The Single Biggest Predictor of Divorce

One of the most common relationship behaviors is the most destructive.

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Photo by Colleen Murphy

Contempt. We have all experienced what it feels like to be disrespected. Looked down upon. Made to feel less than for simply being yourself.

What does contempt feel like? It is being dismissed as unimportant. It is the abrupt end to a conversation. What you are saying isn’t as valuable as what they want to say. There is no give and take. You feel laughed at, demeaned and demoralized. Your dreams are scoffed at, your ideas unwelcome. Contempt is an attempt to gain the upper hand, a grab for a position of superiority by dismissing you.

It’s ugly. And mean. And it will kill any relationship.

Dr. John Gottman, relationship author and martial researcher has written many books including Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Gottman coined the relationship term “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe the four communication styles the most likely predict relationship failure. They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.

Since the 1970’s, Dr. Gottman has conducted a longitudinal study that can predict with 93% accuracy if a marriage will survive by simply observing how the couple interacts during a normal disagreement.

And Gottman says he doesn’t even have to listen to the argument. He can simply view a video of a couple fighting and turn the sound all the way down and still predict the success or failure of a marriage just by observing the look on someone’s face.

“If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.”

-Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

In another study, Gottman found that by counting the number of times a criticizing partner simply looked at their spouse with contempt, he could accurately predict how many infectious illnesses the victim would contract over the course of the next four years.

Just the look on your face can predict about the outcome of your relationship and the future of your health?

According to Gottman, contempt doesn’t happen overnight. It is preceded by criticism. And not just an occasional complaint, but a barrage of negative comments. Constant bickering is poison to any relationship.

You didn’t take out the garbage, pay the bill, call your mother…the laundry list goes on and on. The currency becomes how effective you are at placing blame on your partner. It is an attack that is steady and erodes the sense of self.

Over time, interactions become increasingly difficult. How can you resolve any problem when you feel as if your partner is deeply dissatisfied with who you are as a person?

And while the criticized partner suffers, the critic is equally miserable. But why?

To truly understand what is going on in a marriage that suffers from criticism and contempt, you have to understand the critic. A critical person experiences the unsettling feeling of irritability and then looks to place blame for that feeling on unwitting victims. For whatever reason, they are unhappy in their own skin, dissatisfied from the moment they walk in the room.

To make sense of their own feelings, they assign blame. And then they turn their gaze toward you. Critics have the delusional belief that you will actually appreciate their criticism and thank them for pointing out all your flaws.

If you find yourself the victim of a critic, you are the last person who can turn the situation around. After all, you are the reason your partner is miserable. If you would just put the cap back on the toothpaste, I would be happy. I am being facetious, but you get the point. All critics have a nonsensical list of things to do that will make them feel happy. But there is no scenario where your behavior could be perfect enough to satisfy someone who is hell-bent on blaming your actions for how they feel inside.

The antidote to contempt according to Gottman is a deep sense of fondness and admiration. Fostering respect is the only cure for criticism and contempt. But this is hard to do because it requires the emotional ability to feel empathy for your partner. How can you get a critic to feel empathy for the source of their irritation?

Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind — but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values.

-Dr. John Gottman

What is so interesting in Gottman’s research is that he can cure any relationship problem in 30 minutes with simple retraining. The bad signs in a relationship disappear when he teaches a critic to change his or her approach from critique to appreciation.

But in almost every case, the couple lapses back into the same old behaviors and the relationship continues to decline. He can fix it but it doesn’t stay fixed. That implies that once an environment of disrepect has taken hold, it is nearly impossible to turn the tide back.

Can we use Gottman’s research as signposts along the way? Maybe we can recognize when contempt is directed our way and realize that what it means is that our relationship is suffering.

The couples Dr. Gottman recognizes as the “masters of marriage” are not flawless. Great couples fight. They exhibit the four horseman, except for one-they do not engage in contempt.

If all great couples fight then the real question we should be examining is how we fight. Is it with love and empathy? What if instead of blaming our partners, we took responsibility for what we truly desire in a relationship?

It isn’t the job of a relationship to make you feel happy or fulfilled. The true value of a great partnership is having a safe place to explore the world, a place where you can learn and grow. That can only be fostered in an environment of excitement and kindness and understanding.

As humans, we crave connection. It is a hardwired need. We have to know someone in this world has our back, no matter what. If the greatness of a relationship can truly be measured in the most challenging moments, then what we are all really looking for is a soft place to land when things get hard.

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Writing about the beautiful journey of life and love. We are all figuring this out together

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