Breaking down the Martial Breakdown

Breaking down the Martial Breakdown

According to Census 2011, there were more than 42 lakh women (42,25,940) who were either separated or divorced in India. Since then, of course, the numbers could have only increased much more over the last decade. This is just the tip of the iceberg because there is no data available on the number of women, and also men, who are living together although their marriage has not been dissolved for various socio-economic reasons. The grim reality is that a large number of marriages, these days, are not made in heaven, and they need external interventions from family, friends, counselors and social organizations, so that they can begin to set up some semblance of conjugal harmony. The highest marriage dissolution rates are seen in middle age couples, peaking in the 35-39 years age group. The most commonly cited reasons for marital breakdown by both men and women are that they grew apart, followed by arguments, unfaithfulness/adultery, lack of respect/appreciation, having different interests with nothing in common, sex related difficulties, alcohol /drugs/gambling addictions and domestic violence.
Mostly, it is found that marital breakdown is caused by one or more of the three most prevalent reasons: alienation due to growing apart, never-ending arguments, and extramarital affairs. The predominance of reasons suggests deterioration in the quality of relationships due to disillusionment, which is caused by a perceived lack of self-fulfilment against high expectations in contemporary marriage. With socio-economic gender parity, emotionally and personally unsatisfying marital partnerships have become more and more unacceptable.
Against this backdrop, it is important to understand what happens when such marriages begin to break down. Whatever the underlying reasons, there are distinct patterns in all marital breakdowns, which can be controlled, halted and reversed with professional help, provided there is still some motivation to give the marriage another good try.
Break Down of the Characteristic Patterns of Marital Break Down

Several studies have established that a relationship does not break down due to a one single reason. But, once a relationship begins to break down, there follows a predictable 4-stage sequence of events which invariably happens, as suggested by John Gottman, a renowned psychologist, which he labels as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, which is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament, described as conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Gottman used this metaphor to describe communication styles that, according to his research, can predict the end of a relationship.
They are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling, which are negative acts that corrode the best of relationships. Of course, all relationships have some of them, but healthy relationships don’t employ them as frequently. Also, they do more to repair them when they are used.
Intelligent couples should act immediately to learn better and more effective ways to discuss their differences, if they find that any of these communication styles in their interactions with their spouse. They can learn to assert themselves with one another in effective ways without using any of the four negative acts stated above. They must be encouraged to also work on their friendship and building mutual connection when they are not fighting. The fact is, couples are better at repairing their negative arguments when they feel close, friendly, and connected. Let us discuss the 4 stages of marital breakdown 
1) First Stage: Criticism
The problem starts with intractable conflicts and complaints. While it is normal for all couples to have conflicts from time to time, it is important for them to resolve them amicably or  ‘agree to disagree’ on certain issues. When they realize that they cannot do so, the arguments get intense and marital discord starts to take roots. Whatever the reason for such disagreements, it involves a clash of spousal values on important issues, e.g. buying a property, having or not having a child, or making financial investment, etc.
Erroneously, couples tend to assume that their conflicts are caused by misunderstandings. They feel that if their spouse really understood their reason, they would agree with them and they would get what they want. So, they try to resolve the conflicts by repeatedly stating and restating their rationales during disagreements, but this strategy fails because most of the conflicts are based on actual differences in values, not on misunderstandings. Repeated arguments only escalate the issues. When one criticizes the spouse, one is actually implying that there is something wrong with the spouse. The problem is projected on the spouse by using expressions of criticism like “You always” or “You never”. This makes the spouse feel under attack and respond defensively.
When this happens, the situation gets dangerous with both getting agitated because they feel that they are not heard properly by the other. Repeated criticisms flare them up. But there is a remedy for the situation. The antidote to criticism is to make a simple and straightforward statement of complaint without attacking the personality, ability, integrity or intention of the spouse.

2) Second Stage: Defensiveness
Faced with repeated criticisms, both the spouses, spontaneously, put up their defenses. An undercurrent of resentment develops in the second stage of the breakdown process. There is distinct shift in perception of the spouse’s attitude and intention. Initially, what was ignored as trivial or transient behaviour, now begins to be seen as bad, stupid, worrisome or objectionable act, necessitating an appropriate response. Often, the bone of contention is not what the spouse does or has done, but, rather just the opposite- something s/he doesn’t do or hasn’t done that is expected or wanted by the former, such as, not remembering to hang the wet towel on the cloth line after bath or flushing the toilet properly after use.
When one attempts to defend oneself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint one is being defensive. Often, spouses defend themselves by whining like an innocent victim. The trouble with defensiveness is that it keeps both of them from taking responsibility for their problems. It also escalates negative communication between them. Even when the spouse is criticizing, defensiveness is not the way to go for anyone, as it only adds fuel to their fiery exchange. The antidote to defensiveness is to try to hear the spouse’s complaint and to take some responsibility for the common problem. That really helps to keep the conversations alive and facilitates handling of the difficult conversation that one just must have with the spouse.

3) Third Stage: Contempt
This is the most corrosive of the four phases of the marital breakdown and needs to be handled very carefully by both the spouses.
It has to be clearly understood that, conflicts, by themselves, don’t cause marriage problems. Many couples keep fighting all the time, but they do so without losing respect for each other, which is of paramount importance for any healthy relationship. But, once the mutual respect is lost, the contempt sets in, and, from then on, the marriage begins to really crumble. Expressions of contempt for one’s spouse, whether subtle or frank, can be the strongest predictor of marital breakdown. Gottman, in his famous study, predicted with more than 80% accuracy, the future divorces of numerous couples, by observing the cues of their body-languages that suggested contemptuous feelings (such as dismissive eye-rolling).
As continued build-up of contempt rots the very foundation of marriage, it is crucial to undertake remedial measures at this stage. Both must realize that contempt, expressed by any statement or nonverbal behavior, puts oneself on a higher ground than the spouse. Taunting the spouse by calling them names, rolling the eyes and sneering in disgust, are all unmistakable expressions of contempt, which will destroy the bonds of love, fondness and admiration between them. The remedy for contempt is to develop empathy and sensitivity towards the feelings of the spouse and absolutely avoiding expression of contemptuous statements and behaviors. This calls for actively working on building the rapport with the spouse and creating a sense of genuine appreciation in the relationship. It is difficult, especially, when the sentiments of anger and outrage are raging within. But it can be and must be done to safeguard the continuity and stability of the marriage. It can be done by both by learning to reduce, repair and eliminate contemptuous exchanges.

4) Fourth Stage: Stonewalling
After recurrence of tumultuous arguments without resolution over a long period of time, both men and women get hardened, and, tend to react increasingly more acutely during moments of heated conflicts, by becoming overwhelmed and “flooded”, a condition which is psychologically and emotionally very painful. Over time, the warring spouses learn that they are ‘gridlocked’ and just cannot resolve their differences. There is a strong feeling that any attempts at resolution will result in further hurt, humiliation or disappointment. Rather than face the overwhelming pain they progress to the fourth and final stage of breakdown, Stonewalling, which is characterized by total breakdown of mutual trust, and increasing disengagement for the cause of self-protection. At this stage, both the spouses begin to avoid each another with a view to minimize their conflicts. It’s as if both are hiding behind a self-created stone wall designed to protect them from further assault. Unfortunately, there is no way to love the spouse when one is hiding behind a wall for protection against imagined attacks.Stonewalling occurs when the spouse, expected to listen, withdraws from the conversation. Often, the stonewalling spouse actually physically leaves or just stops tracking the conversation by appearing to have shut down. S/he may show as if s/he doesn’t care, but mostly that isn’t really so. In reality, typically, they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm themselves. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work because the other spouse is likely to assume that s/he just doesn’t care enough about the problem to talk about it. With one spouse attempting to talk and the other looking for escape, it can turn into an ugly, vicious circle. But there is an effective  antidote for this malaise, too, which is to learn to identify the signs that indicate that one or one’s spouse is getting emotionally overwhelmed. This is the time to agree that it is most necessary to take a break now. The unresolved problem can be discussed when raging emotions have calmed down and both are better composed for a meaningful dialogue.
The 4-stage breakdown sequence plays out against the backdrop of partner compatibility. Spouses, who are mostly compatible, also have their share of conflicts, but they don’t engage in harsh, contemptuous and angry arguments with their spouses, simply because there are very few things that they disagree upon. This is in stark contrast with the couples with incompatible goals, values and aspirations, who tend to easily get into seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Once the dangerous processes of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling get into motion, even the smallest of differences and incompatibilities tend to get amplified manifold as both the spouses start to pursue other interests as an alternative to avoid another conflict.
As they say, there is silver lining to every cloud. With timely identification of recurrence of any of these 4 negative styles of communication between the spouses, remedial therapy can be undertaken, so that with adequate help and support from family, friends and competent counselors, the two can develop their capacities to resolve their issues effectively and prevent their marital breakdown. With proper insight and sincere joint efforts, it is possible to break down the possibilities of marital breakdown.

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