into nasty cycles of conflict if there is no repair.
Step 3: Stuck in the Cycles of Conflict
Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, proposes that conflict is a result of disconnection and an attempt to reconnect partners.
For some of us, conflict reconnects. For others, it disconnects us even more. The difference is not what you say, but how you say it.
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.