Predicting Successful Marriages [Gottman]

Rohit Khare (
Thu, 24 Jun 1999 21:43:55 -0700

[The description of the cycle is quite accurate... we argue if we
*want* to argue... pdf available; I'm starting to finally realize my
vision of an electronic clipping file. Acrobat can do some amazing
things when it doesn't crash... RK]

Admiration vs. Contempt
' ' Admiration is the antidote for
contempt. Couples who are on a
stable and happy trajectory express
spontaneous admiration and affection
for their partner much more
than couples on the trajectory
toward divorce. ' '
-John M. Gottman

Predicting Successful Marriages
Looking for early hints of trouble ahead.
You think you've found Mr. (or
Ms.) Right, but something nags
you. Perhaps it's the way your
sweetheart's eyes roll up whenever
you tell one of your hilarious stories.
Do you want to watch those beauti-ful
eyes rolling up contemptuously
at you for the rest of your life?

Eye rolling is just one subtle signal
of contempt that psychologist John
M. Gottman looks for when ana-lyzing
couples' interactions and
predicting their potential success
in marriage. Contemptd is one of
Gottman's "Four Horsemen of the
Apocalypse" of failed marriages,
along with criticism, defensiveness,
and stonewalling.

Divorce rates remain extremely
high in the United States, and about
50%-67% of first marriages end in
divorce, notes Gottman, a professor
of psychology at the University of
Washington. The consequences of a
failed marriage can be extremely
harsh, emotionally as well as eco-nomically,
so Gottman and his col-
leagues hope to
find ways to im-prove
prospects for
success both be-fore
they marry
and-through better marital ther-apy-
afterwards. Potentially unsuc-cessful
marriages might also be

Most psychologists and therapists
obtain information about couples
through interviews and self-report-ing
techniques such as diaries and
personality tests. But to really know
what goes on in a marriage, they
need to see it in action. Enter the
marriage laboratory.

Between 1989 and 1992, Gottman
and his colleagues studied some 130
newlywed couples using two re-mote-
controlled video cameras that
would simultaneously record images
of both partners during interactions.

Microphones recorded their conver-sations,
and polygraphs, electrocar-diograms,
transducers, and other
sensing equipment picked up their
physiological responses. This way,
the experimenters were able to ana-lyze
how well the individuals lis-tened
to each other and whether
their responses to each other were
positive (showing warmth, valida-tion,
interest, affection, humor) or
negative (showing anger, sadness,
whining, disgust, tension, fear,
stonewalling). The couples could
also watch the video after the en-counter
and discuss their feelings.

A Problem of Negativity

Gottman's team was able to pre-dict
divorce and stability with 83%
accuracy and marriage satisfaction
with 80% accuracy. They discovered
that anger and bickering are not nec-essarily
unhealthy for a couple and
could not be used to predict a di-vorce.
Rather, it is one or both part-ners'
negative responses to those be-haviors
that is the key. In the
unstable relationships, the partners
are more likely to reciprocate each
other's negative attitude. In stable
relationships, bickering that is un-accompanied
by sarcasm, contempt,
or other negative responses may
simply be a form of mutual prob-lem

"Neither husband's nor wife's
anger was predictive of divorce, nor
did it predictively discriminate be-tween
happy and unhappy stable
marriages," Gottman writes in the
Journal of Marriage and the Family
(February 1998). More destructive
than anger are contempt, belliger-ence,
and defensiveness. The most-likely-
to-fail pattern occurred in
cases where the wife initiates a nega-tive
interaction (e.g., nags), the hus-band
refuses to be influenced by the
wife (dominates), the wife recipro-cates
with low-intensity negativity
(whines), and the husband fails to
de-escalate that negativity (doesn't
calm himself down).

"We conclude that the marriages
that wound up happy and stable had
a softened start-up by the wife, that
the husband accepted influence from
her, that he de-escalated low-inten-sity
negative affect, that she was
likely to use humor to effectively
soothe him, and that he was likely to
use positive affect and de-escalation
to effectively soothe himself,"
Gottman writes.

Contrary to current methods used
in marriage therapy, Gottman and
his colleagues found that "active lis-tening"
(using techniques such as
paraphrasing the partner's statement
about a problem) rarely occurs dur-ing
conflict resolution and does not
predict successful marriage out-comes.

In fact, Gottman suggests, ac-tive
listening prescribed by thera-pists
may be too confrontational,
since it expects people to be empa-thetic
in the face of criticism from
their partners. This "emotional gym-nastics"
may be too much to ask. A
better approach might be to recom-mend
"gentle de-escalation and
soothing" during a conflict.
-Cynthia G. Wgner

Source: John M. Gottman, Department of Psy-chology,
Box 351525, University of Washington,
Seattle, Washington 98195. Telephone l-206-
543-5372; e-mail
Gottman is the author of Why Marriages SK-teed
or fail: And How You Can Make Yours
Last(Fireside, 1995, $12) which may be
ordered for a 20% discount through the World
Future Society's Web site,