Mind & Body

These Are the Four Horsemen of Divorce

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Human relationships are complicated, messy, and hard to predict. Wouldn't it be great if someone came up with a mathematical formula that could tell you exactly how to interact with your partner to ensure that your love will thrive? In fact, one research lab spent decades on this exact pursuit. Renowned researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson have applied mathematical equations to marital interactions, and they've essentially cracked the code.

Scientifically Ever After

To fix a rocky marriage, most couples might talk it out on a therapist's couch. Gottman and Levenson thought science and technology could do so much more. Starting in 1976, the researchers began searching for novel measurements that could predict marital satisfaction and risk of divorce by using video cameras and skin conductance sensors to record couples while they talked about their day. They found some amazing things: the higher a couple's physiological arousal — things like their heart rate and their skin's electrical activity — the more their marriages deteriorated in the following years. The less interested the husband was during an everyday discussion, the more irritated the woman was when the subject turned to conflict. The less humor a couple brought to conflict discussions, the higher their likelihood of divorce.

By the early 2000s, their research made them able to predict whether a couple would divorce with an average accuracy of more than 90 percent. The Gottman Institute has distilled that knowledge into a rule of thumb they call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — the apocalypse, in this case, meaning divorce. These are the four communication styles that their research says can predict the end of a marriage.

1. Criticism

This horseman is likely the most common in a rocky relationship. Criticism isn't complaining or critiquing; instead, it's attacking the other person's character. The former voices concerns while the latter places blame. It's the difference between saying "You always leave your clutter everywhere! You just want me to feel embarrassed when friends come over!" and "Don't forget I have friends coming over at six. I see a lot of your clutter around; could you clean it up before then?" If you have a complaint, it's generally best to avoid starting sentences with "you" and instead talking about your own needs. Criticism isn't always a sign of a failing relationship, but if it starts happening often, it can lead to the next horseman.

2. Contempt

John Gottman has called contempt "the sulphuric acid of love." Showing contempt means treating your partner with meanness and disrespect. This includes eye rolling, mocking, and name-calling — all actions designed to make them feel small and worthless. It's the opposite of care and compassion, and it might not surprise you to learn that it's the single greatest predictor of divorce. The antidote is to treat each other with more kindness and respect. You love each other, after all.

3. Defensiveness

This often goes hand in hand with criticism. It means responding to complaints with excuses and blame reversal: "I was way too busy to pick up pet food on my way home, and anyway, you forgot to remind me!" It's understandable, especially if you think that accepting blame will result in more criticism, but it will only lead to a vicious cycle of more criticism and more defensiveness. The best thing to do is to admit your mistake and apologize. Showing a little weakness can go a long way.

4. Stonewalling

If defensiveness if a response to criticism, stonewalling is a response to contempt. This is when someone shuts their partner out completely. The Gottman Institute says that this is often a result of feeling physiologically flooded — all the negative emotions that have been stirred up from the conflict become too much to bear, and the only option is to shut down. If you feel like you're reaching this point during a fight, call a time out and let your partner know that you need a 10-minute break. Then find ways to let your emotions dissipate: go on a walk, splash water on your face, or do some jumping jacks to get your energy out. Good luck!

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Read more of Gottman's research in his book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer March 22, 2019

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