The 3 Common Signs a Marriage Is Falling Apart

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" by John Gottman and Nan Silver. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the telltale signs a marriage is falling apart? How can you rescue a marriage that’s headed for divorce?

The telltale sign your marriage is headed for divorce is an ongoing problem that leads to flooding. Flooding is a psychological phenomenon in which one partner feels so emotionally stressed that they’re unable to respond rationally to their spouse.

Here’s how flooding destroys marriages and some signs that your marriage might be in trouble.

How Flooding Destroys Marriages

In their book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman and Nan Silver argue that conflicts can destroy marriages if they induce flooding. Regular flooding leads to divorce because it leads spouses to emotionally detach from each other. If someone consistently feels flooded when fighting with their spouse, they start to expect that they’ll be attacked. Eventually, this expectation permeates the entire marriage—and in an effort to protect themselves emotionally, the flooded spouse disengages from the relationship. This emotional disengagement makes each spouse feel isolated…which eventually leads to divorce.

(Shortform note: Heterosexual couples may be more prone to regular flooding (and thus at increased risk for divorce) than homosexual couples. Studies suggest that heterosexual couples tend to fight in a “female-demand, male-withdrawal” pattern: The woman initiates a complaint, and the man (perhaps feeling flooded) disengages from the fight. This pattern doesn’t hold true for homosexual couples: Male-male couples usually don’t start complaining, and female-female couples are less likely to withdraw if a complaint is made. Moreover, when partners in a homosexual couple do get upset, they don’t get as physiologically aroused as heterosexual couples—which suggests that they’re less likely to become flooded. ) 

Signs a Marriage Is in Trouble 

Gottman’s famed accuracy in predicting whether a couple will divorce relies on his ability to determine whether their conflicts might regularly induce flooding. (Shortform note: Some researchers have questioned whether what Gottman does to predict divorce can be called “prediction” at all. They argue that Gottman came up with a formula for determining outcomes of marriages, using technology to match already known outcomes with patterns noted in research participants. Gottman has disputed this interpretation of his work on the Gottman Institute website.)

Gottman highlights three major warning signs a marriage is falling apart:

1. The conflict has a jarring beginning, or what Gottman and Silver call a “harsh start-up.” Instead of gently conversing with each other, the couple begins a fight in an aggressive manner—which, according to studies, dooms it to end on a sour note as well.  

(Shortform note: If you do begin a fight aggressively, try to soothe yourself by touching physical objects in the room. You’ll get out of your head and reorient your perspective—which will calm you down and may help you get out of the downward spiral that your aggressive beginning started.)

2. The couple engages negatively with each other by using what Gottman and Silver call the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

Criticism. One spouse expresses dissatisfaction with their partner generally instead of expressing dissatisfaction about a specific issue. For example, they say, “You’re a slob,” instead of “You didn’t clean the kitchen when you said you would.”

Contempt. One spouse expresses dissatisfaction in a way that belittles their partner and signifies a lack of respect. For example, they might say, “I can’t believe you forgot to clean the kitchen. Are you stupid?”

Defensiveness. One spouse, who feels attacked by their partner, tries to protect themselves. However, this strategy backfires because it shifts responsibility onto the other partner. For example, the spouse who didn’t clean the kitchen might say, “I may have forgotten to clean the kitchen, but I cleaned the bathroom, which you never do.”

Stonewalling. One spouse feels overwhelmed and stops responding. (This spouse is likely feeling flooded.)

3. The couple doesn’t respond to each other’s de-escalation attempts, which Gottman and Silver call “repair attempts.” In moments of tension, one partner may try to de-escalate the situation—such as by admitting that they were partly wrong. Gottman and Silver say that not responding to these actions is the biggest warning sign that you’re at risk for divorce. 

(Shortform note: Gottman’s work focuses on how what spouses do during the marriage increases their risk of divorce, but several studies suggest that external factors over which you have no control can also increase your risk of divorce. Notably, if you’re highly attractive, your parents got divorced, or you grew up areligious, you’re more likely to get divorced.) 

De-escalation attempts reduce your stress levels—as long as you notice the attempts, you reduce the likelihood that you’ll feel flooded. But if you don’t notice them, you get caught in a vicious cycle: You don’t notice the de-escalation attempt because you feel flooded—so your stress just keeps climbing during the argument, which makes you even less likely to notice succeeding de-escalation attempts. 

(Shortform note: In one study, Gottman found several sex differences in how men and women make and respond to de-escalation attempts. Men (especially heterosexual men) are quicker to realize the conversation has turned sour and to make a de-escalation attempt—but only if the man is the one who originally brought up the contentious issue. But in gay male couples, if the initiator is the one who gets upset, the partner is not as good at de-escalating the issue. It’s unclear why: Fights between gay male partners tend not to induce as much flooding, so presumably, the gay men should be better at both making and noticing de-escalation attempts.)

The 3 Common Signs a Marriage Is Falling Apart

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  • Why becoming genuine friends with your spouse is essential
  • Four principles for improving your marital friendship
  • The three warning signs that your marriage is in trouble

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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