<Back | Books on Relationships | Books on the Psychology of Money | Online Resources

'A relationship in Trouble: How to Reduce Negativity'

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW

Of all the research that has been done on couples, by far the most thorough has been that of John Gottman, a Seattle-based researcher, clinician and former mathematician. In fact, he was recently chosen as one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century based upon an extensive survey of therapists conducted by Psychotherapy Networker Magazine. That places him in the company of such luminaries as Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Milton Erickson, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis.

Predicting Which Marriages Will Succeed and Which Will Fail

Gottman is probably most famous for his research over the 1980s and 90s where he observed, videotaped and studied more than 3,000 couples in a specially equipped studio called the “love lab”. He would tell them to go about their business as they would during a normal day at home, and periodically he would ask them to discuss an area of conflict. He and his team then followed the progress of many of these couples over the next several decades.

After analyzing the data, Gottman found that he could predict whether a couple would divorce with more than 90% accuracy just by observing the five minute conflict discussion. By identifying the key variables that distinguish stable versus unstable marriages, this research helps us understand with considerable precision what makes some marriages work while others fail.

Distinguishing the “Masters” from the Unsuccessful Couples: How They Fight

One of the most interesting findings is that the amount that couples fight is not what counts; some successful relationships are characterized by lots of fighting, while some unsuccessful relationships appear to be calm and peaceful, at least on the surface.

Even in the most successful couples (the “masters”), people will respond when provoked — if one person gets angry, the other is likely to get angry back. And, over the years, they will tend to repeat the same arguments about the same issues. In fact, 69% of couples’ issues turn out to be perpetual problems that never get solved, and this is true even for the “master” couples!

What distinguishes the “master” couples from the unsuccessful couples is not how much they fight but how they fight. For example, how do they handle those conflicts that cannot be resolved — those conflicts that involve basic differences in values or personality? Does the disagreement feel more like a dialogue, or is it more of a gridlock?

While the “master” couples often find ways of discussing difficult topics without inflicting too much damage, the unsuccessful couples are likely to exhibit many or all of the following behaviors:

  • Harsh startup. If the discussion begins in a harsh way (and it is usually the woman who will bring up the discussion) — with criticism, sarcasm or contempt, the discussion is very likely to end on a negative note.
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Four behaviors are strongly correlated with divorce, particularly if they have become permanent features of a relationship: 1) criticism (a more global put down of a person’s character, as opposed to a specific complaint); 2) contempt, which ultimately conveys disgust; 3) defensiveness, as opposed to listening to what the other person is saying; and 4) stonewalling, meaning that one person tunes out or otherwise disengages from the discussion (likely to be the husband 85% of the time).
  • Flooding. Men are more likely than women to feel physiological “flooding” in response to what feels like overwhelming or sudden negativity on the part of their spouse and, if the flooding happens frequently, it is a good predictor of divorce. This flooded feeling is often behind the “stonewalling” mentioned above. And the men are not just being difficult; there is a physical explanation for why men tend to become more overwhelmed by marital conflict than their wives. Men are more reactive to stress — and their physical signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of adrenaline respond more strongly and recover more slowly than is the case for women.
  • Failed repair attempts. The success of “repair attempts” (those efforts that a person makes in the midst of a fight to de-escalate tensions) is one of the primary factors in predicting marital outcomes. While repair attempts are commonly observed in most marriages, they often get ignored in problematic relationships. The combination of the four horsemen and failed repair attempts is an ominous sign; alternatively, couples that routinely argue using the four horsemen but have successful repair attempts are likely to have stable, happy marriages!

Avoiding the Worst Communication Traps

Now that we know what predicts failed relationships, couples can take advantage of this and learn how to avoid the most serious traps. Therapists can teach couples to replace harsh startups with softened startups and to practice effective repair attempts. Most important, couples can be taught to recognize and eliminate the four horsemen and replace each with their antidotes.  

Let’s say that one partner criticizes the other: “I can’t believe what a selfish person you are that you can never manage to give me any of your time!”  That person is encouraged to replace the criticism with its antidote, which is a specific complaint. Instead they might say, “It really frustrates me that you are working again this Saturday and that we have to cancel our plans again.” The argument is more likely to end well if the other person doesn’t feel that his or her character is being attacked.

Contempt is the most damaging of all the four horsemen and should be challenged in couples therapy. It can be overt (direct put downs, or hostile cynicism or sarcasm), or it can be more subtle (a look of disgust accompanied by rolling the eyes, sneering, etc.). Contempt is always delivered with a kind of meanness — there is an intention to hurt or demean. When contempt becomes prevalent, the relationship is in trouble; it is necessary to really step back and make a conscious effort to begin to create a culture of fondness and admiration for each other — the antidote to contempt.

Defensiveness is a natural reaction. It is human to want to defend our position when we are blamed or attacked, since we usually think that the blame is unjustified. The problem is that defensiveness is counterproductive — it leaves the other person feeling that their complaint has not been heard or validated, and the discussion becomes increasingly polarized. The antidote to defensiveness is willingness to take some responsibility, but, if that feels like too much, just listening and letting your partner know that you want to understand their position can go a long way toward eliminating gridlock and creating dialogue.

When negativity has been present in a marriage for some time, it is not uncommon for one person, usually the husband, to start stonewalling. They may look down, hide behind the newspaper, refuse to talk, leave the room, etc. Generally stonewalling is a response to feeling flooded; that is why the antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing. Flooding can best be addressed by creating time outs of at least 20 minutes and learning soothing techniques to calm down. Ideally both partners can cooperate together to understand what triggers the flooding in the first place and how they can operate better as a team.


Given the high divorce rate that we have today, it is a shame that more couples are not aware of these valuable research findings and the solutions they offer. For couples who have trouble implementing these strategies on their own, couples therapy offers a safe way to confront the most destructive behaviors and receive coaching on more constructive approaches. And for any relationship that has deteriorated to the point where one person is stonewalling on a regular basis, therapy may be essential to help identify when and why any flooding is happening and to promote and implement self-soothing strategies.

All of the recommendations discussed in this article are intended to soften the negative aspects of a relationship, but what about increasing the positive?  To read more about this crucial part of the healing process, see my article “Reviving Your Relationship by Strengthening the Positives”.


Bookmark and Share

Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW | Relationship Realizations™
180 East 79th Street, Suite 1A, New York, NY 10075

To ask questions or set up an appointment, call 212-439-5102 or contact me by email at eli@relationshiprealizations.com

Related Articles...

Subscribe to my email newsletter Subscribe to my email newsletter

“The key to a happy marriage isn’t having a ‘normal’ personality but finding someone with whom you mesh... The point is that neuroses don’t have to ruin a marriage. What matters is how you deal with them. If you can accommodate each other’s strange side and handle it with caring, affection, and respect, your marriage can thrive.”


From The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman