John Gottman was born in 1942. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington. Gottman has been studying marital stability and divorce for over four decades. He is the founder of the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington, where he conducted a lot of research about married couples and their interactions.
Gottman is able to predict divorce with 94% of accuracy because he has discovered patterns in how spouses in marriages relate to each other. He then used his discoveries to predict whether a marriage would succeed or fail.
For years Gottman suggested teaching married couples proper communication skills such as listening, speaking one person at a time and repeating what the other party had said. He then found that some of the couples that he studied and that later divorced communicated extremely well. They were very clear in their communication about how they felt, what they needed and wanted. Gottman also found that his “master couples,” which was a name for those who remained happy in their marriages, didn’t even communicate that well.
The importance of emotions in a marriage
This led Gottman to the conclusion that it was not communication but emotions that had the biggest effect on relationships. Gottman’s “disaster couples” exhibited a lot of negative emotions throughout their relationships while “master couples” could have fights, but they were not getting stuck in the loop of negative emotions. They were not throwing painful personal accusations at each other. They fought and moved on.
The Four Horseman of Apocalypse
Gottman discovered that there are four types or arguing that can lead to a destruction of marriage. For this reason, Gottman called these behaviors “the Four Horseman of Apocalypse.”
These behaviors are danger signs. Gottman found that couples who use them on a regular basis are headed towards divorce.
Couples that use criticism are often headed for divorce because instead of dealing with issues they start focusing on the personality or character traits of the partner. They usually start their sentences with “You always…,” “you never…,” “you’re just like… ” The problem with this approach is that divorce is the only destination where it can lead. If you believe that there’s something wrong with your partner, you can’t improve your relationship. You can’t do anything about the relationship. If you keep focusing on the traits of character of your partner, it is only a question of time as to when you will want to get away.
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Couples that stay together are somewhat gentle with one another even when they fight. When they are discussing issues, it’s like they have a ball that they throw at a spouse and then take it back. They take responsibility and discuss the events and situations.
According to Gottman, expressing contempt towards a spouse is the best predictor of a future breakup and divorce. In conversations, contempt often shows up as a statement from a place of superiority. It also sometimes comes with attacks on the sense of self of a partner. Contempt may include mockery, sarcasm, and offensive words such as fat, stupid, bastard, lazy.
Defenders often avoid attacks by portraying themselves as innocent victims. Here’s an example of an explanation by a defender in a marriage: “It’s not my fault. Whatever I do, it always comes to this. I always lose.” Couples that stay together do not run away from fights. When a spouse in such a couple realizes that his or her partner has an issue or a different point of view, the spouse pursues the subject because he or she wants to learn more, understand, relate and possibly fix the issue.
Withdrawal from the issues of the relationship
Withdrawal is similar to defensiveness in that it is a way to avoid fights and conflicts by choosing not to participate. What’s interesting is that Gottman discovered that even though withdrawal seems to promote safety, those who do withdraw typically have a sharp increase in their heart rate when a partner says or does something that could lead to an argument. On the surface, such spouses look disengaged and not interested, but in reality, their bodies are going through intense sensations. An example of a withdrawal interaction is one partner screaming and the other one choosing to stay absolutely silent and not even acknowledge the partner.
The couples that do stay together also withdraw sometimes, but they even then they are likely to communicate at least a bit and acknowledge that their partner is upset or angry.