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Can Therapists Predict if a Relationship will Last?

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Every now and again, someone will ask me "how they are doing" as a couple. What they're really asking is: Do you think we're going to make it through this tough time in our relationship?

There has actually been a plethora of research done on this very topic, specifically by the psychological researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson. In 1976, the two videotaped 52 couples during conversations. They used observational and physiological measures to see how the couples acted during these interactions and followed up with them three years later. Shockingly, they discovered that they were able to predict which couples would divorce and which would stay together with 90% accuracy.

So, what factors were revealed to be key indicators of divorce? And how can we ensure that we don’t fall into these negative patterns and habits in our own relationship? Below are some of the key findings from Gottman and Levenson’s research.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

As it turns out, there are four habits that predict a divorce just 5.6 years after the wedding, on average. These factors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, which the researchers named “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” discussed below.

  • Criticism: verbally attacking personality or character. Ex: “You always talk about yourself. Why are you always so selfish?”

  • Contempt: attacking someone’s sense of self with the intent to insult or abuse. It involves making statements from a position of moral superiority. Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mocking, and hostile humour are all examples of contempt. Ex: “Oh there we go again with Miss Princess asking me to do yet another thing as if she runs this place.”

  • Defensiveness: victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse blame. Ex: “It’s not my fault we’re not going to make it to the appointment; you always take so much time to get ready!”

  • Stonewalling: withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation. This usually occurs when someone is overwhelmed and under a lot of emotional pressure, which the researchers found increased people’s heart rates, released stress hormones, and even triggered the fight or flight response. Interestingly, in one of their longitudinal studies, they would interrupt the couple for 15 minutes if they were arguing to say they “needed to adjust the equipment.” What they discovered was that taking this time so each person’s physiological arousal could decrease helped them have productive, more positive interactions. Another interesting tidbit: 85% of stonewallers are men.

So, now that we know the main factors that appear to be significant predictors of divorce, what can we do about it?

1. Recognize when you are engaging in one of these unhealthy habits yourself.

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The key here is to notice when you are engaging in these unhealthy habits. Something I regularly see some couples do is point out the times when their partner is being “difficult” and engaging in the four horsemen. “There you go being defensive again! There you go stonewalling me!” While I appreciate the ability to start recognizing these unhelpful habits in real time, this usually just triggers more of the four horsemen from the other person. In these moments, take a big U-turn, look at yourself, and ask what you have done to contribute to the negative nature of the conversation. Have you been critical? Have you been stonewalling? Then correct yourself accordingly.

2. Use the following antidotes:

  • Combat criticism with soft start-ups: soft-startups are a way of initiating conversations so that you complain without blame. They involve using “I” statements and clearly expressing answers to the following questions: What do I feel? What would I like? An example of a soft start-up is, “I’m feeling a little hurt that you’re on your phone during our night out together. I would like you to turn it off so I can enjoy some quality time with you as I cherish these moments together a lot.” It’s worth noting that tone is very important with soft start-ups; it should be approachable and calm rather than accusatory and harsh.

  • Combat contempt with a culture of appreciation and respect: for a relationship to succeed, Gottman and Levenson found that there needs to be a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every negative one. Couples who are likely to divorce have a ratio of 0.8 to 1 in terms of positive to negative interactions. The trouble is, when you're in a bad place in your relationship, it’s precisely the time when you feel less inclined to be kind and appreciative, but it truly is precisely what your relationship needs. Thank your partner for the little things they do that often go unnoticed. Compliment them when they look nice or say something funny. Give them a hug or a kiss for no reason whatsoever. Genuinely ask for the opinion about something they’re knowledgeable about. The list goes on!

  • Combat defensiveness by taking accountability: I get it. When someone comes at us with a critique of any kind, our knee-jerk reaction is to get defensive. I think this is human nature. But in a mature, successful relationship, you bypass the defensiveness and actually listen. In other words, acknowledge that defensiveness is a natural reaction that will come up for you when you receive a critique or difficult piece of information, but you don't have to give into it. Take a breath. Be a mature adult. Look for the one thing that could be somewhat true about what the other person just said and own up to it. “You’re right, the way I said that was a little harsh, honey. My bad.” Then proceed with the rest of the conversation. This simple habit will work wonders for your relationship, I promise.

  • Combat stonewalling by taking breathers and slowing down the conversation: stonewalling occurs when we are emotionally overwhelmed. The researchers found that it specifically occurred if someone’s heart rate got above 100 BPM. You know the saying, “No good comes after 2am”? No good comes past 100 BMP! If you’re feeling yourself becoming revved up internally, tell your partner that you are worried that you will say something you will regret, remove yourself from the situation, take a moment to really check in with what emotion is coming up for you, and then reconvene.

The Bottom Line

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I've seen firsthand how the four horsemen of the apocalypse are key players in unhappy relationships. The good news, however, is that once you become aware of them, you can start to change them. Know this: the changes won’t happen overnight. Sometimes you’ll wish that your partner were “trying harder.” But you are only in control of yourself. I invite you to do the best you can with your own side of things; you just might be pleasantly surprised at the positive effect this has on your partner (and relationship), too.

In addition to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the factors I personally assess for when it comes to determining if I think a couple will "last" are willingness to change, ability to change, and "fuel left in the tank" when it comes to how patient they can continue to be to see these changes potentially happen.

If you and your partner feel like you could benefit from couples therapy, reach out to to schedule a session.


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