The Myth of Anger & Divorce


Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

When we tell couples that anger and frustration are a normal part of a relationship, they are typically surprised.  Research has shown that anger, by itself, is not a predictor of relationship trouble.  Anger is not good or bad; it is simply a fact of life.  This goes along with being irritable, sad, worried or disappointed.  In the Gottman’s research, they found that in every relationship people retaliate with anger when met with anger.  That includes happy stable relationships.  In fact, anger is one way that partners tell each other to pay attention to what is happening.

The Consistent Predictor of Divorce

When anger is coupled with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling there is a strong prediction for divorce.  This is not to say that happy couples never fall into these traps, but how they move forward with repairing the relationship is the telling difference.

In arguments when blame is put on the other partner the typical response is for that person to become defensive.  The net result is that no one takes any responsibility for the situation.  Over time one or both may display a superior attitude towards their spouse.  This attitude of contempt pushes their partner to retaliate in some form, the most common of which is to simply shut down and withdraw.  This attitude of stonewalling leads to emotional separation from their spouse.

The result is, as Dr. Gottman calls it, a distance and isolation cascade.

Is there a path back from this brink?  That depends on the couple.  Those that keep their relationships in place build an atmosphere of richness where repair is possible.  Soft openings in heated situations as well as taking responsibility for part of the situation makes for an atmosphere for productive discussions.

As odd as it sounds, positive comments in an argument are one of the big differences in successful relationships and those that are troubled.  When we say that, couples think we are asking them to give high praise in the middle of a painful situation.  Actually positive comments are things like, “You may have a point,” or “I’m hurt and I think you can help me.”  These are compliments in a softened conversation.

To illustrate these points, we had the opportunity to share with Dr. Gottman our version of the Sound Relationship House – the Unsound Relationship House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the cascade, let’s look a few key aspects in more detail.

Problems Are Seen as Too Severe

As problems mount, couples avoid discussions for resolution.  The partners become hostile towards each other.  The result is that they avoid interacting in meaningful ways.  The attitude toward the relationship is that the situation is helpless and hopeless.  This defines how the partners look at each other.  They no longer see each other as a person they can rely on.  The entire relationship reorganizes toward separation, compartmentalization and loneliness.

“We” Becomes “Yours” and “Mine”

In several research studies, couples who eventually divorced showed little fondness, had high negativity, did not consider themselves as “we.”  Their relationship was in a state of high chaos and high in disappointment with the relationship.

The result is that people separated emotionally first.  Then came the physical separation.  Couples refused to look at their partners as an ally or a source of support.  Problems were no longer shared and partners no longer asked for the opinions of their mate.  The only topics that were safe to share were the most mundane.  The relationship quickly devolved to the status of being roommates.  Outside opinions become more important than the ideas of their spouse.

Parallel Lives

The ending leads to couples leading parallel lives.  They are married in name only and proceed on separate tracks.  Contact with each other is reduced to a minimum.  People start to work late and work to get away from each other.  Time is generously distributed to events and obligations that are outside of the relationship.

All this leads to a sense of solitude.  This is probably the most devastating issue the leads to a final separation.  The feeling of being abandoned within the relationship is a haunting issue for couples in unhappy relationships.

Is there an option to come back?  Yes, but it takes commitment to each other, the recognition that both are responsible for the problem they are facing and accept the agenda that can bring a couple back from the brink.  The bottom line question for each couple is to ask, “Is it worth it?”  Do not get this wrong, some events are beyond repair.  Abuse and other negative behavior are violations of marital boundaries for safety.  Safety first.  But if this is about differences in attitudes and behavior in the relationship, repair is an option.