Predicting Divorce

Jan 26, 2023

There is a psychologist, Dr. John M. Gottman, who can predict if couples will divorce with an astonishing rate of accuracy of more than 90%. He has studied couples for over 40 years and identified the key indicators if a relationship will survive or not by looking at the ratio of their positive to negative interactions.

Gottman identified four main negative emotions in relationships, called The Four Horseman, which are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. These are all shown to contribute to problems in marriages, but contempt is by far the most destructive. If contempt is found to be expressed to a partner, it is the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce.

When we communicate with contempt, we are being mean and disrespectful. Contempt is more than criticism and includes behaviours such as the following:

  • using sarcasm
  • mocking your partner
  • hostile humor
  • name-calling
  • mimicking
  • body language, such as eye-rolling and sneering

Contempt makes your partner feel despised and worthless and it is so damaging that couples who are contemptuous of each other have decreased psychological health, emotional health, and physical health. Research has shown increased rates of cancer, auto-immune disease, and infectious illnesses in couples where there is contempt.

The science shows that in relationships, negative emotions like defensiveness and contempt have more power to hurt a relationship than positive emotions have to help a relationship. In fact, other psychological studies show that five positive exchanges need to occur to outweigh just one negative interaction. That means for example, that one criticism needs to be offset by five positive statements.

If your relationship is filled with contempt and other negative emotions, making some specific changes can have a big impact. There is hope.

Dr. Gottman developed a therapeutic approach that has been shown to be successful. It has been found that the remedy to overcoming contempt lies in accepting the past and moving forward to build fondness and admiration. Couples with fondness and admiration for each other are more likely to approach conflict resolution as a team and have a connectedness that sees them weather challenges well and enjoy experiences together.

The first step to getting your relationship back on track is to recognize that contempt or other negative emotions are present within your relationship. Developing an awareness of your negative emotions, and understanding the impact those emotions are having on your relationship, will help you to change those behaviours when they emerge. Next you need to build some different skills to shift your relationship to be more positive. These skills include: demonstrating fondness and admiration for your partner, turning toward your partner to get your needs met even in times of pain rather than turning away or shutting down, and managing conflict together in a healthy way.

Building increased admiration and fondness in your relationship is an easy skill to immediately begin to work on and one that will quickly result in a positive impact. Start by censoring your criticisms. Change your view and begin to see opportunities to praise your partner. Find them doing something you can appreciate and praise them for it. Even praising small things will have an impact. Compliment the effort your partner is putting in regarding their work to provide or in completing chores. Praise their appearance or character when you identify something that you appreciate.

Next, express more appreciation and fondness when talking together. This may be difficult at first. Those in relationships in crises, often struggle to share positive interactions because discussions quickly turn sour as topics divert into unresolved conflicts. For now, as you are practicing this new approach of increasing fondness and appreciation, minimize discussions of contentious topics if possible. Stick to topics that will bring shared smiles and happy memories. Reminisce together about the happy events of the past to practice this skill and in order to bring greater positive encounters and opportunities to reconnect. Talk about how you fell in love, fun experiences you used to share, and your memories of how excited you were to have your first kiss.

All relationships take deliberate work to be successful. Over time, pain and negative feelings occur and if they aren’t addressed, they can accumulate. Be on the lookout to recognize the return of criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, and in particular contempt. Do not allow yourself to express contempt. Instead, work through negative experiences together. Every day create a culture of shared appreciation and fondness for one another by increasing your rate of positive interactions and decreasing negative ones in order to promote a healthy relationship.

Remember, it is within your control to create a healthier dynamic and have a better today than yesterday.

If you would like to have some extra help on these techniques, you may want to consider seeing a therapist skilled in the Gottman Method.

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