Making Good Relationships: 4 Behaviors Predictive of Divorce

divorceIn a previous post we talked about our view that what is most important in successful long term relationships is not so much who we choose but how we build the relationship (of course, if you choose someone without morals or who is seriously disturbed, this doesn’t probably apply to you).

But we deferred discussing what it takes to make a good relationship. Until now.

The starting place for this discussion is the person who has done the most to influence the field of couple’s counseling in recent memory – John Gottman. Dr. Gottman is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written a number of books and published several research studies which focused on predicting success or failure in marriages.

In his studies the best predictor of success in relationships was the minute by minute interactions of couples with each other.

The four negative behaviors that most predict divorce are

  • criticism of the partners’ personality

You are too needy… you aren’t smart enough… etcetera. These comments are absolutely deadly. They imply that not only is the person not behaving the way you want them to but the person is actually fundamentally flawed… perhaps even basically unlovable.

  • contempt (from a position of superiority)

How ridiculous that you would think that… How could you possibly… These comments also connect to the sense of a basic flaw that makes someone pathetic, weak, etcetera. Of these four Gottman considers this to be the most powerful way of destroying a relationship. And thus, respect is the foundation of a good relationship.

  • defensiveness

This is an automatic response that denies that what the other person sees or experiences is true. Usually based in a profound sense of self-doubt, but showing up as a stubborn unwillingness to consider that anything that you do is perhaps less than ideal.

  • stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction

This is a refusal to engage in a discussion about important topics. I am too tired. Or what is the point…

On the other hand, stable couples handle conflicts in gentle, positive ways, and are supportive of each other.

John proposed that there were seven things you could do to improve your relationships in his classic book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work –

  1. Enhance Your Love Maps. What Gottman means by the phrase “love map” is the place in your brain where you store information about your partner’s deepest feelings –  their dreams, hopes, and interests. In business we know that having this kind of knowledge of others and paying attention to when their birthday is, the names of their kids, etcetera, is very important to creating successful relationships. But it is remarkable how many smart people don’t pay as much attention to this in their most important relationship as they do to people who don’t matter as much. Perhaps the basis for this is the “love should be natural” fallacy… which also relates to the observation one of our colleagues who works in a crisis center once made to us – why is it that people in long term relationships are often so rude to each other… In other words, I shouldn’t have to “work” to make my relationship work… I should be free to be the “real” me and express myself however I want… And equally free to only pay attention to my partner when I feel like it.
  2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration. One of the best predictors of a successful relationship is how often the two people say positive things about each other rather than negative. Really successful relationships involve saying lots of very positive things. On average a happy couple says more than 5 times as many positive as critical things. Try counting your positives and negatives. If the ratio isn’t pretty high you should work on deliberately finding and sharing the (real) things that you appreciate and admire in your partner.
  3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away. In small ways and in an ongoing fashion you should look towards your partner (literally and figuratively). Let yourself be easily interrupted. Show your interest by how you respond to small events that are emotionally significant to the other person.
  4. Let Your Partner Influence You. It is important to maintain your own identity in a relationship, but it is just as important to be changed, and influenced by your partner. This is one of the most profound ways of expressing trust.
  5. Solve Your Solvable Problems. Resolving disagreements that can be worked through is important (and perhaps not all of them can be). Gottman  says there are five steps to doing this: soften your startup (how do you begin the conversation? another way of saying this is that in any negotiation be soft on the feelings – what the emotional issues are for the other person), learn to make and receive repair attempts (work on resolving inadvertent hurts), soothe yourself and each other (when things are difficult in the relationship work on ways of making yourselves feel better), compromise, and be tolerant of each other’s faults.
  6. Overcome Gridlock. If you can’t resolve a disagreement then you have to work very hard to make sure that both of you deeply understand and respect the other person’s position.
  7. Create Shared Meaning. Create a system of shared values that connects you to your partner with rituals/traditions (holidays, date nights, family meals, etcetera), shared roles (try to take care of the kids sometimes, or take on reconciling the bank statement once in a while, understanding the experience of the other person in this way is very powerful, and symbols (places, images, ideas).

If you do all of this you will have done most of what can be done to improve and nurture a great relationship.

For more of John’s writings –

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: America’s Love Lab Experts Share Their Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationship

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last

And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives

The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples