Although my degree is in English Literature, I spent a year majoring in Interpersonal Communications. It was then that I was introduced to the work of one of the top researchers in marriage and relationship health, Dr. John M. Gottman. Through out my post college years, I have kept up with his research. He is most famous for developing a formula that accurately predicts divorce after observing a couple interact with one another for only five minutes!
Here are nine predictors of divorce that Dr. John Gottman summarizes in his book, The Science of Trust:
1. Greater ratio of negativity to positivity. In functional relationships, the ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict is 5:1. In contrast, the ratio in dysfunctional relationships is 0.8:1 or less! However, Gottman is quick to explain that we shouldn’t jump to remove all negativity from our relationship. Negative emotions serve a purpose; they are a barometer to tell us when something is wrong, and they help us determine what does work through eliminating those interactions that don’t. In successful happy relationships, couples are much more empathetic, affectionate, understanding, and will use humor to diffuse conflicts, rather than sling insults, use sarcasm, or emotionally withdraw.
2. Escalation of negative effect: The “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Gottman defines the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Usually the interaction begins with one negative horseman, and the other person responds with the next one. This cycle continues until one or both partners are stonewalling, or shutting down emotionally. At this point the conflict is even further from resolution than when it began.
3. Turning away. This is what happens when one partner realizes the conversation is in a downward spiral and then makes an attempt at repair or a bid for connection. Instead of forgiving and accepting this bid, the other partner “turns away.”
4. Turning against: Irritability, emotional disengagement, and withdrawal. Unlike the escalating pattern, this pattern of behavior simply eliminates the positivity. In these interactions, there was no affection, shared humor, empathy, or active interest during the conflict.
5. Failure of repair attempts. Gottman explains that even in healthy relationships, feelings will get hurt, and some fights can be painful and difficult. Since we are human and prone to err, one of the most important things we can do in a relationship is make repairs.
6. Negative sentiment override. This one is all about perception. It’s that idea that if you think a person is selfish, suddenly, everything they say and do seems to further that notion in your head. In dysfunctional relationships, couples would describe each other and their relationship in negative terms. They’d see their own personal shortcomings as momentary circumstances, but they’d see their partners negativity in the moment as a larger character flaw.
7. Maintaining vigilance and physiological arousal. Men, in general, have a harder time calming down after being upset than do women. When conflict escalates or at least doesn’t diffuse, our heart rates climb. At that point, adrenaline starts surging through our bodies, and we’re physiologically incapable of creativity or processing information. This feeling of being completely overwhelmed is often called “flooding.”
8. Chronic diffuse physiological arousal. This is when #7 is taken to the next level. In this case, the person will repeat themselves and their case as if suddenly one’s partner will understand them, and be loving again. While there are some practical life purposes for this physiological response, in relationships it reduces the ability to listen and empathize.
9. Failure of men to accept influence from their women. In this situation, men either become disengaged or escalate negativity in response to a woman’s complaint. Men in successful relationships say things like, “good point” in response to the complaints.
So ask yourself, how negative are we in our interactions with one another while in conflict? Are we showing positive interactions five times more? Think back on your past disagreements. Did either of you exhibit one or all of the “horsemen”? Are you ignoring your partner’s affection or humor during conflict? Are you holding onto a grudge? Are we truly giving the other person the benefit of doubt? Do you check your emotional temperature, and take breaks to cool down, and self-soothe while in arguments? Do you find yourself getting physically worked up during arguments so that you can’t think clearly? Are you showing humility and really listening to the other?
These points can help you define the status of your relationship. They also happen to be indicators of divorce, so pay attention to those habits that you’re forming now during dating and engagement.