While it doesn't take research to clue most of us into how painful it can be to have our marriage go into crisis, it's normal to struggle with knowing what it means. Will (or should) this relationship end? Should I leave or stay? Are we past the point of no return?
These questions are understandable (and even healthy) reactions to have when you reach a tipping point and find yourself wondering if the good with your partner still outweighs the bad. When you catch yourself increasingly having little hope or fantasizing more about alternative lives than the one you have built.
Still, walking away from a marriage is nothing to do lightly. While it takes years to build your relationship and family, the shattering of a marital bond can occur abruptly, radically altering not only your current life but the l future trajectory you both might be capable of if stabilized.
The risk is clear. Research shows that our brains aren't prone to making critical decisions from a reactive place. Simply put, if your marriage is in a crisis, you may not be able to discern whether or not the relationship is salvageable on your own. You may not be able to see the forest for the trees.
Fortunately, research can provide guideposts to help you navigate what can feel like otherwise precarious terrain.
After 40 years of close observation of married couples across all categories and life stages, Gottman identified the presence of four behaviors that may indicate your relationship is at increased risk for divorce.
Criticism - This occurs when one partner brings an issue to the other in a harsh fashion, or with a judgmental or critical tone. Criticism by nature is more destructive in conversations than when you share a complaint from a non-judgemental stance, one where you abstain from making your spouse the bad-guy and communicate a willingness to give equal regard to their perspective(s).
Defensiveness - Finding what's wrong in your partner's complaints versus what's legitimate. When you're in a defensive mode, you'll tend to be more interested in what you're going to fire back at your partner then in truly listening to what their experience is. And while it can initially seem like a solid strategy to protect yourself, defensiveness ultimately shuts things down and adds to gridlock.
Contempt - Of particular concern, Gottman calls contempt sulphuric acid for love, and amongst the horsemen, it is the one most strongly correlated with divorce. Characterized by getting nasty and turning up the volume, attacking your partner's character, or becoming belligerent and sarcastic, over time, contempt will cause serious damage. And be warned, contempt can also manifest more subtly, with smirks, an eye roll, or the displaying of dismissive body language.
Stonewalling - Just as it sounds, stonewalling speaks to when you or your partner shut down, in essence becoming like a "stone." One or both of you stop listening or responding to the other. Though often not done out of spite, stonewalling can infuriate an already angry spouse and add to distance in your relationship.
Gottman groups these four behaviors together because they often co-occur and prevent either partner from being objective because their emotions and reactions reach an escalated state.
What other behaviors are associated with divorce?
When couples argue, the first few minutes of the conversation often determines if it will go well or poorly. In fact, it's worth noting that you have a 96% chance of not being heard if you initiate a conversation "harshly," this means it's pretty much a guarantee that things will escalate into an argument and ultimately fail. Couples on the brink are more prone to harsh startups (and the damage that ensues as a result of them).
A physiological response to stress, flooding happens when your emotions are so intense that neither you or your spouse can gain perspective or slow things down. When you flood you essentially become impaired. Unable to think clearly, you become prone to shutting down or wreaking havoc in a state of rage. It’s fair to say that flooding affects your behaviors and the quality of your interactions. Given that, it’s no wonder the presence of flooding is indicative of marital troubles.
Research shows us that all couples fight. This same research also shows us that couples who make up quickly often fare far better than couples who stay angry or distant. When attempts to repair and improve your relationship have failed, a sense of futility can set in. Data indicates that if the elements of arguing described as the "Four Horsemen" are prevalent, the marriage is 82% likely to end in divorce. Combined with a history of failed repair attempts, the chance of the relationship ending rises to more than 90%.
Learning how to makeup and repair hurts in a relationship, through emotionally focused therapy or other methodologies, is critical to marital longevity.
Deeply entrenched couples often have a negative view of their marriage or spouse and, in turn, rewrite the past. If you find it difficult to recall your early days fondly, and if you have rewritten your marital history, chances are the marriage has tipped into what Dr. Gottman calls "Negative Sentiment Override." This occurs when one or both spouses perceive the marriage as more problematic than good.
If these patterns and behaviors are familiar to you, it can be painful to acknowledge. Understandably, you might be experiencing feelings of hopefulness or angst about what, if anything, you can do.
Finding a couples therapist trained in evidence-informed approaches and skilled in helping support spouses or couples on the brink is imperative. A professional marital counselor who can utilize Gottman's research to identify and understand the negative patterns you and/or your partner have developed. In doing so, he or she can help you to make one of the most important decisions of your life.
At The Northampton Center For Couples Therapy, our therapists are dedicated to helping you understand your relationships patterns and to supporting you in developing new skills. The methods we use have a high success rate, even with the toughest of couples.
Contact us today and start your journey toward shared understanding, healing and ultimately connection. We are the leading couples therapy provider in New England and dedicate ourselves to helping each couple find success, whether through weekly therapy, our couples therapy weekend or our private relationship retreat.