Given the pain associated with even the most amicable of divorces, it’s understandable that couples want to avoid it at all costs.
Unfortunately, stories abound about couples who appeared perfect for one another until, seemingly out of nowhere, they split.
In 1992, Dr. John Gottman conducted a study of couples in which he was able to predict which ones would eventually divorce with 93.6% accuracy.
Since that time, Dr. Gottman has continued his research into which factors play the biggest role in leading a couple to divorce.
The 6 Traits Dr. Gottman Looks for When Predicting Divorce
Dr. Gottman’s list of traits is derived from seven different studies he’s done on the topic. These studies included three types of couples:
- Those that divorced
- Those that remained together and happy
- Those that remained together but were not happy
From these studies, Dr. Gottman found that couples that eventually get divorced tend to have conversations about conflicts with one or more of the following features:
1. Harsh Startup
A “harsh startup” refers to the most obvious sign that a conversation about a conflict isn’t going to go well. If the discussion begins with sarcasm or some other negative form of communication (e.g. a criticism or expression of contempt), it’s most likely not going to end well.
Research shows that you can predict the way a conversation will go 96% of the time based just on the initial three minutes. It turns out that the prediction often holds for the marriage, too.
2. The Four Horsemen
Dr. Gottman recognized four forms of negativity that he considered so devastating to a relationship that he referred to them as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are:
They tend to progress in that order during a doomed conversation, as well.
This term describes the overwhelming and sudden nature a partner’s negativity can take, usually in the form of contempt or criticism, though defensiveness can have this effect, as well.
Flooding and the two predictive traits we just mentioned tend to show up together. Habitual harsh startups lead to the Four Horsemen, which in turn brings on frequent flooding. By themselves, none of these factors are to be taken lightly. However, when they occur during the same conflict, their impact is multiplied.
4. Body Language
When someone is the target of flooding, their heart rate will actually speed up, even past 100 beats per minute. It’s not uncommon for them to reach 165. The body may produce adrenaline or use other hormones to help cope with the event. Blood pressure can skyrocket. All of these physical sensations make it almost impossible for the person to have a productive conversation.
5. Failed Repair Attempts
Despite their powerful effects, flooding and the Four Horsemen usually don’t ruin a marriage overnight. One of the reasons Dr. Gottman is able to predict divorce when he sees these things happening early on is because he can also assess the patterns their disagreements tend to take. The most important aspect for predicting whether or not the marriage will end is the attempts the couple makes at de-escalating tension. Failure to do so is a reliable sign divorce is in their futures.
6. Bad Memories
During his interviews with couples, Dr. Gottman asks about their histories. Couples who have fond memories also tend to be in a happy marriage. They experience positive feelings when remembering how they felt early on and how exciting it was when they first met. No couple has a perfect history, but successful ones look back on their struggles and draw strength from them, using them as a source of pride.
The Solution to a Struggling Marriage
If you read the above list and are feeling a bit anxious because you recognized one or more of those traits in your own marriage, know that there is still hope. Interventions facilitated by an experienced therapist can help couples overcome these issues before they end in divorce.
In fact, Dr. Gottman actually came up with his own approach based on seven principles. These principles are mechanisms designed to make relationships work. They can be divided into three different categories:
- Principles 1, 2, 3 & 4 – Create friendship
- Principles 5 & 6 – Resolve conflicts
- Principles 7 & 8 – Find meaning and achieve other existential goals
Let’s look at each of them now.
1. Build Love Maps
These maps provide a reference for understanding your partners’ world. It answers important questions like:
- How do they think?
- How do they feel?
- What is day-to-day life like for them?
- What are their values?
- What are their hopes and aspirations?
- What stresses them?
2. Express Fondness and Admiration
Couples who are happy together and able to function well appreciate and enjoy the majority of their partners’ behaviors. While there may be differences between the two, partners learn to live with them.
3. Turn Toward One Another
Conversational patterns play a big role in a couple’s level of happiness. Those that reflect interest and respect, even when the topic of conversation is mundane, enjoy healthy relationships. Physically turning toward one another produces expressions of interest and acknowledgment that beat out conversational tricks at a ratio of 20:1. Highly-successful couples maintain a 5:1 ratio during disagreement s and even turn towards one another when they’re arguing. These habits are often referred to as the “emotional bank account.”
4. Accept Influence
Avoiding power struggles is essential to a healthy relationship. Successful couples not only take their partners’ preferences into consideration, but they are also open to compromises and will even modify their own preferences. At the same time, a balance of power is vital so that neither person in the relationship feels as though they’re always acquiescing.
5. Solve Problems That Are Solvable
Dr. Gottman recommended five tactics for couples to use in order to find a compromise:
- Begin with a soft start, so that the conversation leads to a satisfactory result
- Offer and respond to attempts at repairing issues or behaviors that preserve the emotional connection and emphasize the “couple” over the single partner
- Effectively soothe your partner and yourself
- Utilize negotiation skills and compromises
- Tolerate your partner’s vulnerabilities and conversational habits that are ineffective; keep the focus on shared concerns for the relationship’s wellbeing
6. Manage Conflict and Overcome Gridlock
The Gottman Method focuses on managing conflicts, not resolving them. Conflict is treated as an inherent feature of all relationships and not something that will simply go away. Even happy couples report that upwards of 69% of their conflicts are perpetual, meaning they are never truly resolved for good but are dealt with when necessary. The recurrent themes are kept in perspective as part of the couple’s landscape and are not dwelled upon.
7. Create Shared Meaning
Connections occur as each person in the relationship experiences the multiple ways their partner enhances their life by helping them find meaning, sharing a history with them, and working through challenging times.
How an Intervention Will Help
Even now that you know about the principles Dr. Gottman recommends for healthy couples, it may seem as though you and your partner are facing too daunting a challenge.
This is when an intervention becomes so important.
At Real Life Counseling, our approach is aimed at helping couples build a deep, enduring friendship. I always say that “happy marriages are based on deep friendships.” That’s because mutual respect and a true enjoyment of each other’s company leads to an appreciation for more than just the obvious reasons to love the other person. They also shed light on the small ways this person enriches your life.
In short, friendship fuels the flames of romance.
Our interventions seek to increase this level of friendship:
- Increasing feelings of intimacy and developing friendship behaviors
- Addressing conflicts in a productive manner
- Building a life of shared meaning
- Customizing principles based on proven research so they fit a couple’s unique life patterns and challenges
We also integrate Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles into the interventions so couples are given objective steps they can use to maintain their progress outside of couples counseling sessions.
Don’t Give Up
It can be scary thinking that your marriage may be nearing divorce, especially when it seems as though you’ve tried everything else.
Don’t give up yet.
Dr. Gottman clearly understood the complexity of relationships, so even if you recognize the aforementioned warning signs in your marriage, it’s not too late. An intervention could actually make you and your partner stronger than ever.