A "degenerative communication spiral" is an interpersonal communication concept coined by John Stewart in his book Bridges Not Walls. The concept is rooted in how misunderstanding, miscommunication, and poorly managed conflict can progressively damage a relationship. In the movie Fireproof, a married couple is struggling with a degenerative communication spiral, and the plot revolves around Caleb's efforts to reconnect with his wife, Catherine, through a spiritual challenge called the "Love Dare." Through the Love Dare, Caleb is able to change the patterns within himself that have kept him from connecting fully with Catherine, and through his committed learning and practice of unconditional love, Catherine comes to connect with him in return.
The major facets of the degenerative communication spiral found in Caleb's and Catherine's relationship are that they both feel undervalued in the relationship, they have different priorities that they cannot seem to reconcile, they argue about details instead of discussing the roots of their problem, and they approach conflicts with anger or avoidance instead of openness and self-disclosure. A degenerative communication spiral has a tendency to "spiral" because these aspects reinforce and enable each other. They are also often a result of deeper conflicts that the individuals aren't able to process or discuss. In Fireproof, Caleb and Catherine both have stressful jobs (he as a fire captain and she working in a hospital). They have different schedules that cause them to not have a lot of quality time together, or even time to discuss daily expectations and needs. In addition, Catherine has the financial and personal stress of taking care of her elderly mother, and she feels angry that Caleb wants to buy a boat with their savings instead of pay off her mother's medical bills. Another wedge between the couple is Caleb's addiction to internet porn, and Catherine's subsequent feeling of inadequacy and misunderstanding. These conflicts all form the context in which a degenerative communication spiral is apt to arise. Through the Love Dare, Caleb is able to recognize some of the patterns and deeper conflicts that have caused the spiral, and, witnessing his changed behavior and selfless acts of love, Catherine is able to also recognize the spiral and change as well.