Relationship Busters We Don’t Talk Enough About: Part 1 of 3

Gottman Research On Divorce

If you are at all familiar with Dr. John Gottman’s work, it is likely you know that John’s original work focused on understanding what couples were doing that led to relationship stability and happiness. In the process of trying to answer this question Gottman and colleague Dr. Bob Levenson also uncovered what led to marital instability.

The results from their first study combined looking at emotion with psycho-physiological measurements taken during conflict and non-conflict conversations. They did not make any predictions in this first study but were interested in the link between physiology and negative emotions felt in the relationship.

Three years later they followed up with the research couples and discovered that change in marriage satisfaction could be matched almost perfectly with the physiological measures taken three years previously. Controlling for other variables, it turns out that the correlations between relationship dissatisfaction and aroused physiology ranged from the .70s to the .90s, a very high correlation that surprised John and Bob because these correlations were significantly higher than found in any other research on marital stability where results were inconclusive.

This initial finding led to a series of research studies aimed at predicting divorce. What they found was that these relationships had tremendous stability in how couples interacted. This meant that if couples did not manage conflict well in time period 1 they still did not manage conflict well three years later. The best predictive rate for divorce was 94% accuracy. These relationships had a direction of instability that over time researchers could recognize rather quickly.

The Four Horsemen

John developed the concept of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, referring to communication patterns that over time leads to the “end times” of a relationship. Here is a brief overview of the Four Horsemen and their antidotes.

  • Criticism: Attacking or blaming the partner, typically by describing a flaw in the partner. ANTIDOTE: Express thoughts feelings, and needs, describing self not partner
  • Defensiveness: Protecting self by counter-attacking, or by making excuses. ANTIDOTE: To accept some responsibility and acknowledge partner’s feelings
  • Contempt: Putting partner down from a superior position, sarcasm. This is biggest predictor of divorce. ANTIDOTE: Describe thoughts feelings, and needs
  • Stonewalling: Shutting down not responding verbally or non-verbally, withdrawal; ANTIDOTE: Self-soothing

Much has been written on the Four Horsemen, so for this series of articles on predictors I wanted to include the other predictors that emerged from the research, the predictors we don’t talk much about.

Other Predictors of Divorce

The following two articles will focus on factors that were found to be as predictive as the Four Horsemen. The good news is that like the Four Horsemen, there are things couples can do to get the relationship back on track. Here is a preview of what I will be covering:

  • Accepting Influence
  • Meta-emotion mismatch
  • Escalating conflict

See Part 2: Accepting Influence


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