If your marriage is in trouble, you might be worried about what—if anything—you can do to reduce your chances of divorce. What if someone told you that it’s possible to predict the odds of divorce with more than 90% accuracy? If you’re anything like many couples in troubled marriages, you might not want to know whether you’re in the group that’s most likely to divorce. If you want to save your marriage, though, it’s vitally important to know which behaviors have the capacity to destroy lasting love. By addressing these issues now, you can significantly improve your marriage, all while reducing the likelihood that you’ll end up duking it out in divorce court.
Famed relationship expert John Gottman, a psychologist who works with couples, has been researching marriage for decades. After observing thousands of interactions between couples, he’s determined four behaviors that he says predict divorce. These “four horsemen,” as he calls them, have enabled him to accurately predict divorce even among couples who seem happy. If you’re ready to get your marriage back on track, then it’s time to leave these nasty behaviors in the dust.
Sure, we all can itemize a list of things we’d like to change about our partners. There’s nothing inherently wrong with voicing concerns every now and again. Doing so can even spark creative conflict that leads to real solutions. When criticism becomes a daily experience, though, your marriage can quickly be destroyed. Gottman says that troubled marriages typically display about eight negative interactions to every positive one. In other words, troubled couples may complain eight times before offering a single compliment. The better ratio, according to Gottman, is to offer five compliments for every one complaint.
The takeaway? There’s nothing wrong with talking about your problems, as long as you do so in a context where your partner feels loved and admired.
When you live with someone day in and day out, it’s normal to get angry every now and again. Contempt takes anger one step further by attacking your partner’s sense of self. Behavior rooted in contempt treats your partner as if he or she is bad instead of labeling a specific behavior as problematic. Over time, contempt destroys intimacy and leads to more criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Avoid contempt by focusing on your partner’s behavior. Never call him or her names, and avoid yelling, making threats, and engaging in similar behaviors that devalue your partner and it can help to save your marriage.
It’s natural to want to escape conflict. Our brains are wired to encourage us to either run or fight when under immense stress, but this response can quickly wreck your marriage. Stonewalling—the refusal to engage in discussion and the persistent avoidance of emotional talks—can quickly undermine your marriage.
So common is this behavior, especially among men, that many pop psychology and relationship guides advise couples to embrace stonewalling. But allowing your partner to withdraw from emotional discussions is a recipe for disaster. Stonewalling conveys the message that the marriage is unimportant and the problems you’re facing are unsolvable. And because stonewalling shuts down discussion, it quickly renders your problems unsolvable, taking you one step closer to divorce court.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a 10 or 20-minute break if you’re worried you’re going to lose your temper. Thereafter, though, you need to return to the conflict and patiently listen to what your partner says. Leaving, shutting down and playing video games, or simply refusing to engage can all lead to more misery.
It’s natural to want to defend yourself when you feel attacked. Persistently refusing to accept your partner’s requests for behavioral changes, though, is like a one-way ticket to divorce. Defensiveness inhibits your ability to solve even the most basic problems, and increases the likelihood that you’ll behave in cruel or even abusive behaviors. Worse still, defensiveness often results from a climate in which one or both parties feel constantly attacked, so this behavior may signal a host of other problems.
Instead, focus on finding solutions, even if you don’t like what your partner is saying. No one is perfect, but accepting criticism is the key to getting your marriage back on track.
It’s not easy to steer clear of hurtful behaviors when you’re angry. Living with another person, though, means adjusting your way of doing things, even when it’s uncomfortable or frustrating. Divorce is infinitely more painful than accepting responsibility or making a few behavioral tweaks, so keep that in mind next time you feel tempted to lash out.