9. Devolution of the Relationship - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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9. Devolution of the Relationship

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > DownRelRabbitHole- Assessment

Down the Relationship Rabbit Hole, Assessment and Strategy for Therapy

No matter what unique or special circumstances an individual, couple, or family presents, therapy starts with the premise that "…having one's feelings hurt by another person is a universal relational experience; however, people learn to enact emotional hurt in a variety of ways.  Some people learn to enact emotional hurt by withdrawing, some by attacking, and some by self–disclosing.  Thus, our first assumption is that individuals differ in what they learn about how to enact different emotions.  Following from that, we further assume that the variety of these emotional enactments are distributed along a continuum of interpersonal effectiveness, with some enactments being more predictably conducive to the long–term health of intimate relationships (e.g., self–disclosure) and some more predictably corrosive (e.g., retaliation).  This is consistent with Gross and John's (2002) suggestion that the important question is not whether emotions are good or bad, but whether how they are expressed is helpful or unhelpful in a particular context" (Mirgain and Cordova, 2007, page 984).  Couples, families, or groups express the condition of their relationship in the members' attitudes towards each other.  The attitudes may be calcified into distinctive stages that the therapist can recognize.  It is often useful in therapy to identify at which stage of a negative relationship progression individuals are in.  The following tool is for assessment and as a guide for rebuilding relationships.  Directly relevant to couple's assessment, it is also applicable to the relationship among parents and children- difficult teenagers in particular, and to other relationships including between an employee and the workplace or organization for example.  Theoretically, it sees seven stages of decay in the relationship, while giving guidance to reverse and heal the relationship.  Depending on which stage the individuals are in, the challenges to therapy and to rebuilding the relationship are different.  Needless to say, the more negatively advanced- the more devolved the relationship, the more difficult is the rebuilding process.
1) Commenting

2) Complaining

3) Criticizing

4) Contempt

5) Defensiveness

6) Disconnecting Emotionally

7) Divorce

While the basis of this model from John Gottman's work focuses on couples, the therapist will find it expandable and very applicable to any relationship: in the family, with peers, and at work.  It can be used for therapeutic assessment and treatment planning as noted.  Developmental stage theory principles are applicable to this theory.  Development has stages that are qualitatively different, are sequential, and are progressive.  The couple's relationship is thus seen not as static, but as having evolved over time and experiences. Transition from one stage to another is both sequential and progressive.  There are earlier and later issues and experiences that follow an order.  Earlier experiences affect later experiences in a logical if not completely predictable progressive fashion.  There are identifiable and quantifiable experiences that lead to the qualitative differences among stages in the couple's relationship.  These principles foster the therapist investigating how the partner came to be in the particular couple now in therapy- or, the individual came to have become in with the particular relationship quality.  In other words, the couple, family, or other group dynamics and relationship are not arbitrary happenstance of good or bad luck.  This provides the foundation of therapy as a search into the rational, although problematic development of the current relationship.  That in turn, allows for the hope of a rational development of a healthier relationship.  In addition as with other developmental theories, skipping or rushing through stages is ineffective and harmful.  Therapy will examine whether the individual, couple, or family may have skipped or rushed through stages to their detriment.   And, healing or improvement to a final desirable stage also cannot be skipped to or rushed to.  This tool helps individuals, couples, and families understand that they need to go through intermediate more positive but still problematic stages by identifying the intermediate more negative stages that got them to their present status.  The therapist can help the them identify stress, trauma, and abuse that have stalled positive development or caused regression and stuckness in negative stages.  The key principle that satiation of developmental needs is required for movement can direct relational growth.

The first three levels of this theory are essentially about communication skills.  Communication is culturally defined and confined.  It can be from the family or from a larger community or society.  It is important to note that this is not just verbal communication but any type of communication.  Nonverbal communications including facial expressions, body language, voice tones, action/behavior and the lack of action/behavior are also powerful communications.  In many cultures, there is not permission to verbally communicate in a negative manner.  Nonverbal communication may be the relevant communication to examine in relationships where this may be relevant.  In addition, if overt nonverbal communication can be severely punished because of a totalitarian society or abusive family, then responses may be directed to even more subtle forms of verbal and nonverbal communication to convey negativity.  The therapist can present this theory to individuals, couples, and families at the beginning of therapy as the 4 C's and 3 D's to find out where the individual with another person with whom he or she is involved or where each partner or member individually is at in the relationship.  The therapist can explain the entire theory and then ask the individual or each partner or family member one at time, "Where are you?"  

Earlier in the relationship, the individual, partner, or family member may comment (note that the "comment" may be non-verbal) about a behavior that he or she finds uncomfortable or negative.  As an "innocent" comment, the other person is not accused of anything per se.  The commenting person holds the hope that the other person will figure out the implicit message. The commenting person expects that the receiving person will process thus,

"Since he or she mentioned that, it must be something that bothers him or her.  And, since I care for this person (my partner, my family member, friend, colleague, teammate, or other important person, I will automatically change my behavior."

Commenting may be one-sided- ordinarily communicated by one person in a dyad or group.  Or, it may be mutual with both persons- partners, in particular or several members dropping comment hints to each other.  If the other does not respond appropriately (that is, as desired and expected), the commenter begins to make negative assumptions about why the other person has not.  The specific assumptions being that "He or she didn't respond because he or she doesn't love, honor, or respect me as he or she promised… the dirty rotten pig!"  A person, partner, or member may have failed a test that he or she doesn't even know he or she is taking.  Knobloch & Solomon say, "…relational uncertainty as an explanation for people's increased use of 'secret tests' to gain information when they are managing changing levels of intimacy… relational uncertainty may motivate people to employ implicit communication patterns during middle relationship phases" (page 459).  Implicit or indirect communication by its nature is dependent on the recipient of the messages interpreting communication accurately.  Sometimes, the communication is intentionally (or habitually as bond by family training or cultural strictures) vague.  The communication test is more or less, "If you really love, respect, and care for me, you will intuitively, insightfully, or otherwise immediately know exactly what I mean and want, and respond as requested."  Unfortunately, since indirect communication is defined in shared experiences and contexts, any two partners often do not (especially, early in relationships) understand and interpret each other's comments accurately.  This is true of any two people in any new relationship be it romantic, academic, social, athletic, or vocational.  Family members born into the system often are in tune with the family's non-verbal communication that has evolved over time.  However, the two non-biological members- that is, the couple or parents may have two divergent non-verbal communication styles that ebb and flow in dominance to the anxiety of the children.  Yet, the children as well as a partner may be still be expected to interpret and respond appropriately despite inconsistencies.  In any case, a comment such as this makes an implicit demand for response.  A minor but significant line is crossed here upon leaving the first stage of commenting.  While the comment was overtly devoid of emotional content (displeasure, for example), going to stage 2 adds the element of negativity.

After commenting about the behavior, but getting no or inadequate response (desired behavior change- a nonverbal communication, or the "correct" response), the person may complain specifically about the undesirable behavior or absence of some positive behavior.  Whereas a comment is not directed at anything or anyone in particular, but rather an ostensively non-judgmental observation, criticism is specific to what has occurred or not occurred and also overtly negative.  The expectation of the complaining person is that the receiving partner will process thus, "Since this person (my partner or family member) has complained specifically about this behavior, and since I care for him or her, I will automatically change my behavior."  Complaining may be also one-sided or mutually reciprocated.  If the recipient does not respond appropriately, the complainer begins to make even more negative assumptions about why not.  Despite the indirect nature of the complaining communication, the complainer feels that he or she has been very clear about his or her desires!  In some cultures or families, an individual especially one with lesser status may not even be allowed to complain, but only to comment.  Anything beyond commenting may be extremely risky and subject to great punishment.  The "complaint" may be nonverbal, such an action or an omission of behavior- such as no sex!  If the recipient of the complaint does not respond appropriately (that is, as desired and expected), the complainer begins to make negative assumptions about why the partner has not.  The specific assumptions get more negative, "He or she didn't respond because he or she doesn't love, honor, or respect me as he or she promised… the betraying dirty rotten scumbag!"  Another important line is crossed leaving stage 2 complaining and moving into stage 3.  Comments and complaints are about situations or circumstances, but not specifically involving or about the other person, partner, or family member.  The next stage identifies the other person, partner, or family member and the choices he or she has made as clearly problematic.

After complaining about the behavior, but getting no change or desired response, the commenting-complaining individual might move from commenting or complaining about behavior and begin complaining specifically about the other person.  In other words, there becomes a direct object for the anger.  The individual begins criticizing the other person who is not behaving as desired.  No longer an observation and no longer a complaint about behavior, criticism specifically and emphatically targets the other person.  The logic of the criticizing person is "Since this person (in particular, if an intimate such as a partner) who I complained to has not changed his/her behavior, there must be something wrong about him or her."  Gottman says, "They take the problem and they put it on their partner: 'The problem is you, and your personality, your character; you're a screw-up.'  That's an attack, and that's the fundamental attribution error that everybody's making:  'I'm okay, you're the problem, you're not okay.'  So then their partner responds defensively and denies responsibility and says: 'You're the problem; I'm not the problem.'" Wyatt (2010).  Criticizing often or usually becomes reciprocal.  As one person criticizes another, the other person criticizes the first person.  Although criticism can technically be positive or negative, in lay communication is almost always negative.  In individual therapy, the client may criticize someone outside therapy: the boyfriend, wife, friend, fellow worker, or other persons in his or life.  In couple or family therapy, partners or family members often present negation of negative behaviors, feelings, or experiences.  The ease with which an individual, partners, or family members can list a litany of undesirable feelings and behaviors may be another initial assessment consideration, indicative of relationship and therapy difficulties.  Bader (2010) warns therapists to "Be wary of goals that are stated in the form of, I don't want.  Things like 'I don't want to feel bad,' 'I don't want to feel sad, angry, guilty'--these are the very basic beginnings of evolving towards a goal.  For one thing, people who organize their lives around negative goals have a very low ceiling on building a life of satisfaction.  Negative goals do not give you a picture of what they actually want to create.  Passive-aggressive partners tend to love these kinds of goals, and they feel a lot of anxiety when they put goals in the form of things that they genuinely want."  Criticism whether it is directed specifically at another or in "goals" for the other to change behavior can become corrosive.  As with commenting, if the other does not respond appropriately, either or both criticizers' negative assumptions about why not become more intense.  Interestingly, in some cultures, criticizing or attacking the other persons personality or character is not necessarily inappropriate.  In such cultures, the "personal" attack is not taken personally! This is often relevant in modern American adolescence culture, which may have carried over into some couples relationships.

A highly negative significant line can be drawn here to indicate a toxic shift in the relationship (couple, family, friendship, work, etc.) when moving into the next stage.  It will require the transition of treatment planning from primarily communications skills training to a more difficult level of therapy.  Much of the issues raised in stages #1, 2, and 3 can be handled with good communications skills training.  Learning how to use direct communication, how to "read" each other's indirect communication, express with ownership of feelings, etc. will facilitate a healthier relationship.  This could be relatively "simple" cross-cultural training in communications.  Unfortunately, just about no individual, couple, or family present for therapy at this point!  This may be also why purely communications training/therapy can be relatively ineffective for some people in their relationships.  When the relationship has devolved past this line (from stage 3 to stage 4), at issue is no longer just poor communication but also emotional injury.  Emotional injury requires a healing process, well beyond communications training.  The therapist may need to adjust the therapeutic approach for an individual, couple, or family with profound emotional injuries.

Tell, et al (2006) discussed the effects of long-term negative interactions upon the couple.  They describe what happens when there is an accumulation of greater negative emotional experiences compared to positive ones.  Couples begin to "experience negative sentiment override (NSO).  Irritation and resentment begin to build up, thus eroding the friendship that the relationship was based on.  NSO is the process by which everything involved in the partner's interactions gets interpreted as increasingly negative.  Neutral messages are taken personally, and responded to with negativity.  NSO causes the couple to be hyperviligant to slights or attacks by the partner.  Even comments or 'looks' that have no negative valence will be taken as a slight or attack, resulting in the receiving partner withdrawing from the other partner (Gottman, 1999; Gottman et al., 2002; Gottman & Silver, 1999).  Flooding is a response to feeling overwhelmed by the partner's negativity, whether in the form of criticism, contempt, or defensiveness, which leaves the other partner hypervigilant to any further negativity.  This ''flooding'' response creates a physiological arousal in the receiving partner, including increased heart rate, breathing, and sweating. While experiencing flooding, the person's ability to process information, attention, and creative problem solving is reduced" (page 228).

After criticizing the other person's behavior, and still being frustrated in getting the behavior desired, the criticizing partner begins doubting his/her partner's personality or character.  Intentional insult is added to the criticism, conveying a sense of disgust.  Contempt (resentment, disrespect, questioning integrity, and so on) for the other person is introduced into the relationship.  At this point, any positive qualities or previous good experiences tend to be forgotten, minimized, or dismissed.  The person holding contempt may begin to self-righteously mistreat or even emotionally abuse the other person.  The logic of the person holding contempt is that, "This contemptuous person has failed to behave properly because he or she is disgusting, stupid, and incompetent."  Contempt creates emotional hurt that lingers.  With the injuries from contempt, each individual in the relationship has wounds that require healing.  Sometimes communication has not been too severe and wounds not too deep or old when the individual, couple, or family comes to therapy. At times, a person, couple, or family without deeper wounds and abuses (hence, also without mangled vulnerabilities and dysfunctional responses) will present for therapy at the point when the wounding begins.  Provoked by the beginning of emotional wounding and quickly finding it intolerable, such a client or clients seeks assistance to prevent the hurting from becoming habitual and scarring.  The client(s) is heavily invested in cleaning up communication to heal current and avoid future injuries.  The therapist will find their high motivation and relatively minor injuries make them very receptive to and benefit readily from therapy.  However, many individuals, couples, or families do not seek or make immediate changes once the contempt develops.  An individual, couple, or family that stays in contempt will move even further into dysfunction and develop deeper and more painful relationship scars.  Hicks, et al, (2004) propose  "The more negativity present in a relationship, the lower the amount of positive interaction between the couple.  When there are higher levels of negativity there is less empathy and caring, less smiling and laughter. (page 98)… Gottman's research has demonstrated that the best and most consistent predictor of marital satisfaction is negative affect reciprocity.  In negative affect reciprocity, a spouse's response to a partner's negativity will likely be met with negative affect (Gottman, 1999).  But all negativity is not equal.  Several affect-laden communications in particular are especially corrosive to relational satisfaction and stability.  These particularly detrimental communication patterns are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, termed the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse (Gottman, 1999)" (page 99).

Contempt tends to be mutually reciprocal as contempt breeds retaliation with further contempt in an endless cycle .  It feeds upon itself consolidating and furthering the devolution of the relationship.  In some cultures or families, it is entirely permissible and expected for contempt to be expressed when commenting or complaining to someone or at someone.  American male adolescents, for example may dis' or cap on each other, including the classic "Yo Mama…" putdowns.  The mutual playful context of cap'n on one for social status needs to be distinguished from the deep animosity underlying relationship destroying or couple or family contempt.   It would be important for the therapist to check if contempt from a negative mainstream American cultural perspective is intended as seen in the following couples case.  Bekele came to the United States as a college student from Ethiopia.  He met his Ethiopian wife, Zenia in college.  They eventually married and both had careers in the high tech industries.  In his small office setting of 5 or 6 late twenty-something and early thirty-something males, he was introduced to male bonding, American-style.  That turned out to be relentless putdowns and jokes about penis size and impotence.  Bekele proved to be a easy convert to American male playfulness as he enjoyed the bantering camaraderie of great friends at work.  Unfortunately, he tried cap'n on Zenia, who did not find it funny… at all!  In another couple's case, Handel was used to playful putdowns from his family experience, but experienced an undertone of derision when her father and mother exchanged jabs.  His wife, Amy had learned how to use humor and goofy sarcasm to break tension and invite intimacy from her family-of-origin.  Each of these couples benefited from therapy that distinguished playfulness as acceptable and established boundaries against contempt.  By getting therapeutic intervention, both of these couples precluded significant risk to devolve into a contemptuous relationship.  Unfortunately, some individuals come from family models of enduring contempt among family members.  In some families and cultures, it may be acceptable to hold and stay in contempt for ones friend, associate, partner, or family member for decades in an otherwise stable cohabitating or collegial relationship.  As a result, an individual may readily slide into contemptuous relationship with a new partner, friend, or associate.  Contempt accentuates the complaint or issue to a very personal level.  A self-righteous tone is taken and a self-righteous tone in response is often elicited.  Contempt should be avoided as it is the precursor to more toxic devolution of a relationship, especially the couple relationship.  Contempt in a relationship to the therapist is an indicator of the greater degree of difficulty imminent in the therapy.

Another line can be drawn here when a relationship moves from this to the next stage to indicate a highly problematic devolution.  It also will require another transition in treatment planning.  At this point, communications skills training and a therapeutic process that facilitates healing of emotional injuries becomes tremendously complicated by the individuals' evolving disconnection.  A critical barrier to an intimate relationship develops when one or both individuals move from stage 4 to stage 5.  In this transition, one or both persons in contention begin denying responsibility for his or her behavior.  When a person takes responsibility or "respond ability," he or she holds and promises the ability to adjust behavior in order to respond to other people and circumstances.  When a person denies responsibility or asserts "respond inability," he or she claims helplessness in having the ability to adjust behavior.  The person asserts that he or she is powerless to behave in any other manner.  This can be asserted quietly and passively.  However, lack of responsibility is often asserted aggressively and hurtfully, while blaming the other person.  Aggressive and hurtful behavior is claimed to be caused by the recipient rather than by the actor!  Individuals become self-righteous and will focus on what other person should do or change, rather than take responsibility for his or her own behavior or attempt to change it.  The thrust of modern therapeutic methods (American & Western European) promotes self-actualization and self-empowerment.  Denial of responsibility fundamentally precludes self-empowerment.  The therapist can often stumped because of this. Thus, therapy has moved to a significantly more difficult level and needs to be adjusted once again.

After contempt enters the relationship, both partners are abusing each other.  Both feel victimized by the other, and respond by being defensive about his/her behavior.  The logic of each person's defensiveness is, "It, meaning any of my negative behaviors is all the other person's fault.  His or her behavior and flaws force me to behave so negatively in response.  I know what his or her evil motivations are without being told."  Presumptive retaliation for real and imagined attacks set off and/or intensifies a cycle of negativity and self-justification.  Engaging in negative behavior towards the other person however, challenges the first person's self-image of being a good and fair individual.  Becoming defensive serves to maintain a positive self while justifying ones abuse of the other.  Instead of answering complaints or criticisms against him or her, a defensive person responds with a set of retaliatory complaints or criticisms.  Defensiveness can be reflected in the moral stance of societies as they battle against their historical oppressors and enemies.  "We wouldn't do these horrible immoral things if they hadn't done horrible immoral things to us first."  It can be modeled in couples or family dynamics such as domestic violence, "If she wasn't such a bitch, she wouldn't have gotten hit."  Or, child abuse, "That's what you get for sassing me!"  Defensiveness creates a justification for aggressive, dirty, and even morally reprehensible and sociopathic type behavior.  A person asserts permission or entitlement to aggress, essentially claiming, "You did me wrong first.  I did wrong second!"  

Another major line is crossed when moving from stage 5 to stage 6 that shake the very foundation of what is supposed to be an intimate relationship.  Therapy must address this change in the relationship directly or the couple cannot be viable.  The fear of further injury from intimacy and proximity interactions begins to prevent the risk taking and vulnerability that is essential to improving communication and healing.  Avoiding responsibility by becoming defensive may initially soothe self-image issues, but often become untenuous since ones irresponsibility eventually can become more and more obvious.  The pain of an unfulfilling relationship, giving and taking contempt, and being denying responsibility for clearly reprehensible actions and words may eventually become intolerable.  Despite or because of years of denial, the underlying emotional distress can become overwhelming.  Shutting out difficult emotions may result in shutting off from emotional intimacy or empathy with the other important person.  Couple or family therapy often requires the willingness and ability of each partner or family member to continue to risk emotional connection with the other partner or family members.  The individual in solo therapy also must take whatever he or she gains or learns in session and risk emotional connection with another in the real world, or remain alone and perhaps, embittered.  The therapist may need to redirect therapy if the assumption of the other partner, family member, or other person voluntary capacity to become vulnerable proves to be incorrect.  In a dyad or larger system, each member must be able to risk emotional vulnerability however tenuously for the possibility of evolution, growth, or change.

Hicks, et al (2004) says with repeated negative and conflict experiences, one or both partners begin to withdraw from each other.  By withdrawing emotionally, they take a break from being vigilant for another negative act or communication.  No longer particularly friendly or companionable, they show an absence of affect.  Both or all members will show non-verbal tension in facial expressions, body language, tone, and somatic symptoms.  The couple or family gets used to the detached relationship- it is the norm and ostensively tolerable.  In a business, organization, club, church, or other community, the "business" of the group operates without emotional intimacy or rapport.  Tension becomes institutionalized in many ways.  Moreover, an individual such as the partner in the couple does not necessarily acknowledge the distress of the other person or persons and does little or nothing to soothe him/her.  "By the time the couple devolves into the final stage of the distance and isolation cascade, one partner may participate in an affair, or end the marriage (Gottman, 1999; Gottman et al., 2002; Gottman & Silver, 1999).  Some live in this disconnected state endlessly.  Adult survivors of abuse have an extended history of experiencing negativity in a relationship; therefore, they are more likely to enter into the distance and isolation cascade in order to avoid further negativity" (page 228).  

After engaging in the fruitless negative and painful cycles of arguing, eventually one or both persons may essentially give up.  Unable to continue caring for someone who appears to not reciprocate the care, avoiding further rejection and abandonment, and attempting to stop the mutually abusive battles, there seems to be no choice but to disconnect emotionally.  After years of being hurt, some individuals cannot risk being hurt again from being emotionally invested and vulnerable again.  One may declare, "I don't care."  People may co-exist in a disconnected relationship for years...or for life.  The couple's relationship may become a business relationship to raise children or maintain a household financially with little or no emotional expectations or intimacy.  The family exists to survive until children are old enough to leave.  The contractual relationship may be adjusted or developed implicitly or overtly to conform to the new couple or family's reality.  Often, one partner or family member moves to this stage before the other.  He or she may remain physically in the couple or family from a sense of duty to the institution of marriage, an intact family, from fear of leaving or being alone, or some other personal, societal, or cultural motivation.  A child- in particular, a teenager will stay because he or she is stuck without resources or capacity to leave the family… yet.  The other partner or family members- perhaps, especially parents may not even be aware initially of the emotional disconnection.  Disconnection becomes a way to "existentially murder" the partner or other family members as it kills intimacy.  For the couple, the disconnection often replicates a prior abandonment for one or both partners.  In order for therapy to proceed, however it requires commitment from each partner of the couple or family member to risk emotional connection once more despite the history of pain.  For individuals in chronically and acutely abusive or disenfranchised positions, emotional disconnection has often been the most logical choice for survival.  This may be the experience of some adolescents and women in their families.  In many cultures, this is the method that women, lower class or caste members, or other disenfranchised peoples are forced to take in order to survive societal oppression.  Individuals marginalized or discounted in dysfunctional families-of-origin may instinctively revert to disconnection despite having other options in their current situations.  

Moving from stage 6 to stage 7 is the final legal line to cross indicating the end of the marriage or with non-married couples, the end of the relationship.  This transition may never be taken as some couples choose to stay together despite unfulfilling relations.  Others endure years living in intimacy purgatory before finally taking the last step.

DIVORCE- Stage 7
This is the physical and legal divorce between individuals in a marriage.  It may occur or not depending on other factors (economics, age/youth, and so on).  It happens between couples, peers, friends, employee and business, and individuals (including children) and families.  For teenagers, it may be leaving the family including running away.  Or, parents that kick out their adolescent children more or less "divorce" them.  In other communities, crossing into dissolution of the relationship with the work, academic, social, or other community is a final step.  Friends that end friendships or bosses that fire employees also essentially "divorce."  Divorce from another may be functionally similar for an individual to the process of immigration, moving 3000 miles away from your family, crossing the tracks, transferring to a new school, or seeking a new social group.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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