4 Signs of a Troubled Marriage

The country’s foremost relationship expert, John Gottman, PhD, has discovered through years of research four things that some couples do which reliably predict divorce ahead for them unless they recognize and change these things.

  1. Harsh Startup
  2. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse”
  3. Flooding
  4. The Body Language of Emotional Distress

Let’s look at each one.

Harsh Startup

In a discussion or disagreement, someone gets negative, sarcastic, condescending or accusatory in words or tone in the first three minutes.  “I don’t know why I bother talking to you about this, but would you please pick up your damn socks!”

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

These are four negative behaviors that are lethal to a relationship.

  1. Criticism – “What is wrong with you?  I’ve told you not to do it that way.”
  2. Contempt – name-calling, sneering, eye-rolling, mockery, laughing at in a hostile way.
  3. Defensiveness – “Me?  I haven’t’ done anything wrong!  You’re the problem!”
  4. Stonewalling – one partner simply tunes out,  walks away, refuses to answer or acknowledge and disengages emotionally and physically from the other.


There is so much criticism, yelling, name-calling, contempt, blaming or general hostility from one spouse that the other feels overwhelmed, hurt, angry, helpless, often to the point where he or she just shuts down.

Body Language of Severe Emotional Distress

  • Heart rate elevate to >100 beats per minute
  • Adrenaline kicks in, ready for fight or flight
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Sweating
  • Higher thought processes (necessary for creative  problem solving) shut down

These behaviors tend to build upon each other, says Dr. Gottman, such that one leads to another in a mounting storm.  The good news is that you can learn to recognize and stop this pattern.  A good first step is to admit to yourself (and your partner) what role you might play in this kind of interaction.  Are you the one who starts it, so fed up that you can’t help taking a jab? Are you the one who gets outraged and defensive because the accusation seems so unfair?

Deep-seated emotional reactions like these usually take professional help to alter.  However, in my next article we’ll look at some of the important changes that make a big difference.  And, you can always look for one of Dr. Gottman’s excellent books for a complete explanation.

Dr. Alaire Lowry

Dr. Alaire Lowry

A board-certified psychologist providing individual, couple and group therapy for adults. She also works with adolescents and families.

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