Watch Dr. Sylvia Gearing describe Dr. John Gottman's research on how marriages can fail and the signs of the distance and isolation cascade - click here.
When partners break up, it is very common to experience a process of physical and emotional separation. Emotional separation is often completed before either partner realizes what has happened, and they struggle to recognize that the relationship is in critical condition. Dr. John Gottman’s landmark research fully described the steps that lead to the end of relationships.
Once anger and frustration become too overwhelming, the emotional centers of the brain heighten the experience of already intense emotions. Resentment builds and magnifies every disappointment, and the relationship becomes a constant powder keg. Negative emotions frame every interaction as each partner gathers evidence that the other partner has failed them and always will.
Problems Seen As Too Severe
Rather than talking things through, the partner becomes so hostile to their partner’s opinion that they avoid interacting in any meaningful way. They begin to see the situation as helpless and hopeless and it defines how they see their partner. Most importantly, they no longer see their partner as a reliable person. That belief fundamentally rearranges the emotional relationship.
Work Problems Out Alone
People tend to separate emotionally first and physically last. Estranged partners no longer look to one another as a resource and an ally. Problems are no longer shared, opinions are no longer asked for, and the mundane details of their lives are the only topics they feel safe to share. Over time, the opinions of others outside the relationship are sought out, valued, and remembered as their partner is quickly discarded to the same status as a roommate.
Unhappy spouses are very effective at arranging their lives on parallel tracks. They change their schedules to avoid seeing each other—eating fewer meals together, attending fewer school events, or regularly working late or on the weekends. They carefully distribute their time elsewhere with social and business obligations that keep them far away from spending time with their partner.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the cascade is the deep loneliness that haunts many unhappily married people. There is a constant grief for the marriage that once was and the loss of hope for the marriage that could have been.
"What Makes Love Last?" by Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver