John Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail is one of Dr. John Gottman’s most accessible and relevant works written for a general audience. It remains one of the most carefully researched, and richly detailed explanations of exactly how marriages fail. John Gottman is most acclaimed for the sheer volume and scope of his research. This book is a distillation of his decades of careful study.
In this book, Gottman describes some fundamental reasons why marriages fail.
1. Harsh Startup
Gottman says that 96% of the time, the way a conversation begins, is the way it ends. If a conversation gets underway with a barrage of criticism or unbridled contempt, it has been hampered by a “harsh start-up.” Harsh start-ups are such reliable predictors of failed communication that most elude a positive outcome within three minutes.
2. The Four Horsemen
If specific negative behaviors are allowed to progress unchecked, they are highly predictive of how marriages fail. Gottman was so adamant on this point that he called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and the most toxic of them all, Contempt. When these horsemen show up with regularity, and men can not accept influence from their wives, the likelihood of divorce skyrockets to 94%.
3. Diffuse Physiological Arousal, AKA Flooding.
Dealing with a spouse whose profound negativity is so powerful and abrupt can leave you physiologically rattled. Habitual harsh startups, followed by frequent flooding sustains a torrent of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling that is a powerful reason for why marriages fail.
4. Failed Repair Attempts
Repair attempts are signs of a couple’s investment in turning down the intensity of the negative emotion. The Four Horsemen, and flooding gradually increase in intensity, as the effort to make repair attempts decreases. It takes time for the Four Horsemen and flooding that follows to sabotage a marriage. But as a couple yields to negativity by lessening their efforts to make repair attempts, the relationship sinks into despair and recrimination.
5. Lack of a Positive Reframe of Hard Times
In happy marriages, couples tend to look at even their tough times together as character-building learning experiences. They glory in their early struggles and fondly remember the mutual support and comfort they provided to each other.
Unhappy couples fail to frame difficult early experiences in a positive light, and tend to harbor simmering grudges and subtle resentments that flare up in times of tension and stress. Nothing is ever resolved for these couples, and a kitchen sink full of dirty emotional dishes never get cleaned and put away.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.