Have you ever heard of the Roach Motel?
It doesn’t take Dr. John Gottman’s 45+ years of research on romantic relationships to know that the more partners are nice and not nasty toward each other, the more likely the relationship is going to be healthy and last.
The problem is some couples become stuck in the quicksand of being nasty toward each other despite their love for one another.
While all couples, both healthy and unhealthy, are nasty toward one another at times, unhealthy partners get stuck in the dysfunctional pattern of being nasty toward each other.
As Drs. John and Julie Gottman describe, “almost every problem-conversation [couples stuck in negativity] try to have will devolve into blaming, accusing, and defending oneself, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling).”
Andy: “What would you like for dinner?”
Kel: “I’m not sure but I am getting hungry and cranky.”
Andy: “Well that’s not my responsibility. [Defensive] Why didn’t you, like an adult, have a snack before?” [Contemptuous] 2
Kel: “Cause I just now realized it. Why do you have to be such a jerk?” [Defensive counter-attack]
Andy: “I’m not being a jerk. You’re being hangry.” [Defensive counter-attack]
Kel: “Whatever. “[Dismissing response]
Andy: “Well what do you want?”
Kel doesn’t respond. [Stonewalling]
As you can see, a simple conversation about what to eat devolves into personal attacks and blocks the couple’s ability to actually figure out what to eat. The more interactions they have like this, without repairing, the more likely they will get stuck in what is called the negative absorbing Markov state 3
The negative absorbing Markov state illuminates that at a certain point it becomes easier to feel negative (disconnected) and have negative interactions.
As we find ourselves feeling more and more disconnected, it makes it harder to leave those negative interactions to get to a place of more positive interactions and connection.
This dysfunctional pattern is what Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver, in What Makes Love Last?, call the “Roach Motel” of negativity.
Imagine the Roach Motel as a place where disconnection and resentment thrive. The carpet is stained with hurtful words, the bathroom stinks of no appreciation and little respect, the bed springs are sticking out of the mattress making it impossible to feel emotionally comfortable, the temperature is too hot (hostile conflict) or too cold (emotional distance), and the TV only has static with no solid connection.
It’s a truly miserable experience, for both partners, paired with the yucky feeling that they are stuck in the Roach Motel.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman, describe the entire goal of couples therapy: “we want it to be hard to enter negativity, and easy to exit from negativity.”
So, what causes a couple to go from their comfortable abode that they call home to the Roach Motel?
According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the Roach Motel occurs in two ways.
- The first is the couple is so emotionally disconnected that they barely feel like close friends anymore. In a way, their friendship (love maps, cherishing one another, and turning toward) has eroded so much that no matter what they talk about, they find themselves checking into the Roach Motel.
- The second is couples only check-in when there is a conflict. Meanwhile their friendship is okay, but conflict will inevitably become steeped negativity that is less than the “magic ratio” of 5 positive interactions to 1 negative interaction.
For both of these ways, there is a cascade of disconnection that leads to a couple checking in to the Roach Motel and NOT checking out. According to Dr. John Gottman, here are the five steps:
5 Steps to the Roach Motel of Relationships
Step 1 toward the Roach Motel: Sliding Door Moment
A sliding door moment is when one partner extends an emotional call/bid for connection and the other partner can either slide the door of connection open and walk through or leave it shut and walk away as they disconnect.
Dr. Gottman’s research indicates that emotionally connected partners walk through the sliding door moments 86% of the time, while struggling partners walk through the sliding door 33% of the time.4
In the preceding conversation about what to eat, here’s an anatomy of that argument according to Drs. John and Julie Gottman:
Step 1: A bid for connection was made and it didn’t create a connection.
Step 2: The challenges in understanding each other’s needs lead to an escalation of negativity including the Four Horsemen.
Step 3: They did not repair.
Our brains and bodies are wired to see missed bids for connection and misunderstandings as potential threats to the emotional bond in the relationship.
Causing the body and brain to go into protection mode, rather than connection mode.
When these misunderstandings go unrepaired, disconnection grows, and we find ourselves moving to Step 2.
Step 2 toward the Roach Motel: Regrettable Incident Occurs & Is Not Repaired
“Repair is always the sine qua non (essential piece) of a great relationship” – Drs. John and Julie Gottman
A regrettable incident occurs when the sliding door remains shut. This is a conflict of some kind that goes unrepaired or unacknowledged.
Some of you may be saying, see, conflict is the problem. Research indicates that it’s not conflict that is the issue, it is the lack of repair and misattunement.
Attunement—the ability for partners to emotionally understand one another—is key to a strong relationship.
Failure to attune in a relationship is not uncommon.
In fact, research on parent and infant interactions by Ed Tronick and his research team discovered that moms and babies are not attuned 70% of the time.5 In a study of 3-month-old babies, the mothers who repaired had securely attached babies at 1 year, whereas mothers who did not repair had insecure babies at 1 year.6
Tronick’s research indicates that successful repairs are normal in everyday life and aid in strengthening the bond:
We came to recognize that repair is the crux of human interactions. Repair leads to a feeling of pleasure, trust, and security, the implicit knowledge that I can overcome problems. Furthermore, repair teaches a critical life lesson: The negative feeling that arises from a mismatch can be changed into a positive feeling when two people subsequently achieve a match. One does not have to get stuck in a negative feeling state. And the belief that one can or cannot change an emotional state develops in an infant’s earliest interactions. – Ed Tronick & Claudia Gold
For couples, this is also true. The ability to repair a negative conflict can lead to greater intimacy and connection.
A big reason couples attend couples therapy is to repair previous attachment injuries, according to Dr. Sue Johnson. In couples therapy, when repairs do happen, effectively, it leads to therapy being effective for making changes in the relationship.7
Dr. John Gottman estimates that romantic partners are misattuned at least 75% of the time, which leads to missed bids, misunderstanding, and disconnection. Hence why repairs are so important.
Expecting communication to be easy is like expecting to hit a hole in one every time we play golf. Effective repair also potentially creates new meanings, new understandings of one another, so we grow together over time. We learn how to love one another better the longer we are together, BUT ONLY if we repair effectively. – Drs. John and Julie Gottman
When repairs fail to happen or are ineffective, the relationship becomes more negative (moving to Step 3).
Step 3 toward the Roach Motel: The Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik effect8 occurs when our brain has a highlight reel of more events that we have NOT resolved (conflicts swept under the rug) versus events that we have resolved (conflicts with a successful repair).
This impacts the way we view our relationship.
As the unresolved list grows bigger, our brain switches from a positive perspective to a negative one in Step 4.
Step 4 toward the Roach Motel: Negative Sentiment Override & Neuroception
Negative sentiment override (NSO) occurs when trust is broken repeatedly in a relationship; NSO means that even neutral or positive interactions with your partner can be interrupted as negative according to Dr. John Gottman.
I call this the light switch of love. When enough negative events occur unrepaired, it turns the relationship into a dark and scary place full of negativity.
NSO can lead to making negative comparisons of our partner with other potential partners (often idealized partners). Dr. John Gottman highlights that this opens the door for betrayal.
Step 5 toward the Roach Motel: The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen wreak havoc, meaning that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling become the habitual way of communicating and expressing needs. This creates more disconnection and hides each partner’s longings, needs, and vulnerabilities from being connected with.
All of these steps lead to more and more broken trust, more and more conflict, and the inevitable decline of the relationship, leading to a permanent residency at the Roach Motel.
Now that I’ve painted a gloomy picture of relationships and why it happens, let’s talk about how to avoid checking into the Roach Motel.
How to Avoid the Roach Motel: Lean Into Repair
While these steps may feel overwhelming and daunting, this doesn’t mean that you are bound to pack your bags and reserve your room.
There are definitely ways that you can avoid these steps and nurture your relationship into a secure and connected home with your partner.
Solution 1: Pay close attention to emotional bids and how you respond to them.
When I make a bid for connection, however insignificant it may seem, I long for my partner to connect with me. In those moments, she has a choice to connect with me by turning toward or disconnect by turning away/against me.
Learning how to turn toward, even in these small moments, is the foundation of trust. Learn more by reading the following articles:
- Relationship Connection: 3 Choices That Make or Break It
- A Happy Relationship Is Impossible Without Trust and Commitment
- Small Things Often Create a Secure Relationship: An Interview with Amir Levine
The goal is to be response-able to your partner’s bids for connection as well as to be clear in your bids for connection so they can respond by turning toward you.
Solution 2: Leave no conflict unresolved or unacknowledged and REPAIR often!
To many people’s surprise, the research revealed that messiness holds the key to strong relationships! –Ed Tronick & Claudia Gold
All relationships have difficult conflicts. It’s what we do in the aftermath of that conflict that matters. Here are some articles to help repair conflict:
- How We Used the Aftermath of a Fight to Repair Our Relationship
- Repairs During Conflict Are a Superpower of Connected Couples
Solution 3: Vulnerable communication is key!
Gottman’s research indicates that 96% of the time, the way a conversation starts is how it ends.9 If we have a secure bond that is built over quality repairs, then it’s easier to be vulnerable and direct with our partners at the start. This makes conflict easier to deal with and makes repairs happen faster.
Here are some helpful articles on how to be vulnerable and proactively have conflict conversations that bring you closer together:
- The 6 Types of Relationship Conversations Intentional Couples Have (see Conversation 5)
- 5 Rules for Having Constructive Relationship Conflict Conversation
- The articles below offer a blueprint on how to have an effective conflict based on 45+ years of research on thousands of couples by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
- This Pre-Conflict Warm-Up Helps Couples Fight Better
- Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps
- There Are Two Views to Every Conflict and Both Are Valid
- Transform Criticism Into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict
- Understanding Must Proceed Advice in Relationship Conflict
- How to Listen Without Getting Defensive in Relationship Conflict
- Stop Trying to Fix Your Partner’s Feelings, Connect With Them Instead
- Understanding Each Other: Part One of the State of the Union Meeting
- Reaching a Compromise: Part Two of the State of the Union Meeting
No couple wants to check into the Roach Motel. Understanding how it can happen and learning how to team up against problems that arise, including repairing, in the relationship is key to creating a healthy and happy relationship.
- Gottman, J. M., Levenson, R. W., Gross, J., Frederickson, B. L., McCoy, K., Rosenthal, L., Ruef, A., & Yoshimoto, D. (2003). Correlates of Gay and Lesbian Couples’ Relationship Satisfaction and Relationship Dissolution. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(1), 23–43. https://doi.org/10.1300/J082v45n01_02
Gottman, J. M., Levenson, R. W., Swanson, C., Swanson, K., Tyson, R., & Yoshimoto, D. (2003). Observing Gay, Lesbian, and Heterosexual Couples’ Relationships—Mathematical Modeling of Conflict Interactions. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(1), 65–91. https://doi.org/10.1300/J082v45n01_04
Carrere, S., Buehlman, K. T., Gottman, J. M., Coan, J. A., & Ruckstuhl, L. (2000). Predicting Marital Stability and Divorce in Newlywed Couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 42–58.
Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting Divorce Among Newlyweds From the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293–301.
Cook, J., Tyson, R., White, J., Rushe, R., Gottman, J., & Murray, J. (1995). Mathematics of Marital Conflict: Qualitative Dynamic Mathematical Modeling of Marital Interaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 9(2), 110–130.
Cordova, J. Y., Jacobson, N. S., Gottman, J. M., Rushe, R., & Cox, G. (1993). Negative Reciprocity and Communication in Couples With a Violent Husband. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(4), 559–564.
Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting Marital Happiness and Stability From Newlywed Interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60(1), 5–22.
Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). The Relationship Between Marital Interaction and Marital Satisfaction: A Longitudinal View. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 47–52.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1999a). Dysfunctional Marital Conflict. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 31(3–4), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1300/J087v31n03_01
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1999b). How Stable Is Marital Interaction Over Time? Family Process, 38(2), 159–165. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1999.00159.x
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The Timing of Divorce: Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce Over a 14-Year Period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737–745.
Hawkins, M., Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (2002). Marital Sentiment Override: Does It Influence Couples’ Perceptions? Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(1), 193–201.
Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1985). Physiological and affective predictors of change in relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(1), 85–94.
Pasupathi, M., Carstensen, L. L., Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Responsive Listening in Long-Married Couples: A Psycholinguistic Perspective. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 23(2), 173–193. ↩
- The reason I coded this contemptuous is out of the 1,000 of ways to say this, the underlying message is “are you not smart enough to notice when your body is hungry and to get a snack?” ↩
- According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman the word Markov stems from a famous Russian mathematician, Andrey Markov. ↩
- Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily Marital Interactions and Positive Affect During Marital Conflict Among Newlywed Couples. Family Process, 43(3), 301–314. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2004.00024.x ↩
- Gianino, A., & Tronick, E. Z. (1988). The Mutual Regulation Model: The Infant’s Self and Interactive Regulation and Coping and Defensive Capacities. In T. M. Field, P. M. McCabe, & N. Schneiderman (Eds.), Stress and Coping Across Development (pp. 47–68). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. ↩
- Lewis, M., & Feiring, C. (1989). Infant, Mother, and Mother-Infant Interaction Behavior and Subsequent Attachment. Child Development, 60(4), 831–837. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131024 ↩
- Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown and Company. ↩
- Zeigarnik, B. V. (1927). Uber das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen. Berlin: J. Springer. ↩
- Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting Divorce Among Newlyweds From the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293–301. ↩