John Gottman is well-known for his work on relationships. In a 1998 study, Gottman developed a model to predict which newlywed couples would remain married and which would divorce four to six years later. He claims that his model has 90% accuracy.
Although there has been criticism of this model, Gottman remains an authority on relationship dynamics. In his experiments, he asks couples to discuss a topic that often leads to arguments, then analyzes the fight. What’s he looking for? Signs of contempt.
Gottman believes contempt (along with stonewalling, defensiveness, and criticism) is one of the major signs that a relationship is in distress. There are many ways to express contempt, such as eye rolling, or insulting your partner (“You’re so stupid.”)
Contempt by your partner not only predicts the health of your relationship; it can also predict your health:
by counting the number of a husband’s facial expressions of contempt for his wife,we could correctly estimate the number of infectious diseases she would have over the next four years.
I find this astonishing.
Gottman believes that couples don’t have to resolve all their issues; in fact, he says that couples will continue to fight about the same things over and over again in their marriage. What matters, he says, is how you fight. Do you hurl insults at each other? Claim it’s never your fault? Criticize instead of complain? Point out everything your partner does wrong? These are indicators your relationship is suffering.
Gottman also claims that men become more intensely upset physiologically than women–higher heart rate and blood pressure–and remain distressed longer after the fight ends. Therefore, men are more likely to avoid the upsetting discussion–stonewall–to save themselves from feeling so terrible. Unfortunately, stonewalling increases the woman’s feelings of unpleasant physiological arousal more than anything else her spouse does, including shouting.
Sounds pretty bad, right? But don’t despair. There is research that indicates marriage can be good for your health, too–like lowering blood pressure in men. And women holding their husband’s hand have a higher pain tolerance.
It’s ok to fight and ok to get angry with your spouse (in fact, Gottman says getting angry can be good for you relationship). But do it right: fight nice.