In 1992, Dr. Gottman and two of his colleagues, Kim Buehlman and Lynn Katz, conducted a clinical research study which was to astonish the world of relationship psychology. Interviewing 52 married couples about the history of their relationships allowed the researchers predict which couples would separate or stay together 3 years later with over 94% accuracy. So, how were they able to do this?

In the interviews, the couples described their first meetings, courtship, decision to get married, the good and bad times, their philosophy of what makes marriage work, and the way that their marriage has changed over the years. Afterwards, they made a brief visit to the lab, to have a 15-minute discussion about an area of conflict in their marriage, so that the researchers could see an example of the couple’s conflict style.

The researchers focused on a particular a set of 7 variables in this study, to determine which were predictive of the success or failure of the relationships they observed. These variables were: 

1. Expression of fondness/affection
2. Expression of negativity towards spouse
3. Expressiveness vs. withdrawal
4. We-ness vs. Seperateness (how much they identify as part of the couple)
5. Level of traditionality regarding gender roles
6. How couple reported dealing with conflict: Volatility, Chaos, or Glorifying the Struggle
7. Marital Disappointment or Disillusionment

Variables increasing likelihood of a couple staying together:

  • A husband’s expression of fondness towards his wife
  • Both the husband’s and the wife’s expression of we-ness
  • Expression of positivity or happiness in their marriage, especially on the part of the husband

The single most powerful predictor of divorce in this study was the husband’s disappointment with the marriage, which, at the time of their interview, was significantly correlated with both his own and his wife’s marital unhappiness, his belligerence towards his wife, and his wife’s contempt and anger towards him. The husband’s disappointment in the marriage was also correlated to his wife’s faster heart rate during the marital interaction (increasing the likelihood of flooding).

Couples who score high in the Chaos dimension may end up divorcing because of their approach to the continual unforeseen circumstances they find themselves in. Couples who score high on this dimension feel out of control of external events and usually do not know how to problem solve or get back on their feet. Instead, they just accept that life is hard and they continue to struggle to survive instead of growing closer or learning new ways to deal with life’s problems. Unfortunately, the philosophy of passive endurance, that life is hard and there is nothing a person can do about it, does not help their marriage survive.

On the other hand, couples who Glorify the Struggle have a better chance at staying together than couples who do not. These couples may be in the same turmoil as the couples who score high in chaos, but the difference is their perception of the hardships. Quotes like “Marriage is the hardest job in the world, but it is well worth it” demonstrate the couples’ feelings of hopefulness and togetherness (“we-ness” in Gottman-speak). Glorifiers go on to tell in detail how certain traumas and intense experiences made them feel closer to one another. Hence marriages with this outlook on hardships grow stronger and get better as time goes on. Glorifying the Struggle correlates negatively with divorce because hope and commitment towards the other is stressed.

This is a lot to think about. Luckily, you don’t have to slog through a slew of research studies in order to learn how to strengthen your own relationship! Our work at The Gottman Institute allows us to share the conclusions that Dr. Gottman has reached – so that we can give you the tools to create and maintain healthy, happy, and long-lasting relationships with your loved ones!

More in The Research
The Research: Predicting Divorce from an Oral History Interview
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.