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Divorce

How to Keep Your Marriage Alive and Avoid a Divorce

Tools to cultivate a healthy relationship and avoid the trauma of divorce.

Key points

  • Decades of research data indicate that criticism, defensiveness, blame, and stonewalling are four predictors of divorce.
  • In a healthy relationship, there are at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction.
  • When something is on your mind, find a time to discuss it calmly, with the goal of a constructive, problem-solving conversation.

Ellie and Jeff come to couples counseling with complaints and criticisms. Ellie says, “He’s always on his phone,” and Jeff says, “She’s gained weight and doesn’t care how she looks anymore.” Jeff says, “She’s selfish and always late.” Ellie says, “He’s lazy and never does a thing to help around the house!”

"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Criticism is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” according to Dr. John Gottman, the renowned researcher of marriage and couple relationships. Decades of research data indicate that criticism, defensiveness, blame, and stonewalling are four predictors of divorce.

In fact, when there is contempt, he believes that divorce is almost inevitable. Contempt may show up when one of the spouses rolls their eyes or curls their lip as they speak. I notice that Jeff has that subtle eye roll when he talks about Ellie’s weight. Ellie is sensitive to his criticism of her weight and grows immediately defensive, “I can’t lose the weight I gained making your babies, as I keep telling you.” Jeff says nothing in reply.

Ellie and Jeff have waited too long to seek help. Years of ignoring the problems, focusing on their work and the children, and increasing emotional distance led them finally to my office. I suspect that Jeff already has one foot out the door. At our next meeting, he announces his intention to move out of their home at the end of the school year when their youngest graduates from high school. Our work shifts from “saving their marriage” to helping them have a “better divorce.”

When to Do Something About the "Horsemen" in Your Home

Are you noticing any of these “Four Horsemen” in your relationship? Are you arguing about the same things again and again? Are you shutting out your partner? Are you willing to listen to your spouse’s complaints and problem solve, or do you get defensive and turn the blame around? Nancie complains that humor and affection were once important in her marriage, but now she feels lonely even when her partner is home. If you notice these, don’t ignore the signs. For most couples, by the time they seek marital therapy, on the edge of ending their relationship, it is on average six years too late.

Bids and Turns

Dr. Gottman writes that in a healthy relationship there are at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Gottman describes interactions as “bids” and “turns.” Even simple bids, such as a smile or a glance, are bids or requests for connection, attention, affection, affirmation, or other positive response. Here are examples of bids: “I read that California is in a drought.” “Did you hear that siren just now?” “I think I’ll make pasta tonight.” One could say that virtually everything you say to your partner is a bid.

There are different kinds of responses to bids, called “turns.” One might “turn toward,” or acknowledge the bid; “turn away,” or ignore the bid; or “turn against,” or respond argumentatively or aggressively. Here are different turns (responses) to the bids above.

“I read that California is in a drought” (bid). “I read that too, it’s quite worrisome, isn’t it?” (turn toward).

“...” (ignoring, turn away). “Why do you spend so much time reading the news when it’s past dinner time?” (turn against).

“Did you hear that siren just now?” (bid). “I didn’t, but now I wonder if there’s another wildfire near here?” (turn toward). “Nope” (turn away). “Can’t you see I’m busy?” (turn against).

“I think I’ll make pasta tonight” (bid). “I can get in the mood for that!” (turn toward). “Hmmm” (turn away). “I wish you’d learn to cook something different for a change” (turn against).

Do you believe that you contribute to positive bids and turns in a ratio of 5:1 or better? If the ratio is lower, it is a sign that your relationship is in trouble. Dr. Gottman found that a poor ratio of bids and turns was a reliable predictor of divorce. But don’t rush to break up or divorce.

What You Can Do to Keep Your Marriage Healthy

Pay attention to making as many positive bids and turns as you can. Think of this as simply being kind to each other, thoughtful, and considerate. Observe yourself. Pay attention to the tone of your voice. When you say something unkind or irritable, repair it as soon as possible.

Initiate “bids” often. And respond to your partner’s bid by “turning toward.”

Observe yourself and your relationship, watching for the Four Horsemen: criticism, blame, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When you catch yourself, stop. Breathe. When you’re calm, go back to the issue that needs to be discussed, without bringing in the Four Horsemen.

When something is on your mind, find a time to discuss it calmly, with the goal of a constructive, problem-solving conversation. Long-term relationships’ disagreements look different because they are often sprinkled with humor and affection. This is one of the keys to a long-term happy relationship.

Cultivate your relationship by spending time together doing something you both enjoy. A nice walk, a glass of wine as you discuss your day, reading a good book to each other, or anything else you enjoy. Even just 10 to 20 minutes a day will strengthen your positive connection.

Traits of a Happy Marriage

  • Trust, which can be cultivated.
  • Respect—remember why you love and admire your spouse.
  • Love, expressed verbally, physically, or in your favorite “love language”: Express appreciation, look for ways to notice and compliment the positives that your spouse brings to the relationship.
  • Willingness to listen, an essential skill you can practice.
  • Willingness to own one’s flaws or failings by being honest and accountable.
  • Ability to make a real apology.
  • Ability to forgive or let go of the past. Don’t let complaints pile up or be an “injustice collector.”
  • Let go of the little things and cut your partner some slack. You aren’t perfect and neither is your spouse.
  • You can’t change or fix the person you married. There is a good joke that made the therapists’ circle years ago: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. Since you can’t make your partner change, focus on what you can change in yourself to improve your relationship.

If these traits are eroding in your marriage, don’t expect them to fix themselves. Get the help of a good marital therapist to help you build up your listening skills, to help you address issues that arise, and to support a healthy relationship for the long term.

If the window of opportunity has passed, and you are headed for divorce, set your intention to have a “better divorce,” by staying out of court. Mediation or collaborative divorce are process options that help you get through the divorce so that you can heal, recover, and move on to a healthier future.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022

References

Further reading:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-divorce/202110/10-ways-c…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-divorce/202108/8-signs-p…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-divorce/202105/the-3-mos…

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