Award-Winning Research: Preventing Divorce

A recent issue of Psychotherapy Networker reviews 25 years of research on counseling, and concludes that the most convincing and influential work was done by Dr. John Gottman on marriage and divorce. (Dr. Gottman was also the only researcher listed in the top ten most influential therapists.)

Originally a mathematician, Gottman’s research was well designed and funded. Over 3000 couples agreed to come periodically to spend weekends in his "Love Lab" overlooking Pugent Sound in Seattle. It was a set of apartments knowingly equipped with various recording devices where couples would come spend a couple of nights, and then learn from what their recorded behavior showed.

By continuing to study these couples over 30 years, he was able to see which ones divorced, separated, stayed unhappily married, or became more and more happily married. Gottman is now able to observe a couple having an argument, and predict with "uncanny, 91% accuracy" who will and who will not get divorced. Four behaviors emerged as the primary predictors and causes of divorce. Though himself Jewish, he refers to these four toxic behaviors using a metaphor from New Testament end-times prophecy in Revelations 6, calling them "The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse." They are:


Gottman’s research shows this is the most harmful of these four mistakes. Contempt is active behavior which shows disgust for the partner, such as sarcasm, cynicism, mockery, sneering, eye-rolling, hostile humor, belligerent threats or provocations, and name-calling. These behaviors send the message, "You aren’t even worthy of my attention."


More than just a complaint which focuses on a behavior ("I hate it when you ignore me."), criticism adds insults about the person’s character or motives: "You ignore me because you don’t care, you’re lazy and stupid, you’re crazy." Complaints are necessary to solve problems, but criticism undermines problem-solving, and marriages.


When spouses raise a question or a complaint, one of the most natural ways to respond is one of the most harmful to the marriage: throwing it back in their faces. It blames the partner for questioning you, and escalates the conflict. This can be done by changing the subject, questioning the spouse’s motive, or throwing up a counter-complaint: "Well what about when YOU . . . ?" It avoids the issue and puts the spouse on the defensive.


Criticism, contempt, and defensiveness can lead to one partner just tuning the other out, putting up a stone wall. This effectively blocks all communication, and so it is a passive but very damaging expression of contempt. For many reasons in our culture, the stonewall is more likely to be put up by the husband.

The Four Dragons as I call them are four more behaviors Gottman has found can often lead to divorce. Harsh start-ups are beginning a discussion with threats or insults, rather than by raising a problem with a possible solution. Flooding is an intense flurry of hurtful behaviors, one after the other so rapidly that the spouse cannot physically or emotionally absorb or respond to one before the next one hits. Failed repair attempts are when the partner doesn’t cooperate with genuine, heartfelt efforts one makes to repair damage done. Bad memories are old wounds from the past that have not been healed, and thus bleed over into coloring a person’s view of the spouse.

It won’t work to use this list to point out partner’s mistakes, but it will help if each of you uses it to monitor and correct his or her own behavior. The research geeks over at the Love Lab say that focusing on how you behave is the best way to make your marriage a success. They have also found what positive behaviors will make a marriage really cook, and they’re presented on the back.

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt