The Warning Signs of a Relationship Headed For a Breakup

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Excerpted from

The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing the Four Key Causes of Depression and Aggression

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We all know of relationships in which the couple is forever fighting and unhappy. The heat is too high. Rather than warming, it burns. We also know couples who have given up on having a good relationship and have settled for one where they are physically together but emotionally distant. The cold is not refreshing; it freezes the flow of love and good cheer.

Fortunately, there is someone who has actually studied what works and what doesn't work in relationships. For the past 30 years, psychologist John M. Gottman, Ph.D., author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail... And How You Can Make Yours Last, has studied thousands of couples. As a result, he can predict with 94 percent accuracy which couples will stay married and which will divorce. For instance, he found that couples who argue a lot are not more likely to divorce than couples who avoid fights. Conflict, even heated conflict, can be compatible with a healthy marriage.

So what are the warning signs of a marriage that is in trouble?

Dr. Gottman calls them "the four horsemen of the apocalypse." I call them the red alerts of impending IMS damage. The presence of these signs in a marriage is not necessarily, by itself, an indication that the husband has IMS. But most marriages affected by IMS do have these problems. When you see any of these four signs occurring on a regular basis, the relationship is in danger if not treated immediately.

From the least to the most destructive, they are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

Criticism: The First Red Alert

We all have complaints about things our partners do. Complaints are specific. "Listen, dear, I'm angry that you forgot to pick up my coat at the dry cleaner." Criticism, on the other hand, involves attacking personality or character. It is general and, often, blaming. "Can't you ever remember anything? Do I always have to remind you of everything? What's the matter with you?"

It's not a long jump from complaints, which are healthy, to criticisms, which are destructive. What's important is that we recognize the criticism and acknowledge it. "Look, I know I blew up at you and said some things I didn't really mean. I was just angry because I needed that coat for an important meeting tomorrow."

Problems occur when criticisms go unacknowledged. What happens is that we don't feel heard or cared for, so the next time something occurs, we become critical even more quickly. We might say to ourselves, "Damn, she forgot again. She really doesn't care about me. Maybe she's trying to undermine my success at work. She never was supportive of me." A negative cycle gets activated, and criticism often goes back and forth between partners. When we hear continuous "criticism," we know the first red-alert signal of serious IMS is upon us.

Contempt: The Second Red Alert

What separates contempt from criticism is that, in the former, the tone of voice and language are insulting and psychologically abusive. If you've ever been the recipient of contempt, you know that it can hurt more than being hit. Many of us were raised in families in which our parents abused us with words. One man I worked with in therapy recalled times when, as a little boy, he had done something wrong. He was directed to wait in the closet until he was told to come out. "That was frightening and humiliating enough," he recalled. "But what happened when I came out was even worse." He broke down in tears and began shaking as he recalled the event. "When I came out, nothing was ever said ... but my little suitcase was sitting by the door." I asked him what that had meant to him. "It meant I was a useless piece of shit and I'd probably be put out on the street at any time."

Contempt can come in words, or it can be expressed with no words at all, through actions or body language. We are aware of its presence when there are insults, name-calling, hostile humor; and mockery. The person on the receiving end is often cut to the bone. The person who is delivering the contempt often mocks with hostile justifications. "What's the matter with you? You know I'm only joking." "Hey, lighten up, you take everything too seriously." When contempt enters the picture, we know the second red alert is flashing.

Defensiveness: The Third Red Alert

Although Dr. Gottman calls defensiveness the third horseman, I have found that it can often slip into second place. When we are criticized, it is easy to become defensive. When we are ridiculed or held in contempt, we can become even more defensive. Once defensiveness takes hold in a relationship, it is very difficult to hear each other, to resolve problems, or to rekindle the loving feelings that once were present.

When we are caught in defensiveness, we feel that our partners are going out of their way to "get us." It seems that they deliberately misread situations or lie about what really happened. "You agreed to pick up the food for dinner," she tells him with anger and resentment in her voice.

"I did not," he maintains. "I never agreed to do that."

"What?" she replies, her voice rising in disbelief. "Are you crazy? You know you said you'd do it."

"Don't tell me what I know," he yells back. "You're irrational. I can't even talk to you." He stomps out of the room, and she is left feeling furious, hurt, and resentful.

"The fact that defensiveness is an understandable reaction to feeling besieged is one reason it is so destructive," says Dr. Gottman. "The 'victim' doesn't see anything wrong with being defensive." But defensiveness never leads to agreement or better communication; it always tends to escalate the conflict. He often feels that she is out to get him. She often feels she can't rely on him because "he never tells the truth."

One of the first indicators that we are slipping into defensiveness is when we find we are denying responsibility before we have even fully heard the other person's concern. No matter what she is concerned about, he insists, vehemently, that he didn't do it.

We all occasionally deny responsibility for things, particularly when we feel guilty or foolish. However, when it becomes a regular occurrence, serious defensiveness has set in.

Sometimes, we will accept responsibility but make excuses for our behavior. Here, while we agree that we did it, we claim that it wasn't our fault because some external circumstance beyond our control forced us to act the way we did. Remember the comedian Flip Wilson? It was always, "The devil made me do it." We come home late and don't call. When our wives get upset, we become indignant. "I couldn't call because I was in a meeting," we say. "You don't expect me to leave in the middle just to tell you I'm alive?"

When we notice that defensiveness has become the rule, rather than the exception, we know the third red alert is trying to get our attention.




Tags: Breaking Up & Divorce

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