9 Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship

You and Me

Although my degree is in English Literature, I spent a year majoring in Interpersonal Communications. It was then that I was introduced to the work of one of the top researchers in marriage and relationship health, Dr. John M. Gottman. Through out my post college years, I have kept up with his research. He is most famous for developing a formula that accurately predicts divorce after observing a couple interact with one another for only five minutes!

Here are nine predictors of divorce that Dr. John Gottman summarizes in his book, The Science of Trust:

1. Greater ratio of negativity to positivity. In functional relationships, the ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict is 5:1. In contrast, the ratio in dysfunctional relationships is 0.8:1 or less! However, Gottman is quick to explain that we shouldn’t jump to remove all negativity from our relationship. Negative emotions serve a purpose; they are a barometer to tell us when something is wrong, and they help us determine what does work through eliminating those interactions that don’t. In successful happy relationships, couples are much more empathetic, affectionate, understanding, and will use humor to diffuse conflicts, rather than sling insults, use sarcasm, or emotionally withdraw.

2. Escalation of negative effect: The “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Gottman defines the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”  as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Usually the interaction begins with one negative horseman, and the other person responds with the next one. This cycle continues until one or both partners are stonewalling, or shutting down emotionally. At this point the conflict is even further from resolution than when it began.

3. Turning away. This is what happens when one partner realizes the conversation is in a downward spiral and then makes an attempt at repair or a bid for connection. Instead of forgiving and accepting this bid, the other partner “turns away.”

4. Turning against: Irritability, emotional disengagement, and withdrawal. Unlike the escalating pattern, this pattern of behavior simply eliminates the positivity. In these interactions, there was no affection, shared humor, empathy, or active interest during the conflict.

5. Failure of repair attempts. Gottman explains that even in healthy relationships, feelings will get hurt, and some fights can be painful and difficult. Since we are human and prone to err, one of the most important things we can do in a relationship is make repairs.

6. Negative sentiment override. This one is all about perception. It’s that idea that if you think a person is selfish, suddenly, everything they say and do seems to further that notion in your head. In dysfunctional relationships, couples would describe each other and their relationship in negative terms. They’d see their own personal shortcomings as momentary circumstances, but they’d see their partners negativity in the moment as a larger character flaw.

7. Maintaining vigilance and physiological arousal. Men, in general, have a harder time calming down after being upset than do women. When conflict escalates or at least doesn’t diffuse, our heart rates climb. At that point, adrenaline starts surging through our bodies, and we’re physiologically incapable of creativity or processing information. This feeling of being completely overwhelmed is often called “flooding.”

8. Chronic diffuse physiological arousal. This is when #7 is taken to the next level. In this case, the person will repeat themselves and their case as if suddenly one’s partner will understand them, and be loving again. While there are some practical life purposes for this physiological response, in relationships it reduces the ability to listen and empathize.

9. Failure of men to accept influence from their women. In this situation, men either become disengaged or escalate negativity in response to a woman’s complaint. Men in successful relationships say things like, “good point” in response to the complaints.

So ask yourself, how negative are we in our interactions with one another while in conflict? Are we showing positive interactions five times more? Think back on your past disagreements. Did either of you exhibit one or all of the “horsemen”? Are you ignoring your partner’s affection or humor during conflict? Are you holding onto a grudge? Are we truly giving the other person the benefit of doubt? Do you check your emotional temperature, and take breaks to cool down, and self-soothe while in arguments? Do you find yourself getting physically worked up during arguments so that you can’t think clearly? Are you showing humility and really listening to the other?

These points can help you define the status of your relationship. They also happen to be indicators of divorce, so pay attention to those habits that you’re forming now during dating and engagement.


  1. Failure of men to accept influence from their women? Seriously? It wouldn’t possibly be a problem for women not to accept influence from their men, right? Also, number 7 speaks to another shortcoming of men in terms of vigilance and physiological arousal. Gottman seems very one sided and seems critical of male traits as if they are a negative and just assumes that women are inherently virtuous. That’s not Catholic teaching.

    • Hey Bill, if it helps you, I’m guilty of number 7…hahaha……and yes, the “influence” could go both ways, not just men rejecting influence from women but vice versa as well.

  2. Morning Patricia… I think we are all guilty of a bunch of them. ;)

  3. Theme: “fighting all the time is bad for relationships”. Glad I didn’t buy the book. How does this balance with the maxim of bring up potential issues early in a relationship to avoid long-term friction? Some major fault lines need to be addressed early…which are necessarily negative.

    There is also the satisfaction of overcoming adversity. It is terrible to fight all the time, but overcoming a conflict now and then and getting into a new realm of understanding makes the relationship a significant one.

    Men don’t communicate as well as women. Conversely, ‘what is understood doesn’t need to be discussed’. -Van Halen. Men make assumptions in respect to a goal, keep them private, then act on them.

  4. I agree with most of these, and I’m trying to get better at them, but… Is it just me or does everyone just gang up on men these days? Doesn’t that emasculate men and/or just make them do the things we don’t want them to do more? What about the problems WOMEN bring to a relationship – such as a lack of direct communication?

    Also, these are not signs of a dysfunctional relationship… These are solutions to dysfunction in a relationship. I think I’m in a dysfunctional relationship and after reading this article, I still have no clue…

  5. @Sarah, don’t feel bad. It could be worse… Even when I’m alone I’m in a dysfunctional relationship. ;)

  6. Ann-69118 June 17, 2014

    Two of my last 3 relationships were with selfish people. I would never do it again. They could be wonderful at times but in the end it was all about them. They had to control everything and if you didn’t react the way they expected they would create drama. No thank never again. I’ve always believed you take people as they are sure certain things can change but if someone is inherintly selfish and can’t see past themselves then it’s a lost cause and you might as well let them go. Communication and values are also important if they don’t respect how you feel or listen it’s a lost cause.

  7. Relationships are complicated and require lots of hard work to maintain. It is like a garden, beautiful when you put in the work and maintenance but horrible if you neglect it. All relationships are functional to some degree and serve some sort of social purpose. Question isn’t labeling the relationship but assessing what the value of it in the first place, then coming to a commonality or foundation to work from. Sometimes that means going your separate ways but hey, better pull out the weeds early than let them take over ;)

  8. A very poignant piece of advice. Hopefully it will prevent unnecessary splits in otherwise promising couples!

  9. Sounds to me like Joy Kubik was writing more about her personal experiences. I have learned to screen Profiles and look for tell tale signs that someone is still reeling from a bad experience. Some will write in a Bio, “And the person I am looking for should not be this, this, or this”, which is a clear indication of a specific major dysfunction in a past relationship. Joy wrote this piece slanted in a sexist negativity, herself, instead of a neutral gender point. Just one Reporter’s opinion.

  10. This simply does not aplly to current events. It is dated as most psychology material often is to a changing humanity. Its a whole landscape although some elements are helpful its a mostly bland piece of writing. I am dissapointed that robyn Lee referenced it as a “Catholic” piece of writing. i am often very moved and fond of her (Robyn’s) writing. Oh well, we are all human.

  11. Thank you Joy for another well written and succinct post. We may not agree with all of Dr. Gottman’s observations, but I believe his research identified certain relationship characteristics that have bad consequences. It’s good to be aware on these problem areas so we can nip them in the bud when we find them sabotaging our interpersonal relationship with our own self, and when we find them derailing our relationships with others. Joy, consider following this post with “9 Signs of a Functional Relationship”, for relationships improve significantly when those in them know specific things they can do to keep the conversation civil and functional. I especially appreciated the suggestion to say “good point” when a woman complains but believe it would be equally effective in “defanging” an irate male when he complains. Thank you.

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