May 15, 2015

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.

Wedding cake

I was touring the ancient ruins of Ephesus when I walked into a jewelry shop and fell in love with more than the merchandise… I fell in love with Ibrahim, a strong, hunk of a man who looked like he stepped off the set of “Gladiator.”

We dated for two years and he had so many qualities that I admired: he was exceedingly kind, chivalrous and was always the first to help someone in need. But people also took advantage of this trait.

One of my key love languages is quality time, so the few arguments we had mostly revolved around the demands others placed on him and my need for alone time as a couple. This was also partly because he came from a more collectivist society, Turkey, and I was from the individualistic U.S. of A.

He also wanted to get married, but I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t know how to fight well. My easy-going style would drift along until a teeny straw would suddenly break the camel’s back and a flood of complaints that I’d buried subconsciously would shoot up like a geyser. And the truth is, we probably didn’t fight enough. He always wanted to make me happy, and I loved that, but I also wanted something with more depth, revelation and growth that can only comes from the heat and intensity of misunderstanding transforming into a deepening of mutual understanding.

This is the place where true intimacy dwells. It’s not that we have to agree or agree to disagree—we just need to actually see and understand our beloved. Being “right” is overrated. Being seen is what we truly want.

Too often we sidestep or fast-forward through arguments to feel safe. Or we get swept up in a spiral of negativity that builds and builds and builds.

According to Dr. John Gottman, the leading authority on marriage in the U.S., there are two primary components to a lasting marriage:

  1. An agreement with your spouse on how to handle arguments
  2. A heaping dose of positivity made with love, respect and valuing your shared history

His book, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail,” should be required reading for everyone as soon as they hit puberty and become interested in the realm of romantic love. He has studied thousands of couples over 40-years of research and has distilled the most important qualities for a successful marriage. He can also predict within 94 percent accuracy whether a marriage will succeed or fail by observing the verbal and non-verbal communication patterns of his subjects.

In one study, couples were brought back four years after the initial experiment and 69 percent of the time the couples had the same problems and issues that they had four years prior, and talked about them with the same patterns.

We tend to argue about the same things in the same way. And sometimes, we argue about nothing at all. Negative emotion can feel safer because there’s a momentum to it. The key is to bring awareness by understanding your communication style and pattern and that of your partner.

According to Dr. Gottman’s extensive research, these are the behaviors to watch out for:

The Four Horsemen of the ApocalypseDivorce Predictors

  1. Criticism: You blame your partner and get in some digs that attack their personality or character.
  2. Contempt: Contempt dials it up from criticism with the intent to hurt. As Dr. Gottman explains, contempt is: “the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. With your words and body language, you’re lobbing insults right at the heart of your partner’s sense of self.”
  3. Defensiveness: This can show up as whining, making up excuses, a false smile, arms folded across the chest, or my personal favorite, “yes-butting.” “Yes, we could do that, but…”
  4. Stonewalling: When one partner shuts down completely and withdraws from conversation.

The emotional ecology of your relationship is not only key to the health and vitality of the marriage, but also to the actual health of each person. For example, research has shown that criticism and contempt actually diminish your immune functioning when you become the target of an attack.

Things to remember from Dr. Gottman’s research:

  • Reminisce about how you met your partner. Couples who could clearly retell the story about how they met their partner were more likely to have a good marriage.
  • Know your partner’s dreams. If there was one thing you could do to improve your marriage in 30 seconds, Dr. Gottman advises to ask yourself, “What are your dreams?” if you don’t know them already.
  • Some negativity is actually good for marriage. Know how to fight well and fair. The key is to work out disagreements before they escalate into conflict.
    • Calm down, speak non-defensively, validate and practice often. It takes time, openness and presence to override your default settings.
    • Say your complaint in a way your partner can hear it. Never insult your partner or talk from a superior place.
    • In arguments, your body language speaks even more loudly than your words. A cutting eye roll can be just as destructive as calling someone an idiot. Being a good listener requires your body to show you’re receptive to what your partner has to say. There isn’t such a thing as arguing too much or not enough it’s all about how you argue.
    • Know the difference between complaint, criticism and contempt.
      • Complaint: A complaint is specific to the situation at hand. “I’m angry because you forgot to feed the cat tonight.” Complaint is an essential ingredient to healthy marriages.
      • Criticism: This is where things get a little more personal, global and often involves the use of “always” or “never.” For example: “You never feed the cat. I can’t rely on you to help me with the simplest tasks.”
      • Pro tip: Complaints usually begin with “I…” and criticism begins with “You…”
      • Contempt: Contempt includes character assassination. “You’re such a jerk. All you think about is yourself. Why can’t you ever remember to feed the cat?”
  • This is the biggest take-away from the preeminent researcher and psychologist on marriage in the U.S.:

“For a marriage to last, there must be at least five positive interactions for every negative one between partners.” ~ Dr. John Gottman

Things to avoid:

  • Saying “you always” or “you never,” insulting your partner and acting in a superior way.
  • Making a sour facial expression or using defensive postures when listening to you partner. Wives who used sour expressions were likely to be separated from their spouse in under four years.
  • Knowing that most problems in relationships are not about what psychologists and counselors call the “presenting issue.” How you cope with discontent is often the real issue that creates the problem and is the cause for your success in life and love.

Want to know more? See Dr. Gottman in action.

The four negative patterns that predict divorce:

The magic relationship ratio:


Author: Kristi Kremers

Editor: Evan Yerburgh

Image: Flickr

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