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Am I Headed For Divorce?

One of my Psychology Favorites was on Anderson Cooper this week!

Dr. John Gottman is well-known for his research on what makes a marriage work and being able to predict divorce.

One part of Gottman’s divorce prediction is the The Four Horsemen:

  • criticism:  a global negative evaluation of a person’s personality or character (this differs from a complaint – a complaint is a specific statement about a behavior.  “You said you would walk the dog and you didn’t.” (complaint)  vs. “You forget everything and you just don’t listen.” (criticism).
  • contempt:  intense disrespect, deep criticism, reflects disgust.  Usually shows up through sarcasm, mockery, cynicism.
  • defensiveness: self-protection by blaming my partner
  • stonewalling:  one person feels overwhelmed and tunes out, shuts down, avoids further contact

Have you ever wondered, “Am I headed for divorce?” or wondered how not to divorce, or wondered why the marital therapy you tried seemed pointless? I definitely suggest delving into Gottman’s work (links below) to discover what this renowned psychologist says about marriages and why they break down.

For example, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work includes great information and exercises for couples. He guides you through his divorce predictors and also describes what helpful marital therapy looks like. He reviews topics that can show up in every marriage – In-laws, sex, money, to-dos and household chores, spending time together, problem solving and reoccurring issues.

Also, 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage gives examples of couples and their issues – such as

  • All You Ever Do Is Work
  • There’s No Passion, There’s No Fun
  • You Never Talk To Me
  • Will You Ever Get Over The Affair

The book details what is going on in the relationship and shows how a marriage can be transformed with the right kind of help. For instance, in each of the 10 lessons, you get the story behind the couple’s issue, a bit about their history, and a detailed chart that labels what the clients say in therapy and how the therapists respond - showing how Gottman’s work can be applied to the issue.

If reading a book makes you groan, get a taste of this white-bearded psychologist in action on his Anderson Cooper guest appearance.

How Gottman Is Different

Gottman notes that many people have stalled in their relationships even after therapy….how can that happen?  Isn’t therapy supposed to help?  He explains that most therapies focus on couples using “active listening” and gently forcing couples to see each other’s sides.

Let’s say that a couple lands themselves in therapy, knowing that they are at a place where a third party needs to help them out of a bad rut.

This couple has a history with This Issue (money, sex, childcare, etc) and has “talked” about it 1000 times, and 988 of these conversations were arguments.  So while the therapist encourages both the husband and the wife to listen and gives the couple a few techniques to help them argue more respectfully, this is not the heart of what will make the marriage successful or happy.

The reason active-listening and conflict resolution-focused therapy does not work is that it demands a high level of emotional control.  Most people go on the defensive in an argument, their bodies react to the intensity of the situation (sweating, increased heart rate, muscles tighten) and they are less able to process information or think creatively (i.e. listen).  The response is to react, to fight harder or flee the scene…anything to get my way or get away.

This is not to say that listening doesn’t work or that suggestions for conflict resolution aren’t good ideas.  These are great things to have in your toolbox that you can use within a marriage.  The point is that there is more to helping a marriage than taking turns and trying to control yourself while you are listening.

Dispelling A Few Marital Myths

Gottman dispells a few marital myths such as:

  • Tit for Tat Compromising helps a marriage.  (Not so! This pushes for a couple to keep running “What Have You Done For Me Lately” totals)
  • Happily married couples do not fight and they solve problems easily.  (Not so!  Even happily married couples have screaming matches and unsolvable problems!)
  • All problems can be solved.  (Not so!  We all bring different histories, values and beliefs, hopes and dreams to the table.  Fighting over differences does not help the marriage, forcing same-ness does not encourage the beauty of each person to exist and grow in the marriage.  Some problems are never solved.)


So What Makes For A Happy Marriage?

Gottman recognizes a few fundamentals in his research and the recommendations he makes for successful therapy.  Happily married couples:

  1. have a relationship that is based in friendship.  This type of relationship that builds on positive and not negative, as well as honoring, encouraging and enjoying the two different people that make up this relationship.
  2. handle issues and reoccurring problems in positive ways that limit the four nasty types of interactions that break down a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

What Now?

  • Take a look at one of Gottman’s books.  They are all great and easy to digest.  They serve as a great starting point to begin learning about healthy marital interactions.
  • Try one of the activities he has in books.
  • Get outside help if you need it.  If possible, find someone that is familiar with Gottman’s work.
  • Check the Gottman Institute website and try and attend a workshop.
  • Check out the Gottman Institute website and see what is going on…like The Art and Science of Lovemaking and a sex blog.



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