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How To Have A Longer Marriage Than Kim Kardashian.


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Two decades ago, a team of researchers led by psychologist John Gottman set out to determine one thing:

Why do couples get divorced?

Gottman decided to answer this question by trying something very simple: Recording married couples talking for 15 minutes about a recent conflict that they were having in their relationship, and then carefully scrutinizing these recordings to see how happy and unhappy couples behaved differently. After all, every couple has problems; the simple act of fighting can’t possibly be the only thing that drives a couple to divorce. There must be something in particular about the nature of the fights themselves that distinguishes happy from unhappy couples. After gathering these recordings from about 80 married couples throughout the Midwest, Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson underwent the grueling task of coding these videos. This means that they made a note of every single time that certain things happened in the interaction. Was one partner angry? Was the other one getting defensive? How much did they use humor in their interaction? Did they show any affection? How about the nasty silent treatment – did that ever rear its cold, ugly head?

After keeping track of these couples and noting which ones ended up getting divorced over the course of the next 14 years, Gottman and Levenson eventually realized something incredibly important: They didn’t actually need to note down all that much. In fact, there were just four behaviors that could be used to predict which couples would still be married 14 years later — with 93% accuracy.

Yes; in case the enormity of what I just said didn’t sink in quite yet, solely based on how often you notice four behaviors occurring in a single, 15-minute conversation, you can predict with 93% accuracy whether or not a couple will still be married 14 years from now.1

Now I’m guessing you probably want to know what these four behaviors — or, as Gottman and Levenson call them, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — actually are. These four toxic behaviors are called contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.

Kris HumphriesAnd, funny enough, to understand what each of these behaviors looks like in action, one needs to look no further than America’s favorite briefly-unhappily-married couple: Socialite Kim Kardashian and “basketball player” Kris Humphries.

Contempt

Couples who eventually divorce express over twice as much contempt during disagreements as those who stay together for the long haul. In fact, Gottman himself believes that of the four “horsemen,” contempt is the most significant one.

What does contempt look like? It’s more than mere anger; all couples become upset or angry with each other at times, and this certainly does not mean that they will all divorce. Contempt in particular is a potent mix of anger and disgust. Expressing contempt involves speaking to your husband like he is “beneath” you, or mocking your wife in a cold, sarcastic way.

The clip below, from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, certainly elicited a lot of laughs when it aired. And many (including myself) thought it was kind of funny that Kris was clearly giving Kim a “reality check” about her likely-fleeting fame. Yet when considering their relationship quality, his response is completely toxic. It’s clear in what Kris says to Kim that he didn’t respect her or her priorities. It would be possible for these two to fight about where they should live without expressing contempt. Yet by telling her to her face that her career is essentially worthless – whether or not that is actually the case – he’s expressing contempt towards her. No good for their ill-fated marriage.

Criticism

The second horseman is criticism, which might immediately worry anyone who’s ever complained about a partner forgetting to empty the dishwasher. However, the toxicity of criticism does not emerge in a disagreement where the partners are simply voicing any minor (or major) concerns that they might have. Criticism specifically involves turning your complaints into some sort of “defect” about your partner’s personality. Rather than voicing constructive complaints about a behavior, situation, or incident, criticism specifically involves negative trait (not state) attributions.

In other words: A complaint focuses on the behavior. A criticism attacks the person.

We can see this in the following TV clip where Kim rants about her pet peeves. The very first one that she mentions is Kris’s habit of brushing his teeth so vigorously that he gets toothpaste on the mirror (seriously, people — you can’t make up these scintillating conversations). But note how she says it. She doesn’t say that it bothers her when he does this. She specifically notes that she hates the kind of people who brush their teeth so vigorously they get toothpaste all over the mirror. She has managed to take something fairly minor and, rather than phrasing it as a complaint (“It really bothers me when you do this. Could you try to brush over the sink, or at least wipe off the mirror when you’re done?”), she has turned it into a weird, dental-centric criticism of his character (“You’re the kind of person who messes up the mirrors when you brush your teeth!”) Over time, these trait- (or personality-)based attributions can build up and lead to resentment or a lack of respect for one’s partner, which will quickly breed that earlier sense of contempt.

Defensiveness

This strategy can best be summed up by one, simple line: “It’s not me. It’s you.”

Do you often “play the victim” in your fights, maybe by making it seem like everything that happens is your partner’s fault? Do you regularly deny responsibility for any role that you might play in a conflict? Do you find yourself trying to “prove” during a fight that your partner is “more wrong” than you are?

If so, you might be guilty of defensiveness.

It’s only natural to believe in a disagreement that we are right and our partners are wrong. After all – if we didn’t think that we were right, we probably wouldn’t be fighting! But the important thing about defensiveness is that it involves a tendency to consistently blame things on one’s partner, paint oneself as the “martyr” or “victim” who does nothing wrong, and make it seem like the partner is responsible for anything that goes wrong in the relationship.

Below, we can see Kim flip her switch to Defensiveness Mode the very second that something goes wrong in an interaction with Kris. She is perfectly happy to be playing around with Kris by the water, but as soon as something goes wrong (she loses an incredibly expensive earring in the ocean), the entire incident immediately becomes his fault. She accepts no blame for any part she might have played in the disagreement, like also horsing around…or even simply wearing earrings that expensive around the ocean. Instead, she becomes the “victim,” and Kris becomes the villain. Unfortunately, no one likes being the villain all of the time — which is why defensiveness can suck the life out of your relationship.

Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when, during a conflict, one (or both) partners will completely tune out from the discussion — maybe by texting, turning on the TV, or simply not responding to a partner’s attempts at conversation. Stonewalling is usually accompanied by increased physiological responses like an accelerated heart rate, higher blood pressure, and sweating. This indicates that it might be a response to physiological overarousal; after dealing with too much physiological stress, someone’s response to a conflict may simply be to “shut down” and block out the argument.

Stonewalling is toxic because it shuts down productive conversation. Rather than hashing out any differences in a mature way, someone who stonewalls just succeeds in raking over the underlying issues, not really resolving anything, and also making one’s partner feel like he/she is not being taken seriously or heard.

Below, we can see Kris engaging in some very clear stonewalling. Kim has told him that she does not plan on changing her last name, and this clearly bothers him. However, rather than talking this out and coming to some sort of compromise or reasoned conclusion, Kris completely shuts her out. He turns to his phone while she’s trying to speak to him, doesn’t really listen to (or process) what she is saying, and disengages from the conversation. As mentioned above, this creates a twofold problem — not only does it not solve the true, underlying problem, but it makes Kim feel devalued.

What To Do?

Now that Kim and Kris have conveniently demonstrated the four worst things that you can possibly do in a relationship, how are you supposed to combat them?

Gottman and Levenson suggest that each of the four horsemen actually has a healthy counterpart.

  • Rather than phrasing a complaints as a criticism of your partner’s personality or traits, try to emphasize state attributions. Instead of complaining about your partner’s personality, raise complaints or problems about the situation or the behavior.
  • Instead of “playing the victim” and getting defensive, accept responsibility for your role in a conflict. This doesn’t mean shouldering all of the blame; rather, it means recognizing and acknowledging anything that you might have done, or any way in which you are not blameless.
  • Build a “culture of appreciation,” so both partners see each other with respect and appreciation instead of contempt, resentment, and disgust. Emphasize the importance of respecting each other and seeing each others’ interests, hobbies, and passions as worthwhile.
  • If you are someone who frequently ends up stonewalling, or disengaging from potential conflict, figure out if this is because the fight is too overstimulating. If so, you can engage in something called “physiological self-soothing,” which basically just means taking deep breaths and trying to mindfully relax. By focusing on the breath and calming down, it can become easier to have a difficult conversation without becoming so emotionally overaroused that disengagement seems like the only way to cope.

It’s also important to note that if you’ve noticed any of the Four Horsemen in how you or your romantic partner tend to behave, this should not be interpreted as a “death knell” for your relationship. Although these studies do not establish the direction of any presumed causality, researchers in the field believe that the truly important contribution of this work is not the ability to identify doomed relationships and “predict divorce” as a cute party trick. The important note is that these behaviors themselves are presumed to be the cause of marital dissatisfaction, not the other way around. Just as we learned that it’s important to attribute your partner’s mistakes to situational (rather than dispositional) factors to avoid engaging in too much criticism, we can think about applying this state vs. trait idea to our attributions about the overall relationship as well. If you tend to be defensive and your partner tends to stonewall, it is much more productive (and optimistic!) to focus instead on addressing the individual behaviors themselves that are causing problems, rather than assuming that this indicates that your relationship is destined to fail. Based on what Gottman and his colleagues have argued, being aware of these four behaviors and trying to actively combat them is not a futile task — it should actually greatly increase your odds of staying happily committed.

It looks like things are turning around for Kim K. She’s now in a relationship with rapper Kanye West, and their first child together is due over the summer. The two are not officially engaged, but have hinted that they plan to wed in the future.

Regardless of whether or not Kim ties the knot for the third time, taking a good look at her past relationship behavior might help her figure out what went so terribly wrong in the past. Hopefully, she will bring less criticism and defensiveness into her relationship with Kanye, and maybe Kanye won’t be as likely to stonewall during arguments or treat Kim with contempt.

And if nothing else, at least Kim’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries did provide the world with one valuable thing:

A play-by-play demonstration of exactly what not to do in your own romantic relationships.

 


ResearchBlogging.org

Gottman, J., & Levenson, R. (2002). A Two-Factor Model for Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce: Exploratory Analyses Using 14-Year Longitudinal Data. Family Process, 41, 83-96.

Carrere, S., & Gottman, J.M. (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, 38, 293-301.

Gottman, J.M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C., (1998). Predicting Marital Happiness and Stability from Newlywed Interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 5-22.

 

For more information on Gottman’s research:

Psych Your Mind on the Four Horsemen
Further Citations for Gottman’s work
The Gottman Institute

Image Credits:

Kim Kardashian: Photograph by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons. Available under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Kris Humphries: Photograph by Keith Allison via Flickr. Available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Kim & Kanye: Photograph by Noel Vasquez via Flickr. Available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

 


1. This figure of “93% accuracy” in predicting divorce can be a little bit confusing, so I want to clarify what it means. In the first study that Gottman and his colleagues ran, they conducted analyses after collecting data on many couples over the course of about a decade, and they identified the most important factors that distinguished the couples who happily stayed together, the couples who unhappily stayed together, and the couples who got divorced. In six future studies, the researchers then took those factors (identified from the first study) and, using entirely new sets of couples, tested different “models” of relationship satisfaction and divorce. What this means is that they designed a bunch of different ways that the important factors might combine together in order to influence divorce rates, and then used that information to create what is basically like an “algorithm” (or calculator) for analyzing a large number of couples. The models can use these factors and the information entered abotu the couples to perform a “prediction analysis,” where the models automatically sort the couples into categories based on its predictions about their future marital status. In these studies, the models that sorted these couples into “Divorced” or “Still Married” groups were able to correctly identify the “divorced” couples 85-95% of the time. This is a rough description of the process, of course, but should generally convey what actually goes on in this research. Gottman and his colleagues never actually take individual couples and say “Will Divorce” or “Will Not Divorce.” However, as Gottman and his colleagues argue (and rightfully so), you can predict divorce in the sense that you can look at an individual couple and assess the degree to which they resemble the couples that were deemed “Will Probably Divorce” by the model, knowing that the model exhibited ~90% accuracy for the couples that were assessed.

As an example, in the 1992 paper, there were 47 couples, 7 of whom had gotten divorced. The model’s prediction analysis predicted that 37 of the couples would still be married (all of whom were), and that 10 of the couples would be divorced (7 of whom were). Therefore, the only mistake that the calculator made was classifying 3 still-married couples as “probably divorced.” This means that the calculator was correct about 44 of the 47 couples, making it 93.6% accurate.

For more information, you can read the FAQs on Dr. Gottman’s site.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Rocza 10:40 am 05/10/2013

    Well, I think the most important questions to ask here are pretty basic ones: were all of the research subjects from the Midwest? Did they diversify? Did they look at just straight couples? Did they look at other cultures, or is this only relevant for Midwest American couples?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:07 am 05/10/2013

    Hi Rocza,

    Those are, naturally, all very good questions. The research has been replicated across all different types of couples, in all different regions (I believe only within the US, which is still a limitation, but not just the Midwest). You can find more information at Gottman’s website, linked at the bottom of the post.

    Interestingly, there do tend to be gender differences in terms of the behavioral prevalence. Men tend to “stonewall” more frequently than women, and women tend to be “defensive” more than men. I believe the rates for criticism and contempt are roughly equal. However, research shows that it is not the mere presence of any (or all) of the four, but the relative frequency of any of them. For example, if there is lots of contempt in a relationship, but you don’t see the other 3 behaviors, this is still very bad. I remember reading a study showing that men in same-sex relationships show the same patterns in being overwhelmingly more likely to “stonewall” over the other 3 behaviors, such that stonewalling was a particularly good predictor of break-ups/divorce in same-sex male relationships. However, I don’t remember the exact citation and can’t find it, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Thanks for commenting! Again, really important questions.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Richieo 11:08 am 05/10/2013

    Divorce for this pair was a no-brainer, just like two spoiled selfish brats playing together, fine until it became serious, then the novelty wore off, really no need for a post mortem on this one, it was doomed long before it started…

    Link to this
  4. 4. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:13 am 05/10/2013

    Sure. But that’s not really the point here.

    Link to this
  5. 5. FadingToDusk 2:59 pm 05/10/2013

    Thank you so much for explaining all the videos in detail, so I was spared having to watch any of them. Seriously, using them as examples makes sense, as anything with her in it will have whiny entitled twit smeared all over it within seconds. Explaining the clips kept me from having to voluntarily have her in my field of view.

    Good article that summarizes the 4 horsemen, and offers basic fixes and what to watch for to prevent relationship decline. Skimmable, yet full of solid info.

    Link to this
  6. 6. nansilver 3:46 pm 05/10/2013

    Readers who would like more information on how to apply Dr. Gottman’s research to improve their own relationships can check out the books he and I co-authored for a general readership, including the NY Times bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and the newly released, What Makes Love Last? (Simon and Schuster).

    Nan Silver
    nansilver.net

    Link to this
  7. 7. syzygy 9:25 pm 05/10/2013

    Did the study look at the couples’ maturity levels correlated with divorce? It seems to me also that the toxic behaviors indicate immaturity.

    Does maturity correlate with intelligence? Not a lot of either with Kim.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 9:54 pm 05/10/2013

    Syzygy,

    I think, though, that the important thing here is that this work identifies particularly toxic behaviors, with the idea that people can (ideally) target those behaviors and decrease how often they engage in them during disagreements. By pinpointing specific behaviors (like “criticism” or “stonewalling”), it allows couples to identify when they are performing those behaviors so they can then try to engage in other strategies.

    I’m not particularly sure what clustering these distinct behaviors into a more nebulous superordinate category would really accomplish, even if they individually correlate with something akin to generalized “maturity.” What would that add to the research? What would it add to how it might be implemented in relationship counseling? Of course, your opinion might certainly vary, but to me it seems much more reasonable for a counselor to say, “What you are doing right now is stonewalling. Here’s how you stop doing that, because we know that that particular behavior is damaging” than for a counselor to say, “You are immature. You need to be more mature. You now need to figure out what that means.”

    Does that make sense? I think what I am trying to say is that, although they might all load onto a higher-level “maturity” factor, labeling it as such seems to be taking a step backwards. Generally, researchers prefer to clarify vague, abstract constructs by operationalizing them in terms of specific behaviors, not the other way around.

    It is also worth noting that there are many other factors that have come up in this research over the years, none of which are included in the “four horsemen.” These factors include positive things that should be done (like frequently sharing information about your day/everyday life, sharing the power in the relationship, and creating shared values/attitudes/interests) and additional negative things that should not be done (being bossy/overassertive/domineering, withholding affection). Some of those could certainly be seen as aspects of maturity/immaturity as well. So I do think it is something in particular about those four behaviors.

    Link to this
  9. 9. syzygy 11:57 pm 05/10/2013

    I see your point. I wasn’t thinking in terms of counseling. Gottman was, of course, researching to develop a therapy. I guess a psychologist would be more interested in fixing the problem as opposed to saying, “Isn’t that interesting?” What I was trying to ask was whether people with a higher level of maturity (Maybe maturity isn’t meaningful as a psychological term?) would be less likely to engage in the toxic behaviors in the first place? I’m interested in why people exhibit particular behaviors. I hadn’t gotten as far as wondering how to fix them. But now I’m curious if their counseling suggestions worked. I’ll check out their website.

    Although she made a good example for your article, it is astounding (and a little depressing) that so many people are interested in Kim Kardashian. It probably isn’t due to the scintillating conversations as you say.

    Sorry to be off topic. It was something I wondered about as I was reading your article. Human beings are such curious creatures.

    Link to this
  10. 10. JohnSmith57 4:22 am 05/11/2013

    I’m pretty skeptical of John Gottman’s claims. He was co-author of “Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion.” Then later he co-authors a paper that says he can tell in 15 minutes which couples are going to divorce and which will stay married. I just don’t think humans are that transparent.

    With Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, yes, they had the problems you identified. But they also had other problems as well that could be used to predict their divorce. Like, for example, the fact that they lived largely separate lives.

    People are complicated and when social scientists try to reduce that complexity, they rarely succeed. Myself, I mistrust this research.

    Link to this
  11. 11. John A. 6:41 pm 05/13/2013

    This only deals with the symptoms, not the cause, of marriage breakdown. The reality of the cause of most divorces is a loss of sexual attraction in at least one of the partners. Couples fight about everything, but the contempt comes from a lack of sexual attraction. Sexual attraction provides rose colored glasses, everything annoying she/he does is colored by his/her sexiness, whereas if the sexual attraction is not there, one partner partner sees the other as an annoying intruder in his/her personal space. This is why the key to a relationship is not to be considerate, is not to communicate, those things help, but to make sure your partner is sexually attracted to you.

    Link to this
  12. 12. John A. 7:00 pm 05/13/2013

    To clarify my comment “sexual attraction” is not all based on looks. Looks are a lot of it, especially for women, as men have been shown to value looks more than women. Sexual attraction for women is based a lot on how the man is psychologically perceived, how good his game is. I would also like to add that uneven economic power also factors in, especially for men, as women are more likely to value provider capacity. A man like Kris Humphries can get any woman he wants, he has the pick of the litter, and probably their is an evolutionary programmed instinct toward polygamy and affairs.

    Link to this
  13. 13. John A. 7:06 pm 05/13/2013

    @Rocza, good point, one would not expect the results to be the same for gay couples. The dynamic of gay relationships is very different from what straight couples. Gay relationships are much likely to be permanent, and less tied to children. Economic considerations are also less important. A study covered in the NYT revealed that 50% of gay male marriages are ‘open marriages.’

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/us/29sfmetro.html?_r=0

    Link to this
  14. 14. EyesWideOpen 4:59 pm 05/16/2013

    Based on Kim’s toxic treatment of Kris, it appears the hubris running between the two was deeper than the article’s premise about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

    You mentioned Kris told Kim her career was worthless, when in fact he really felt that based on her complete contempt for him as a human being, he really was saying in a round-about way, “You ARE worthless.”

    I always like to leave my comments on a positive note. No matter how toxic of a human being this woman is, and how much contempt she has for other humans she considers inferior to herself, I’m sure she has some worth.

    Link to this

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