Warning Signs

As the mediation session ended, Elizabeth put her arms around her husband and hugged him. He stiffened, but did not pull away.

The marriage of this handsome older couple was ending, at the wife’s insistence. John, the husband, made no effort to hide his anger, albeit controlled. Earnestly he questioned the morality of having to share assets with a wife who chose to leave him, when he had done nothing wrong.

Both parties are highly educated professionals, she a retired college librarian, he a well compensated corporate executive, their children grown. No infidelity. No hint of physical abuse. In my presence they spoke to each other respectfully. I was told they had worked with a counselor a number of times, but they agreed, unsuccessfully.

Elizabeth’s behavior confused me, but when I met with her alone she explained: I simply have to get away, even though in some ways I still love him. He’s been a good father and wonderful provider. But for 32 years, I’ve been subjected to his scorn. When no one else is there, I’m constantly belittled, even told that I’m stupid. Of course, he knows I’m not, but he needs to feel superior. No more. I’d rather be alone.

Had I not previously read about the work of the psychologist, John Gottman, I might have probed further. Gottman and his colleagues, renowned for their work on marital stability and divorce prediction, have actually developed mathematical models* that allow them to record, and then analyze, three minute video clips of couples talking about a serious matter. They then forecast which of the couples will split up at some point in the next fifteen years. And with follow up studies they’ve proved their ability to make this prognosis with 90% accuracy!

Two hundred marital therapists and graduate students of clinical psychology also viewed the three-minute clips, but could do no better than guess right 54% of the time, just above pure chance.

This is no parlor trick. Gottman and his team apply their equations to 20 separate emotional states witnessed in the brief videotaped conversations, by those specially trained to see them.

The scientific work is complex and beyond my ken, but the conclusions are not. Gottman says he can find out much of what he needs to know by focusing on four predictors of marital failure: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. And the one he considers most important is contempt, which he says is qualitatively different, and far more damaging than the other three.

Contempt shows in words tinged with sarcasm, a glance that conveys disgust, personal insults, all delivered from a superior plane. The expression of contempt is hierarchical. An assertion of power over another. Standing alone, this is the greatest predictor of marital collapse.

Interestingly, women tend to be more critical, men more likely to stonewall. But contempt is gender neutral, as many women as men manifest that power stance.

One up, one down. It drains away love.

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*for those so inclined, you can Google John Gottman. Even the intricacies of his scientific work are available.