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Saving Marriage, The Gottman Predictor (Part I)

Author's Note: This is for me the single most important article I've written as an attorney. It does not have any legal citations. Not even one. But if the advice is followed, whether someone would like to give a second try to a current marriage, or if they would like some advice on how to prevent their next marriage from ending in divorce, this article could do more good than all of my legal writings and efforts combined over the past thirty years. It was previously printed on my blog: wainesclinic.com I have also included a link to the blog article in my personal section above. I am publishing it here in two parts because of the word limitation for a single legal guide. This is part one:

Marriage is an economic institution, meaning that people marry primarily for economic reasons. Historically, there was an economic need. In modern times, both men and women can provide for themselves economically outside of marriage. There is no longer an economic need for marriage. Those categories of people who still marry more than everyone else, the better educated, higher wage earners, and wealthy, marry because there is an economic advantage to being married. But they choose their spouses carefully, looking for someone with similar education levels, about the same income, and with interests compatible to their own. In other words, someone who is more like they are. They also marry for love and emotional support. But they divorce for the same reasons as everyone else, because of how their spouse treats them.

If we can create an economic advantage to marriage, and once again move people towards marriage as the most desirable way to form a family, we then need to do something about reducing the likelihood that the marriage will end in divorce.

I had been litigating two maybe three years when I began to notice that all of my divorce cases had a common pattern. The reason for the failure of the marriage was always the same. But it was never the reason the couple gave to me for why they were divorcing.

The reasons they gave for divorcing were numerous and varied; substance abuse, adultery, money, falling out of love, spouse abuse, child molestation, incompatibility, and on and on. But these were merely how their problem manifested itself; these were the symptoms, but not the real problem. In many cases the marriage was already on its last gasp before the symptoms came along. In others, the symptoms were ongoing from before the wedding day.

However, the pattern I saw was different; though it was sometimes the direct cause of these symptoms and at other times their catalyst. The real cause had to do with the basic manner in which the couple interacted with each other. What I was noticing was that in every failed marriage there was an attempt by one spouse to control the other, to exercise superiority.

The more I observed this “control" phenomenon, the more it became apparent that these romantic relationships had started from inception with each person sparring for who would ultimately have control. Eventually they all settled into a pattern, either with one of the lovebirds having successfully wrested control from the other, or with neither being willing to give in and their interpersonal interaction being one of constant conflict.

From this, I came to believe that if we wanted to save marriage we would need to teach interpersonal relationship skills in the schools, beginning as early as pre-school or kindergarten. And while we were at it, I theorized a good dosage of decision making and parenting skills would go a long way to making marriage a more viable institution.

Two decades later I was counseling many thousands of Utahns each year in a legal clinic I ran in Salt Lake City. I began to see that “freedom," the antithesis of control, was equally responsible for divorce and an equally useful concept in describing the universal thread that ran through all failed marriages, whether or not the spouses divorced. After all, our entire democratic way of life is based on the human desire to be free of those situations which rob us of the ability to control our own daily lives. Thus, the extent that your romantic partner has taken that control away from you, will determine how willing you are to remain in the relationship.

In his book “Blink," Malcolm Gladwell describes the extraordinary research conducted by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman which concludes that the number one predictor of whether or not a marriage will fail is the presence of contempt. He lists three other predictors, defensiveness, stonewalling and criticism, and while they are important, none of those are as predictive as contempt.

What this means is that out of all of the things that will destroy a marriage, saying and doing those things that we associate with one person having contempt for another will be the single most likely thing a spouse can do to bring about a divorce. As Gottman points out, contempt is hierarchical. It is one person saying that another is on a lower plane. Contempt and disgust are closely related. They are often shown through insult. In fact, contempt is so damaging that having a romantic partner treat you with contempt can weaken your immune system. You literally get sick.

I would add one more thing. Whenever someone in a marriage or other close relationship feels contempt for their spouse or significant other, they not only believe that they are superior, they feel that they have the right to control their spouse or significant other, often through the meanest methods, from emotional put downs to physical violence.

When Virgil, the Roman Epic Poet, stated shortly before the time of Christ that “Love conquers all things, let us too surrender to love." he was flat out mistaken. Love cannot overcome your spouse believing that he or she is superior, and showing contempt and disgust towards you. In fact, as Malcom Gladwell writes in Blink, John Gottman predicts with 95% accuracy those marriages which actually will end in divorce. He does this through careful observations of those marriages where contempt is part of the way the parties communicate.

Geoffrey Chaucer was much closer to the truth about love when some 1400 years after Virgil, he wrote “Love is blind."

The reason love is blind is because there is a hormonal reaction to our being physically attracted to another human and having sex with that human. Indeed, the feelings associated with the increased natural chemicals flowing through our bodies may be what we think of as “being in love."

The people who study romantic and sexual attraction tell us that there is an increase in such body chemicals as oxytocin and vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin and cortisol. Testosterone decreases in men and increases in women. In other words, we are under the influence of some extremely powerful mind altering and physically impacting drugs at the time most of us are standing at the altar saying: “I do".

The problem is that there is no way for the human brain or body to continue in this excited state indefinitely. At some point the hormonal driven changes die down and we return to our pre-love state. Some bodily changes may last only minutes or hours, such as increased heart rates and sweaty palms. Some may last for years, for example, those that bond couples together until a child can walk and eat without help. The major changes seem to die down somewhere between two and five years, depending on which study you read. This may account for the average divorce occurring at six and a half years.

Once the chemicals are gone and the blindfold lifted, there must be something in the daily interaction of spouses that is rewarding enough to ward off all of the other potential lovers out in the rest of the world, strong enough to overcome the natural chemical reaction that we all feel towards other potential mates who we come into contact with daily. Since life with someone who constantly acts as if you are their unworthy inferior can be pure hell, whatever kind of interaction there is should be as far away from contempt and disgust as is possible. No one wants to live in that type of prison.

Continued in: Saving Marriage, The Gottman Predictor (Part II)

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