By Dr. Bonnie Ray Kennan, MFT



Do you recognize any of these warning signs that your relationship might need some work?



  1.  The First Sign: Harsh Startup

96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of a 15-minute interaction. When a conversation begins with criticism and/or sarcasm, a form of contempt, it has begun with a “harsh startup.”


2.  The Second Sign: The Four Horseman of the Marital Apocalypse

Criticism vs. Complaining

Defensiveness vs. Being Accountable

Stonewalling vs. Self Soothing and Continuing to Engage in Conversation

Contempt, which is any behavior that is provocative, aggressive, and puts one partner on a higher plan than the other. vs. Creating A Culture of Appreciation.


3. The Third Sign: Flooding

This is when a spouse’s negativity is so overwhelming that it leaves the person shell shocked and defenseless. This leads the flooded partner to become hypervigilant and to always be on the lookout that the partner is going to blow again. The flooded partner sees emotional disengagement as the only way to protect him/herself.  A marital meltdown can be predicted by habitual harsh startup and frequent flooding.


4. The Fourth Sign: Body Language

When the emotions are stimulated as in intense marital conflict, the heart rate speeds up, hormonal changes such as the secretion of adrenaline, lead to the “fight or flight” response.  Sensations of feeling flooded— increased heart rate, sweating, and other physical distress reactions makes a productive conversation impossible. Note: The male cardiovascular system is more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress. Men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than there wives are.


5. The Fifth Sign: Failed Repair Attempts

Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes to deescalate the tension during a touchy conversation, attempts to put the brakes on so that flooding is prevented.  They decrease emotional tension and lower the stress. They can also make the couple feel closer and more intimate.  In unhappy marriages, a feedback loop develops between the four horseman and the failure of repair attempts, criticism leads to defensiveness, which leads to stonewalling, which leads to contempt, which leads to more criticism, etc. Repair attempts are often not even noticed in all of the noise.


6. The Sixth Sign: Bad Memories and Negative Explanatory Habits

When a relationship gets weighed down by negative sentiment override, a couple will often “rewrite” their past. Instead of remembering their history in a positive way, they will forget the good things that brought them together in the first place. They will develop a habit of explaining away the positive things and distorting their memories.  Explanatory Style refers to a person’s way of explaining the events that happen. We all have habits of explaining the things that happen to us. If a person has an Optimistic Explanatory Style he/she will look at his/her partner “through rose-colored glasses” rather than assuming the worst.