Ok, this is where we don’t want our relationships to go.
One of the startling results of John Gottman’s research is the ability to predict divorce, with a greater than 90% accuracy, from viewing a single 15-minute video clip of a couple discussing an area of continuing disagreement. The motivation behind John’s research was to isolate the qualities that make marriages strong. In the process, he couldn’t help but observe the factors that fracture a marriage.
Those couples who did divorce within the following four years slid down what he came to call the Distance and Isolation Cascade. It looks like this:
Flooding → Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling & Contempt → Emotional Disengagement → Parallel Lives → Loneliness → Divorce.
Flooding, or Diffuse Physiological Arousal, is the first step. There are physiological reasons why, when flooded, we are unable to effectively listen. No one is really hearing the other, no one is feeling heard. Without engaged listening, there is no productive communication, the sort of communication that can move a relationship forward. Unchecked flooding is corrosive to emotional safety, leading over time to emotional distance and disengagement.
A natural response to emotional disengagement is to start doing more and more things separately – leisure time, meals, vacations – thus moving toward parallel lives. Some people leave marriages by divorcing, others leave marriage by leading parallel lives. In either case, emotional intimacy is lost and loneliness ensues.
These stages don’t necessarily happen linearly for every couple – loneliness can set in earlier, or a disengaged couple may continue to spend leisure time and meal-times together. But the general notion is the same – this is the path toward emotional distance, loneliness, isolation and divorce.
This doesn’t have to be a death knell – rather it can be a startling wake-up call. Remember that the only step on the Cascade where we have agency is the first one: whether or not we continue to engage when flooded.
Talk to your spouse about the importance of this: make a conjoint commitment to not engage when flooded and use the Flooding protocol I offer. Seeking out support through counseling can also help you turn this around.
There is hope.