You’re driving along the highway and your gaslight comes on. The bright red glow calls for your attention like a puppy nipping at your heels.
Do you ignore it or pull into the next gas station?
Generally, when the gaslight comes on you have about 2.5 gallons of gas left so you don’t have to pull over right that second. It’s just letting you know a problem will eventually develop if you don’t take care of it, and soon.
Now, is your marriage running on fumes? How long do you have before it runs completely out of gas? The following article will provide you with the warning signs you need to keep in mind, the four indicators of divorce, and what you can do about it.
Marriage is hard. Marriage during a worldwide pandemic is even harder. The last year has taken a toll on everyone but it has been especially tough on relationships. While every marriage has its share of ups and downs in general, some couples seem to constantly find themselves experiencing more of the not-so-happy times, pandemic excluded. If the downs become a continuing trend, it could eventually lead to divorce. That’s why it’s incredibly important to pay attention to the indicators of divorce.
How is the pandemic impacting our significant adult relationships?
In April 2021, the National Law Review reported an increase in divorce interest due to COVID-related distress by 34%. Newly married couples’ rate of divorce doubled over the past year alone. Currently, psychology experts attest to this sudden increase due in part to a pandemic fatigue experience. Couples that agreed to “get through” the pandemic together have become exhausted, stressed, and discouraged, which resulted in an increase in either arguing with or avoiding one another.
The positive take on this disturbing statistic is that we are no longer at a 50% divorce rate. And, because of the 30+ years of research by Robert Levenson & John Gottman studying what behaviors support safe and stable significant relationships, same and opposite gendered, we know what types of communication hurts and helps relationships.
What are the four indicators that say couples are headed for separation or divorce?
John Gottman has used the term “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” plus their two honorary cousins to define how partners talk to or at one another that results in disaster.
- Criticism occurs when we verbally attack our partner’s personality or character, especially when we use all or nothing language or guilt-ridden terms, like always, never, and every or supposed to, should, must, and have to. It might sound like “Can’t you ever just do what I ask you to do” or “You’re the woman, so you’re supposed to do the dishes!”
- Contempt occurs when we attack our partner’s sense of self-worth with the intent to insult them or abuse them because we view them as beneath us. Although this can be a verbal insult like “You’re a terrible housekeeper,” it can also be a facial expression of disinterest or indifference that sends the sarcastic message of “Really” or “I look like I’m listening, but I’ve zoned you out.” These facial expressions send the message that the other person has less or no value to you and to the relationship, as well as you no longer care about their needs and emotions. Contempt is a telltale sign of divorce.
- Defensiveness occurs when we do a double twist. We start by victimizing ourselves to ward off a perceived attack, such as, “I work hard all day in the heat,” quickly followed by blaming our partner with “but you just sit in a nice comfy office. So, it’s your fault that there are no clean dishes in this house.”
- Stonewalling occurs when we are emotionally and/or physically withdrawn from an ongoing argument or to avoid an expected conflict because we are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, anger, jealousy, hurt, or sadness. The message we are sending is one of disapproval, distance, and separation. The intent is in hope that our partner will cease the attack, calm down, and stop fighting. Interestingly, what the Gottman research has discovered is that we present stonewalling differently based on our gender identity. People with a female identity will distantly stare directly at their partner with a cold look hoping it will look non-threatening, while people with a male identity look away from their partner to keep from “losing their cool” in hopes the other partner will just stop talking.
In addition, there are two harmful communication stances that are dangerous as they present more commonly in relationships that include emotional and/or physical violence.
- Belligerence occurs when our emotions are so intense that we are aggressive and combative. Our heart rates are extremely high. We are unable to listen at this point, thus react illogically. The most common description of belligerence sounds like “I’ll just stand here (glaring down at you) until you do those dirty dishes!” and the argument has nothing to do with dishes. It is completely about power and control.
- Domineering occurs when someone is intentionally overbearing and intimidating. They see themselves as always in control of their partner and demand to be complied with. They leave their partner with no options by claiming rule with “Because I said so” and “You’ll do what I say and that’s final” demands. Threats are persistent and imminent.
What tips do you have to help us talk with our partners better?
Repairing these harmful communication styles takes intentional effort by implementing four antidotes. Partners each need to want to engage in ways that support the relationship’s repair and longevity as a safe and happier union.
- Gentle startups heal criticism. Just saying your concern as an observation, not blame of your partner’s character, plus a statement of what you need goes a lot further. For example, “I really get frustrated when I come home, and the kitchen is a mess and dinner isn’t ready. What do we need to do so that you have it ready when I come home late?”
- Expressing a bit of appreciation goes a long way to repair past statements of contempt as well as how we feel about ourselves and our partners. The intentional effort of reminding ourselves of our partner’s value in our life and then speaking about our concern is like using honey to attract bees instead of vinegar. So, if you are dissatisfied with your partner’s housekeeping skills, say “Thanks for the effort!” And, then ask about their experience getting the task done. Some time working together on problem-solving may result in both of you feeling more satisfied and having more enjoyable quality time together.
- Taking responsibility for our own probable behavior decreases either partner’s likelihood of being defensive in the first place. It is simple. If I don’t bait the “blaming hook,” I won’t get any pushback. So, in our dirty dishes example, we could say, “I know we both work hard all day and neither of us wants to come home hungry and tired and see more to do. Maybe we can take turns? What do you think?”
- Stonewalling is about physiological distress. Both parties are wanting the argument to end, yet neither is giving in because the belief is someone has to be right, and we are not aware that our heart rates are increasing. Instead, to repair the event it is important that we agree to pause for a brief moment, take a few deep breaths or maybe step away and drink a glass of water, then return to the topic recommitted to these antidotes. This repairing includes repeating the pause-breath-regroup cycle each time your heart rates are too high (i.e., about 85 – 95 beats per minute) until both of you have felt heard, respected, and valued by your partner.
A couple talking through disagreements, even those that seem gridlocked, is not about one of you being right. It is about being able to talk through the topic in a manner that is more satisfying and amicable.
What if a couple’s dialogue includes the “cousins,” belligerence and domineering? What should they do?
Belligerence and domineering are commonly experienced in relationships fraught with domestic violence. It is difficult to untangle partners in these relationships, even when the violence presents as microaggression (which is a sense of being intentionally manipulated to only engage with and by the person insisting you only comply with their suggestions). If you think you may be involved in a significant relationship that includes belligerence and/or domineering partner, it is imperative that you contact a trained mental health professional immediately in an effort to obtain the necessary resources needed to safely remove yourself (and any minors) from this relationship.
What else should you know about the indicators of divorce?
Watch this video of family and marriage therapist Susan Harrington, founder of Maison Vie New Orleans, discuss the four warning signs that your marriage may be heading for divorce and what you can do about it. You can also contact us to see how we can help guide you and your partner through counseling sessions.
Most significant relationships need a trained professional during the initial stages of unpacking their old pattern of communicating and learning this new way of talking with one another.
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