Great news for couples: the average length of marriage in Australia has increased for the first time in a decade, to 12.1 years. Yet the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that almost 1 in 3 marriages still end in divorce.
There are a countless number of articles and studies available that are concerned with rising divorce rates – but this focus on the relationships that don’t work tend to overlook an incredibly important fact. If 30% of couples end up separating, that means 70% of couples are in a successful marriage that works and is lasting.
Is there a secret to a happy and lasting union? Years of relationship research have inarguably demonstrated that good communication is the absolute cornerstone of a healthy relationship.
Dr John Gottman is a world-renowned clinical psychologist who has dedicated the last 45 years to researching the reasons relationships fail or succeed. His work demonstrates that couples who express interest in their partner, are mutually respectful, and commit equally to repairing any damage to their bond are the relationships that endure and thrive.
This finding is supported by many studies: couples who consistently express appreciation and interest in each other form stronger bonds of intimacy. In contrast, couples who frequently focus on negative aspects of the relationship and neglect their partner’s need for connection are more likely to feel dissatisfied and eventually separate.
Rather than belittling, shaming or dismissing each other’s concerns when conflict arises, couples who show each other kindness ensure that their partner feels respected, validated and most importantly – loved.
Dr John Gottman, along with his wife Dr Julie Gottman, developed a specialist couple’s therapy method that is structured around the concept of mutual positive regard. Julie sums up relationship kindness beautifully:
Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger.
You can throw spears at your partner.
Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.
Life is exhausting at times, and relationships can be hard work. After a full day of meeting commitments and fulfilling responsibilities, it can be tempting for couples to seek relaxing distractions to unwind, rather than focusing on each other. When your partner makes a bid for attention and you’re feeling stressed or tired, your choice of response is crucial to the ongoing health of your relationship.
The Gottmans characterise this choice as ‘turning away’ or ‘turning towards’. Turning away is:
When you express interest in your partner’s needs, prioritising your relationship over any desire to tune out, the generosity of turning towards is activated. This enhances intimacy and builds trust, both essential elements of a successful marriage.
The Gottmans’ 14-year study on the importance of generosity in relationships revealed that couples who ended up divorcing turned away, or ignored their partner’s bids for attention 70% of the time. Yet couples who remained happily married responded to their partner’s bids for attention 90% of the time, by generously tuning in with interest to their partner’s needs.
Gottman has also identified 4 destructive communication behaviours that can increase a couple’s probability of divorcing. His observation of these behaviours in couples that participated in his 1992 study showed 94% accuracy in predicting marriage stability. These results have been replicated in subsequent studies as well, with prediction accuracy ranging from 81% to 90%.
Criticism is our partner’s way of expressing verbal disapproval that takes aim at our perceived shortcomings, our faults. By extension, criticism is often received and felt as an attack on who we are. This can severely undermine trust and intimacy in a marriage by triggering feelings of hurt and defensiveness in the partner being targeted.
“There is no such thing as constructive criticism… all criticism is painful.”
– Dr John Gottman
Instead of resorting to hostile criticism of one other whenever conflict arises, it’s essential for couples to take responsibility for their own feelings. It sounds like Couples Therapy 101, but replacing accusatory ‘You never/You always’ statements with ‘I wish/I need/I want’ assertions of your feelings, fears, and desires creates an authentic opportunity for constructive dialogue and conflict resolution.
When you feel like you’re being attacked, defensiveness is usually the primary instinctual response. Sometimes we’re so absorbed in defending ourselves from a perceived attack that we miss our partner’s attempt at communicating their concerns altogether.
We may be feeling defensive if our partner:
Our reaction to feeling defensive often involves:
Rather than getting caught in an endless cycle of fighting, take a moment to really listen when your partner is voicing their concerns. Take responsibility for your actions if necessary. A genuine apology – and ability to forgive – help couples move through high conflict situations without residual resentment building up and becoming a threat to relationship stability.
Of the thousand of couples who have participated in Gottman’s research over the years, all of the successful long-term relationships have one thing in common:
Criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling were observed in all relationships to some degree, but contempt was entirely absent in the relationships Gottman noted as having ‘mastered’ the art of togetherness.
Contempt takes many forms, such as:
All of these behaviours show a contemptuous disregard and lack of respect for your partner. Contempt is insidious: it eats away at the foundations of a happy marriage. Contempt erodes trust, respect, and intimacy. Partners who express scorn, disgust or disdain for each other are communicating from a position of perceived superiority over their partner. Yet a sense of equal partnership is essential to marital stability.
The opposite of contempt is admiration and respect. Consciously committing to communicating with your partner in ways that show your caring and love for them is an important predictor of relationship longevity. Building a marriage based on respect and kindness is the most effective way to ensure your relationship’s future.
Stonewalling is also known as the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction. One partner distances themselves from the other during conflict, essentially withdrawing from the conversation – and the relationship.
Stonewalling may take the form of:
This form of avoidance can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting for the partner who is trying to communicate their concerns. The stonewalling partner often reacts with silence during conflict because they’re feeling furious or overwhelmed, and they figure ‘no reaction’ is better than engaging in a fight. Yet stonewalling actually conveys distance, disapproval and a complete lack of respect for one’s partner. If left unchecked, this behaviour often results in the other partner initiating separation.
Gottman’s research suggests that the antidote to stonewalling is agreeing to take a break if either you or your partner are feeling overwhelmed by emotion. When tempers flare our fight or flight response kicks in, flooding the body with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Let your partner know you need to pause, and both take 20 minutes to do something distracting and relaxing. After 20 minutes, you most likely will have returned to a calm physical resting state, and be in a much better mind frame to discuss whatever’s between you.
It’s important to bear in mind that these behaviours occur in all relationships – even the happy and stable ones! The difference is that these behaviours are less frequent in successful marriages. When they do crop up, those partners are able to repair the damage caused by being generously forgiving of each other’s vulnerabilities, and kind to one another in the recovery and repair phase.
If you and your partner find yourself struggling to find ways to communicate effectively with each other, specialist marriage counselling can help you to develop relationship strategies that ensure your union is fulfilling, happy and lasting.
Relationship longevity research resources:
Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293-301.
Costa-Ramalho, S., Marques-Pinto, A., Ribeiro, M. T., & Pereira, C. R. (2015). Savouring positive events in couple life: Impacts on relationship quality and dyadic adjustment. Family Science, 6(1), 170-180.
Domingue, R., & Mollen, D. (2009). Attachment and conflict communication in adult romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(5), 678-696.
Gottman, J. M. (2014). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Psychology Press.
Jordan, J. V., & Carlson, J. (2014). Creating connection: A relational-cultural approach with couples. Routledge.
Meunier, V., & Baker, W. (2012). Positive couple relationships: The evidence for long-lasting relationship satisfaction and happiness. In Positive Relationships (pp. 73-89). Springer Netherlands.
Schrodt, P., Witt, P. L., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2014). A meta-analytical review of the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction and its associations with individual, relational, and communicative outcomes. Communication Monographs, 81(1), 28-58.
Lavy, S., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Bareli, Y. (2016). My better half: Strengths endorsement and deployment in married couples. Journal of Family Issues, 37(12), 1730-1745.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.