Break It To Me Gently
By the time Gottman released his first book, New York Times Bestseller The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, in 1999, he had boiled this complicated science down to six key indicators of divorce.
During the creation of the book, In order to prove the legitimacy of his decades-long research, Gottman invited 130 couples into his Love Lab - but this time, they wouldn’t spend the night.
“During our research study, my team and I asked these couples to spend fifteen minutes in the lab trying to resolve an ongoing disagreement they were having while we videotaped them.” Gottman explained on his website.
“As they spoke, sensors attached to their bodies gauged their stress levels based on various measurements of their circulatory system.”
The study resulted in six key indicators of a relationship or marriage heading for failure.
The Six Things That Indicate Divorce
The Harsh Startup
This was the biggest and most obvious indicator that a relationship was on the rocks. If their conflict resolution began with one or both parties criticising or being sarcastic from the get-go, it’s a safe bet that things have started to turn toxic.
Turns out, “Oi idiot, get off your lazy a-- and take the bins out” is not the battle cry of a successful relationship.
According to Gottman’s stats, 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conflict based on its first three minutes.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The next indicator is actually a set of four, which Gottman has dubbed ‘The Four Horsemen’.
Gottman stated that these negative characteristics can enter into a relationship in this exact order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and then stonewalling.
The first three are fairly obvious, but stonewalling? This is when you put up a hypothetical wall of silence, refusing to acknowledge, listen to or even look at your partner for an extended period of time.
You may use the excuse that you’re “upset and don’t want to talk right now” - but if this silence goes on for more than a few hours, that’s stonewalling, which can be a form of gaslighting.
At a certain point, you have to face conflict, it doesn’t vanish.
Flooding is when one partner’s negativity, often in the form of contempt or criticism, becomes so overwhelming and intense that the other enters a state of shock.
“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,” Gottman states.
Unsurprisingly, humans don’t function well when they feel flooded and overwhelmed. The world seems to shrink and the likelihood of a positive outcome collapses with it. You can claim to be as stoic as you like, but when you’re flooded, your body simply can’t hide it.
Gottman recorded troubled couples experiencing severely increased heart rates, blood pressure and hormonal changes. When these changes occur, a constructive discussion becomes impossible.
Failed Repair Attempts
It takes time for the four previous indicators to creep into a relationship - so how is it that Gottman only needed 15 minutes to predict divorce?
Gottman’s logic is sound: Couples tend to get stuck in patterns of conflict resolution that rarely change unless they’re taking specific steps to address it.
In essence, if Gottman witnessed a couple fight once, he got a very good idea of how they always fought.
Gottman also took the opportunity to interview the couples, and one positive prevailed in successful relationships:
“When I interview couples, I always ask them 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,” he explained.
Couples who looked back negatively almost always ended up splitting.
The Hard Truth
Six years after conducting his fifteen minute study, Gottman accurately predicted success or failure in 93.6% of participants by using the predictors above as the basis for his mathematical analysis.
Luckily, Gottman also developed several programs to fix struggling marriages by helping couples to identify these potentially fatal issues before they take their toll. For further reading, check out his book, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work.