06 Feb The 4 Leading Predictors That Your Relationship Will End
For many of us, we can sense when our relationship isn’t right for us. If you are anything like me, you’re probably an expert at convincing yourself the relationship is right, despite your intuition screaming at you that something is wrong.
That is why I was so intrigued when I heard there was a researcher who could predict divorce with over a 90% accuracy rate. Well, if I can’t trust myself—maybe I can trust the research? My rational brain may be able to fight my gut feeling, but it certainly can’t fight science.
Dr. John Gottman is about as famous as you can get in the world of the psychology of relationships. His research and work have focused on what makes marriages stable and the factors that predict divorce. Gottman has identified communication patterns in couples that often led to separation, patterns he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
If we think the relationship is worth the work (and it’s okay to not think it is), we can replace the four horsemen with something that gives, rather than takes, from our relationship. These are known as the antidotes. As with most things, awareness opens up the opportunity for introspection and honest examination. From here, it is up to us and our partners whether or not we want to do the work to make the relationship last.
Criticism goes beyond complaining about something our partner did or didn’t do, or offering them feedback. It is likely to occur when we avoid sharing our anger or frustration and allow this to boil into resentment. This build-up of uncomfortable feelings can lead us to attack our partner’s character instead of focusing on a specific issue in the relationship.
Let’s say we have a partner who has started to look at their phone in the morning instead of rolling over and spending time with us. We could say something about it or we could let it build until it is no longer about our partner’s new habit, it is about our partner as a person.
“You aren’t present in our relationship anymore. You don’t love me like you used to,” can turn a simple complaint into a personal attack that is likely to upset our partner. Criticism hurts and can lead us to feel helpless and inadequate. Our partner looking at their phone in the morning can come across as an accusation that can leave them to feel more like an enemy than a partner.
Antidote to criticism
Things are inevitably going to go wrong in our relationship. Our partner won’t do the dishes, take the dog for his walk, or they will show up late to something that is important to us. It’s okay to complain about these things. It is okay to let our partner know that we have needs that they may not be meeting at any given time.
There is a way to communicate these issues without criticism, though. According to the Gottman’s, the antidote to criticism is the soft-start up. The practice of non-violent communication can help us understand how to soften our approach when criticism is on the tip of our tongue. I had a counselor once recommend that we put a printed copy of How You Can Use the NVC Process on our fridge and have to admit, it did help.
When we focus on ourselves using “I” statements and remove judgment or blame, our partners are much less likely to feel hurt by our expression of a need, frustration, or complaint. It can also be helpful to share these things as they come up, rather than bottling them up to the point where resentment has surfaced.
Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt is responsible for those things we say that we can never take back. Contempt cuts deep and comes from a place of thinking that we are better than our partner. John Gottman refers to this one as “sulfuric acid for love.”
Contempt shows up as disgust and hostility towards our partner. It can be delivered in many forms—sarcasm, eye-rolling, mockery, or harsh judgments. Whatever it is, it is most likely coming from a place of feeling morally superior to our partner in some way.
My partner is a counselor so for me, contempt once said “aren’t you supposed to be a counselor? It doesn’t look like you are practicing what you preach.” My tone was cutting and I said it with a smirk. Why would I say such a cruel thing to the person I love?
For many of us, saying something contemptuous doesn’t come out of nowhere. I had been feeling as though my partner had been so focused on his work and his clients, that he had been neglecting our relationship. Contempt emerged because I was feeling disrespected and as though I was putting more into the relationship than he was. Was that true? No. Did I let a story build up in my mind for weeks until it came bursting out of me? You bet.
Antidote to contempt
The Gottman Institute recommends building a culture of appreciation in your relationship. Instead of focusing on the negative attributes of your relationship or partner, appreciate the little things. When issues inevitably come up in our relationship that could be the breeding ground to contempt, it is recommended that we respectfully address them with our partners.
In Gottman’s research, he talks about “master couples”— the couples he came across in his research who have long and satisfying relationships. In these relationships, for every 1 negative interaction, they had 5 positive interactions. Noticing the effort our partner puts in each day—even if it is as small as loading the dishwasher or waking up early to make us coffee—can go a long way in creating what Gottman calls a “culture of appreciation.”
This one is tricky. It is a pretty human reaction to become defensive when we are being criticized. Defensiveness can lead to both partners in a relationship vying for the victim spot. Even if our partner is in the wrong by criticizing us, becoming defensive is only going to make things worse.
The other day my partner told me that my communication style was confusing our dog. Apparently, I was using too many words and Otis couldn’t keep up. I mean—he was right—but I still took that as “you are not a good dog mom and I know how to care for our dog better than you.”
It might sound ridiculous, but because I love our dog more than anything and I am insecure about my ability to train effectively, it hit a soft spot for me. His helpful feedback ended up turning into an argument about our dog, with me hyper-focused on convincing him that I was a good dog mom and it was him that was the problem. It was a royal waste of time and energy and a silly argument that could’ve easily been avoided.
Antidote to defensiveness
According to the Gottman Institute, this is where we have to take responsibility. I find there is often this little sliver of time where I get to decide how I respond and it is important in that moment to take a deep breath. With a deep breath, also comes the swallowing of my pride and my need to be right.
If we can become curious and lean into the conversation with the goal of understanding our partner, rather than defending our position, a potential argument can become an opportunity for deeper connection. Having two people committed to avoiding criticism and defensiveness will go a long way in avoiding unnecessary and unproductive conflict.
Oh, stonewalling. I know you well. Stonewalling is when we withdraw from a conflict and stop engaging with our partner. As someone who has pretty much only dated avoidant partners, I know how painful it can be to be on the receiving end of a partner who shuts you out or throws up a wall.
The reason we stonewall is because we are overwhelmed emotionally. If I ever walk away from my partner it is probably because I feel as though my heart is going to beat out of my chest and if I say another word, it will be one of those things I can’t take back.
When we stonewall, we don’t tell our partner we need some time and are going to be right back. We just leave and if we do stay, we emotionally checked out. Physiologically, we are in fight-or-flight and our ability to have a productive conversation is non-existent.
Antidote to stonewalling
Walking away can actually be a really good thing. If we are in a disagreement that is heating up and we feel ourselves becoming emotionally and physiologically aroused, taking a 20-minute time-out can allow us to calm down and come back to our senses.
We just need to make sure we do a couple of things here. For one, we need to let our partner know that we need some time to ourselves to calm down and reassure them that we will be right back. The next thing is that we spend the time calming down and not ruminating about the disagreement. Music, reading, going for a walk, meditation—anything that helps us to self-soothe.
I can say for experience that crying for 20 minutes and feeling sorry for yourself probably isn’t going to help. Nor is stewing in your own anger and thinking about all of your partner’s flaws. If we take that time to self-soothe, chances are we will be able to reunite with our partner and find resolution and closeness, rather than continue the disagreement that we walked away from in the first place.
In a recent episode of Unlocking Us called “What Makes Love Last,” Dr. John and Julie Gottman discuss how the antidotes to the 4 horsemen are far from a “bag of tricks.” Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to making a long-term relationship last. Although the antidotes might sound like easy ways to avoid the horsemen, putting them into practice takes commitment, patience, and a lot of love.
What lies beneath a strong and lasting relationship is a foundation of friendship. A friendship that is based on both partners feeling as though they are cherished and accepted by each other for who they are. This means accepting not only the things about our partners that are easy to love but also the things that may drive us a little bit nuts. If we can appreciate our partner for who they are and our partner can do the same for us, there is hope to create the kind of relationship that will last.