A forthcoming paper on forest fires in the prestigious Proceeding of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S. (http://www.pnas.org/content/112/8/2378.short) has got me thinking about the subject of marriage and relationships. Fires usually travel at a fairly regular pace, but can then suddenly erupt into a more ferocious blaze. But how can firefighters tell when such an eruption is imminent?

Usually they can’t. But now Jerome Fox and the ubiquitous George Whitesides have shown that “critical slowing down” can act as a warning sign.

What is “critical slowing down”? It is a reduced ability to recover from small disturbances. In the case of forest fires, a slowed response of spreading flames to sudden changes in the environment (e.g. wind, terrain, temperature) can signal an upcoming eruption.

What has this got to do with marriage and relationships? Well, I believe that it is at least possible that similar principles apply. When small arguments result in prolonged silences, perhaps these are a signal of the big explosion that is just around the corner. Psychology doesn’t have a lot to learn from physics, but maybe there is a case here.

IMAGE: This is how close a bushfire got to our house in Australia. That’s one time when we could have done with a warning sign!

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