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The #1 Predictor of Divorce

“Conflict is part of every marriage. Thirty-seven percent of newlyweds admit to being more critical of their mates after marriage. And 30 percent report an increase in arguments. Whether you argue does not determine the health of your marriage. Far more important than how often you argue is how you argue. Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has been studying marriages for decades, and he has identified the signs in conflict that almost always spell disaster. He calls them ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’”-Excerpt from SYMBIS Devotional by Leslie and Les Parrott, renowned experts in marriage counseling and therapy.

Drs. Julie and John Gottman have revolutionized the study of marriage over the past forty years. Conducting much of their research in their on-campus Love Lab in the state of Washington they have successfully created scientific formulas that can determine, with high accuracy, the future outcome of a marriage based on behavior patterns, communication techniques, body language, and other important factors that are included in their overall assessments.

Most soon-to-be parents read an endless supply of information on what it takes to be a good parent. We do our best in hopes of achieving success and coming out on the other end with physically and emotionally strong adult children. Much of parenting consists of on-the-job training. We know that by educating ourselves, even if we do not know all the answers, we will have gained enough knowledge that we can, hopefully, apply critical problem-solving skills no matter the situation.

Our approach to marriage is no different. Many engaged couples spend time in counseling, read endless books on marriage, learn how to effectively approach conflict, and educate themselves on how to speak each other’s love language. Part of learning how to navigate healthy relationships is to understand the dangerous roads and pitfalls we need to avoid.

Accumulating decades of research the Gottman’s have learned what makes a successful marriage, but they have also discovered four areas that spell disaster for most relationships. If a spousal unit falls victim to any of these, the union might stay intact, but rarely will it be fulfilling. It would be described as a marriage that has survived but has not thrived. The Gottmans have appropriately named these traits The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This phrase is taken from the book of Revelation in the Bible. If any one of these enters a marriage, the outcome is almost surely the end of a healthy relationship. Even more concerning is one of these horsemen has proven to be the number one predictor of divorce.

Why do we talk about unsettling things like this? If we can learn what NOT to do in marriage, then our relationship will not only survive, but it will thrive! As my pastor likes to say, “A marriage that sizzles!”


CRITICISM: Offering a critique, or a complaint, is different than criticism. Critiquing in a marriage can be healthy. We need to learn and grow as individuals and offering constructive instruction is one way we help each other. It is often said marriage is a mirror to our soul. As individuals, we might attempt to hide our real selves to the outside world. With a spouse, this is almost impossible. Once we enter a covenant with our significant other, they become a constant reflection of the real you. This is a good thing, if handled wisely. Without a doubt, I know I am a better person today because I have a husband that reflects to me my true image. And in that reflection, I can see all my positives and negatives, thus allowing me to continually improve the person I am, and the person I want to become.

A complaint, or critique, refers to how you feel about something. It is not an attack on your partner’s character. It is a way in which we explain our own feelings. “It hurt me when you chose to stay late at work after we had discussed having a nice, romantic dinner at home.” You are expressing your feelings, through a complaint, but you are not attacking your spouse.

Criticism, on the other hand, is something quite different. Criticism is an attack on the character of your spouse. “You are so selfish. All you do is think about yourself.” Criticism is the least deadly of the four horsemen and can usually be corrected by changing words from you to me. This is a test I give myself often. If I begin to launch into a complaint by starting my sentence with you, then I know I am likely about to take a misstep. I stop, hold my tongue, and re-evaluate my approach. I then rephrase my words to show how I feel about a situation. The main problem with criticism, other than the fact it is an attack on our spouse’s character, is it is usually a slippery slope that leads to the other three horsemen. And the other three horsemen are far deadlier in a marriage.

The Antidote to Criticism: Gentle Start-Up

According to Ellie Lisitsa, contributor to the Gottman Institute, “A complaint (or critique) focuses on a specific behavior, but criticism attacks a person’s very character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame by using a soft or gentle start-up. Avoid saying ‘you,’ which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using ‘I’ statements and express what you need in a positive way.” In summary, focus on the behavior, not the character.

CONTEMPT: “When we communicate… (with contempt), we are truly mean. We treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless. Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them.”-Lisitsa.

I looked up the definition of contempt, and Webster’s states: the feeling that a person…is beneath consideration; receiving scorn. Dr. Gottman gives this example as a phrase that would be considered contemptuous. “You’re tired? Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and watch tv. I don’t have time to deal with another child in the house. Could you be any more pathetic?” OUCH! That hurt just to write those words. If I heard that coming out of someone’s mouth, I would hightail it and run.

What Gottman points out in this example is the use of sarcasm (cry me a river), the use of contempt (you are a child), and the use of character assassination (you are pathetic). The Greek root for the word sarcasm is sarkazein which means: to tear flesh like dogs. Wow! I think that speaks for itself.

We must all admit we are flawed humans. If we are honest, I do not think many of us can say we have never attacked our spouse in a contemptuous manner at some point in our relationship. Even so, it is one of the horsemen that must be destroyed. Repeated offenses of this behavioral tactic can decimate the marriage you have built.

According to Gottman, “…contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. It must be eliminated.” If a couple lives in a contemptuous marriage, and they stay together, they will likely be left with a diseased relationship that is not healthy for them or for those around them.

Just as we have learned in our COVID-19 world, when disease is present, we must isolate the enemy, destroy the enemy, and then vaccinate against the enemy so it will not return. When it comes to eradicating contempt from a marriage, the guidance of a trained counselor is often needed if you are not able to destroy this horseman on your own. You do not want any of these four destroyers in your marriage, but contempt is the deadliest and should be taken seriously.

The Antidote to Contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation

“The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship, and there are a few ways to do that. One of our mottos is Small Things Often: if you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt!”-Lisitsa

Instead of saying, “You forgot to take the trash out…again! You are useless!” Say, “I know how busy work has been for you, but I would truly appreciate if you could remember to take the trash out on garbage pick-up day.” By changing the words, you have corrected the behavior without attacking the person. I once had someone say to me, “Yea, but I just need to unload, and it feels good to just say what I really think.” Children act on their feelings, adults do what they know is right, even when they do not feel like it.

DEFENSIVENESS: “The third horseman is defensiveness, and it is typically a response to criticism. We’ve all been defensive, and this horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.” -Lisitsa.

If you have defensiveness in your marriage, it does not mean your relationship is in trouble, but a relationship in trouble will almost always have defensiveness. It becomes a regular form of communication and a way to blame your partner. It also allows you to play the victim. Spouse one: “Did you take the trash out?” Spouse two: “I had a huge deadline at work and am doing the best I can to provide a living for this family. Why couldn’t you take the trash out?"

The non-defensive and better answer from spouse two would have been, “I forgot. I’m sorry. Let me do that after I finish this deadline.” A non-defensive spouse will show care for their partner and take responsibility for their own actions as opposed to shifting blame and playing the victim.

The Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility

Defensiveness is usually used as a self-preservation tactic. Either in the form of a pious, superior attitude or a helpless victim. Someone that becomes defensive is deflecting the blame back onto the person they are communicating with. It is a lack of accepting responsibility. When this occurs in marriage, the problem is not resolved and will only escalate over time. The antidote must be to accept your portion of responsibility in the conflict even if your spouse is partly culpable. You can only control yourself. Take ownership for any fault that lies with you.

STONEWALLING: Gottman says stonewalling is usually the response to contempt. This occurs when one spouse “shuts down,” either mentally, physically, or both. When confronted, they pretend they are busy doing something else. But if they cannot physically escape, they will often develop that glassy-eyed look as they attempt to mentally walk away out of self-preservation. Although this response is a normal fight or flight reaction, it is not healthy. When stonewalling creeps in, a good approach is for each spouse to take a “time-out” and agree to reconvene in 20 minutes. Cooler heads will usually come back to the table for a productive conversation where both partners are actively engaged.

Antidote to Stonewalling: A Set Time-Out

When each spouse takes a break and focuses on something else for 20 minutes, it allows the physical body to calm down. Once the mind clears, both can return to the discussion in a more rational and respectful way. Gottman reiterates, “The first step to self-soothing is to stop the conflict and call a timeout.” It is the antidote that works nearly every time.

Why do parents set guidelines for their children? It is usually for protection from harm. Do parents allow their children to ignore these guidelines just because he/she does not “feel” like obeying? Of course not! And if a parent did allow this? Look out! Most of us have seen the disastrous outcome of children raised without some sort of boundary.

Throughout the Bible God set up rules to protect us. He did not tell us to follow His edicts only if we felt like it. He said, “Obey.” Obedience always comes first. We do not wait until we feel like obeying to obey. God calls us to obedience in order that we might thrive and grow. It is only after we have been obedient that the feelings of peace and goodwill follow. Not the other way around. Even if the feelings do not come, we are still to obey. Just as a parent expects compliance from their child, regardless of how the child feels, so, too, should be our approach to the four horsemen. We should recognize how deadly they can be, and we should make a pact with our spouse that we will do everything possible to make sure they do not enter our marriage.

Actions over feelings. We may not always feel like acting properly, but we are adults, and we should act like adults. Children throw tantrums and scream and yell, “I WANT…” Adults control their reactions and learn to work within boundaries and guidelines for the betterment of everyone involved. I fully recognize this can be difficult, especially if you grew up in a home where these traits were readily displayed.

Even in the best of circumstances, negative emotions can be hard to control. Sometimes we fail and words come out of our mouth that we wish had not left our tongue. I will never sit in my glass house and throw stones, because I, too, have been guilty of not controlling my behavior. This cannot be the norm, though. In fact, it should be rare. These 4 horsemen WILL destroy a marriage, or, at the least, keep the marriage from thriving.

As a result of their research, the Gottman’s have learned every problem falls into two categories. They are either solvable or perpetual. A solvable problem would be when one spouse rolls the toothpaste tube, and the other spouse squeezes the toothpaste tube. Even something this minor can cause an argument. Simple answer to this solvable problem? Buy two tubes of toothpaste.

It is the perpetual problems that we must learn to live with. Perpetual, meaning these conflicts will continue to be present throughout our relationship. They make up nearly 70% of issues couples face and will unlikely be solved. Why? Because they are usually due to personality differences. Therefore, it is imperative we learn to communicate effectively through them without destroying each other. The Gottmans repeatedly tell us how we communicate is a true indicator of the future of our relationship.

We need to remind ourselves that God has forgiven us in all we do, and we are called to forgive others. This is especially true when it comes to our spouse. I may be a daughter of God, but guess what? My husband is a son of God. We are on equal footing in His eyes, and He loves us equally. If I mistreat my husband, it pains God to watch me attack his son.

We also need to remind ourselves of the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. Keeping good manners in our marriage will go a long way to eliminating these four apocalyptic creatures. Good manners are nothing more than the outward manifestation of the inside condition of your heart. If you are full of hate or have bottled up anger inside it will show in how you treat others. The Parrotts have pinpointed the main key to a successful marriage: “Time and again, we’re asked the same question: what’s the single most important secret to happy relationships? The answer: your relationships can only be as healthy as you are. That’s truly the secret to building happy friendships, family bonds, and marriages that last a lifetime.” If we learn to correct our own behavior and take responsibility for our own health then the result will be a marriage that does not just thrive, but sizzles.

Together with you,

Lisa Lou

1 Comment

Pari Papadopoulos
Pari Papadopoulos
May 14, 2020

I love the constructive tips on how to pro-actively overcome these 4 destructive tendencies in a relationship.

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