Escalation of negativity
Borrowing from the Book of Revelation, of all places, the Gottmans refer to “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe four characteristics common to doomed relationships. Being in conflict – even exchanging anger and sharp words with each other – is not really a big deal. The “Four Horsemen” – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – are a huge deal. When these four take root in a relationship they begin its destruction.
How do you fight? Are you able to be in conflict with each other without resorting to one of the “Four Horsemen”? If so, you can likely negotiate anger and conflict without lasting harm. If not, you need to reassess your conflict style and how it makes you react to each other.
Emotional disengagement and withdrawal
The absence of negative affect during conflict, or positive affect whether during conflict or not, is indicative of emotional disengagement and withdrawal. Being unable or unwilling to engage emotionally may mean you’ve already left the relationship, even if you still occupy the same space physically.
The failure of repair attempts
According to the Gottmans, “The goal of therapy ought not to be helping couples to avoid fights, even ones that are painful and alienating. Nor should it be helping couples to avoid hurting one another’s feelings… Instead, the goal ought to be to help couples process these inevitable fights… and to be able to repair the relationship.”
All couples will have issues about which they disagree. All couples will occasionally argue and fight over this issues. Successful couples are able to repair the relationship, soothe the hurt feelings that may come from disagreement, and easily see those moments as inevitable but not fatal. When repair attempts fail, however, the relationship is in trouble.
Negative sentiment override (NSO)
When negative sentiment override (NSO) is present in a couple, one or both of the partners will habitually perceive interactions with their partner with a “negative subtext.” Even if their partner approaches them with a neutral or positive interaction, it will be perceived as negative or as an “attack” on them. Ultimately, at least one of the partners has begun to see only the errors in the other, and to attribute them to “lasting, negative personality traits or character flaws.” Even positive interactions by that partner will be ignored, minimized, or misconstrued as negative. That partner is set up for failure.
Maintaining vigilance and physiological arousal and Chronic diffuse physiological arousal
When one or both partners begin to see the other’s attempts at raise issues or introduce conflict as overwhelming or emotionally dangerous, they stand vigilant against their partner. The heightened physiological arousal that accompanies constant vigilance is destructive for a relationship. It lends itself to “fight or flight,” of which neither is conducive to maintaining a safe, happy, successful relationship.
Do you constantly keep your shields up against each other, for fear of emotional attack? Are you constantly waiting for the next conflict to erupt, and planning what to do when it does? That is no way to live your life. Your partner should be a source of solace, not fear.
“Chronic diffuse physiological arousal” is marked by a wide range of general symptoms that traditionally indicate “danger” and associated with a chronic state of hyperawareness and anxiety.
The failure of men to accept influence from their women
In successful heterosexual couples, the women wield significant influence with their men, and the men accept and invite influence from their women. This “true partnership” style empowers and supports both halves of the relationship, and fosters respect and love. When men fail or refuse to accept influence from women they will leave their partner feeling disrespected in, and disengaged from, them and the relationship. The short-term effect for men may be satisfying – they make the decisions they want without hindrance or question, disengage from the responsibility of having to consider other points-of-view, or avoid uncomfortable conflict – but the long-term danger is their partner’s emotional disengagement from them.