How to Recognize a Failing Marriage — And Fix It

Two veteran marriage counselors have identified four behaviors that can predict divorce.

Working from home may not be working for your relationship.

Uncertainty can be a big psychological challenge for couples, and after prolonged periods it can turn into bickering and bad habits. And the pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty and extra stress.

Relationship therapists Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman have more than 40 years of clinical research that supports their work to help repair marriages in trouble, and strengthen happy ones.

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The Gottmans have been working to recognize both healthy and harmful relationship habits in couples, and have identified patterns that can predict a couple's likelihood to either split up or stay together.

The data had informed us and continued to inform us and first we were able to discriminate between the masters of the relationship and the disasters of the relationship," said Julie Gottman. “We found we could use that information to help couples avoid that disaster and also to turn that disaster into a master couple.”

So what are the behaviors that can be destructive in a relationship? The Gottmans describe “four horsemen” that can predict divorce:

  1. Criticism: verbally attacking or blaming your partner’s character
  2. Defensiveness: victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack or reverse blame
  3. Contempt: Attacking your partner with insulting language to convey superiority
  4. Stonewalling: withdrawing from interaction to avoid conflict

Conversely, couples who are identified as “master couples” by the Gottmans exhibit the opposite behavior.

The Gottmans said stating needs gently and in a positive way, taking responsibility for wrongdoing, and self-soothing by asking for breaks are the counter behaviors demonstrated in their research.

They also advise couples to have a daily “stress reducing conversation” where they discuss outside stress without trying to solve the problem.

“What really helps in reducing stress is for a person to feel less alone with the stress," said Dr. Julie Gottman. “After all, we’re pack animals.”

She suggests one person fill the role of speaker, and the other as listener — and for the listener to simply ask questions to deepen their understanding and offer empathy.

As stress on couples has skyrocketed during the pandemic, the Gottmans have accelerated plans to “democratize” their services by introducing an online version for patients and therapists at a tenth of the cost.

“We put our assessment tools as well as our interventions," she said. “We reproduced them and put them all on a software platform so that couples could access all of these tools in the privacy of their own home.”