Partner 1: Why are you angry now?
Partner 2: You never listen to me.
Partner 1: Why would I? You're always yelling and nagging.
Partner 2: Look who's talking! You're so insensitive ...
Partner 1: And you're impossible!
Partner 2: Okay, wait...let's not get all worked up again...why don't we just talk this out
Partner 1: Forget it, there's no point... I don't want to talk to you...
Sound familiar? Just another heated couple argument...
Not according to psychologist John Gottman, whose team conducted research on over 2000 couples over 2 years. In fact, such arguments contain signs that can predict relationship failure. It was found that while conflict by itself may not be destructive to a relationship, certain communication patterns repeated and intensified over time could spell the deathblow to the relationship.
So what are these negative patterns? Gottman calls them "The four horsemen of the Apocalypse" and each horseman (negative pattern) paves way for the next.
This is an over-generalized complaint against your partner's character or personality instead of a specific behaviour, making the other partner feel attacked and wanting to defend themselves.
When partners engage in criticism, they use phrases like "You never, " "You always," "You should," "Why don't you ever," and "Why are you always?"
This is probably the most hurtful to a relationship since it involves demeaning your partner psychologically through hostile words or body language. Usually it results from resentment building over time, leading to openly insulting and tearing down your partner's self-esteem.
Contempt is expressed verbally through sarcasm, ridicule, yelling and name-calling. For example, "You're such a pain", "stupid". Partners may also show contempt towards each other through non-verbal expressions like rolling eyes, curling upper lip, sneering, avoiding eye contact etc. A more aggressive form of contempt involves threatening or provoking your partner.
According to Gottman's research, the initial minutes of a discussion can predict its outcome 96% of the time. If it begins with criticism or contempt, it is a harsh start-up and will most likely end without resolution, making both partners even more angry and negative towards each other.
This is when one partner feels like the victim and tries to shield him/herself from the other one's verbal attacks.
Defensive responses include making excuses ("Yes, but..."), denying responsibility ("It's not my fault I...". "So..."), cross-complaining ("It wouldn't have happened if you didn't...", "That's not true, you're the one who..."), whining ("That's not fair, at least I didn't...") or repeating him/herself while ignoring what the partner is saying.
Emotional flooding takes place when one partner is suddenly overwhelmed by the other's criticism, contempt and defensiveness. Physical symptoms (rapid heart rate, sudden adrenaline rush, increased blood pressure) block the brain's capacity to reason and trigger a ‘fight or flight' response. Thus, there is no chance for productive problem-solving, rather the distressed partner feels like he/she is walking on eggshells not knowing when their partner will blow up again.
This is when one partner retreats from the other to avoid a fight by changing the subject, keeping silent, giving only monosyllabic responses, muttering to oneself or removing oneself physically. Some people think that doing this will make them appear neutral and calm in an argument. However, their partner may see them as being disapproving, smug, disconnected or experience as it as a ‘cold war' or emotional separation.
When exiting the relationship this way and avoiding solving the problem at hand becomes the predictable pattern in a relationship, it could be headed for a breakup and requires urgent attention.
Sometimes one partner might try to calm the building tension in the argument in order to avoid reaching the state of emotional flooding. But when criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are strongly prevailing in the relationship, there are high chances that these efforts will go unnoticed by the other partner. Such failed repair attempts will just lead to a cycle of increasingly negative communication patterns till one partner backs out.
Now, let's take a closer look at the initial conversation exchange between two partners...
Partner 1: Why are you angry now? (harsh start-up)
Partner 2: You never listen to me. (criticism)
Partner 1: Why would I? You're always yelling and nagging. (defensiveness, criticism)
Partner 2 (rolling her eyes): Look who's talking! You're so insensitive really... (defensiveness, contempt)
Partner 1: And you're impossible! (contempt)
Partner 2: Okay, wait...let's not get all worked up again...why don't we just talk this out (repair attempt)
Partner 1: (throwing up his hands in the air and walking away): Forget it, there's no point... I don't want to talk to you... (emotional flooding, stonewalling)
As you can see, all of the negative patterns discussed in this article can be identified in this brief dialogue. And if this is the way that this couple fights on a regular basis, research points out that their relationship may be heading to an end.
But the good news is that with timely intervention to help them change their way of handling conflicts, they have the opportunity to make a turnaround and achieve a successful, satisfying relationship.