John Gottman is one of the country’s leading experts on what makes romantic relationships work. He and his wife, Julie Gottman, have conducted research at their Love Lab for decades and created the Gottman Institute. The following findings come from Gottman’s own research and are found in his bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. This is the final part of a two-part blog series.
In my previous blog post, I began outlining Gottman’s predictors of divorce. First is the harsh start-up, which consists of using accusations and criticisms to begin a conversation with your partner. Next were four horsemen that can eat away at goodwill and openness in your partnership: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Keep reading to learn about four more predictors of divorce that tend to follow a history of harsh start-ups and the four horsemen:
As you learned in the last blog post, stonewalling is a kind of disengagement from your partner and keeps emotions, both negative and positive, at bay. Many people stonewall to avoid flooding, which is becoming physically or emotionally overwhelmed. It’s common to think that your partner is not responding to you during conflict, but often the opposite is true – they have become so overwhelmed, or flooded, that they shut down to protect themselves from more intensity and pain.
Body language is closely related to flooding – researchers see differences in body language when someone has flooded. Bad conflict can result in increased blood pressure, secretion of hormones, heart rate, perspiration, etc. All of these consequences of flooding make it difficult to have productive conversations with your partner because the brain activity needed for them has been disrupted. While these findings don’t apply to every man and woman out there, Gottman finds trends in how women and men respond physiologically to conflict. Men are more likely to stonewall than women, and women are more likely to be able to self-soothe. Gottman cites studies that show that men’s heart rates and blood pressure stay elevated longer than women’s when put in a position that induces stress. Thus, because men are more likely to exhibit longer-lasting physical symptoms, they are more likely than women to stonewall to avoid experiencing them in the first place.
Failed Repair Attempts
Repair attempts are actions that attempt to de-escalate tension, reduce stress, and prevent flooding between partners. They often incorporate humor and serve to put a pause on the escalating conversation or argument. Repair attempts work best when a marriage or partnership already has a solid foundation with no major cracks. The expectation in a partnership should never be that there is no conflict; rather, it should be that the couple can skillfully and respectfully navigate it when it comes up. You should worry when you notice the following cycle happening: the four horsemen are present in a significant number of your conflicts; the four horsemen lead to flooding in one or both of you; and then that flooding lessens your ability to hear and respond positively to a repair attempt, leading to a failed repair attempt.
Gottman’s studies show that a solid presence by the four horsemen predicts divorce correctly 82% of the time; the four horsemen plus failed affair attempts predict divorce correctly at least 90% of the time. However, the good news is that in his lab, 84% of couples who scored high on the four horsemen but who also used successful repair attempts were healthily married 6 years after the study.
If your current relationship is not going well, you are more likely to look back on what used to be positive memories and find them tinged with negativity. If you are in a happy partnership, your earlier memories retain the positivity you felt at the time. It’s dangerous to find yourself in the first position, because if all of your earlier memories are being viewed in a negative light, you have no goodwill stored up to rely upon when you are going through a tough time. This predictor of divorce harkens back to criticism, one of the four horsemen – your bad memories lead you to view your partner as somebody bad instead of isolating actions they have taken as bad.
If you find yourself thinking that many of these predictors apply to your relationship, you should be concerned, but you do not need to panic – help is out there. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to find a qualified marriage therapist to help you strengthen your relationship.