Is Dr. John Gottman really able to predict whether a couple will get divorced with 94% accuracy?
Statements about the 94% accuracy rate of divorce prediction have become a source of confusion. People hear Dr. Gottman’s prediction rate is 90 or 85 or 94 percent accurate (depending on the study) and find it amazing, unbelievable and downright scary. (He often tells his wife that this is why they don’t get invited to more dinner parties!) What Dr. Gottman is able say is that a particular couple is behaving like the couples that were in the group that got divorced in his 1992 study (Buehlman, K., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.), a study in which Dr. Gottman predicted with 93.6% accuracy which couples would divorce.
Altogether, Dr. Gottman has completed seven studies that explored what predicts divorce. These studies included three groups: 1) couples that divorced 2) couples that stayed together and were happy and 3) couples that stayed together and were unhappy. Dr. Gottman’s research helped him identify specific behavior patterns in couples that he later termed the “Masters” and “Disasters” of relationships.
If we could go to the “Love Lab,” and if we learned that we were in the category of having a high probability of divorce, does that mean there’s no hope? Should we break up now, even if our relationship seems good to us?
No! The most important discovery to come from our research is how we can predict divorce, and from that we know what couples need to do differently to strengthen their relationships. Changing those negative behaviors that predict divorce to more positive behaviors that predict success can significantly change the course of your relationship and make it better.
How many divorce prediction research studies and general relationship studies has Dr. Gottman conducted with couples?
Dr. Gottman’s research work with couples started in 1972 and continues today. So far, he has completed 12 studies with more than 3,000 couples. Dr. Gottman’s divorce prediction research specifically (seven of the 12 studies) included 677 couples.
OK, so what is the point of all this research?
The great thing about research is that it enables us to see patterns in the “Masters” and the “Disasters” of relationships, and understanding these patterns has helped the Gottmans to develop a theory (in this case, “The Sound Relationship House Theory”), which, in turn, guides us to develop programs, products and services that really work to help couples restore and repair their relationships.
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.
What are the negative behavior patterns that can predict divorce?
Dr. Gottman calls the most destructive behaviors: “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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 4 behaviors 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.
Are there any gender differences between men and women when it comes to physiological arousal?
Our studies have found that men tend to react with more signs of physiological stress than do women during disagreements, and therefore, men are more likely to withdraw (stonewall).
I’ve heard that the U.S. divorce rate is currently at 43%; how does that figure into Dr. Gottman’s research?
The 43% divorce rate refers to the percentage of U.S. couples that will divorce in the course of 40 years. Dr. Gottman is not trying to predict what percentage of the country is likely to divorce. His research result of 94% reflects the accuracy rates of attempts to predict which couples in a representative volunteer sample will divorce in a much shorter time – for example, during six years.
Are you sure couples’ behavior when observed by researchers is the same as how they behave at home?
No. We know couples tend to be more polite to each other when they’re observed. (We know this because we have also studied audio and video tapes couples made at home without researchers present.) Because of this, we underestimate the real differences between happy and unhappy couples. Given our ability to estimate what will happen to a relationship longitudinally, this is not a problem. And, after about 45 minutes, couples tend to forget they’re being observed all together.
How statistically significant is it that Dr. Gottman can predict divorce with such a high rate of accuracy?
For the Gottman, Katz and Hooven study, where Gottman et. al. picked out all seven divorced couples out of 56, the probability is approximately .000000000384 or 3.84×10-9.
If you want to study the research that proves the validity and reliability of Gottman’s statistics, click here: Effectiveness of the Gottman Model.
John Gottman’s Books
Dr. John Gottman is a Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, Seattle. He was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker.
- Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love – math behind the theory.
- Biblical Reference Guide for the Gottman Method
- When Men Batter Women
- Videos: Search YouTube for Dr. John Gottman.
Would you like to discover the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship? Ask me to email you the Gottman Relationship Checkup. This assessment questionnaire will take about an hour to complete. It’s $90 per couple.
Complete the contact page.
Email me at Benita@EspositoInstitute.com
Benita A. Esposito, MA, is a Licensed Professional Counselor who practices Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She is also a Gottman Educator, and has completed Level 3 of 3 Professional Training Programs.
Compiled with permission from The Gottman Institute. Visit www.Gottman.com