Monday, August 29, 2011

Can you tell if a relationship will last? What makes them fail? What qualities should we seek in a partner?

I came across Marriage researcher Dr. Gottman during my self-help frenzy, when I wanted to understand what went wrong before and how I could tell if it would happen again. He has put together a huge body of research on what makes relationships work or fail and has detailed his findings in over 190 academic papers and 40 books. He is considered one of the leading voices on successful marital relations.

Dr. Gottman has pinpointed a handful of the most corrosive negative behavior patterns found in partnerships and says that the presence of  any of these are so intertwined with high levels of marital dissatisfaction that they each can singularly all but predict the likelihood of divorce.

What are these terrible traits that can wreck even the most solid-seeming union? There are only four. That's all you need to bring the tower of love crashing down. (Actually, you only need ONE of the four, but I digress.) I'm pasting them here from his site (but you should read the whole page of FAQs later if this topic interests you; I pasted the link below):
  1. Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

  2. 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.”

  3. Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”

  4. Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal 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.

Can physiological data really predict changes in marital satisfaction?

Yes. The more “diffusely physiologically aroused” (in other words, in “fight or flight” mode,) someone is during a conflict conversation, the more his or her marital satisfaction is likely to decline during a period of three years.

If you had to summarize Dr. Gottman’s 35 years of research into two key findings, what would they be? Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways. Happily married couples are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and they are able to process negative emotions fully.

--From Dr. Gottman's FAQ page
So I'm thinking heavily about this stuff and also the wisdom detailed in "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart" by Dr. Gordon Livingston -- an excellent text on how to have an awesome life. I bought it based on the zillion positive reviews because they moved me. The reviews haven't disappointed yet either -- I'm only on the third chapter and already have a lot to digest.

Like, the concept of choosing a good partner. What traits are important? Livingston writes:
What is it exactly that we need to know to decide if someone is a suitable candidate for a lifetime commitment? Perhaps one way to approach this screening process is to learn more about who is evidently not suitable. To make this judgment, one needs to know something about personality.

We are accustomed to thinking about character in the most superficial ways. "He has a lot of personality" is usually a statement about how engaging or entertaining someone is. In fact, the formal definition of personality includes our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. Most of us understand that people differ in certain characteristics such as introversion, fondness for detail, tolerance for boredom, willingness to be helpful, determination, and a host of other personal qualities. What most people fail to realize however, is that the qualities we value -- kindness, tolerance, capacity for commitment -- are not randomly distributed. They tend to exist as constellations of "traits" that are recognizable and reasonably stable over time.

Likewise, those attributes of character that are less desirable -- impulsivity, self-centeredness, quickness to anger -- often cluster in discernible ways. Much of our difficulty in developing and sustaining personal relationships resides in our failure to recognize, in ourselves as well as others, those personality characteristics that make someone a poor candidate for a committed relationship.

The psychiatric profession has taken the trouble to categorize personality disorders. I often think that this section of the diagnostic manual ought to be titled "People to avoid." The many labels contained herein -- histrionic, narcissistic, dependent, borderline, and so on -- form a catalogue of unpleasant persons: suspicious, selfish, unpredictable, exploitative. These are the people your mother warned you about. (Unfortunately, sometimes they are your mother.) They seldom exist in the unalloyed form suggested by the statistical manual, but knowing something about how to recognize them would save a lot of heartbreak.

What would be equally useful, I think, would be a manual of virtual character traits that describes qualities to nurture in ourselves and to seek in our friends and lovers. At the top of the list would be kindness, a willingness to give of oneself to another. This most desirable of virtues governs all the others, including a capacity for empathy and love. Like other forms of art, we may find it hard to define, but when we are in its presence, we feel it.

This is the map we wish to construct in our heads: a reliable guide that allows us to avoid those who are not worthy of our time and trust and to embrace those who are. The best indications that our always-tentative maps are faulty include feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, surprise and disorientation. It is when these feelings surface that we need to think about our mental instrument of navigation and how to correct it, so that we do not fall into the repetitive patters of those who waste the learning that is the only consolation for our painful experience.

Wow. So I'm just going to let this sit with me for a bit. Those times when I feel disoriented, unhappy, sad or upset? Pay attention. Those are indicators that something isn't right. I've been terrible at listening to my gut before. I reason away my feelings. But it's important to heed them. So I am telling myself: Listen to that tiny voice inside. The quiet one that's unfamiliar. It needs to be heard most of all.


  1. "So I am telling myself: Listen to that tiny voice inside. The quiet one that's unfamiliar. It needs to be heard most of all."

    that's the one i decided to listen to when i realized i needed to end my LTR with my ex-boyfriend. thank you for sharing this...very helpful to me.


  2. Aisha, <3<3<3 in solidarity. Thank you for sharing your feelings; you made me feel like maybe this isn't such an unusual thing to struggle with afterall.

  3. Oh, that tiny, unfamiliar voice. Mine tells me things all the time. I never know if I can trust it. I hope you're better and more adept at listening to yours than I am.

    For me, I can't differentiate between that tiny voice and paranoia. I really can't.