Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, has emerged as a leading expert in the understanding of marriage dynamics and in predicting divorce. After more than 25 years of research and therapy with married and divorcing couples, a number of basic patterns in how married couples interact can be used to predict divorce (in the absence of change in these patterns).
First, there are two periods in married life when the risk of divorce is highest:
• After 5-7 years of marriage when conflict is usually highest
• After 10-12 years of marriage as a result of lost intimacy
It should be noted that marital conflict often increases when a baby arrives, which usually happens during the first few years of marriage (see bullet one above). After the first child is born, 40 to 70% of couples report significant declines in satisfaction with their marriage. So, a period of marital dissatisfaction is the norm after the first child is born, and in the absence of malignant interaction patterns, does NOT necessarily lead to divorce . (Remember, most unhappiness is temporary.)
The process that leads to loss of intimacy takes longer to result in divorce, and Gottman's research has identified the malignant interaction patterns that DO predict divorce. These are:
• A one to one ratio between positive and negative interactions (for happy couples the ratio of positive/negative interactions is 20 to 1)
• Mutual criticism (personal attacks on character not complaints about behavior)
• Defensiveness (“no I didn’t”, “yes but…”, “let’s talk about what YOU did…” or other denials of any personal responsibility)
• Stonewalling (refusing to talk in order to avoid conflict)
• Contempt for the partner (eye rolling, sarcastic humor, mocking)
Of the last four factors, those Gottman called the “four horsemen” (of the Apocalypse), contempt is the worst.
Here are some other findings from the research by Dr. Gottman:
•Conventional wisdom says it is not a good idea to “go to bed angry”. Gottman discovered that “flooding” – a physiological phenomenon triggered by emotional conflict — leaves people’s heart rates too high for them to clearly concentrate on the conversation at hand. He found that taking the time to calm down before finishing an argument is more likely to help couples stay close and connected.
•He learned that couples therapy with battering couples actually makes things worse for the woman—not better—another significant departure from the conventional wisdom. Partners both need to get individual therapy.
•It is extremely beneficial for both parents to express their own emotions, and it is especially important for fathers to express their feelings—especially sadness. This is critical for helping children develop "emotional intelligence",which is a better predictor of success than IQ.
The Positive Divorce bottom line
If your relationship is not overwhelmingly positive in your pattern of interactions with your partner, but rather is characterized by Gottman’s “four horsemen” of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and especially contempt, your odds of being divorced are more than 4 out of 5.
If you want to stay married, you both need to change the way you interact.
If you are in the process of getting divorced, now is the time to begin learning new ways of interacting with your intimate partner (current or future) to change the outcome of your next relationship. Use this opportunity to learn to identify and change your contributions to the interactions that poisoned your relationship, so that history doesn’t repeat itself. (The odds of a second divorce are VERY high for once-divorced people.)
Learn about yourself, change your own intimate behavior, and make your own future better.
Copyright 2008 Kevin Karlson All rights reserved.