When a couple who is really unhappy and stuck in a negative cycle of conflict and angry escalation it can go something like this:
Kirsten: ‘I was saying how you never seem to listen and you just cut me off in mid sentence.’
Alex: ‘That was because you were repeating yourself’
Kirsten: ‘I did not think you understood what I was saying!’
Alex: ‘So you think I’m stupid?”
Kirsten: ‘You just don’t listen!’
Alex: ‘Well you are so repetitive!”
Kirsten: ‘So you hear me now, stupid?!’
Alex: ‘Shut the f*** up! I’m done.”
When a couple cannot de-escalate conflict, a negative emotionally absorbing state overcomes them. They are unable to find a way to be either neutral or nice to their partner. While all couples have quarrels, secure, loving and trusting couples are more likely to remain emotionally calm and neutral. Their quarrel does not sound like the one above. They know how to avoid the trap that couples who mistrust each other and get caught in – a negative emotional downward spiral. For some couples, they can trigger each other and get so angry that it seems there is no way out.
John Gottman calls this negative emotionally absorbing place where unhappy, mistrustful, insecure couples end up, ‘the Roach Motel for Lovers -they can check in but they can’t check out.’ Consumed by negativity, their relationships die there.
In his book What Makes Love Last? Gottman identifies the five steps unhappy couples take to gain entry to ‘the Roach Motel for Lovers’.
Missed Opportunities to Connect Increase.
In the passage above both Kirsten and Alex missed every opportunity to connect by understanding the other’s viewpoint. In a committed loving relationship partners are constantly asking each other for support and understanding. These ‘bids’ for connection can be as simple as ‘Could you get me a glass of water?’ to ‘I need you to come be with me when I get the results from the doctor.’ Trusting couples miss some of these moments for connection. But mistrusting couples miss far more of them. If over time when the number of missed opportunities to connect increases, each partner begins to question ‘Do I really matter to my partner? Is my partner selfish? Can I risk continuing to trust them?’
‘Regrettable Incidents’ Keep Occurring
‘A regrettable incident’ is what Gottman calls a situation when a partner turns away from their partner when there is an opportunity to connect and there is an eruption of conflict like the one above where Kirsten is trying to explain something to Alex and he cut her off.
Recurring Recall of Past Unfinished Issues
The quarrel that Alex and Kirsten had will remain etched in their memory along with the pile of other similar fights they have had. Not only do we recall negative experiences more easily than positive ones, we also are twice as likely to recall ‘unfinished issues’ than those that are resolved. The hurt remains accessible in our active memory to be rehashed again and again.
‘Negative Sentiment Override’ Takes Over
The phenomenon of ‘negative sentiment override’ is the increasing frequency of perceiving things that are positive or neutral in a negative light. When a pattern of broken trust occurs in a relationship, what happens is that a positive gesture of offering to do something nice is viewed with suspicion.
Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling become Common
When one is unfulfilled, wishes and longings are often expressed as criticism of the other. Contempt such as belittling, sarcasm and insults communicate disrespect. Defensiveness includes acting like an innocent victim, righteous indignation, and launching a counter attack. Stonewalling is what we do when we shut down, if flooded with emotion.
How to Revive Trust and Heal Past Hurt
The goal of Gottman’s six steps to revive trust and heal past hurt is to increase understanding and empathy. Do not use these steps until you have enough emotional distance from the situation so that you can stay neutral. If you can’t stay neutral, and you become upset again when working on these steps, take a break and try again. Do this with your partner and take turns being speaker and listener.
Recall and Name the Emotions Out Loud
Describe all the all the emotions you experienced during the incident without explaining why, and without commenting on your partner’s feelings.
Discuss Your Subjective Reality
Describe how you perceived the situation remembering that each of us perceives things differently. Avoid arguing about the facts. Describe needs as positive wishes like being understood, listened to, desired and comforted.
Identify the Deep Triggers
What buttons of yours were pushed? Did you feel excluded, manipulated, judged, disrespected or unsafe? Put into words all the triggers you experienced.
Recount History of Triggers
Explain where these triggers came from by going through your autobiography in your mind to find a memory of a situation like this one – perhaps from childhood or a previous relationship.
Take Responsibility for Your Contributions and Apologize
Own up to the role you played in the situation. Were you too sensitive, critical, defensive or inattentive? Describe in a sentence the role you played in the regrettable incident.
Figure Out How to Make it Better Next Time
With your new understanding of how and why the unfortunate incident occurred, each of you outline one way to prevent the incident from recurring.
‘The Roach Motel for Lovers’ where relationships die may be a pretty bleak image. As a therapist who perseveres with couples who are committed to their relationship, I have seen some couples on the brink of ‘relationship death’, survive and eventually thrive. However, they worked extremely hard to get out of the negative spiral of mistrust. They made great efforts on rebuilding the trust that established, in a new way, a foundation of loyalty and deep understanding that they had neglected to build at the outset of their relationship.