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What makes certain marriages last, and why do so many fail?  Divorce rates are higher than they ever have been before, and if current trends continue it is estimated that the rate will stay between a staggering 40 to 50%.  Is this a reality we must accept and prepare ourselves for, or should these numbers push us to consider ways in which to improve our relationships and help preserve happy, stable marriages?  What kind of tools, resources, and ideas can counseling offer?  Dr. John M. Gottman, a Ph.D. psychologist and forerunner of marital research did not ignore these statistics, and has spent the last three decades researching what aids and ails relationships, and what leads to relationship and marital dissolution.  His research and findings were really the catalyst of improved methods in couples therapy.  His research is extraordinarily important for counselors and clients interested in relationships, marriage, and divorce.


Myths About What Predicts Divorce

  • Affairs Cause Most Divorces

This is the most common myth.

About 25% of all marital therapy cases report a revealed extramarital affair as the major presenting issue (Gottman, 1999, p. 23).  However, extramarital affairs were endorsed as a cause of the divorce by only 20-27% of all the couples in a study by Lynn Gigy and Joan Kelly of the California Divorce Mediation Project in 1992.

The major reasons for divorcing given by close to 80% of all men and women were growing apart and losing a sense of closeness, and not feeling loved and appreciated.  Of these reasons, “feeling unloved” was the most common cited reason for wanting a divorce

Gottman suggests that the slow slide to divorce, in which he dubs the “Distance and Isolation Cascade,” suggests that people become vulnerable to other relationships and opportunities outside the marriage in the final stage of loneliness.  So instead of couples’ interactions being fraught with intense fighting and arguments, there is instead a great deal of emotional distance and absence of affect.  This seems to be especially true for couples who are already in this stage of emotional disengagement in mid-life, after being married for 16 to 20 years

  • Monogamy is For Women

Sociobiology theories are the cause of this myth, saying that men need to philander for biological reasons, and women do not, so monogamy is just a “female thing.”  However, there is some interesting research suggesting that monogamy is actually more beneficial to men than it is to women.  Berkman and Syme (1979) found that being married predicted longevity for men but not for women.  This is because friendships are more important to women, and for men who were married, they had a built-in partner with whom they could communicate, and the marriage provided the only close and supportive relationship they had in many cases.  Jesse Bernard (1982) also found that marriages are more protective of men’s health than women’s, for the same reason.

The view that sociobiology has implanted into the psyche of our culture has probably done a lot of damage.  According to Lawson (1988), two-thirds of women and half of the men in their study had an affair in the first year of marriage, so the majority of adultery was not being caused by men.  Overall, Lawson concluded that social background does not have as big of affect on whether someone will have an affair, but this tendency may be more heavily influenced by dissatisfaction with marital intercourse.

  • Gender Differences Cause Divorce

This myth has become popular due to the “Mars-Venus” books put forth by John Gray, which suggests that men and women are so different they could be said to be from “different planets.”  Simply put, this argument makes no logical sense because there is both a male and a female in couples divorcing and also in those couples who stay married.  According to Gottman, “if gender differences are going to predict divorce, there has to be an interaction of gender differences with something like marital conflict that does the job of prediction.”  Also, we must consider that logically, if this were the case, then all heterosexual couples would get divorced, and all homosexual couples would stay married, and this is not the case

Dr. John M. Gottman's Research on Prediction of Divorce

Dr. John Mordechai Gottman is a well-known name in the area of marital research.  He has published over 190 papers and is the author or co-author of 40 books.  His research concerning predictors of divorce and marital stability have sparked a modern movement towards relationship counseling, and he has even founded a type of couples therapy based on his research (Gottman Method Couples Therapy).  He is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.  He and his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz, head a non-profit research institute called the Relationship Research Institute, as well as a for-profit therapist training institute called The Gottman Institute.  Counselors can become a trained therapist in the Gottman Method Couples Therapy.  The Gottman Relationship Institute provides workshops, professional training, private therapy, information about parenting and tools to help relationships, and provides information about their research.

Main Findings of Gottman's Research

Much of the research conducted by Gottman and his colleagues has revealed that negative perceptions, affect/emotions, and behaviors in marriages and marital interaction are the strongest predictors of divorce.  Negativity is a detrimental factor to marital stability, and could be considered a leading cause of separation and divorce.

In two longitudinal studies, Gottman (1994) found that anger was not a reliable predictor of divorce as previously hypothesized, but that four behaviors he called "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," namely criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, did reliably predict divorce.

In a study by Gottman and Levenson in 1992, they suggested that there is a continuity between marital dissatisfaction and separation and divorce.  There may be some question as to whether marital dissatisfaction and divorce are two separate processes or are linked.  They also suggest a theory that may account for marital dissolution: a balance theory which proposes that marital stability requires a high ratio of positive behavior to negative behavior in interaction.  Ideally, there should be a ratio of positive to negative behavior of 5 to 1.  Couples who are closer to a 1 to 1 ratio are in high danger of heading down the road to divorce.

Another study by Gottman et. al. in 1998 revealed that specific negative behaviors are reliable predictors of divorce.  Specifically, "The pattern predictive of divorce was negative start-up by the wife, refusal of the husband to accept influence from his wife, wife's reciprocation of low intensity negativity in kind, and the absence of de-escalation of low intensity negativity by the husband.  The only variable that predicted both marital stability and marital happiness among stable couples was the amount of positive affect in the conflict" (Gottman et. al., 1998, p. 17).

Gottman et. al. proposed in a study in 2000 that how spouses selectively attend to positive or negative aspects of their partner and of the marriage overall has a large impact on the future marital path.  The results of this study were staggering: of the 7 couples who had divorced, 6 (68%) were correctly categorized, and of those who were still married at the end of the study only 11 of 88 were incorrectly classified.  Specifically, they found that "The perceptions newlywed spouses have about their partner and about their marriage predict the stability of the marriage with 87% accuracy at the 4-6 year point and do so with 81% accuracy at the 7-9 year point" (Gottman et. al., 2000, p. 52).

In a particularly interesting study in 1999, Gottman and Carrere found that they could reliably predict the marital outcome over a 6-year period of a newlywed couple just based on data from the first 3 minutes of a marital conflict discussion!  Quantitative data was collected from 124 couples a few months after their wedding, and it was possible to predict who would remain married and who would get divorced by simply monitoring a 15 minute conversation between the couple concerning a problem in their marriage.  Analysis of the data revealed that looking at the whole 15 minutes was not even necessary, and that the first few minutes were telling enough.  They found that "couples who later divorced started off their conflict discussions with significantly greater displays of negative emotion and fewer expressions of positive emotions when compared with couples who remained married over the course of the 6-yeary study" (Carrere & Gottman, 1999, p. 296).  This study is important because it suggests that for both spouses the startup of the conflict discussion is critical in predicting divorce or marital stability.  The husbands and wives in stable marriages both displayed less negative affect and more positive affect in the very beginning of the discussion.

Other data have revealed that negativity is the best predictor of divorce over six years (85% accuracy), and effective repair skills increases prediction accuracy (97% accuracy), as among even highly negative newlyweds, 85% of those who effectively repair stay happily married.  

Applications to Clinical Practice - How Do These Findings Translate into Counseling?

 In an article reviewing research by Gottman and Levenson, Dr. Jay L. Lebow points out the strengths of these findings as well as how they can be applied to therapy.  He notes that it is "remarkable" that the methodology include a wide range of cognitive, affective, behavioral, and physiological measures.  Compared to earlier research, the data including all of there parameters gives us a better idea concerning what is involved in the martial process.

Dr. Lebow also asserts that this research methodology and its findings are useful to clinicians.  Notably, he asserts that "Gottman and Levenson highlight several channels of couple experience that have extraordinary predictive value for how relationships will evolve" (Lebow, 1999, p. 168).  In counseling sessions, professionals will have a better idea about what aspects of the interaction to tap into in order to know what should be addressed, such as emotional expressions and body language.  A therapist can look for signs of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling during the session, which can be found in both verbal and non-verbal cues.  These kinds of cues can also tune us into signs of physiological arousal, such as voice tone and body tension.  By assessing all of these things, a therapist can better understand a couple's relationship, going beyond just how satisfied the people are with their relationship.  Using this diagnosis can also help determine who is at greater risk for relationship difficulty and divorce.