Chapter Two is entitled, “How I Predict Divorce.” Based upon observing couples in his lab, Dr. Gottman lists the following difficulties couples face in communication, and especially in how they handle disagreements:
1. “The Harsh Start-Up”. His theory is that if a discussion starts off with criticism or sarcasm, that the conversation should be tabled until a different time. Start over. Harsh start-ups can be a predicting sign of other negative ways to interact as a couple.
2. Criticism: “You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global – it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality.” “A complaint focuses on specific behavior but a criticism ups the ante by throwing in blame and general character assassination.”
3. Contempt: Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor all fall under this category. These behaviors make a problem impossible to solve. Contempt attacks character. It demeans. It conveys negativity. Belligerence, which is anger that contains a threat or provocation, also falls under this category.
4. Defensiveness: Research shows that defensiveness rarely makes a partner back down or apologize. Defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner, and it tends to escalate the conflict at hand.
5. Stonewalling: Harsh startups, criticism and contempt and defensiveness all lead to an essential tuning out of one partner. In order to avoid a fight, the person just turns away. Many times this is a protection mechanism because that person feels attacked and flooded by negativity. Here is a sobering quote from this section of the chapter: “The more often you feel flooded by your spouse’s criticism or contempt, the more hypervigilant you are for cues that your spouse is about to “blow” again. All you can think about it protecting yourself from the turbulence your spouse’s onslaught causes. And the way to do that is to disengage emotionally from the relationship.”
6. Body Language/Physiological Response to Negative Flooding – Men actually are more physiologically reactive to stress than females (see the book for more details why), so they are more likely to be the stonewaller in a marriage and shut down. Men generally also seem to think in terms of righteousness and are indignant after an argument, or they consider themselves the innocent victim of their wife’s anger or complaint.
Dr. Gottman says that women normally bring up the sensitive issues in a marriage and the men, not as able to cope with these issues, avoid the subject or become belligerent or contemptuous in order to silence her. However, he contends that even if your marriage follows the patterns mentioned above, it is not a given that divorce is likely. “In fact,” Dr. Gottman writes on page 39, “you’ll find examples of all four horseman and even occasional flooding in stable marriages.” (The four horseman are what I listed under numbers three through six).
7. Failed Repair Attempts – the failure of repair attempts during disagreements are the strongest predictor of divorce. In marriages where there is mainly criticism, contempt, defensiveness, it is likely repair attempts will fail.
8. Bad Memories – Happy couples tend to look back on their courtship, marriage and early married days with fondness. They may even glorify the struggles they have gone through. Unhappy couples tend to re-write the past with a negative slant.
Dr. Gottman notes that when a couple at the end stage of marriage comes for counseling, they often are not fighting because they have so withdrawn from the whole situation. They are distanced and emotionally disengaged. He remarks that some people leave marriage by divorcing, or some remain married and just lead “parallel lives together.” He also talks about an affair being a symptom of a dying marriage, not the cause of a dying marriage. But, he also talks about how it is not over until it’s over and how he is convinced many marriages could be saved with the principles in this book of how couples interact when they are not disagreeing.
I say, lead on Dr. Gottman. I can’t wait to read more!