John Gottman and Nan Silver share their research-backed principles for successful marriages in the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999). In the book, Gottman and Silver describe the signs they look for that can predict divorce. Their research found the following signs, signs they say predict that couples will ultimately divorce:
1. a harsh startup
2. the Four Horsemen
4. body language
5. failed repair attempts
6. bad memories
So what does this mean? It sounds complicated, doesn’t it? I’ll simplify what they’re saying in a way that makes more sense (the authors do a great job describing what these terms mean, but I’ll save you the 200 pages or so of reading).
A harsh startup, according to the authors, refers to how arguments begin; specifically, if within the first three minutes of the argument there is intense negativity like criticism or sarcasm, the marriage will be doomed.
The Four Horsemen refers to Gottman’s concept of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These refer to four types of negative interactions which can occur within couples’ arguments and discussions. The Four Horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism, explain the authors, is not to be confused with complaints. Criticism is an attack on the spouse; complaints address a spouse’s failure to do a certain action. Contempt conveys disgust to one’s spouse. The authors suggest it is the worst of the Four Horsemen. Examples of contempt are sarcasm, cynicism, sneering, hostile humor, and mockery. Defensiveness, the third Horseman, is a way of blaming your spouse. Blame escalates the conflict instead of diffusing it. The fourth Horseman is stonewalling, which is the eventual tuning out of a spouse—most notably the male exhibits this behavior in the relationship (Gottman & Silver, 1999).
According to Gottman and Silver (1999), flooding is also a major predictor of divorce. Stonewalling is usually a protective behavior spouses exhibit when they are being flooded. Flooding occurs when a spouse’s negativity overwhelms the other spouse, so the spouse “shuts down.” Because they feel so defenseless, the spouse learns to avoid at any cost future replays of the contempt and criticism coming from the other spouse.
Body language is another sign that can predict divorce. Gottman and Silver (1999) use the term body language to indicate the physiological symptoms of distress in spouses who are undergoing flooding. Men in general experience more intense physiological symptoms than women and are much more prone to be overwhelmed by marital conflict. This is an important fact to keep in mind.
Another predictor of divorce, state Gottman and Silver (1999), are what they term failed repair attempts. Repair attempts reference those times when couples try to deescalate tension during an argument, preventing flooding. The authors assert if there are no attempts or the other person does not respond positively to the attempts, the marriage is in trouble.
The last sign predicting a divorce, according to Gottman and Silver (1999) is bad memories. If the couple’s accounts of the past are cast in negative light, this is a symptom of how intense the negativity between them has become.
All of these signs of impending divorce are only signs–they do not mean your marriage is doomed if you recognize one, two, three or even all of them. Many of these signs have to do with negativity (#1,2,5, &6). That’s easy to fix–you own that you are 100% responsible for your thoughts, words, and actions; and you begin to become conscious of the negativity you bring into your relationship. You can change the quality of your relationship starting today–in this moment–by bringing more positivity into your interactions with your partner.
The physiological parts–of flooding and body language (I don’t think body language is a good descriptive term)–those are caused by a conditioned response to stress/fear over time. These signs are harder to address because they’ve become deeply ingrained processes in your brain (I call them neuronal ruts). Like any habit–unconscious or conscious–it will take time to “undo” the biochemical processes/reactions going on in your brain. The first step is to recognize it and acknowledge it. If you’re feeling activated, instead of labeling it as feeling adrenalized or “worked up,” think of it as excitement. I’ll give you an example of this: When I get ready for a 5k, I feel nervous. I want to do my best and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’ve learned to switch the adrenalized feeling of nervousness and performance anxiety to thinking of it as excited to do my best–regardless of my results. Switch the negative judgment about the flooded feelings, and if you need to label it, label it as excitement–excitement that you have another chance to work on communicating in a healthy, loving, and more effective manner with your partner.
Before I close, I wanted to mention one more thing on relationships: In a recent article on Business Insider’s website (Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to Two Basic Traits), author Emily Esfahani writes about two traits that are necessary for long-lasting relationships. Her article is based in part on John Gottman’s research. The traits? Kindness and generosity. An absence of these traits then, creates issues leading to dissatisfaction and probable divorce. This is a great article by the way–I recommend reading it (thank you to my friend Alisa Anderson who first brought it to my attention).
Esfahani, E. (2014). Science says lasting relationships come down to two basic traits. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/lasting-relationships-rely-on-2-traits-2014-11
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
I’m excited to include this image (left)of a tweet sent out by the Gottman Institute about this article! It’s always nice to be validated for my work–and their work is changing the way we see modern relationships. I consider them to be one of the vanguards of relationship theory and therapy today. For me, this tweet is like getting a shout-out from one of your idols. Soon I’ll be doing my own shout-outs not as somebody’s idol, but as someone who has helped thousands, if not millions of couples not just to have good relationships, but extraordinary ones.
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