Relationship Busters We Don’t Talk Enough About: Part 3 of 3

In Part 1 (click here) of this three article series, I reviewed Dr. John Gottman’s research on predictors for divorce with an overview of the “Four Horsemen”, the predictors (that predictably) get the most attention.

In Part 2 (click here) the concept of “Accepting Influence”, and the common misunderstanding about what that is, is presented as another leading cause as a relationship buster.

In this final article two other predictors that emerged from the Gottman research, “Meta-emotion Mismatch”, and “Escalating Conflict” round out the conclusions for red flags. As with all the predictors, remember the research was done with research couples, not couples in therapy or with couples who knew what to work on to counteract the predictor.

Meta-emotion Mismatch

Meta-emotion refers to how partners feel about feelings. So this doesn’t sound like psycho-babble, let me clarify what that means.

There are a variety of factors that shape how comfortable or uncomfortable any given individual is with identifying and expressing one’s own feelings, as well as hearing and exploring the partner’s feelings. This level of comfort/discomfort, including beliefs and perspectives about emotions, is determined in part by: one’s family history, cultural context and philosophies, previous experiences in relationships, and neurobiology (how each individual is innately hard-wired in the emotion circuits).

When there are differences in how partners feel about feelings, then there is a mismatch. The bigger the differences, the bigger the mismatch, the more distress the couple is likely to feel.

You need the right (communication ) tools for the job

Gottman’s research found that by itself a meta-emotion mismatch alone can predict relationship stability or divorce with 80% accuracy.

While there might be other factors to explain relationship difficulty, understanding this mismatch goes a long way in understanding why the relationship is struggling. This is probably the first place to look.

Overview of Couple Typology

Three different couple types emerged from the research with regards to emotional expression.

  • The Volatile Couple (emotionally expressive)
  • The Validating Couple (expressive, but milder version of Volitiles)
  • The Conflict Avoiding Couple (emotion dismissing)

What was surprising to researchers at the time, was that as long as couples maintained a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative ratio when managing their conflict, then all three couple types showed equally positive relationship stability.

Couple Stability is Based On How Conflict Is Managed: Regardless of Typology

5:1 Ratio of Positive to Negative Interactions During Conflict

Positivity during conflict does not mean being upbeat or having a fixed smile on your face while in conflict, it basically boils down to “Accepting Influence”. Anything that demonstrates openness and acceptance of the partner communicates positivity.

The opposite of positivity is found in the Four Horsemen, leaving partners feeling judged, shut out, looked down upon, and criticized. Adding repair when things slip off the track is another form of positivity. “I’m sorry, I over reacted just now.”, “We got off to a bad start, lets start this conversation again.” Adding humor (that you both laugh at), and anything that de-escalates the conversation is a repair and is in the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative.

The Crucial Piece in Typology

While typology in of itself did not predict divorce, what predicted divorce was when partners were not in the same category. Of course, the biggest disconnect with partners is when when the partner is in the emotionally expressive category and the other partner is in the emotionally dismissive category.

Emotionally Dismissive partners often feel criticized and/or judged. “I would rather not talk anymore about this. It’s never enough!”

Discuss which end of the scale you most identify with

Emotionally Expressive partners often feel alone, that the partner is disinterested. “I need you to tell me how you feel!”

There is a Work-Around for Mismatches

There is no “best preference style”, each style has its own advantages and disadvantages. The goal is not to change who you are or how you most identify. Rather, keep in mind that if your partner has a different preference style regarding emotions there is nothing wrong with your partner either; you are just different people.

I have found several strategies for couples when there is a meta-emotion mismatch.

  • A meta-emotion mismatch can explain why tensions are high sometimes: it’s a normal reaction to an emotional mismatch.
  • Once you identify a mismatch it helps to accept that this will be an ongoing, perpetual issue that you will have to continue to manage. Neither one of you is likely to change dramatically in this preference style, yet you both will want to feel accepted.
  • Have conversations that explore your family of origin and how emotions were handled or not handled. Include what it means to you now. This will hopefully deepen understanding and compassion and help motivate partners to stretch a bit more toward their partner’s style.
  • What did you learn in your family about expressing… love? fear? sadness? joy? (fill in other feelings)
  • How did your mother express… see above list
  • How did you father express…
  • What happened when you expressed…
  • How do you see yourself now expressing…
  • How do you see me expressing…
  • Are there any changes you would like to make in how you express…
  • When do you feel most understood? How will I know when you feel understood?

Final Predictor: Escalating Conflict

Anger in of itself is not predictive of relationship meltdown. Couples in stable and healthy relationships, especially the emotionally expressive kind, express anger and can be short with each other. But as John Gottman states, “Not all anger is the same”.

Imagine that the couple below is having an argument. Let’s eavesdrop.

Eric: I don’t understand why you are in such a bad mood, AGAIN. We had a great day.

Angie: I know you don’t understand, that’s part of the problem.

Eric: Really? This is about me? (Eric silently looks away)

Angie: How can I talk to you, you get so defensive.

Okay, at first we may notice three of the Four Horsemen, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The “Masters of Marriage” are not perfect. However, after a couple minutes of silence, they turn toward each other and…

Scenario 1: Eric asks what’s going on with Angie. She responds that she is worried about her health issues. Eric asks more questions and listens to Angie’s worries and concerns. They hold hands walking back to the car. He apologizes for his earlier defensive response.

Scenario 2: Angie apologizes for being critical and tells Eric that she is worried about a health issue she has. Eric supports her by listening and reaching toward her, holding her hand.

Take Away: They Didn’t Escalate

It’s a misconception that anger is harmful to relationships (sorry conflict avoiders). For all couples, including the stable happy relationships, negative interactions led to negative responses. That is normal. While Eric and Angie started and responded negatively at first, initial negative emotions subsided and they were able to get on track with some repairs and get to the real issue.

Anger becomes destructive when a pattern develops of anger blended with any of the Four Horsemen, especially contempt and belligerence These initial reactions escalate to the next level of attack and defend.

Patterns of Anger Blended with the Four Horsemen Reliably Predicts Divorce

Stop the interaction when it starts to escalate. Take a break and come back when both partners are calm.

Anger is Okay, but disrespect or abuse is not. Work to avoid the Four Horsemen.

The Good News

Couples who identify and understand the red flags can do something to change the direction of their relationship

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