How I predict divorce (2) Gottman[1]

How I predict divorce (2) Gottman[1]

Gottman has analysed couples and their interaction style (in particular the way they argue) to determine 7 signs or indicators regarding the status of a relationship and the likelihood of divorce:

  1. Harsh start-up to arguments
    1. Unduly negative
    2. Accusatory
    3. Sarcastic
    4. Contemptuous

[Gottman notes:

1) that arguments that start harshly inevitably end negatively.

2) 96% of the time you predict the outcome of a 15-minute interaction on the basis of the first 3 minutes]

  1. The “four horsemen of the apocalypse”[2]
    1. Criticism
      1. This is more than complaint (this focuses upon a specific behaviour)
      2. It is global and includes negative words about your partner’s character or personality (blame and personality assassination/moral deficiency – these only make situations worse)
  • Criticism goes global with the inclusion of one simple phrase: “What is wrong with you?”
  1. Criticism is common in many relationships
  2. The problem with criticism is that when it becomes pervasive, it allows for the introduction of the three other “horsemen”
  1. Contempt
    1. Includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, laughing, sneering, mockery, hostile humour, taking the “high moral ground” and being belligerent (a form of aggressive anger because it contains a threat or provocation).
    2. Contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust.
  • Contempt inevitably leads to more conflict rather than reconciliation because it means demeaning the other person.
  1. It is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner.
  1. Defensiveness
    1. On the surface, it would seem a very reasonable and human idea to defend and explain yourself when criticized and treated contemptuously by a partner
    2. However, Gottman’s research shows defensiveness seems to only work to further escalate arguments as the “attacking partner” does not back down or apologise. This is because defensiveness is usually used as a way of blaming your partner: It isn’t me – it’s you.
  2. stonewalling[3]
    1. This often occurs because one partner tunes out or disengages, as a way of avoiding an argument/fight (as well as the marriage/relationship more broadly).
    2. Such behaviour can often appear, superficially at least, as if the person “does not care” or “does not hear the criticisms”.
  • Stonewalling typically arrives late in the marriage.
  1. Gottman also believes it is typically done by the husband. The male cardiovascular system remains more reactive to threat (compared with females), and recovers slower in response to stress.
    1. He believes men, generally, have a greater tendency to have negative thoughts which maintain their distress
    2. He believes men, also, are more prone to feel righteous and indignant, which tends to lead to contempt and belligerence.
  2. Flooding
    1. Flooding is a psychology term to describe feeling suddenly overwhelmed to the point of being unable to react. This is because of the level of negativity being expressed to you.
    2. The flooding response leaves you feeling defenceless, and prepared to almost do anything to avoid a replay
    3. It leaves the recipient hypervigilant and looking for clues that the partner is about to “blow” again
    4. As a protection, a person may disengage emotionally from the relationship.
  3. Body Language
    1. Flooding is also physically distressing
      1. Heart beat rate increases significantly
      2. Blood pressure increase
  • Secretion of adrenaline to trigger the fight (act critical, contemptuous or defensive) /flight (stonewall) /freeze response
  1. Cortisol (stress hormone) secretion
  2. Increased sweating
    1. Together, the physiological changes reinforce the sense of threat/danger, and almost inevitably leads to distancing behaviour from your spouse, as well as feelings of loneliness.
    2. Creative problem-solving is compromised – most attempts at discussion will act to just worsen the situation.

[one or all of these features can predict a divorce, and all usually exist in an unhappy marriage.]

[however, just because your marriage currently follows this pattern, it is not a fait accompli that divorce will follow]

[Gottman believes all marriages can have the “four horsemen” visit; he believes the problem is when the horsemen take-up permanent residence in the marriage]

  1. Failed repair attempts
    1. Hey are attempts/efforts a couple makes to de-escalate a situation and put on the brakes in a dispute so as prevent psychological and physiological flooding and the concomitant stress. Examples include:
      1. “Let’s take a break.”
      2. “Wait, I need to calm down.”
    2. Gottman notes that in unhappy marriages, a feedback loop develops between the four horsemen and the failure of repair attempts.
    3. The more contemptuous and defensive the couple is with each other, the more flooding occurs, and the harder it is to hear, understand and repair.
      1. Gottman notes that the failure of repair attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy relationship/marriage.
      2. But when repair attempts are successful, marriages can be happy even with the four horsemen present from time to time.
  • Couples need to work out their own ways of defusing difficult situations.
    1. Sticking tongue out (when partner is particularly bossy).
    2. Smiling goofily.
    3. Sounding irritated: “Hey! Stop yelling at me.”
    4. “You’re getting off topic.”
      1. [note: any of these used unskillfully could derail situation further for a couple.]
      2. [note too how repair attempts do not have to be very eloquent, but have everything to do with being genuine and knowing your partner]
      3. [note too that the more repair attempts fail, the more couples can keep trying – the more is less approach.]
    5. what predicts the success of repair attempts? The quality of the friendship between husband and wife, and what Gottman describes as the “positive sentiment over-ride” (or having more positive than negative feelings towards your partner, and a propensity to give the benefit of the doubt).
  1. Bad Memories
    1. Gottman’s research shows that couples who are deeply entrenched in a negative view of their spouse and their marriage, often re-write their history – for the worse, or find the past (including activities done together) difficult to remember (because it has become so painful and unimportant that the person has let it fade away).
      1. He notes how couples in a happy marriage, tend to look back on their past early days fondly, glorifying the struggles they have been through together.
    2. Emotional Disengagement
      1. This almost signifies that the marriage is about to collapse and fail.
      2. On the surface, it may seem like nothing is wrong – there is no longer any arguing, acting contemptuously or stonewalling – even in therapy/relationship counselling.
      3. Gottman notes:
        1. Some couples end a marriage through divorce
        2. Others lead parallel, and separate lives while remaining married.
      4. Gottman identifies four final stages of a relationship:
        1. Both in the relationship see their marital problems as severe
        2. Talking things over seems useless, and a spouse can try to solve problems on their own.
  • Both in a relationship begin leading parallel lives.
  1. Loneliness sets in. [this is when one or both in the relationship may have an affair]
    1. Gottman contends that an affair is often a symptom of a dying marriage, rather than the cause.

Gottman notes that strengthening friendship is at the heart of a happy marriage, rather than communicating/arguing well (conflict resolution), although skills in these areas are also useful.

[1] Gottman & Silver, 2007

[2] Gottman notes that the four horsemen do not always “gallop” in strict order. Rather, they tend to “bounce” off each other over and over in a vicious, negative cycle.

[3] Stonewalling is a refusal to communicate or cooperate.


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