Peter’s couple therapy blog

How Gottman predicts separation/divorce 5


“While it takes time for the four horsemen and the flooding that comes in their wake to overrun a marriage, divorce can so often be predicted by listening to a single conversation between newlyweds.
By analysing any disagreement a couple has, you get a good sense of the pattern they tend to follow. A crucial part of that pattern is whether their repair attempts succeed or fail.

“Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes (“Let’s take a break,” “Wait, I need to calm down”) to deescalate the tension during a touchy discussion — to put on the brakes so flooding is prevented.

“Repair attempts save marriages because they decrease emotional tension between spouses and because, by lowering the stress level, they also prevent your heart from racing and making you feel flooded.

“When the four horsemen rule a couple’s communication, repair attempts often don’t even get noticed. Especially when you’re feeling flooded, you’re not able to hear a verbal White flag.

“In unhappy marriages, the more contemptuous and defensive the couple is with each other, the more flooding occurs, and the harder it is to hear and respond to a repair. And since the repair is not heard, the contempt and defensiveness just get heightened, making flooding more pronounced, which makes it more difficult to hear the next repair attempt, until finally one partner withdraws.

“The failure of repair attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future.

“The presence of the four horsemen alone predicts divorce with only an 82 percent accuracy. But when you add in the failure of repair attempts, the accuracy rate reaches into the 90s.

“This is because some couples who trot out the four horsemen when they argue are successful at repairing the harm the horsemen cause. Usually when the four horsemen are present but the couple’s repair attempts are successful, the result is a stable, happy marriage.

“In fact, 84 percent of the newlyweds who were high on the four horsemen but repaired effectively were in stable, happy marriages six years later. But if there are no repair attempts — or if the attempts are not able to be heard — the marriage is in serious danger.

“Gottman can tell 96 percent of the time whether a marital discussion will resolve a conflict, after the first three minutes of that discussion.

“In emotionally intelligent marriages a wide range of successful repair attempts can be heard. Each person has his or her own approach. Whether a repair succeeds or fails has very little to do with how eloquent it is and everything to do with the state of the marriage.

“In marriages in which the four horsemen have moved in for good, even the most articulate, sensitive, well-targeted repair attempt is likely to fail abysmally.

“Ironically, we see more repair attempts between troubled couples than between those whose marriages are going smoothly. The more repair attempts fail, the more these couples keep trying. What predicts that repair attempts will work? The quality of the friendship between husband and wife and “positive sentiment override.”


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