Predictable Patterns of Marriage Breakdown

Most people find conflict and contempt to be stressful and react to such conditions by entering the third stage of breakdown, characterized by partner’s increasingly defensive behavior. Men in particular (but women too) become hardened by the chronicity of the ongoing conflict, and may react even more acutely during moments when conflict is most heated by becoming overwhelmed and “flooded”; a condition which is psychologically and emotionally quite painful. Over time, partners learn to expect that they are ‘gridlocked’; 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 so as to minimize their conflicts. Gottman calls this final stage, “Stonewalling”, perhaps after the image of a partner hiding behind a stone wall designed to protect him or her from further assault. Unfortunately, there is no way to love your partner when you are hiding behind a wall to protect yourself from him or her.

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