John Gottman ( Why Marriages Succeed
or Fail, 1994) has amassed a great deal of research and can predict
which marriages will last. The key is the couple’s ability
to resolve conflicts.
The magic ratio: “As long as
there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between
husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was
likely to be stable.”
John Gottman is a social psychologist in Seattle
and runs a marriage lab where they test couples, video their interactions
hooked up to machines to measure physiological signals of stress. In
one study they were able to predict with 94% accuracy which couples
would stay together and which would divorce based solely on the couple’s
views of their marital history and their current perceptions.
A lasting relationship results from a couple’s
ability to resolve conflict that is inevitable in any relationship.
There are 3 different styles of problem solving: 1) validating couples
who resolve things calmly 2) conflict-avoiding marriages, where couples
rarely confront their differences and 3) volatile marriage where couples
who have frequent conflict and passionate disputes.
All of these styles can have stable equilibrium
if they are agreed upon by both individuals. If negativity builds,
and the four horsemen take over, the marriage will be in danger.
No matter what style your marriage follows, you must have at
least five times as many positive as negative moments together if your
marriage is to be stable.
Gottman talks about the emotional highjacking connected with conflict
behaviors. His Four Horsemen are:
- Criticism—attacking someone’s personal personality
or character, rather than a specific behavior—usually with
- Contempt—The intention to insult
and psychologically abuse your partner.
- Defensiveness—a response to
blame where no one takes responsibility.
- Stonewalling—Withdrawal, isolation,
These are four behaviors that predict divorce. Frequent arguments
cause partners to develop bioemotional hypersensitivity to each other
and knee jerk hostility.
Strategies to break the cycle of negativity:
- Calm down—Gottman describes the experience of flooding
where an emotional trigger creates physiological arousal. Learning
to calm down the arousal is especially important for men. He advocates
teaching relaxation for the overlearned response to flooding, which
is often to run away or distance. He suggests taking your pulse as
you argue with your spouse and taking a break if it goes up too high.
- Speak nondefensively; reintroduce praise and admiration
to avoid the 4 horsemen. Dwell on what’s right in your marriage.
- Validation: let your partner see you understand him and
can see his perspective.
- Overlearning—try and try again. Practice these skills
till they feel normal.
(Excerpts from Why Marriages Succeed and Fail, John Gottman)
If you are interested in learning more effective ways to communicate and find intimacy in your relationship, you may want to consider couples counseling.