Is your marriage among the nearly half that will end in divorce? Psychologists have gotten to be very good at forecasting which couples will divorce, with some studies accurately predicting 94 percent of marriages that will fail.
The world’s foremost researcher on marital relationships, psychologist John Gottman, has completed numerous studies confirming that couples who learn to transform their negative emotions into positive feelings are most likely to have satisfying marriages.
On the other hand, he has found that couples who are harsh in their communication and hold onto anger prolong the hostility. This eventually erodes the foundation of their marriage and is a strong predictor of divorce. Couples who had the most intense negative exchanges ended up divorcing after only 5.6 years of marriage. Couples who maintained a low level of negativity became emotionally disengaged over time and finally divorced after being married 16.2 years.
Gottman’s negative behavior patterns predicting divorce:
Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”
Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: “You’re an idiot.”
Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”
Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.
There are three types of stable marriages, but only one type in which people experience an abundance of love. The first type of marriage that is likely to last involves individuals who avoid conflict. Although this type of relationship lacks much emotion of any kind and leaves the spouses very distant from each other, it has been found to endure because it virtually eliminates the negativity that drives people to separate.
The second type of marriage that survives involves those couples that are constantly bickering. These folks maintain an emotional connection, albeit one involving constant friction. Although these couples have frequent squabbles, they also know how to repair their relationship and produce positive exchanges when they’re not fussing with one another.
The third type of marriage that endures is one in which the couple validates one another. This type of relationship is the one that produces the strongest feelings of love.
Couples who validate one another take time to listen to each other, usually talking 20 minutes every day. They develop a deep understanding of what’s going on in their partner’s world. Then they’re in a position to provide encouragement to one another when challenges present, and lots of positive reinforcement when successful results are achieved.
Validators pick the issues they fight about so they address what’s important and avoid the small stuff. When they do occasionally argue, they maintain respect for each another’s opinions. They know that a successful resolution of their differences ultimately awaits them. They just need to find the win-win solution that includes elements of what each person needs in order to be happy.
A mix of styles in a relationship is bad news. For example, a couple in which the husband is prone to bickering but the wife is an avoider of conflict is probably headed for a divorce.
The only hope for such couples, Gottman’s studies show, is to for each of them to learn how to find a happy middle ground for how they will deal with conflict. Fortunately, these relationship skills can be taught and have been proven to be effective in helping the vast majority of couples to be able to stay together.
Gottman’s two keys for having a happy marriage:
Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
Happily married couples are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and they are able to process negative emotions fully.
Happy couples, Gottman found, create five times as many positive interactions as negative encounters. There are many positives produced in the daily 20 minute conversation described above. In addition, learning how to get one another’s attention, affection and support are the skills that form the basis for connection, romance and a passionate sex life.
Couples also need to learn how to expand their expression of fondness and admiration for one another. Keeping love alive is all about minimizing conflict and generating an abundance of good feelings.