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The science of divorce: can four simple traits really predict the future of a relationship?

New research claims to have identified a formula to forecast how long a marriage will last. But can four simple traits really predict the future of a relationship? Alex Meehan asks the experts


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Broken heart: can science predict how long a marriage will last?

Broken heart: can science predict how long a marriage will last?


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What if someone told you there was a scientific formula for forecasting success in love, a way to predict with remarkable accuracy what makes some relationships a success and others doomed to failure?

It sounds unlikely, but the research has been done and the results are in.

Studying 3,000 married couples in 12 longitudinal studies, with the longest lasting 20 years and continuing today, the US psychologist Dr John Gottman has isolated some intriguing statistics. For example, the average couple in trouble waits six years to seek help, yet half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years.

The key predictors of success and failure are what Gottman calls the 'four horsemen' - criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Relationships where these are present are in serious trouble from the start, according to his research.

"What John Gottman has done in his career is apply serious scientific rigour to an area of research that is traditionally thought of as being hard to study, and the results are fascinating," says Sinead Smyth, an Irish relationship counsellor based in California who is a certified Gottman therapist and trainer.

"First of all, anger in relationships doesn't predict bad or good outcomes in terms of divorce. The fact that a couple bickers or argues doesn't tell you anything about the health of the relationship, although obviously negativity is not good. However, any one of the four horsemen will escalate negativity significantly, and if there is a pattern of escalation of negativity, then you have a problem."

According to Smyth, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling - three of the four horsemen - are bad but contempt is the worst of all, and is the biggest single predictor of divorce.

"It's corrosive and very hard to come back from. Putting the other person down, humiliating them in front of others, using hostile humour or sarcasm - that kind of thing can really cut people to the quick. In fact, relationships that have a lot of contempt can actually affect someone's physical health," she says.

"Someone exposed to contempt can find that their white blood cells are affected. The research shows that the amount of contempt in a relationship predicts the number of infectious illnesses that a recipient of contempt is likely to catch over the next 18 months."

Stonewalling or blanking the other person in an argument is also highly damaging. People often do it because they're overwhelmed by the argument and are trying to calm themselves down, but the other person experiences the silent treatment as a complete withdrawal of engagement, and that too is corrosive.

"Eighty-five per cent of stonewallers in heterosexual relationships are men. Doing this says to your partner that you don't care what they're saying and you're not listening. All of these behaviours will escalate the situation and increase the negativity, but of the four contempt is the worst," says Smyth.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that being contemptuous of someone isn't going to make for a happy relationship, but just how corrosive are the four horsemen? Gottman's research predicts with over 90pc accuracy that if these four are present, a marriage will end approximately 5.6 years after the wedding.

Not all the research is negative in focus though - one positive finding is that in stable marriages, there is a five-to-one ratio of positivity to negativity. Kindness glues couples together, making people feel cared for and validated.

But how exactly does a scientist go about studying the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one - after all, real life doesn't tend to happen in laboratories, or does it? Gottman decided to find out in 1986 when he set up what he called The Love Lab with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington.

The pair brought newlyweds into the lab for a weekend at a time and asked them to just interact normally. At the same time, they hooked the subjects up to electrodes and sensors and asked them questions about their relationship, how they met, what they liked and disliked about each other, and about a major conflict they had.

They were able to measure the couples' heart rates and blood flow, as well as how much they sweated, with the result that they were able to plot their arousal response - the degree to which their 'fight or flight' response was triggered. Then they sent the couples home and waited six years to follow up their progress.

At this point, they grouped the couples into either 'masters' or 'disasters'. Those who were still together and happy after six years were the masters, while the couples who had divorced were the disasters. What they found was that the masters and disasters had significantly different physiological responses at the initial interview stage.

The masters were calm and relaxed, and when they fought or bickered tended to deal with it in a good-natured way using humour and affection. While the disasters also looked calm and relaxed, the sensors told a different story.

Underneath the surface they were sweating, their hearts were beating faster and they had higher blood flow. They were physiologically aroused and their 'fight or flight' response was triggered. They were less able to feel exposed and vulnerable around their partners.

Not all counsellors follow Gottman's methodologies, but virtually all will agree that things like contempt are not a good sign in a relationship.

Caitriona Brady is a psychotherapist specialising in relationships at the Relationship Matters clinic in Sandyford.

"I've seen people from all walks of life and every background who have made it work. I've seen people from completely different backgrounds and ways of thinking work together when you really would think they wouldn't. A huge amount comes back to the couple's families of origin and their first relationships. A lot of the time we play out patterns that we haven't resolved and don't understand. It's a cliché for a therapist to say that, I know, but it's true," she says.

According to Brady, people end up in her office when one person has reached the end of the road and wants significant change to happen.

"Sometimes there has been infidelity or life events have put the relationship under enormous strain. But therapy is about change. Sometimes relationships aren't really functional but the people involved don't really notice until something changes, like their children growing up or when they lose money - as happened to a lot of people in the recession - and their lifestyle had to change," she says. "Then they realise there's nothing between them and that's because they haven't figured out the relational stuff."

To make matters more complicated, often one person in a couple is keener than the other to make things work.

"You'll often have a split agenda, where one person really wants to be there and the other can be too bitter or defensive, or just too hurt, to really be present. It can take weeks for someone like that to soften and see that their partner is making a real effort," said Brady.

"Other people want out of the relationship and don't want to say it directly. They actually want the counsellor to say it for them - that's very obvious and I can see it a mile away. I have to be really clear about the role of the counsellor from the outset."

According to Brady, same-sex couples have the same basic issues as everyone else.

"It's usually intimacy, for all couples. Sex is the first thing to go when things aren't going great for a couple. In lots of ways, sex from a male point of view can be about connection and a way of expressing love, but for women it can often be the case that they need to feel connected before they'll want to be physically intimate. The motivation is very important to understand," she says.

"Love is, to me, acceptance, not necessarily of bad behaviour but of accepting the person without wanting to change them. It's shared values and a similar sense of timing, the knowledge that people are going in the same direction and want the same things. It's respecting and caring for each other, and being connected."

Dublin couple Nicola and Bob Delaney-Foxe are both aged 41, have two young children and describe themselves as happily married, but are also happy to admit that their relationship has had its ups and downs in the past.

"When we got together, lots of things happened very quickly. I got pregnant at the same time as lots of other big life events happened, and the result was that we didn't get the time that most couples get to learn about each other and how to communicate properly," says Nicola.

"A couple of years down the line, cracks started to appear in the relationship. It wasn't that we didn't want to be together but we just didn't really know how to be. We were arguing a lot but didn't really know why. We went to Accord in Swords and the counsellor essentially taught us how to communicate with each other."

This gave the couple a safe space to say what they each needed to say in a way that allowed the other person to listen.

"Both of us had been on our own for so long that when we found ourselves in this grown-up situation all of a sudden, we needed to learn a lot more about each other in order to not just argue. We needed to learn how to listen and how to say things to each other," Nicola says.

The process took a year and a half and she describes it as hard work.

"We had to learn to take the lessons outside the room and put them into practice without the counsellor present. That's difficult, but by the end of it we were able to communicate with each other in a much better way. It was totally worthwhile and I'd strongly advise people who feel that there is something fundamentally good at the heart of their relationship to do it," she says.

"We wouldn't be where we are today without it. We are very together and very happy. It was an invaluable experience."


The four horseman of the relationship apocalypse

The destructive behaviours that increase negativity in a relationship and which have been found to increase the likelihood of divorce in a marriage have been named the 'Four Horseman of the Relationship Apocalypse'. According to the Gottman Institute, these are:

Criticism: stating one's complaints as a defect in your partner's personality, i.e giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: "You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish."

Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: "You're an idiot."

Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: "It's not my fault that we're always late; it's your fault."

Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual non-verbal signals that the listener is 'tracking' the speaker.

These predict early divorcing - an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. Emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing - an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.

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