Cascades(For a printable PDF of this article, click here.)

Based on the research and writing of John Gottman, PhD.  

Gottman and his research associates studied hundreds of marriages for several decades.  After careful observation, they determined a clear, consistent pattern by which many marriages – even once happy ones – tend to fall apart.  They then make important recommendations on how to avoid or heal  these dynamics in your own marriage.

It is important to understand and identify the forces that can erode a marriage, to give you the option of replacing these destructive dynamics with better options.  The "first cascade" occurs interpersonally, between husband and wife.  The "second cascade," which is even more dangerous, occurs intrapersonally, privately, within the minds of one or both spouses.   Recognizing these destructive dynamics is the first step in turning them around, to preserve and protect your marriage. 

(For more information, see Gottman's book,“Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and How You Can Make Yours Last.")  

Cascade #1: Interpersonal - "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

#1 - Criticism:  When conflict – which is inevitable – arrives,  distress is expressed as global "criticism” (“you always” or “you never…”)   This contrasts with a healthier way of expressing frustration, which stays specific to the event at hand, taking the structure “I feel____about____ because_____”    Specific complaints can be resolved; global criticisms only escalate conflict and distress.

#2 - Contempt:  Conflict is responded to with rolling eyes, mocking comments, sarcasm, mean names, etc.

#3 - Defensiveness:  The person being criticized responds by justification or counter-criticism, leading to two-way defensiveness and all-out battle.

#4 - Stonewalling:  One or both decide talking about this is pointless, and withdraws – turns cold – ceases to respond.   While usually intended kindly, as a way to contain or end conflict, it usually has the opposite result.  Ultimately, uncorrected, it can lead to the death of the relationship.

Cascade #2: Intrapersonal - The Distance and Isolation Cascade

The second cascade is even more dangerous to your relationship than the first.   You privately begin to focus on the faults of your partner, until all you can see or remember is the negative.   Gottman found that this internal cascade  of destructive,  distress-maintaining thoughts tends to take one of two forms:

#1 - "Innocent Victimhood" - "I am an innocent victim" "The problem is entirely with my spouse."

#2 - "Righteous Indignation" - "I have a moral obligation to set my partner straight."

 If uninterrupted, these thoughts persist till they entirely take over your perception about your partner, and you end the relationship – emotionally, if not legally. This overwhelming cascade can carry you literally to the end of your marriage.

Additional Notes About What Gets Marriages in Trouble

ALL COUPLES HAVE CONFLICT.   This is inevitable, based on gender differences, personality differences, background differences, biological differences, and other significant variations between husband and wife.   Marital happiness has very little to do with how much conflict you have, or how many differences exist between you.    It has far more to do with how you deal with that conflict, and the attitude you take toward it.

Gottman theorizes that a certain amount of negativity and conflict is essential  for a good relationship.   Soil requires a certain amount of acidity, blended with alkalinity, to produce effective plant growth.  Likewise, the jungle requires a certain number of predators to identify and eliminate the weaker links in the prey population – otherwise, the jungle would be unable to sustain all the animal life there.     Similarly, a certain amount of negativity and conflict helps identify and eliminate the weak spots in a marital union, and creates the right balance to facilitate effective growth.

Gottman identified the exact balance of positive to negative interaction in order for a relationship to thrive.   It is:


5 positive interactions are needed to balance every 1 negative interaction.

This ratio held true throughout a variety of couple types that proved resilient and successful.  Gottman identified 3 successful couple types – those who remained together and remained happy over time:

Type 1:  Validating Couple – These couples are mutually respectful and supportive.   They are good team-mates,      “best friends,”  and companions.   They validate each others feelings, and take time in conversation to:

  1.           understand one another’s points of view clearly;
  2.           try to persuade their partner that their own view is valid;
  3.           come to a mutually-agreeable solution 

Type 2: Volatile Couple – These couples bold and open in expressing their feelings and opinions.  They are not shy about “putting it all out there.”  They will tell each other openly and honestly what bothers them – but will be equally open and frank about what they love and admire about each other.  They argue passionately - and make up passionately.

Type 3 – Conflict-Avoiding Couple – These couples dislike direct confrontation, and avoid it whenever possible.  They do this by remembering the positives in their relationship and focusing on those things that they hold in common.

Conflict often  arises when couples have different preferred modes for dealing with conflict (for example, she’s volatile, and he’s conflict-avoiding.)  With the best of intentions , they will each use their preferred mode to try to resolve the conflict – in the process inadvertently irritating or disappointing their partner, who prefers a different way.  To resolve such a conflict, middle-ground solutions need to be identified.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tend to be occupied by riders of different genders. Most often, criticism arrives with female observations.  The majority of the time, women are the ones who bring up relationship issues.  If she criticizes (global and “you-based”) rather than complains (specific and “I”-based)   when she brings up needed issues, she opens the door to the Horsemen.    Both men and women engage in “Contempt” and “Defensiveness.”  “Stonewallers” are 85% male.  Hoping to contain or end the conflict, they pull back, become quiet, and decline to respond.   This, however, just adds fuel to the “Critic’s” fire – “You never understand; you don’t care about my feelings.”  

Understanding how marriages get in trouble is the first step to reversing the cycle, and healing your relationship.