6 Toxic Patterns

Dr. John Gottman’s four decades of research on couples has given us language for the typical patterns that divide couples. Identifying and naming these destructive patterns helps couples know what to change. Dr. Gottman’s research-identified antidotes to the toxins helps couples know not only what needs to change, but what exactly to do, instead. He has thus given couples an exit ramp from the contentious road they were traveling, and onto a smoother highway toward a harmonious, mutually satisfying relationship. 

The six destructive patterns discovered by The Gottman Institute (TGI) are: 

  • Harsh startup
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: 
    • Criticism
    • Defensiveness
    • Contempt
    • Stonewalling
  • Flooding
  • Body language
  • Failed repair attempts
  • Negative memories

These terms will be clarified below, but before delving into each toxin, I want to identify the universal antidote for them all. The common denominator underlying all of the antidotes is protection. Protection of our partner, that is. This is because all of the destructive patterns have at their core some aspect of self-defensiveness. The ruinous behaviors are either us being self-protective or causing our partner to be self-protective. Therefore, what is needed is for partners to protect each other, making self-protection unnecessary.

The opposite of self-protection, therefore—it’s antidote—is other-protection… defense of each other. If we are actively striving to protect our partner (their feelings, their point of view, what is important to them, wounds from their past, their attachment needs, other needs, etc.) and our partner is doing the same for us, then neither party needs to get self-defensive. Dr. Gottman’s identified destructive patterns are less likely to manifest if both partners are feeling protected by the other.  (Exceptions exist, of course, when defensiveness arises not from the couple’s interaction, but from outside stressors or from personal wounds or disorders in one or both partners. See the CTI blog on emotionally abusive relationships for tactics often used by those with personality disorders. 

So, let’s take a look at the six destructive patterns one-by-one and see how protection shows up repeatedly as an overarching antidote to each one.

Flooding and “body language” 

Flooding is synonymous with the activation of a person’s Sympathetic Nervous System. It is a triggered physiological response to threat (perceived or real) that goes by many names, including diffuse physiological arousal, amygdala hijack, animal brain, reptilian brain, the fight or flight response, and others.

If Dr. Gottman hadn’t been measuring biometrics, he might not have known this was happening, as it is not necessarily visible. TGI researchers were measuring heart rate, respiratory rate, perspiration, pupil dilation, blood-oxygen level, and the secretion of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (aka adrenaline). These are what The Gottman Institute refers to as “body language.” They are not about rolled eyes or crossed arms; they are referring to these measured biometrics.

All of these indicate flooding—a physiological state of self-protection. The amygdala has set off an alarm, signaling, “We are not safe! All hands on deck!” The biological responses to the Amygdala’s signals are designed to assist the body in self-protection. And they are very adaptive when we need to defend ourselves by running or fighting.

They are far less helpful if the perceived enemy looks like our spouse. Not only is the body physically prepared for combat, but the brain undergoes a temporary change, as well. The Prefrontal Cortex—that place of higher reasoning that sets apart humans from lower animals—recedes in activity in favor of more primitive and autonomic areas at the back and base of the brain. Thus “animal brain.”

This explains why we wince with embarrassment when we watch recordings of ourselves when in this flooded state during conflict.

Volume has increased, words and tone have grown  more toxic, respectful treatment of one another has been abandoned, self-defensiveness of all sorts has emerged, we are saying things we can’t believe are coming out of our mouths. We watch these recordings and wonder, “Who is that!?!” Answer: It’s the epinephrine talking. It’s our primitive nature coming out in self defense in response to a perceived threat. 

Your flooding versus my flooding

Relationally, there are several complicators with regard to flooding. For one thing, partners find different things triggering. Personality, perhaps gender, family of origin, individual experiences, and myriad others cause one partner to feel offended or threatened or unsafe or disrespected or unloved or something that does not trigger the other. But once this misunderstanding is in motion, the gloves come off. One person is in animal brain while the other is in rational brain, at least at first.

Eventually, if a break is not taken, both will probably wind up in this self-proactive state. 

The non-flooded person has a hard time understanding the defensiveness of the flooded partner, and the flooded partner is nearly incapable—for the moment—of a calm, respectful, rational discussion. This is the time for the flooded person to self-soothe—politely ask for a break—and for the non-flooded person to grant that request, both for the other person’s sake and the sake of the relationship.

A flooded conversation will not go well; a return to the conversation at a designated time has a far better chance of resulting in a respectful, listening conversation where mutual understanding can be gained.

If you watch what Dr. Gottman designates as Disaster Couples vs. Master Couples, these Disaster Couples (the ones doing these destructive patterns) have this elevated biological phenomena going on; Master Couples don’t.

The Master Couples are in a resting state; they have a resting heart rate; they are not being driven by stress hormones and a high blood oxygen level. They lack these biological indicators that the self-protective hormonal chemistry has taken over in response to perceived danger, taking the brain and body to Defcon 1. 

The Master Couples are in the presence of a friend; they feel safe. Disaster Couples do not feel safe. They feel like they are with an enemy. That makes all the difference. And aside from the biological things that going on, the prefrontal cortex during this Sympathetic Nervous System response also goes offline in favor of the back and the base of the brain, which are very primitive and self-protective. This is why the condition is sometimes called the Animal Brain—for the tendency we have to start acting like animals.

Learning from the masters

Master Couples tended to be able to discuss a disagreement or conflict without getting flooded. They avoided harshness, criticism, defensiveness, and contempt, in favor of respecting and protecting their spouse, which lowered the chances their spouse would get triggered into diffuse physical arousal and escalate to defensiveness.

But if it's too late to avoid flooding; that is, if the flood gates have already begun to crack open, it is time for the couple to take a break.

The person who recognizes that their heart rate has increased, that their thoughts are scrambling, or whose Apple Watch or Fit Bit or some devise has alerted them to an elevated state need find words to kindly request a break and ask to come back to the conversation at a designated time.

This is not avoidance, it is giving the relationship the gift of not escalating. It is protecting the relationship. 

This break is allowing epinephrine to subside, which takes time (about twenty minutes). It is getting a change of scenery, perhaps getting outdoors and letting the sun dilate the pupils and the wind blow on our face; getting some exercise to stimulate endorphins; hydrating; listening to calming music or engaging a relaxation app. It is doing something to bring the flooded person back to a resting state, where the cortex can come back online and a rational, self-controlled conversation can ensue.

Master Couples, in Dr. Gottman’s observation, tended to call for and allow each other these breaks; Disaster Couples persisted in their discussion despite one partner (or eventually both partners) being flooded. One or both would say something like, "Don't walk away from me! I’m tired of you shutting me out. We’re going to finish this and we’re going to finish it now!”

Predictably, the “discussion” of Disaster Couples went from bad to worse. Master Couples, on the other hand, were often able to engage in a more empathic, mutually-understanding conversation that ended in a constructive plan, after giving each other some time and space to allow flooding to recede.

Let me say again, taking a break is not avoidance.

Some partners (especially anxious partners) worry that they’ll never get back to the topic. To avoid that potential trap, agree ahead of time when you will revisit the topic—maybe after dinner, or after the kids are in bed. Plan to go out for breakfast in the morning and have the discussion in the safety of a restaurant where you can’t scream at each other. Find your sweet spots for how, when, and where to reengage a hot spot topic, in a context that will allow for empathy, listening, understanding, and offers to protect what is important to your partner and to your relationship.

The theme of protection

All of these antidotes come back to this theme of protection. For example, let’s look at what happens when a couple uses a harsh startup. A fair synonym for a harsh startup is an “un-protective startup.” Harshness is defense-raising because harshness feels un-protective, like an attack. 

Dr. Gottman’s antidote for harshness is gentleness. It’s unlikely that someone will grow self-defensive when being treated with gentleness. Gentleness is protective… protective of the other’s feelings; protective of the other’s point of view; protective of what is important to the other in the context of the current debate; protective concerning whatever else is going on in our partner’s world that is tipping the scale.

Emotional Intelligence is largely the skill of empathizing with the entirely different person with whom we are sharing life. Empathy then invites compassion, consideration and action. That compassionate action is likely to be protective. 

The protective antidotes

Let’s look at the other toxic destructive patterns for their protective antidotes.

Criticism

Underneath every defense-raising criticism is a positive request.

Pause to consider what you’re after. What is it you’d prefer to what you’re about to criticize?

Paint a verbal picture of what would feel good to you; of what you’d appreciate. Teachers do this when, instead of chastising children for being too loud, they say, “Could we use our inside voices, please?”

Businesses are careful to word their signs as positive requests. Instead of posting “We don’t trust you or your checks,” they post: “Please have I.D. ready if writing a check.” Instead of “Don’t be an inconsiderate slob,” they write, “Please wipe down your area and reset the equipment for your fellow gym member.”

It takes a moment, but we can likewise come up with positive request in place of a negative criticism. To do so is a kindness to our partner and a gift to the relationship, having the power to stop defensiveness in its tracks. Instead of focusing on what our partner did or said that we didn’t or don’t like, we are pointing out—even painting a picture of—what we would like or would like to hear. It is a verbal blueprint for success.

Even more powerful is to paint this picture of success, along with an affirmation of when our partner did what we’re asking for, such as: “I wonder if we could plan on reserving the hour and a half before guests arrive, to both pitch in and blitz-clean the house; I so appreciated that last week, it was so helpful.” That sentence is not likely to beget defensiveness (unless it’s interpreted with a negative sentiment, as a backward compliment). It has turned a potential criticism into a positive request and even an affirmation.

It feels good, not bad. It is closer to a deposit than to a withdrawal.

Defensiveness

A synonym for defensiveness is self-protection; the opposite is “other-protection.” Protection of the other and of the relationship is, of course, the focus of this entire article, so let’s move on to how protection is the over-arching antidote to the remaining destructive patterns.  

Contempt

Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce, according to Dr. Gottman.  A synonym might be “disdain.” It is a Negative Sentiment Override concerning what a person said or did, impugning their motives, presuming the worst of intentions, seeing what went wrong instead of all that went right. Worst is seeing the negative side of our partner’s character traits instead of what may be the positive side of the same attribute. 

This is where temperament analyses can be helpful, such as the DiSC profile, Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, etc. Typically, these personality profiles note how our strengths and weaknesses tend to be mirror images of the same trait—flip sides of the same coin.

For instance, organization is a positive trait; it can also be a negative in the extreme, such as OCD. Being unpredictable is a negative way of describing what might positively describe someone who is flexible and creative. 

Contempt at its most harmful for the relationship is when it is applied not just to disappointing incidents, but to a person’s basic being. Who can change who they are? To be criticized for who we are feels like being rejected, and rejection hurts. And we distance ourselves from those who hurt us deeply. 

So, here again, the antidote of contempt is protection.

We protect the other’s feelings.

We protect the relational attachment need of acceptance. We regard our partner with a Positive Sentiment Override. This means overriding our impression and response to the other’s words or behavior by granting the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best, and withholding judgment. Then we ask for help understanding, and seeing the positive side of a trait or way of doing things that is different from our own, but may have some positive aspects. 

There is a saying, variously attributed...

When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.

That’s protection. It is speaking well of our partner; thinking well of them; presuming the best of them; drawing out their best, not with toxic criticism, but with positive affirmation. In fact, Dr. Gottman’s antidote to contempt is Nurturing Fondness and Admiration, which is the second principle he identifies as making marriage work. It is dwelling on what we admire about our spouse, noticing what we are fond of, voicing what we appreciate. No one gets self-defensive over such things; they are protective.

Flooding and body language

We’ve covered these above. Please have a Positive Sentiment Override toward me, giving me grace for taking it out of order.

Failed repair attempts

Among Dr. Gottman’s observations is that when the Master Couples got crossways (and all couples do from time to time), they were not okay with not being okay. One or both parties made an attempt to repair the relationship. An olive branch of some sort was offered. It may have been an apology, or a hug and a kiss, or an invitation to sit close on the couch and watch the news, or an invitation to get get dinner or ice cream or coffee, or run an errand together.

Anything.

A successful repair attempt was made and received for the protection of the relationship. 

TGI used to study the repair attempt itself, but determined that the magic was not in the specific repair; the magic was in wanting to reconcile rather than remain enemies. The relationship was worth repair, so one partner made a repair attempt. And the other partner responded with the only thing that results in a successful repair attempt—they received it, allowing reconciliation.

Not the Disaster Couples.

In their case, there was either no repair attempt or the repair attempt failed. Maybe the attempt was insensitive, or perhaps it was poorly timed, or perhaps the damage was simply too great, such as yet another incident of serial adultery. But, too often with Disaster Couples, the reason for the failed repair attempt was that one or both parties rationalized their anger or bitter resentment and justified their refusal to repair.

That’s disastrous.

Whatever the cause, the repair failed and the relationship remained broken; partners remained distant. They continued to feel un-protected—like enemies—instead of protected, as by a friend.

Stonewalling 

Stonewalling is withdrawal for… guess what? Self-protection. 

Often, the stonewaller has become flooded. That is, the Amygdala has sounded the alarm, as described above, interpreting (rightly or wrongly) that an attack has taken place, calling for defensive measures. The “flee” part of this fight or flight response is stonewalling… physical or conversational withdrawal; a relationship-distancing silence.

If you ask a stonewaller why they are stonewalling, there are three answers commonly heard:

  • The stonewaller will say they are flooded. Thus, they can hardly think straight, given the defense system that has overtaken his or her hormonal and brain activity.
  • Related to the above, a stonewaller will often say, "I can't think of anything to say that won’t just make things worse, so I'm choosing to say nothing at all.” While this is actually making things worse, the stonewaller’s intent is to keep things from escalating. This sounds similar to “taking a break," which is called for when flooding has occurred. The difference is that stonewalling is done unilaterally, rather than by mutual agreement for the protection of the relationship.
  • A third common reason a person will give for stonewalling is that he or she has given up being understood. No matter the issue, we all want empathy and understanding, even if there is an eventual agreement to disagree. When empathy and understanding is repeatedly not offered, it is easy to give up and go silent; to stonewall. 

The Gottman Institute commends physiological self-soothing as the antidote to stonewalling. This is agreeing to give each other time and space for calming.  The sympathetic nervous system does not turn off like a light switch. Even with the best repair attempt, the partner or partners who are flooded need time for cortisol and adrenaline to level out, and heart and respiratory rates to  return to normal.

Once again, there is an aspect of protection here. Why would we give each other space and time? To protect their need for physiological soothing. Indeed, this opportunity to "reset," is protective of the relationship from toxic deterioration.

Another way to protect one another is to offer what should have been offered to begin with… empathy, understanding, and protection of what we’ve come to understand is important to the other.

A conflict only exists where there is something important to one partner and it is somehow in conflict with something important to the other. When each can discover what is important to the other and offer empathic, understanding support of that interest, then conflict typically subsides.

Negative Memories

The Gottman Institute’s research found that the way spouses described their past memories was consistent with the way they looked at the present situation and predictive of how they would regard their future… positive or negative.

When asked about particular past events like the wedding, the honeymoon, the first year of marriage, the birth of their first child, etc., Disaster Couples voiced a glass half empty story, while Master Couples voiced a glass half full story, even if the details were much the same. You could say that the description of memories exposed either a positive or negative outlook on life and on the relationship.

The antidote offered for negative memories is the application of the second principle that makes marriage work… nurturance of fondness and admiration.

That is, to avoid seeing things negatively, see things positively. Replace criticisms with affirmations. Replace complaints with gratitude; instead of letting familiarity breed contempt, let recognition of what we fell in love with continue to be in the forefront of our mind. As noted above, this is protective of our partner—keeping our spouse’s name safe in our mouth (as well as in our thoughts). 

Protection is the overarching antidote to patterns that divide us

At its core, what divides couples is self-protection. We grow distant from each each other because that feels safer than being close. If we can learn to be the safest place on earth for each other, then we won’t run from each other, we’ll run to each other.

Conflict is a learning opportunity. If we choose to see conflict as an opportunity to learn what we can protect for our spouse, and how, then conflict can be a great teacher. It can teach us to understand why our partner chose to turn away in self-protection instead of turning toward us for protection. We can use a conflict to learn how to better protect the feelings, needs, preferences and point of view of our loved one; then self-defensiveness becomes unnecessary and conflict dissipates—perhaps even before it starts."

Doug Burford


Dr. Burford is trained in the Gottman method and specializes in relationship counsel, both premarital and marital. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, he has served churches in both the Presbyterian and Alliance traditions, and has contributed to Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul. Dr. Burford has been married for over 35 years and is a father and grandfather.

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