When it comes to relationships, experts say it’s the way you resolve your conflicts that can mean the difference between divorce and happily ever after. I have a friend who is a jeweller. She gets many requests from couples to make engagement or wedding rings and often finds that, even after meeting the couple for a short time, she has a sense of whether they will stay together or not. Occasionally, she finds out if she was right when the pair contact her and try to sell her their rings back.
What about you? Can you tell within 15 minutes of meeting a couple whether or not they are headed for divorce in the next three years?
American psychologist Dr John Gottman can. The prominent marital researcher and founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute claims he is able to predict divorce with 91 per cent accuracy. Even more astoundingly, he says he can do this by observing a couple’s interactions for just 15 minutes. Further, because couples’ conversations are largely predictable, by listening to the first three minutes it is possible to predict the rest of the conversation – and thus forecast divorce.
So what tells Gottman so accurately whether a relationship is doomed?
What are the ingredients for a successful union?
Various theories have been put forward over the years, among them that couples need to learn to communicate, that common interests and shared opinions are essential, and that couples who argue frequently might be in trouble.
Many counsellors and psychologists would probably assume that couples who validate each other and calmly work out their problems are in the best type of relationship. However, while Gottman agrees that in a validating marriage (where both parties listen to and understand each other) the union generally lasts, he also has found that volatile marriages (where conflicts erupt often) and conflict-avoiding marriages (where ‘we never fight’ is the rule) are equally stable. What matters is that both partners are comfortable with the relationship style.
According to Gottman, it is the process by which couples work out their differences that is important. His theories come from analysis of what couples say to each other and the manner in which they say it. He examines every element of how couples talk, including facial expressions, non-verbal signals (how much they fidget and gesture), physiological signals (including heart rate and speed of breathing) and other signals such as tone of voice.
Gottman and another scientist, Dr Robert Levenson, found in a study in the early 1980s that marital satisfaction is linked to a couple’s physiological responses to each other. The more that couples have ‘diffuse physiological arousal’ – the body’s alarm system triggered in conflict – the unhappier the marriage. Before examining the suggestions for engagement during conflict that Gottman advocates, it is beneficial to look at what happy couples do that works.
Unsurprisingly, despite the differing relationship styles, Gottman sees commonalities of love and respect expressed in couples’ behaviours. He believes it is necessary to have a friendship with your partner, where you build a sense of meaning and purpose. According to Gottman, it is the depth of friendship that, when hard times occur, protects the relationship and helps the positives outweigh the negatives.
The following elements are necessary when it comes to friendship:
1. Knowing what makes the other person tick – and if you don’t know, finding out by asking open-ended questions. For example, it is a well-researched phenomenon that the birth of the first child causes upheaval in a relationship. In fact, in 67 per cent of couples, marital satisfaction dropped after the first baby, according to a 2000 study by Dr Alyson Shapiro in the Journal of Family Psychology. In studying what the difference was in the remaining 33 per cent of couples whose satisfaction remained high, awareness for each other’s thoughts, feelings and needs was found to be key.
2. Building a culture of appreciation – noticing what the other person does that is good rather than scanning for what they are doing wrong.
3. Turning towards your partner. In order to connect emotionally, we share information through what we say and what we do – we bid for our partner’s attention through asking a question, giving a look or touching him or her gently on the arm. Turning towards the bid means acknowledging the question and replying in a positive way.
EQUATION FOR HAPPINESS
Interestingly, Gottman and his colleagues have worked out a ratio that determines whether a relationship is happy. It comes down to a ratio of five positive moments for every negative one. This may seem simplistic; however, research by other scientists such as Barbara Fredrickson, a leader in the field of positive psychology, and Marcial Losada, an organisational psychology consultant, arrived at similar ratios for individual wellbeing and high-performance teams, respectively.
So what does this 5:1 ratio mean? The research suggests that contented couples spend much more time interacting positively (touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing) than interacting negatively, whatever the style of marriage.
How do couples maintain this?
Gottman explains that when disagreeing, contented couples tend to be less intense in expressing their anger and tend to listen with interest rather than disapproval. Sound easier said than done? Consider how you might act towards your best friend when you disagree. In most women’s friendships, there is a degree of politeness in phone, text or email conversations where they are careful not to hurt each other’s feelings. Yet, somehow, this can disappear with an intimate partner.
What are some ways to keep the positivity ratio up? A reminder of the basics may be useful: show interest in what your partner says; be affectionate by touching and holding hands; show you care with a text or call wishing them well for a meeting or an event; be appreciative of the good things they do; show concern when they are ill; be empathic; be accepting; joke around; and share the good things that happen to you.
Gottman suggests a number of techniques in his books Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which offers advice on how to fight fair and in a way that will leave your relationship intact.
Arguments are not so much about a specific topic as the meaning of each person’s position. Gottman believes they are an opportunity to have a conversation about issues that go deeper than what is on the surface. For example, disagreements about how often the in-laws come to stay may be due to differing ideas about the role of your parents in your life (one person sees them as outsiders; the other as part of the family), and this perspective may help in understanding your relative positions.
Let’s consider the key warning signs for a relationship:
Criticism – framing problems as the result of a defect in your partner, rather than merely making a complaint. “You just don’t care about me” versus “I asked you to take out the rubbish last night.” Anything that adds blame to a complaint is a criticism and is personal.
Contempt – Gottman’s research has shown that this harsh emotion is the best predictor of divorce. Sneering, sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery or hostility are all forms of contempt.
Defensiveness – defending yourself when you’ve been criticised is understandable, but it has the effect of escalating the argument. It is likely both partners will come away feeling angry.
Stonewalling – when the listener withdraws from an argument with no sign that they have even heard what’s been said. While this often feels like rejection to the one being ignored, it is a coping mechanism whereby the stonewaller is trying to calm down and not make the situation worse.
These four factors, if occurring regularly, predict divorce with 83 per cent accuracy, according to Gottman.
What’s even more fascinating is that he can tell in listening to newlyweds’ disagreements if their marriage is in trouble. He listens for ‘failed repair attempts’, such as one partner suggesting something to diffuse the situation, and the other partner refusing to decrease the tension. Gottman has found that the determining factor in whether repairs are accepted is the strength of the couple’s friendship. When the four warning signs are common in a relationship, the likelihood of repairs being successful is lower because the couple is in the pattern of not noticing each other’s attempts, or they are already overwhelmed by negative emotion. Adding the failure of repair attempts to the four warning signs pushes the accuracy of predicting divorce to more than 90 per cent, according to Gottman.
It may be reassuring to hear that in all relationships, regrettable actions occur, and it is the way couples defuse tension through repair attempts that makes a big difference.
One of the more contentious points Gottman has advocated is the abandonment of ‘active listening’, where one partner tells the other what is bothering them while the other partner listens and then summarises what they have heard. Gottman concluded active listening didn’t work after finding that happily married couples didn’t do it, and when they did, it had no marital outcome. He cited Kurt Hahlweg’s Munich Marital Study, which examined active listening in couples and found it didn’t help. Most programs include it as part of their marital therapies, but in order to show that something works, researchers need to identify the active ingredient and show its effects. In the German study, even after the active-listening intervention, couples were in the ‘distressed’ range. Those that did improve had a high rate of relapse.
Happily, there are many other interventions in marital therapy that have lasting effects. Gottman has shown that the following methods are effective in resolving disagreements:
1. SOFTEN YOUR START-UP
It is the way the argument/discussion is started that matters. Compare “Can we talk about the laundry arrangements? I don’t think they’re working” with “All I’ve asked you to do is bring in the washing and you can’t even get that right.” This is when you can make ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’. For example, “You’re not listening” versus “I’d like it if you could listen to me, please.”
2. LEARN TO REPAIR
Repair phrases might be about calming down (“Can we take a break? Can I take that back?”), apologising (“I can see my part in this; I’m sorry, let me try again”), focusing on commonalities (“That’s a good point; we’re both saying …; I know this isn’t your fault”) or diffusing with humour.
3. SOOTHE YOURSELF
Learn what calms you down and figure out when you need to stop discussions so you don’t explode. Any time you have a break, it should last at least 20 minutes. Use the time not to ruminate on the indignation you feel but rather to breathe and relax.
Finally, a note about same-sex relationships. In a 12-year study, Gottman and his colleagues found similar patterns among gay and lesbian couples as in straight couples. However, there were a few key differences, including that gay and lesbian couples are more upbeat in the face of conflict, they use fewer hostile emotional tactics and, when fighting, they take comments less personally.
To summarise one of the key messages from Gottman’s work, it is the gentle rather than blaming attitude that you would use with anyone you respect that will keep your relationship alive.
So now you know how you can strengthen your relationship and avoid having to try to persuade your jeweller to take back the ring.