Is Your Relationship Destined to Succeed?

20 November, 2017

How well is your relationship working?  Is it destined to succeed, or is it likely to fail?  How can you tell, and what can you do about it, right now?

It’s a good time to think about relationships with our Christmas and New Year holidays approaching.  We normally spend more time with our spouses and extended family than usual and certain pressures and expectations can be higher. This equation can easily lead to more arguments.  

The interesting thing that longitudinal relationship-researcher John Gottman found was that the frequency of arguments, or even the topic of the conflict itself was not a predictor of ‘divorce’ for couples.  So more arguing doesn’t mean more likely to break-up.  In fact, he found that 69% of conflict between long-term couples would not, and could not, ever be solved.  It wasn’t the conflict therefore that predicted break-ups, it was how couples had the conflict: i.e. how you argue makes all the difference to your relationship, not whether you argue. This debunks a very old and common myth that conflict within relationships means you are unhappy and destined to break-up.  There are many things I love and admire about Gottman’s work, but the way that he can teach us how to have healthy conflict in our relationship and still stay together happy has got to be my favourite!

Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about why it’s a good idea to pay attention to John Gottman.  In 2007 John Gottman, along with his colleague Robert (Bob) Levensen, had already been studying a group of couples for 30 years.  Male-female couples, married couples, same-sex couples.  When I say studying them, I really mean he got down into every possible minute detail and measured pretty much everything it was possible to measure while observing couples interacting with each other.  He had them wired up to measure their heart rates, their facial expressions and tested stress hormone levels in their urine. He observed them just hanging out and interacting normally, and also discussing an area of conflict.  By the time 2007 rolled around they were able to present their research findings in an accessible way, and, in short, tell us what successful couples were doing that meant they stayed together happy, and, equally importantly, what the unsuccessful ones did that broke them up.  These researchers could now watch a couple interacting for only 15 minutes and predict with 90% accuracy whether they would stay together or not.  Whether you are familiar with psychological research or not, you will recognise this predictive ability as rather astounding!

These couples were categorised into either the ‘Masters’ or the ‘Disasters’.  The Masters stayed together over the long-term, stayed together happy, and their relationship improved over time.  The Disasters either broke up, or stayed together unhappy.  These research findings can be heard in more detail in a 45 minute live speech available through Audible.com, called Making Marriage Work.  I do recommend it wholeheartedly.  It is very dense, and I would recommend listening to it numerous times, and having it as an ongoing resource for your relationship.  If you can listen to it together with your spouse and discuss it, the more the better.  You can also listen to it first, and find a way of influencing them to listen to it too.

For the purposes for this blog, I want to share with you the biggest difference between the Masters and the Disasters.  The reason I want to share it is because to me, from Gottman’s research, it is abundantly clear that if you do one or more of these things in your relationship, then it will end.  Or, perhaps worse, it won’t end but you will stay together miserable.  When it is as clear as this, I believe that with a bit of conscious effort on both parts, you can avoid these corrosive behaviours and instead learn the constructive alternatives - learn from what the Masters are doing, if you are BOTH willing to improve things.  Gottman found that attention directed in this manner could turn a very unhappy relationship around very quickly.  So, here are the four most corrosive behaviours, that if either or both of you are engaging in, will end your relationship:

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse:

1. Criticism: interpreting any problems as just part of your partner’s ‘defective personality’, blaming other
2. Defensiveness: not taking responsibility for your part, defending your position
3. Contempt: disrespect, talking down, name-calling
4. Stonewalling: withdrawal, refusing to engage

Once these had been identified, the researchers wanted to know were all these four things equally corrosive?  Or were some worse than others?  They in fact found that #3 - Contempt, was the biggest single predictor of divorce, and the most corrosive behaviour you could engage in.  If you want your relationship to succeed, you need to stop doing this right now.

There are a number of constructive alternatives to each of the Four Horseman - what it is that the Masters are doing regularly instead to create a happy relationship.  Remember, the Masters still argue and have conflict, but it is the way they do this that makes all the difference.  They do not do any of the Four Horseman, and instead have found healthy ways of communicating and discussing conflict.  I can’t go through them all here as it would make for a very long article.  If you’re interested at all, then please do listen to the audio as you will get a tremendous amount out of it.  

In short, creating a culture of appreciation, an intimate friendship, turning toward your partner and talking about your own needs and feelings instead of blaming are key components of the Masters'.  With some conscious attention these can all be learned.  This will feel hard when there is a backlog of resentments that one or both of you are holding on to.  However, if you can learn how to communicate and have healthy conflict, these things can be discused and resolved.  There is a place for a professional to help faciliate this process.

Of course, as I say that, sometimes the Four Horseman have been there too long, and gone too far, and the relationship is irretrievable. There can be many good reasons to end a relationship, and this can be the best outcome for both parties, and this is also OK.  Who wants to spend their life in an unhappy relationship?

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.
With love, Charlotte.

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