Predictors of Divorce According to Science

This One Thing is the Biggest Predictor of Divorce

Predictors of Divorce According to Science

This one thing is the biggest predictor of divorce. You may know Dr. John Gottman as “the guy that can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy.” His life’s work on marital stability and divorce prediction is world-renowned—featured in the #1 bestseller Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

After watching thousands of couples argue in his lab, he was able to identify specific negative communication patterns that predict divorce. He called them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Contempt is the most destructive of The Four Horsemen because it conveys, “I’m better than you. I don’t respect you.” It’s so destructive, in fact, that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more ly to suffer from infectious illness than couples who are not contemptuous of each other. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering.

In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. John Gottman notes:

When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you’re feeling upset. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act. This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason why contempt ought to be banned from marital interactions.

Contempt erodes the bond that holds a couple securely together. It’s impossible to build connection when your relationship is deprived of respect. The existence of contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce.

What does contempt look ?

Let me introduce you to a couple from my practice. After five years together, Chris and Mark (names changed for anonymity) find their marriage in a tailspin. Chris feels dismissed, shamed, and blamed by Mark.

“I can’t believe you think it’s okay to speak to me the way you do. The things you say to me make me feel awful. It’s you constantly think I’m a dumbass,” Chris says in my office.

“What? I’m just stating facts,” justifies Mark while rolling his eyes.

“Well, the things you say are hurtful. What’s the point?” asks Chris.

“I’m constantly disappointed by things you say and do. Your logic doesn’t make sense to me,” says Mark. His unwillingness to be influenced or take responsibility for himself is unshakeable.

“If I spoke to you in the same way, you would lose your mind,” says Chris.

“Whatever,” Mark mumbles.

Chris has stopped being affectionate towards Mark, and Mark mostly ignores his complaints at this point. Contempt has totally taken over their relationship.

The antidote to contempt

Here’s the good news. Dr. Gottman’s ability to predict divorce is contingent on behaviors not changing over time. You can reverse a pattern of contempt in your relationship before it’s too late. The antidote lies in building fondness and admiration.

Dr. Gottman discovered that the best way to measure fondness and admiration is to ask couples about their past. How did they meet? What were their first impressions of each other?

If a relationship is in crisis, partners are unly to elicit much praise by talking about the current state of affairs. Talking about the happy events of the past, however, helps many couples reconnect.

If a couple can revive their fondness and admiration for each other, they are more ly to approach conflict resolution as a team, and the growth of their sense of “we-ness” will keep them as connected as they felt when they first met.

I witness a glimmer of hope when I ask couples how they fell in love. Partners talk about how attractive they thought their partner was. How funny they were. How nervous and excited they felt around each other.

Despite all the pain and negative feelings that have accumulated over years, there is still an ember of friendship. The key is to fan that ember back into flames, and the best way to do this is by creating a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship.

Dr. Gottman teaches couples to look at their partner through rose-colored glasses. Instead of trying to catch them doing something wrong, catch them doing something right and appreciate them for it. Even the little things. I how you did your hair today. Thank you for getting my favorite ice cream. I appreciate you vacuuming without me asking you to.

Identifying contempt is the first step towards getting your relationship back on track. If you and your partner need a little extra help, you may benefit from couples counseling.

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The science of divorce: can four simple traits really predict the future of a relationship?

Predictors of Divorce According to Science

What if someone told you there was a scientific formula for forecasting success in love, a way to predict with remarkable accuracy what makes some relationships a success and others doomed to failure?

t sounds unly, but the research has been done and the results are in.

Studying 3,000 married couples in 12 longitudinal studies, with the longest lasting 20 years and continuing today, the US psychologist Dr John Gottman has isolated some intriguing statistics. For example, the average couple in trouble waits six years to seek help, yet half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years.

The key predictors of success and failure are what Gottman calls the 'four horsemen' — criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Relationships where these are present are in serious trouble from the start, according to his research.

«What John Gottman has done in his career is apply serious scientific rigour to an area of research that is traditionally thought of as being hard to study, and the results are fascinating,» says Sinead Smyth, an Irish relationship counsellor based in California who is a certified Gottman therapist and trainer.

«First of all, anger in relationships doesn't predict bad or good outcomes in terms of divorce.

The fact that a couple bickers or argues doesn't tell you anything about the health of the relationship, although obviously negativity is not good.

However, any one of the four horsemen will escalate negativity significantly, and if there is a pattern of escalation of negativity, then you have a problem.»

According to Smyth, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling — three of the four horsemen — are bad but contempt is the worst of all, and is the biggest single predictor of divorce.

«It's corrosive and very hard to come back from. Putting the other person down, humiliating them in front of others, using hostile humour or sarcasm — that kind of thing can really cut people to the quick. In fact, relationships that have a lot of contempt can actually affect someone's physical health,» she says.

«Someone exposed to contempt can find that their white blood cells are affected. The research shows that the amount of contempt in a relationship predicts the number of infectious illnesses that a recipient of contempt is ly to catch over the next 18 months.»

Stonewalling or blanking the other person in an argument is also highly damaging. People often do it because they're overwhelmed by the argument and are trying to calm themselves down, but the other person experiences the silent treatment as a complete withdrawal of engagement, and that too is corrosive.

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«Eighty-five per cent of stonewallers in heterosexual relationships are men. Doing this says to your partner that you don't care what they're saying and you're not listening. All of these behaviours will escalate the situation and increase the negativity, but of the four contempt is the worst,» says Smyth.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that being contemptuous of someone isn't going to make for a happy relationship, but just how corrosive are the four horsemen? Gottman's research predicts with over 90pc accuracy that if these four are present, a marriage will end approximately 5.6 years after the wedding.

Not all the research is negative in focus though — one positive finding is that in stable marriages, there is a five-to-one ratio of positivity to negativity. Kindness glues couples together, making people feel cared for and validated.

But how exactly does a scientist go about studying the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one — after all, real life doesn't tend to happen in laboratories, or does it? Gottman decided to find out in 1986 when he set up what he called The Love Lab with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington.

The pair brought newlyweds into the lab for a weekend at a time and asked them to just interact normally. At the same time, they hooked the subjects up to electrodes and sensors and asked them questions about their relationship, how they met, what they d and disd about each other, and about a major conflict they had.

They were able to measure the couples' heart rates and blood flow, as well as how much they sweated, with the result that they were able to plot their arousal response — the degree to which their 'fight or flight' response was triggered. Then they sent the couples home and waited six years to follow up their progress.

At this point, they grouped the couples into either 'masters' or 'disasters'. Those who were still together and happy after six years were the masters, while the couples who had divorced were the disasters. What they found was that the masters and disasters had significantly different physiological responses at the initial interview stage.

The masters were calm and relaxed, and when they fought or bickered tended to deal with it in a good-natured way using humour and affection. While the disasters also looked calm and relaxed, the sensors told a different story.

Underneath the surface they were sweating, their hearts were beating faster and they had higher blood flow. They were physiologically aroused and their 'fight or flight' response was triggered. They were less able to feel exposed and vulnerable around their partners.

Not all counsellors follow Gottman's methodologies, but virtually all will agree that things contempt are not a good sign in a relationship.

Caitriona Brady is a psychotherapist specialising in relationships at the Relationship Matters clinic in Sandyford.

«I've seen people from all walks of life and every background who have made it work. I've seen people from completely different backgrounds and ways of thinking work together when you really would think they wouldn't.

A huge amount comes back to the couple's families of origin and their first relationships. A lot of the time we play out patterns that we haven't resolved and don't understand.

It's a cliché for a therapist to say that, I know, but it's true,» she says.

According to Brady, people end up in her office when one person has reached the end of the road and wants significant change to happen.

«Sometimes there has been infidelity or life events have put the relationship under enormous strain. But therapy is about change.

Sometimes relationships aren't really functional but the people involved don't really notice until something changes, their children growing up or when they lose money — as happened to a lot of people in the recession — and their lifestyle had to change,» she says. «Then they realise there's nothing between them and that's because they haven't figured out the relational stuff.»

To make matters more complicated, often one person in a couple is keener than the other to make things work.

«You'll often have a split agenda, where one person really wants to be there and the other can be too bitter or defensive, or just too hurt, to really be present. It can take weeks for someone that to soften and see that their partner is making a real effort,» said Brady.

«Other people want the relationship and don't want to say it directly. They actually want the counsellor to say it for them — that's very obvious and I can see it a mile away. I have to be really clear about the role of the counsellor from the outset.»

According to Brady, same-sex couples have the same basic issues as everyone else.

«It's usually intimacy, for all couples. Sex is the first thing to go when things aren't going great for a couple.

In lots of ways, sex from a male point of view can be about connection and a way of expressing love, but for women it can often be the case that they need to feel connected before they'll want to be physically intimate. The motivation is very important to understand,» she says.

«Love is, to me, acceptance, not necessarily of bad behaviour but of accepting the person without wanting to change them. It's shared values and a similar sense of timing, the knowledge that people are going in the same direction and want the same things. It's respecting and caring for each other, and being connected.»

Dublin couple Nicola and Bob Delaney-Foxe are both aged 41, have two young children and describe themselves as happily married, but are also happy to admit that their relationship has had its ups and downs in the past.

«When we got together, lots of things happened very quickly. I got pregnant at the same time as lots of other big life events happened, and the result was that we didn't get the time that most couples get to learn about each other and how to communicate properly,» says Nicola.

«A couple of years down the line, cracks started to appear in the relationship. It wasn't that we didn't want to be together but we just didn't really know how to be. We were arguing a lot but didn't really know why. We went to Accord in Swords and the counsellor essentially taught us how to communicate with each other.»

This gave the couple a safe space to say what they each needed to say in a way that allowed the other person to listen.

«Both of us had been on our own for so long that when we found ourselves in this grown-up situation all of a sudden, we needed to learn a lot more about each other in order to not just argue. We needed to learn how to listen and how to say things to each other,» Nicola says.

The process took a year and a half and she describes it as hard work.

«We had to learn to take the lessons outside the room and put them into practice without the counsellor present. That's difficult, but by the end of it we were able to communicate with each other in a much better way. It was totally worthwhile and I'd strongly advise people who feel that there is something fundamentally good at the heart of their relationship to do it,» she says.

«We wouldn't be where we are today without it. We are very together and very happy. It was an invaluable experience.»

The four horseman of the relationship apocalypse

The destructive behaviours that increase negativity in a relationship and which have been found to increase the lihood of divorce in a marriage have been named the 'Four Horseman of the Relationship Apocalypse'. According to the Gottman Institute, these are:

Criticism: stating one's complaints as a defect in your 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 victimhood. 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 non-verbal signals that the listener is 'tracking' the speaker.

These predict early divorcing — an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. Emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing — an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.


4 behaviors are the most reliable predictors of divorce

Predictors of Divorce According to Science
Robin Thicke and Paula Patton divorced in 2014. Christopher Polk/Getty Ever been in the middle of a heated argument when suddenly the other person pulls out their phone and starts texting?

If the answer is yes, and if you find it happening constantly, we hope that person isn't your significant other.

This behavior, known as stonewalling, is one of four reactions that John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington and the founder of the Gottman Institute, has identified as a telltale sign that all is not well with a married couple.

In fact, when Gottman and University of California-Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson lumped stonewalling together with three other behaviors — contempt, criticism, and defensiveness — and measured how often they occurred within the span of a 15-minute conversation, they found they could predict which marriages would end in divorce with striking precision.

When the psychologists added questions about things relationship satisfaction and how many times the research subjects had thoughts about separating to the mix, they could predict which marriages would end in divorce 93% of the time.

The figure, which comes from a 14-year study of 79 couples living across the US Midwest (21 of whom divorced during the study period), was so striking it spurred the researchers to label the four behaviors «the four horsemen of the apocalypse.»

While that initial study, published in 2002, was small and focused on a specific population, a decade of research into marriage and divorce has lent further support to the idea that divorce is associated with specific negative behaviors.

One recent study of 373 newlywed couples, for example, found that couples who yelled at each other, showed contempt for each other, or shut off conversation about an issue within the first year of marriage were more ly to divorce as far as 16 years down the road.

So what do these four «apocalyptic» behaviors actually look in a relationship?

1. Contempt

Contempt, a virulent mix of anger and disgust, is far more toxic than simple frustration or negativity. It involves seeing your partner as beneath you, rather than as an equal.

This behavior alone, says Gottman, is «the kiss of death» for a relationship.

Take an everyday argument about buying groceries, for example.

When you come home and realize your significant other has picked up habanero peppers rather than bell peppers for tonight's stir-fry dinner, do you listen while he explains that perhaps you didn't ever tell him what type of pepper you wanted? Do you think this over, and, when you realize that maybe he's right, do you apologize? Or do you adopt an attitude and think to yourself, What kind of an idiot doesn't know that bell peppers are for stir-fry and habaneros are for salsa?

The reason contempt is so powerful is because it means you've closed yourself off to your partner's needs and emotions.

If you constantly feel smarter than, better than, or more sensitive than your significant other, you're not only less ly see his or her opinions as valid, but, more important, you're far less willing to try to put yourself in his or her shoes to try to see a situation from his or her perspective.

2. Criticism

contempt, criticism involves turning a behavior (something your partner did) into a statement about his or her character (the type of person he or she is).

Say your partner has a nasty habit of leaving his or her used cereal bowl — calcified, uneaten cereal-and-milk remnants and all — around the house.

Do you wait until he or she gets home to mention that the behavior bothers you, and gently suggest that he or she put the emptied bowl in the sink or dishwasher instead? Or do you think to yourself, «Why am I dating the type of person who abandons half-eaten cereal bowls around the house?»

Over time, these personal detractions can add up, feeding darker feelings of resentment and contempt.

3. Defensiveness

If you find yourself regularly playing the victim in tough situations with your partner, you might be guilty of being defensive.

Take being late to a cousin's wedding, for example. Are you the first to say, «It wasn't my fault!» when you finally arrive? Or do you think it over before you accuse the other person, realizing you probably shouldn't have taken a 2-hour shower when you only had an hour to get ready?

Taking responsibility for your role in a tough situation can be uncomfortable, but it's often what keeps a bad situation from escalating, says Gottman.

He's found that for couples who divorce within the first several years of their marriage — one of the times when divorce rates are highest — «entering negativity is stepping into a quicksand bog. It’s easy to enter but hard to exit.»

4. Stonewalling

You know when an argument is about to start. You can feel your heart rate increase and your voice get just a tiny bit louder. But the moment things start to get heated, do you pull out your phone, walk away, or simply ignore your partner?

Blocking off conversation can be just as toxic for a relationship as contempt because it keeps you from addressing an underlying issue.

We know: Getting into arguments with your partner is the opposite of a good time. But these temporarily uncomfortable situations are oftentimes the place where you can start to come to big realizations about your own behavior and solve potentially damaging problems.

Don't panic

It's important to keep in mind that occasionally displaying any one of these behaviors — or all of them, even — is completely normal.

It's when these negative behaviors happen so frequently that they replace more positive interactions with your partner that can be cause for concern.

Simply recognizing that you're doing something that could be hurting your relationship is the first step to actively combating it. If you can figure out how to avoid the behavior or replace it with a more positive one, you'll probably make the relationship even stronger.


How Dr. Gottman Can Predict Divorce with 94% Accuracy

Predictors of Divorce According to Science

Given the pain associated with even the most amicable of divorces, it’s understandable that couples want to avoid it at all costs.

Unfortunately, stories abound about couples who appeared perfect for one another until, seemingly nowhere, they split.

In 1992, Dr. John Gottman conducted a study of couples in which he was able to predict which ones would eventually divorce with 93.6% accuracy.

Since that time, Dr. Gottman has continued his research into which factors play the biggest role in leading a couple to divorce.

The 6 Traits Dr. Gottman Looks for When Predicting Divorce

Dr. Gottman’s list of traits is derived from seven different studies he’s done on the topic. These studies included three types of couples:

  • Those that divorced
  • Those that remained together and happy
  • Those that remained together but were not happy

From these studies, Dr. Gottman found that couples that eventually get divorced tend to have conversations about conflicts with one or more of the following features:

1. Harsh Startup

A “harsh startup” refers to the most obvious sign that a conversation about a conflict isn’t going to go well. If the discussion begins with sarcasm or some other negative form of communication (e.g. a criticism or expression of contempt), it’s most ly not going to end well.

Research shows that you can predict the way a conversation will go 96% of the time based just on the initial three minutes. It turns out that the prediction often holds for the marriage, too.

2. The Four Horsemen

Dr. Gottman recognized four forms of negativity that he considered so devastating to a relationship that he referred to them as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

They tend to progress in that order during a doomed conversation, as well.

3. Flooding

This term describes the overwhelming and sudden nature a partner’s negativity can take, usually in the form of contempt or criticism, though defensiveness can have this effect, as well.

Flooding and the two predictive traits we just mentioned tend to show up together. Habitual harsh startups lead to the Four Horsemen, which in turn brings on frequent flooding. By themselves, none of these factors are to be taken lightly. However, when they occur during the same conflict, their impact is multiplied.

4. Body Language

When someone is the target of flooding, their heart rate will actually speed up, even past 100 beats per minute. It’s not uncommon for them to reach 165. The body may produce adrenaline or use other hormones to help cope with the event. Blood pressure can skyrocket. All of these physical sensations make it almost impossible for the person to have a productive conversation.

5. Failed Repair Attempts

Despite their powerful effects, flooding and the Four Horsemen usually don’t ruin a marriage overnight. One of the reasons Dr.

Gottman is able to predict divorce when he sees these things happening early on is because he can also assess the patterns their disagreements tend to take.

The most important aspect for predicting whether or not the marriage will end is the attempts the couple makes at de-escalating tension. Failure to do so is a reliable sign divorce is in their futures.

6. Bad Memories

During his interviews with couples, Dr. Gottman asks about their histories. Couples who have fond memories also tend to be in a happy marriage.

They experience positive feelings when remembering how they felt early on and how exciting it was when they first met.

No couple has a perfect history, but successful ones look back on their struggles and draw strength from them, using them as a source of pride.

The Solution to a Struggling Marriage

If you read the above list and are feeling a bit anxious because you recognized one or more of those traits in your own marriage, know that there is still hope. Interventions facilitated by an experienced therapist can help couples overcome these issues before they end in divorce.

In fact, Dr. Gottman actually came up with his own approach seven principles. These principles are mechanisms designed to make relationships work. They can be divided into three different categories:

  • Principles 1, 2, 3 & 4 – Create friendship
  • Principles 5 & 6 – Resolve conflicts
  • Principles 7 & 8 – Find meaning and achieve other existential goals

Let’s look at each of them now.

1. Build Love Maps

These maps provide a reference for understanding your partners’ world. It answers important questions :

  • How do they think?
  • How do they feel?
  • What is day-to-day life for them?
  • What are their values?
  • What are their hopes and aspirations?
  • What stresses them?

2. Express Fondness and Admiration

Couples who are happy together and able to function well appreciate and enjoy the majority of their partners’ behaviors. While there may be differences between the two, partners learn to live with them.

3. Turn Toward One Another

Conversational patterns play a big role in a couple’s level of happiness. Those that reflect interest and respect, even when the topic of conversation is mundane, enjoy healthy relationships.

Physically turning toward one another produces expressions of interest and acknowledgment that beat out conversational tricks at a ratio of 20:1. Highly-successful couples maintain a 5:1 ratio during disagreement s and even turn towards one another when they’re arguing.

These habits are often referred to as the “emotional bank account.”

4. Accept Influence

Avoiding power struggles is essential to a healthy relationship. Successful couples not only take their partners’ preferences into consideration, but they are also open to compromises and will even modify their own preferences. At the same time, a balance of power is vital so that neither person in the relationship feels as though they’re always acquiescing.

5. Solve Problems That Are Solvable

Dr. Gottman recommended five tactics for couples to use in order to find a compromise:

  • Begin with a soft start, so that the conversation leads to a satisfactory result
  • Offer and respond to attempts at repairing issues or behaviors that preserve the emotional connection and emphasize the “couple” over the single partner
  • Effectively soothe your partner and yourself
  • Utilize negotiation skills and compromises
  • Tolerate your partner’s vulnerabilities and conversational habits that are ineffective; keep the focus on shared concerns for the relationship’s wellbeing

6. Manage Conflict and Overcome Gridlock

The Gottman Method focuses on managing conflicts, not resolving them. Conflict is treated as an inherent feature of all relationships and not something that will simply go away.

Even happy couples report that upwards of 69% of their conflicts are perpetual, meaning they are never truly resolved for good but are dealt with when necessary.

The recurrent themes are kept in perspective as part of the couple’s landscape and are not dwelled upon.

7. Create Shared Meaning

Connections occur as each person in the relationship experiences the multiple ways their partner enhances their life by helping them find meaning, sharing a history with them, and working through challenging times.

How an Intervention Will Help

Even now that you know about the principles Dr. Gottman recommends for healthy couples, it may seem as though you and your partner are facing too daunting a challenge.

This is when an intervention becomes so important.

At Real Life Counseling, our approach is aimed at helping couples build a deep, enduring friendship. I always say that “happy marriages are deep friendships.

” That’s because mutual respect and a true enjoyment of each other’s company leads to an appreciation for more than just the obvious reasons to love the other person.

They also shed light on the small ways this person enriches your life.

In short, friendship fuels the flames of romance.

Our interventions seek to increase this level of friendship:

  • Increasing feelings of intimacy and developing friendship behaviors
  • Addressing conflicts in a productive manner
  • Building a life of shared meaning
  • Customizing principles proven research so they fit a couple’s unique life patterns and challenges

We also integrate Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles into the interventions so couples are given objective steps they can use to maintain their progress outside of couples counseling sessions.

Don’t Give Up

It can be scary thinking that your marriage may be nearing divorce, especially when it seems as though you’ve tried everything else.

Don’t give up yet.

Dr. Gottman clearly understood the complexity of relationships, so even if you recognize the aforementioned warning signs in your marriage, it’s not too late. An intervention could actually make you and your partner stronger than ever.


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