Predictable Patterns of Marriage Breakdown

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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A relationship breakdown refers to the process where the bond between partners weakens, leading to persistent conflict, emotional detachment, and, often, the dissolution of the relationship. This decline is not an overnight event but rather a gradual erosion of the mutual respect, understanding, and love that once characterized the partnership. The significance of understanding a relationship breakdown lies in its widespread impact, affecting the couple and their families, children, and social networks. The emotional toll can be profound, leading to stress, depression, and a decrease in overall life satisfaction for those involved.


In today's fast-paced and often stressful society, relationships are under constant pressure, making them vulnerable to breakdowns. The immediate need for recognizing the signs of such a decline and implementing coping strategies cannot be overstated. Early intervention can help couples navigate through difficulties, resolve underlying conflicts, and, where possible, restore the strength and vitality of their relationship. Moreover, for those relationships that may not survive, understanding the dynamics of breakdowns can provide invaluable insights for managing the separation process more amicably and preparing for healthier relationships in the future.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

There is no single reason why a relationship begins to break down. However, once a relationship does start to break down, there is a predictable sequence of events that tends to occur. Highly regarded psychologist and researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., suggests that there are four stages to this sequence, which he has labeled "The Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse." These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

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The first stage of the breakdown process involves intractable conflict and complaints. All couples have conflicts from time to time, but some couples are able to resolve those conflicts successfully or "agree to disagree," while others find that they are not. As we observed earlier, it is not the number or intensity of arguments that is problematic but rather whether resolution of those arguments is likely or possible. Couples that get into trouble find themselves in conflicts they cannot resolve or compromise upon to both party's satisfaction. Such disagreements can be caused by any number of reasons but might involve a clash of spousal values on core topics, such as whether to have children or how to handle money.

Frequently, couples assume that misunderstandings are at the root of their conflicts. "If my spouse really understood why I act as I do, they would agree with me and go along with what I want" is a commonly overheard refrain. Acting on this belief, spouses often try to resolve their conflicts by repeatedly stating and restating their respective rationales during disagreements. This strategy of repetition usually doesn't work because couple conflicts are not usually based on misunderstandings but rather on real differences in values. When this is the case, stating and restating your position is based on a mistaken premise and can only cause further upset.

In the second stage of the breakdown process, one or both spouses start to feel contempt for the other, and each spouse's attitudes about their partner change for the worse. For example, initially, each spouse may have mostly positive regard for their partner and be willing to write off any poor behavior their partner acts out as a transient, uncommon stress-related event. However, as poor behavior is observed again and again, spouses get frustrated, start to regard their partner as actually being a "bad" or "stupid" person, and begin to treat their partner accordingly. Importantly, the "bad" behavior could be something that the person doesn't do or that the spouse expects them to do (such as remembering to put the toilet seat down after use).

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Reverse contempt by cultivating fondness and admiration—this is the antidote to contempt, suggests John Gottman, Ph.D. Recall joyful memories together to rekindle and strengthen the sense of 'we-ness' to effectively deal with the conflict in your relationship."

Conflict by itself doesn't predict marriage problems. Some couples fight a lot but somehow never manage to lose respect for each other. Once contempt sets in, however, the marriage is on shaky ground. Feelings of contempt for your spouse are a powerful predictor of relationship breakdown, no matter how subtle they are displayed. In a famous study, Gottman was able to predict with over 80% accuracy the future divorces of multiple couples he and his team observed based on subtle body language cues suggesting contemptuous feelings (such as dismissive eye-rolling). Contempt doesn't have to be expressed openly for it to be hard at work, rotting the foundations of your relationship.

Most people find conflict and contempt to be stressful and react to such conditions by entering the third stage of breakdown, characterized by their partner's increasingly defensive behavior. Men, in particular (but women, too), become hardened by the chronicity of the ongoing conflict. They may react even more acutely during moments when conflict is most heated by becoming overwhelmed and "flooded"—a condition that is psychologically and emotionally quite painful. 

Over time, partners learn to expect that they cannot resolve their differences and that any attempts at resolution will result in further overwhelm, hurt, or disappointment. Rather than face the pain and overwhelm they expect to experience, partners who have reached this third "defensive" stage may progress to the fourth and final stage of breakdown, characterized by a breakdown of basic trust between the partners and increasing disengagement in the name of self-protection. Like a steam valve in a pressure cooker, the partners start avoiding one another to minimize their conflicts. Gottman calls this final stage "stonewalling." Unfortunately, there is no way to love your partner when you are hiding behind a wall to protect yourself.

The "four horsemen" breakdown sequence plays out against the backdrop of partner compatibility. Compatible partners may demonstrate a lot of conflict, but they don't often become contemptuous and angry with their partners because there are few things they disagree on. In contrast, partners who start out with incompatible goals, values, or dreams are far more likely to get into seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Also, once the process of contempt, defensiveness, and avoidance begins, small incompatibilities can become magnified as spouses pursue other interests as an alternative to conflict.

Practical Steps to Addressing Conflict

Addressing conflict in relationships requires more than just the willingness to communicate; it involves strategic and thoughtful approaches that can de-escalate tensions and foster a constructive dialogue. Implementing practical steps to manage disagreements effectively can mean the difference between a strengthened bond and a relationship breakdown. Here are some techniques to de-escalate conflicts.

  • Active listening: One of the most effective techniques in resolving conflicts is practicing active listening. This involves fully concentrating on what your partner is saying, understanding their message, responding thoughtfully, and remembering their points. It's about making your partner feel heard and validated, even if you disagree with their perspective.
  • Use "I" statements: Express your feelings and needs using "I" statements rather than "you" statements to avoid placing blame or making your partner feel defensive. For example, say, "I feel upset when..." instead of "You make me upset by..."
  • Take a time-out: If emotions start to escalate, taking a time-out can be beneficial. Agreeing with your partner in advance about this strategy allows both parties to cool down, collect their thoughts, and return to the conversation with a calmer perspective.
  • Seek to understand before being understood: Make a genuine effort to understand your partner's point of view and concerns before pushing your own. This shift in focus can lead to empathy and compromise.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person: Target the specific behavior or situation causing the conflict instead of criticizing the person. Discussing how a particular action made you feel rather than attacking your partner's character keeps the conversation productive.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Research has shown that a happy marriage brings joy and fulfillment but also has significant benefits for your health. Studies found that individuals in happy marriages tend to have better overall health compared to those who are single. They often live longer, have a lower risk for depression, and have fewer strokes and heart attacks. Furthermore, they have a higher chance to survive a major surgical procedure."

Importance of Timing and Setting in Conflict Resolution

The context in which you address conflicts is almost as important as how you communicate during the conflict. The right timing and setting can significantly influence the outcome of a disagreement.

  • Choose an appropriate time: Initiate discussions about grievances at a time when both partners are not stressed, tired, or distracted. Ensure you both have the mental and emotional bandwidth to engage in a meaningful conversation.
  • Select a neutral setting: The environment should be private and free from interruptions but also neutral. It should be a place where both partners feel safe and equal and can facilitate open and honest dialogue.
  • Ensure both partners are ready: It's essential to ensure both you and your partner are in the right frame of mind for a discussion. If one partner is not ready, it's better to postpone the conversation than to push through and risk further conflict.

By incorporating these practical steps into your conflict resolution strategy, you and your partner can navigate disagreements more effectively. These techniques help in de-escalating conflicts and in building a stronger, more resilient relationship through improved communication and mutual understanding.

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