What Causes Relationships to Fail – Research Highlights

couple cartoon in conflict (not used as of april 19 2015

What conflict behaviors, patterns, communication indicate which relationships will fail or be unhappy? What do we need to avoid to keep our relationships healthy? The Gottman Institute is a researched based group lead by Dr. John Gottman who is involved in ongoing research on what does and does not make relationships healthy. During my Level 1 training through the Gottman Institute I had the opportunity to obtain updates on the latest research on what leads to relationships that fail and those that thrive. The Gottman Institute has over 30 years of longitudinal research. Drs. John and Julie Gottman are nationally known researchers and trainers and well thought of in the marital therapy community. They are the authors of many books for the general public and for therapists. To find out more about them you can go to their website: www.gottman.com .This blog posting is the highlights of the John Gottman’s research on what leads relationships to failing. Specifically the below highlights their research on what is dysfunctional conflict management and how it leads to failed relationships.


Conflict Management Styles that Lead to Failed Relationships

  1. Higher Ratio of Negative to Positive. If the relationship is stable, you will see a positive to negative ratio of 5:1. In the relationship that is failing, you will see a positive to negative ratio of 0.8:1. Positive affect is critical in a conflict discussion or an everyday conversation. It is the balance that is important to look at. It is not that there should be no negativity, as it turns out that some is healthy in a relationship. This would include talking about interactions that are not working, talking about needed behavior changes, etc.
  2. Escalating Negativity: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, Stonewalling. Gottman calls these the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”. Gender differences here include: female criticism and male stonewalling. Exchange of reciprocal anger is found in both stable, happy marriages and unstable, unhappy marriages. The escalating negativity that leads to “turning away” from bids for emotional connection is the factor that leads to failed relationships. 
  3. Withdrawal and Emotional Disengagement. Here we are talking about the lack of the following: affection, humor, interest, support, engagement and empathy. Gottman calls this negative interaction style as “turning against” bids for emotional connection.
  4. Failed Repair Attempts. This is unsuccessful attempts to repair damage that has occurred in the relationship.
  5. Negative Sentiment Override. In this situation a partner sees a neutral or positive message as negative. This involves negative attributions about the other or the relationship.
  6. Continuing Physiological Arousal. This is involves feelings of being overwhelmed and wanting to flee or be aggressive. Chronic arousal activates a “general alarm response” with physical reactions. In these cases it is harder to take in information and problem solve. It makes it difficult to hear and empathize. An increase in defensiveness may occur.
  7. Males not Accepting Influence from Their Partner. This is shown with emotional disengagement or escalation of contempt, defensiveness when their partner is complaining.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman feel that conflict in relationships is normal. Their research indicates that only 31% is about issues that can be completely resolved. And that 69% is about unresolvable, perpetual issues. It is how we go about handling this conflict that is crucial in a relationship. It is finding a way to accept each other and find ways to make shifts and adaptations with positive affect opposed to a frame of gridlock.

Tune in next week for what helps couples to have a successful relationship through positive conflict management.

Note: The information for this article was taken from Bridging the Couple Chasm- Gottman Couples Therapy: A Research Based Approach. Level One. Written by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D

One thought on “What Causes Relationships to Fail – Research Highlights

  1. It is not that most people are bad people. I honestly believe that most people are good. I am simply stating that most people although being good people, are horrible at being good people. Somehow over the past 40 years it seems as if the human race has forgotten how to be good people. To be kind to others no matter what the circumstance. To be respectful to others even when disagreeing with them. We have become an uncivilized civilization. Now compound that lack of respect and kindness with someone you are living with or seeing in a relationship. Now imagine having to live with someone who has no comprehension of how to show kindness and respect to someone they love and want to have a relationship with. It doesn’t work and leaves incredibly deep wounds that last forever.


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