Did you know that a trained observer could watch you and your spouse interact for several minutes and then predict with high accuracy whether your marriage will survive or not? Does that sound unbelievable?
In his bestselling book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell writes about psychologist John Gottman’s research on what attitudes increase the chances that a marriage will end in divorce. Since the 1980’s, Gottman has videotaped more than three thousand married couples in his “love lab” near the University of Washington campus.
The results of each videotape have been analyzed according to a specific complex coding system that categorizes the emotions present in the interaction plus information from electrodes and sensors. Based on his calculations, if he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, Gottman can predict with 95% accuracy whether the couple will still be married fifteen years later.
If Gottman watches a couple for fifteen minutes, he still has a success rate of 90 percent. A colleague of Gottman’s, Sybil Carrere, discovered that if they looked at only three minutes of a couple talking, it was still possible to predict with fairly impressive accuracy which marriages were going to make it and which would end in divorce.
Gottman finds out much of what he needs to know by focusing on what he calls the “Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt.” Out of those four negatives, Gottman considers contempt the most important emotion of all.
Gladwell writes, “If Gottman observes one of both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.” According to Gladwell, Gottman can eavesdrop on a couple in a restaurant and “get a pretty good sense of whether they need to start thinking about hiring lawyers and dividing up custody of the children.”
Why is contempt so damaging in a marriage? How can this one emotion cause so much damage? Contempt is different from criticism because it involves looking down on the other person and feeling superior to him (or her).
If you have contempt for your spouse, you are feeling scorn or disdain toward him. You feel disgust, sickening dislike, deep aversion, repugnance, and repulsion. You feel that he (or she) is beneath you and that he doesn’t deserve respect.
Gottman even found that the presence of contempt in a marriage can predict how many colds a spouse will get because “having someone you love express contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect the functioning of your immune system.” And there isn’t any gender difference when it comes to contempt, according to Gottman’s research findings.
In light of this information, how do you think your interactions with your spouse would be viewed? Are you thinking that you’re off the hook because you haven’t said things like “You’re so stupid” to your partner?
Gottman has found that rolling your eyes when your spouse is talking to you is a classic sign that communicates contempt. So is assuming a patronizing, lecturing voice. The actual words used are only part of what is being communicated. The non-verbal component is also communicating loudly.
One of Gottman’s findings is that “for a marriage to survive, the ratio of positive to negative emotion in a given encounter has to be at least five to one.” When he tracks the level of a couple’s positive and negative emotions, he has found that “once they start going down, toward negative emotion, ninety-four percent will continue going down.”
So what can you do if you recognize yourself or your spouse in this article? If you recognize yourself, know that self-awareness of a behavior is the starting place for change. You can’t change what you’re not aware of. So you have taken the first positive step by looking closely at your own behavior and starting to become more aware of the damaging effect it is having on your marital relationship.
Next, you can share this article with your spouse and ask if he or she would be willing to go to marriage counseling so that you can get the help and support you need to make the necessary changes. If your spouse refuses, then start individual counseling for yourself.
If your spouse is the one expressing contempt for you, write a handwritten letter stating how much you value your marriage and want it to be the best possible. Ask him (or her) to please read this article because you don’t want to lose your loving feelings for him or for your marriage to end in divorce.
State that you would like to look at your part in things and how you might need to change and grow, and that you know this would be easier with the help of a marriage counselor. Take responsibility for your part in the relationship and show your willingness to look at your own behavior.
Keep the focus on making positive changes that will help your marriage be more satisfying to both of you. Avoid blame and accusations. It will be easier to address sensitive issues in the counselor’s office where you increase the odds that your spouse will be more receptive to what you have to say.
If contempt is present in your marriage, it’s important to take immediate action to stop the accelerating downhill slide of negative emotions. Without intervention, your marriage may be on a crash course to divorce, and there’s no time to waste.