Marriage counselors and researchers have long tried to identify key factors that can predict whether couples will stay together or get divorced. Dr. John Gottman, a leading relationship expert, has spent over 40 years studying thousands of couples in his “Love Lab” to uncover the secrets of what makes marriage work. Through in-depth interviews, questionnaires, and observation of couples interacting, Gottman claims he can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy.
In a new book published this month, Gottman reveals the specific behaviors and dynamics that most often lead couples to split up. He outlines six key predictors of divorce, from criticism and contempt to defensiveness and stonewalling. However, Gottman also discovered one powerful factor that kept most couples together despite conflicts – a concept he calls “marital friendship.”
In this article, we’ll explore Gottman’s research on the six divorce predictors and the one marriage strengthener. While no couple is destined to fail, Gottman’s insights provide a roadmap for identifying risks and cultivating connection in intimate relationships. His findings offer hope that with self-awareness, mutual understanding, and commitment to preserving friendship, marriages can stand the test of time.
What Causes A Marriage To Fail
The first step toward improving or enhancing your marriage is to understand what happens when relationships fail. This has been well documented by extensive research into couples that were not able to save their marriages. Learning about their failures can prevent your relationship from making the same mistakes — or rescue it if it already has.
In “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Dr. Gottman lists the six things that predict divorce. This ability to predict divorce is based on his analysis of the 130 newlywed couples who were observed at the “Love Lab” apartment at the University of Washington.
During their research study, couples were asked to spend fifteen minutes in the lab trying to resolve an ongoing disagreement they were having while we videotaped them. As they spoke, sensors attached to their bodies gauged their stress levels based on various measurements of their circulatory system. Here is what they discovered.
The most obvious indicator that a conflict discussion (and marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins. When a discussion leads off with criticism and/or sarcasm (a form of contempt), it has begun with a “harsh startup.” My research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note. Statistics tell the story: 96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction.
The Four Horsemen
Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that we call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually, these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- Criticism: Attacking your partner’s personality or character with accusation and blame. Criticism goes beyond complaining about a behavior to commenting on your partner’s core self.
- Contempt: Expressing disgust or disrespect for your partner. Contempt includes things like mocking, sarcasm, name-calling, hostile humor, and body language like eye-rolling. Contempt shows you feel superior to your partner.
- Defensiveness: Seeing yourself as the victim in conflicts. Defensive responses aim to ward off a perceived attack. This can include making excuses, denying responsibility, whining, and cross-complaining.
- Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Stonewalling includes avoiding your partner, giving them the silent treatment, or ignoring their attempts to converse. This sends the message you don’t care.
Flooding means that your partner’s negativity—whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness—is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted, then, by habitual harsh startup and frequent flooding brought on by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during disagreements. Although each of these factors alone can predict a divorce, they usually coexist in an unhappy marriage.
When researchers monitored couples for bodily changes during a conflict discussion, they could see just how physically distressing flooding was. One of the most apparent of these physical reactions is that the heart speeds up – pounding away at more than 100 beats per minute – even as high as 165. Hormonal changes occur, too, including the secretion of adrenaline. Blood pressure also mounts. The physical sensations of feeling flooded make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.
Failed Repair Attempts
It takes time for the four horsemen and flooding that comes in their wake to overrun a marriage. And yet, divorce can so often be predicted by listening to a single conversation. How can this be?
The answer is that by analyzing any disagreement a couple has, you get a good sense of the pattern they tend to follow. A crucial part of that pattern is whether their repair attempts succeed or fail. Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes to deescalate the tension during a discussion. The failure of these attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future.
When couples were interviewed, they were asked about the history of their relationship. In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together.
What Keeps Couples Together Long Term?
Gottman found that couples who pray together regularly have higher marital stability and satisfaction. In his studies, Gottman discovered that couples who prayed together as a ritual in their marriage had divorce rates under 1%, compared to the average divorce rate of 50%. Praying together fostered many positive qualities in the relationship, including:
- Greater sense of shared meaning and life purpose
- Improved communication and conflict resolution skills
- Increased expressions of affection, empathy, and support for each other
- Greater commitment to the relationship and sacred view of marriage
Gottman hypothesized several reasons prayer may strengthen marriages:
- Takes couples’ focus off mundane stresses to see bigger picture
- Provides space to share feelings, hopes, and gratitude
- Ritual fosters relationship commitment and constancy
- Shared spiritual beliefs and values reinforce marital friendship
- Prayer gives greater sense of working together towards common goals
While not all couples pray together, Gottman’s research indicates this practice can powerfully nurture intimacy, cooperation, and resilience. However, the core strength underlying joint prayer seems to be developing a shared sense of meaning and faith in the relationship.
Dr. John Gottman’s extensive research has uncovered key insights into why some couples drift apart while others form an enduring marital friendship. By avoiding the four horsemen of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, couples can break the negative interaction patterns that predict divorce. Making emotional connections through empathy, affection, and mutual understanding can sustain couples through difficult times.
Regular rituals like praying together also reinforce shared purpose and commitment. While there are no instant fixes, Gottman’s findings provide a roadmap to strengthen the foundation of marriage. His work demonstrates that with conscious effort and devotion to each other’s growth, couples have the power to build loving relationships that stand the test of time.
In an age of fleeting connections, Gottman recalls us to our deepest human need for stable, caring unions. With vulnerability, compassion, and steadfast friendship, marriages can weather storms and emerge even stronger. Gottman encourages couples to turn towards each other – and turn to wisdom greater than themselves – on the journey of lifelong love.