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Author Topic: Predictable Patterns of Marriage Breakdown - Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.  (Read 1510 times)
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« on: February 05, 2011, 09:05:24 AM »

Predictable Patterns of Marriage Breakdown

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Source: www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=9457&cn=289


According to Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., Director of Mental Help Net and former Assistant Professor of Psychology at Idaho State University, there is no single reason why a relationship begins to break down. However, once a relationship does start to break down, there is a predictable sequence of events that tends to occur. Highly regarded psychologist and researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. suggests that there are four stages to this sequence which he has labeled, "The Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse".

Stage One The first stage of the breakdown process involves intractable conflict and complaints. All couples have conflicts from time to time, but some couples are able to resolve those conflicts successfully or 'agree to disagree', while others find that they are not. As we observed earlier, it is not the number or intensity of arguments that is problematic but rather whether or not resolution of those arguments is likely or possible. Couples that get into trouble find themselves in conflicts that they cannot resolve or compromise upon to both party's satisfaction. Such disagreements can be caused by any number of reasons, but might involve a clash of spousal values on core topics such as whether to have children, or how to handle money.

Frequently, couples assume that misunderstandings are at the root of their conflicts. "If my spouse really understood why I act as I do, he or she would agree with me and go along with what I want", is a commonly overheard refrain. Acting on this belief, spouses often try to resolve their conflicts by repeatedly stating and restating their respective rationals during disagreements. This strategy of repetition usually doesn't work because most of the time couple conflicts are not based on misunderstandings, but rather on real differences in values. When this is the case, stating and restating one's position is based on a mistaken premise and can only cause further upset.

Stage Two In the second stage of the breakdown process, one or both spouses starts to feel contempt for the other, and each spouse's attitudes about their partner change for the worse. For example, initially each spouse may have mostly positive regard for their partner and be willing to write off any 'bad' or 'stupid' behavior their partner acts out as a transient, uncommon stress-related event. However, as 'bad' or 'stupid' behavior is observed again and again, spouses get frustrated, start to regard their partner as actually being a 'bad' or 'stupid' person, and begin to treat their partner accordingly. Importantly, the 'bad' behavior that the spouse demonstrates doesn't have to be something he or she actually does. Instead, it could be something that he or she doesn't do, that the spouse expects them to do (such as remembering to put the toilet seat down after use).

Conflict by itself doesn't predict marriage problems. Some couples fight a lot but somehow never manage to lose respect for each other. Once contempt sets in, however, the marriage is on shaky ground. Feelings of contempt for one's spouse are a powerful predictor of relationship breakdown, no matter how subtlety they are displayed. In a famous study, Gottman was able to predict with over 80% accuracy the future divorces of multiple couples he and his team observed based on subtle body language cues suggesting contemptuous feelings (such as dismissive eye-rolling). Contempt doesn't have to be expressed openly for it to be hard at work rotting the foundations of one's relationship.

Stage Three Most people find conflict and contempt to be stressful and react to such conditions by entering the third stage of breakdown, characterized by partner's increasingly defensive behavior. Men in particular (but women too) become hardened by the chronicity of the ongoing conflict, and may react even more acutely during moments when conflict is most heated by becoming overwhelmed and "flooded"; a condition which is psychologically and emotionally quite painful. Over time, partners learn to expect that they are 'gridlocked'; that they cannot resolve their differences, and that any attempts at resolution will result in further overwhelm, hurt or disappointment.

Stage Four Rather than face the pain and overwhelm they expect to experience, partners who have reached this third 'defensive' stage, may progress to the forth and final stage of breakdown, characterized by a breakdown of basic trust between the partners, and increasing disengagement in the name of self-protection. Like a steam-valve in a pressure cooker, the partners start avoiding one another so as to minimize their conflicts. Gottman calls this final stage, "Stonewalling", perhaps after the image of a partner hiding behind a stone wall designed to protect him or her from further assault. Unfortunately, there is no way to love your partner when you are hiding behind a wall to protect yourself from him or her.

The "four horsemen" breakdown sequence plays out amongst the backdrop of partner compatibility. Basically compatible partners may demonstrate a whole lot of conflict, but they don't often become contemptuous and angry with their partners, because there are by definition few things that they will disagree upon. In contrast, partners who start out with incompatible goals, values or dreams are far more likely to get into seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Also, once the process of contempt, defensiveness and avoidance begins, small incompatibilities can become magnified as spouses pursue other interests as an alternative to conflict.
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« Reply #1 on: February 15, 2011, 11:57:57 AM »

What do you think of Dombeck's analysis?  Have you seen or felt any of this is your relationship?
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« Reply #2 on: February 15, 2011, 12:25:18 PM »

i can definitely see... how this could break down... even in relationships in the past... where i ended up leaving... this was a pretty familiar pattern... disagreeing abt something that doesnt get resolved... and getting worse from there... w/R... we are pretty compatible... and even where we disagree... pretty good at resolving conflicts... or agreeing to disagree... some of that stuff started out as conflicts... agree to disagree... now is a 'inside joke' between us... bc we each know the other aint going to budge... but it stops being a issue...

for the last rs i was in before R... we butted heads a lot over stuff... and eventually things broke down basically like this explains...
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« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2011, 01:05:35 PM »

Sure... .

1. plenty of conflict. I heard her complaints. Tried to talk to her about them. My complaints brought on a rage. I always thought if she would just listen to me than she would understand me. LOL. I really never cared if she went along with me or not but she should at least listen to what I said and explain why I was wrong.

2. I think this was me. She would get mad at me for no reason and I would roll my eyes at her. If I tried to talk to her about it she would rage at me. I did often feel contempt for her. I know she saw it in me.

3. I did feel we reached a gridlock point. We did go through a period of time where we were just living together. No intimacy.

4. I would say I disengaged at the end. I began spending more time away from home and ignoring her outbursts. She would get mad at me when I wasn't around when she expected me to be... .but I just ignored her anger. As hard as it is to believe... .our r/s actually got better she became more friendly to me and we started having sex again. I think she might have been trying to pull me back into the r/s. If I hadn't gone back to Ohio to check in on my house we might still be together. Glad the split happened though. I think I am getting over her now.
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« Reply #4 on: February 15, 2011, 08:54:26 PM »

Excellant article and fits our situation exactly especially the part about repetition of the complaint.  I keep asking "How many times have you said that"? and her answer is always the same "You just don't get it".  Yes I get it - I just disagree with the value of her position.  Filing after 39 years and looking forward to the relief when it is final.
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« Reply #5 on: February 16, 2011, 01:58:54 AM »

Good article and completely describes both of my past relationships. However, its one thing to read it in step-by-step article format... .quite another to feel it... .the contempt... .the absolute loss of love due to lack of any conflict resolution... .the complete helplessness like treading in quicksand. Articles like this make me wonder about relationships altogether... .makes me feel like "Her are the warning signs that you guys just aint gonna make it... .get out while the gettins good"... .still frustrating :-{
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« Reply #6 on: February 16, 2011, 07:25:30 AM »

Interesting outline but in a life with a pwBPD the divergence starts in stage 1.  There is no disagreement in values, although a pwBPD may like ot potrait it as such, rather no pleasing a person with BPD.  There will always be conflict/chaos and when you even meet all the expressed expectations of the pwBPD they will change them, be critical on how you met them (no matter how irrational or petty the criticism may be), or dredge up something from years gone by to keep the conlict/chaos going.

I think the thing with a pwBPD is they keep them and us cycling between stages 3 and 4, even more so if you still try to reach out to them.

In my experience my wife entered stage 2 (she cycles out of it) based on a vague dissatisfaction with what she had achieved in life and her life. It was a feeling so hence a fact in her mind no matter all the positives, and few if any negatives, in our life and children.  In fact, things are best with us when we have a real family problem to face (like loss of job for example).   

So since her disatisfication couldn't just be her, or an unrealistic, media driven or shallow definition of existance. When she could express some of it it was a desire for a high power career, exotic travel, the family to dedicate more -read all available free time - to supporting her in her hobby, really I'm bored entertain me philosophy.  Somehting I'd expect from a teeenager not a women of 40.  The children are good and do well, so not much blame to be cast their, of course she always blames them for making her rush or late, as in they are always waiting around for her to get ready.   No, the real blame then had to be placed on me.  I just wasn't doign enough for her, and when that didn't fly to well (she couldn't even convinve herself of that one) we didn't share the same values.  What, the value that the families goal in life is to entertain you?

I find the media fuels this well, husbands are assumed to be bumbling, buffoons unable to deal with day-to-day family life, insensitive, barely washed jerks, or absentee striver.  If these poor slobs and nerds only got with the program they could be that other image, the active high power male who has copious free time to lavish attention on his spouse, who is always doing somehting for her and all she needs to do is say thank you.  I wish I had such a trust fund, since having a chisled body (which once I had) takes an hour an exercise a day (easily) even when young, and most high powered careers require huge time commitments (the executives I work with basically live their job, of course they have a nice support structure too), and after all that you need the will of a superhuman to not want anything time for yourself, but rather decide you want to spend all your remaining energy validating and entertaining someone else.


Ok I'll end the rant.  Although you can fit life with a BPD into the 4 stages I don't think the dynamic is the same.  In fact a BPD will latch onto the idea it must be a "value" difference to avoid having to be reasonable.

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« Reply #7 on: February 16, 2011, 10:35:07 AM »

So on-target it had me near tears.

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« Reply #8 on: February 28, 2011, 03:58:32 PM »

wow- yes, I changed my schedule to weekends and she worked days when she could get a substitute teaching job, I started pursuing hot yoga which ended up helping me deal with her tension and anger.  I tried to get her to come because I thought it would help with her mood, but she refused. She started hanging with her high school friends, and we lived as roommates, and it was a painful existence.

I even remember saying I understand you want a job and are intensely focused on getting one, but do you understand the damage you are doing to us? I'd like to have something left when you get one.

I also would try to resolve conflict and get raged at, finally when she would start the lecture and smacking hands together to prove her point I would just walk out go get something to eat, I'd come back a couple of hours later, not talk about it, but she would say  "Hey you want to go walk the dogs and get a beer"?  Like nothing would happen.

She was always more normal and talkative with 4-5 beers in her.
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« Reply #9 on: August 19, 2011, 02:49:23 PM »

Hmmm, interesting article. We started out (and continued to have) the same goals, values, and dreams! But with a BPD all of the stages were there, often mixed up and out of order!

Diotima
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« Reply #10 on: August 20, 2011, 06:59:50 AM »

I believe this article does accurately assess the stages of a relationship breakdown... .however, it is based on the premise that there was truly a relationship in the first place.  Often when in a marriage/intimate relationship with a BPD, it's my experience that there is only the APPEARANCE of a relationship, not a true relationship.  There is no reciprocity, real connectedness, trust, healthy boundaries, etc.  (All of that would have to be based on 2 people with a separate and clearly defined sense of self.)  The day after we were married, I found myself IMMENSELY confused by my husband's contradictory behaviors, gaslighting, push-me-away-pull-me-in, etc.  Looking back, I do not think this was able to be "resolved."  (And by the way, I am not blaming him for the breakdown - I played my own role as well!  I also have great compassion for his pain, even though we are now divorced.)

A BPD spouse is not able to "agree to disagree."  Often the emotional and relational maturity level is extremely developmentally delayed, preventing this type of relationship negotiation.

I guess this article dredged up some old stuff for me - triggered my old "tapes" and guilt about not trying hard enough, "if only I had _____(fill in the blank) this marriage could've worked," etc.  I now believe it was doomed from the start of its 25 years. 

I'm pretty sure that most typical marriage advice doesn't apply to people in these types of relationships (PD relationships.)  Any marriage therapy we did was highly damaging and merely fueled the confusion - one more player being sucked into the quagmire, heightening the conflict.

It is VERY hard, but we are much better off apart.  We have come to an "uneasy peace" in our relationship involving parallel parenting of our kids.  I am learning to be direct with him (mostly low contact through emails,) to address the very real issues that need to be addressed, while demonstrating respect and decency for him, not blaming or judging him, etc. 

Picturelady 

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« Reply #11 on: August 20, 2011, 08:36:42 AM »

Totally agree, picturelady, on "appearance" of a relationship and inability to "agree to disagree".

In my case, as uBPDw has become more dysregulated in recent years, she has become quick to express contempt.  Seems to me it's an attempt at controlling me.  Not reacting to it brings increases in intensity, until I break away (leave the house / room, etc.)

And, yes, in hindsight it was probably more like an "appearance" of a relationship.  But I think the non-BP still feels the breakdown pretty much as described by Dombeck.

Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work was good, too.  The work on predicting divorce by observing couples was fascinating--real scientific approach.  But the book doesn't address BPD behaviors--I've learned the hard way that this definitely requires special treatment.
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« Reply #12 on: August 20, 2011, 08:46:54 AM »

Well said, HardDaysNight--hit the nail right on the head.  Exactly my situation--someone has to be blamed for her feelings / dissatisfaction, and it can't be her (at all), therefore it's me.  And "entertain me".
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« Reply #13 on: August 20, 2011, 10:45:32 AM »

Right all: no ability to agree to disagree! None what so ever. That would involve knowing there can be shades of gray. No ability to negotiate. They don't understand what that means. I tried many times to introduce that concept into our discussions. I know a lot more about BPD now than I did at the time (although I had read and knew my ex had it from my T), and I occasionally punish my self for not doing as much "validation" as I now know more about. But I doubt it would have made any real difference (?).

Oh yes: the BPD has to be entertained! That was my job no matter how much other work or responsibilities I had. Three-year-old, anyone?

Diotima
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« Reply #14 on: August 20, 2011, 12:20:13 PM »

I occasionally punish my self for not doing as much "validation" as I now know more about. But I doubt it would have made any real difference (?).

Oh yes: the BPD has to be entertained! That was my job no matter how much other work or responsibilities I had. Three-year-old, anyone?

Diotima

It would not have changed the way he thinks. He has to change that. You would have still been with a "Three-year-old". Your communication would have been better and the relationship may have been able to continue in a slightly less dysfunctional way. Would this have been enough for you to want to stay?
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« Reply #15 on: August 20, 2011, 04:14:15 PM »

Good question Oth. I guess if the validation had led to more interest in therapy, which he said he was open to but never did anything about, I think I would have been open to continuing. And there were the other women (my bottom line). With any other BPD, I would say no I wouldn't want to continue. It was our work together that was so compelling. We both love it and there are only a handful of people on the planet who are doing something even in the same ballpark (scholarly work). Plus the other cultural and political values we share, etc. I hung in there because it was the broadest spectrum relationship I have ever had and was what I had always wanted in life. Then, of course, there was that big fly in the ointment!

That said: the relationship did a lot of damage to me, so I am still pondering... .I told him several times I didn't want a relationship with him (when he tried to come back). That's not true but it was the only way I could end it and have him stay away.

Diotima
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« Reply #16 on: August 21, 2011, 07:22:17 AM »

Diotima,

  I understand what you mean about no shades of gray or that reasonable minds can differ.  I've found if I suggest an alternative plan or shade of interpretation I get "So you're telling me I'm wrong?" or "You never listen to me."  (That last one almost makes me laugh as it is just ripe with projection).

  I've also found no realization of matters of degree.  My stern, "Stop that now." After 4 or 5 requests with a REASON why the behavior is not OK at the moment.  Is the same as her screaming at the children after literally 2 seconds becacuse they did not hop to something fast enough, with no reason given why what is otherwise innocuos must stop.  What do I here from my BPD/NPD wife?  "See, you get angry to."  Really?  She really cannot see the difference.  (As an aside, I have been able with BPD coping strategies to reduce and almost prevent these outbursts when I am present).

  And my pwBPD/NPD wonders why she has never had a friend (except maybe me who she has painted black for the last few years). 

  In the end, increased validation I beleive only can smooth out the roller-coaster ride the pwBPD creates.  In the end the pwBPD has to make a decision to seek therapy and at least admit to themselves there is something about their inner-selves they need to work on, to take responsibility.  Most of us are not able to act as a therapist 24/7 to the BPD in our lives to have this happen, nor should we be expected to.  Heck, many a therapist I understand have a hard time dealing with BPD patients.
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« Reply #17 on: August 21, 2011, 10:32:15 AM »

HardDay,

Yep, many therapists cringe at having to treat too many BPDs at once. I hear horror stories from my T friend, who is herself a recovered BPD. The BPD will of course do all the same stuff with the T: idealize, attempt to abuse, etc. And yes I couldn't be a 24/7 T for my ex. My only point with the validation is that it can make one's life with a BPD easier for the person who does it. If you are interested in reading about this, there is a book called When Hope is Not Enough. I do regret not having seen this a couple of years ago. I would have felt then that I had done more--but who knows whether it would have been enough to have deployed more of those techniques. I can't blame myself.

Diotima
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