According to Dr John Gottman, interactive behavior matters a great deal. He discovered that the “masters” of relationships (couples that stayed together happily) were much gentler with one another than the “disasters”of relationships. The ratio of the number of seconds of positive-to-negative emotions during conflict for the disasters averaged 0.8, and for the masters averaged 5.0. There was far more positive than negative affect even during a conflict discussion for the masters. That 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative emotions in a conflict discussion jumped out of the pages of his statistical analyses. Thus he saw what he called “the triumph of negative over positive affect,” which determined the influence functions in his math model of relationships.
Then he asked the data, Are all negatives equally corrosive? The answer was no. The disaster couples during conflict used what John called “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These Four Horsemen during conflict were the best predictors of early divorce. They co-occurred (though not in a fixed order) in the conflict of the disaster couples.
When Gottman did his sequential analyses, he discovered an overall robust summary of what the disasters do in conflict discussions. He divided his emotion codes into three emotion states: positive, neutral, and negative. He examined the probabilities that a couple stays in a state or makes a transition from one state to another. When he compared happy with unhappy couples (even just a few months after their wedding), he found that, for unhappy couples, negative affect was what mathematicians call a “Markov absorbing state.” A Markov absorbing state is one that is easy to enter and hard to exit. So, the natural principle here was this: Compared to happily married couples, during conflict discussions, a negative absorbing Markov state of negative emotions existed for unhappily married couples. For unhappily married couples it was easy to enter a state of negative emotions and hard to exit it. This means that for only unhappily married newlyweds, encountering negative affect during conflict was like stepping into a quicksand bog. No matter how hard they tried, they only sank deeper and deeper into negativity, eventually escalating to the Four Horsemen.
Nan Silver and John (Gottman & Silver, 2016) wound up calling this the roach-motel model of unhappy marriage because it resembled the advertisement for a cockroach-poison “hotel” that read, “They check in but they don’t check out.” This is how negative affect begins to pervade the lives of unhappily married couples as they move down what Gottman and Robert Levenson called the “distance and isolation cascade,” in which they withdraw from one another and become lonely.
The master couples also enter the negative affect state (but less often), and they can repair and exit negativity more easily. By identifying these sequences of interaction, Gottman was led by his data to become a systems theory therapist. Later, when he had 14-year longitudinal data, Levenson and Gottman discovered another group of couples that divorced an average of 16.2 years after the wedding (instead of an average of 5.6 years for the “Four Horsemen” couples).
These couples weren’t negatively hostile at all. They were just sad and mildly angry, but mostly they were detached and disengaged; the best identifier was that they showed very little positive emotions at all during their conflict discussions. There was no shared humor, no laughter, no playfulness, no silliness, no curiosity, no shared excitement, no affection, and no empathy; Cuber and Harroff (1965) had called these marriages “devitalized.” Apparently, these emotionally detached couples can last longer than the Four Horsemen couples; they can raise children together, but they tend to divorce in midlife.
Now Gottman could not just predict if a couple would divorce, but roughly when they would divorce. This leads to the principle: Over time, a negative Markov absorbing state leads to early divorce. Low positive affect also leads to divorce, but much later.
You can learn more about Gottman’s research and how this applies to evidenced based couples therapy, and the development of the Gottman Couple Intervention by joining us at one of our training events.
Cuber, J. & Harroff, P. (1965). Sex and the significant Americans. Penguin Books: New York.
Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. (2017) The Natural Principles of Love. Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (March 2017): 7–26
Gottman, J & Silver, N (2016). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Random House/Crown/Harmony: New York.
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