- Michael McNulty, PhD, studied why marriages fail and found that when one or both partners have checked out of a relationship, it could mean a breakup is near.
- That stage is typically preceded by negativity, contempt, and emotional overwhelm.
- You have the best chance of saving your relationship if you address problems sooner than later.
I recently read a novel that’s partly about the dissolution of a marriage.
Years after the split, the ex-husband asks his wife, “What do you tell people when they ask why we got divorced?”
The ex-wife hedges for a bit, and admits she had “a hard time explaining it.”
I’d been somewhat confused, too, about why the characters chose to divorce – or maybe I was just disappointed. After all, there was only one screaming-fight scene – mostly the ex-wife lamented that her husband wasn’t really emotionally present anymore, at least not in the way she needed him to be.
This is the story arc I kept mentally revisiting after my conversation with Michael McNulty, PhD, a master trainer at the Gottman Institute and the founder of the Chicago Relationship Center. McNulty was telling me about the “distance and isolation cascade,” the clinical term for the slow and steady march toward the dissolution of a marriage.
There are four stages in the cascade – a pattern labeled by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Gottman, PhD, the husband-and-wife cofounders of the Gottman Institute. The fourth and final stage (I outline the first three below) is the most deceptive because it’s when the relationship is least volatile, when the conversations are least heated.
“Marriages often die more by ice than by fire,” McNulty had told me in a previous conversation. In other words, disaster often strikes when one or both people in the couple check out.
Here are the four steps, according to McNulty:
1. More negativity than positivity
Partners express more negativity – in their verbal statements and their body language – than positivity during conflicts. “Even slightly more negativity” is a predictor of divorce, he said.
2. The four horsemen of the apocalypse
Business Insider’s Erin Brodwin has covered the four horseman before: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling (blocking off conversation during conflict).
The worst behavior is contempt, which is when one partner acts superior to or disgusted with the other. Think eye rolls, or curling your upper lip while the person is speaking.
Here’s where anger comes in. The partners in the couple are overcome with emotion and with the physiological response to stress – think sweating and an accelerated heartbeat. Their bodies go into a fight-or-flight state when talking about the conflict, McNulty said.
4. Emotional disengagement
This is the stage where it’s “too hard to work things out,” McNulty said. Overwhelmed, one or both partners may disconnect from the relationship. McNulty said they may live “more like roommates than lovers or partners.”
In their 1999 bestseller “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” John Gottman and Nan Silver write that “some people leave a marriage literally, by divorcing. Others do so by staying together but leading parallel lives.”
The “death knell” for these couples is also characterized by four final stages:
1. The couple see their marital problems as severe.
2. Taking things over seems useless. Partners try to solve problems on their own.
3. The couple lead parallel lives.
4. Loneliness sets in.
Gottman and Silver write: “When a couple get to the last stage, one or both partners may have an affair. But this betrayal is usually a symptom of a dying marriage, not the cause.”
Gottman and Silver recommend that couples seek help for their marriage before they hit this final stage. For sure, it’s easier for an objective person to say than it is for someone inside the relationship to do. But it’s worth taking a step back if and when you can.
I started to get a glimpse into why the couple in the novel, who’d been together for 16 years and had three children together before the divorce, opted out of trying to resuscitate their marriage. In a way, it might have been too late. The ex-wife, and maybe the ex-husband, too, had resigned themselves to a lifetime of loneliness and misery if they stayed together.
There’s no saying whether they – or any real-life divorced couple – could have “made it work” if they’d addressed their problems sooner. But if Gottman’s research and McNulty’s experience are any indication, they would have had a better shot.