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Predicting Divorce From The First 3 Minutes of Conflict Discussion

Drs. Carrère and Gottman found that the startup of the conflict discussion was key to predicting divorce or marital stability.

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Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we will explore a six-year longitudinal study performed by Dr. John Gottman and fellow University of Washington researcher Sybil Carrère. Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion (1999) tested the hypothesis that the way a discussion of a marital conflict begins in its first few minutes is a predictor of divorce.

The marital conflict discussions of 124 newlywed couples (married less than 6 months) were coded using the Specific Affect Coding System, and the data were divided into positive, negative, and positive-minus-negative affect totals for five 3-minute intervals. It was possible to predict marital outcome over a six-year period using just the first 3 minutes of data for both husbands and wives. Here’s how:

Earlier research from our laboratory indicates that women initiate conflict discussions nearly 80% of the time. In couples heading for divorce, the wife’s opening statement is usually made in the form of criticism (a global attack on the husband’s character such as, “You’re lazy and never do anything around the house”) rather than a specific complaint (“You didn’t take out the trash last night”). The husband’s initial reaction to the wife’s opening is then either defensive (in marriages heading for divorce) or shows him not escalating her negativity.

The marital interaction assessment in this study consisted of a discussion by the husband and wife of a problem that was a source of ongoing disagreement in their marriage. After the couple completed a problem inventory, the experimenter reviewed with the couple the issues they rated as the most problematic and helped them to choose several issues to use at the basis for the discussion. Communication (they missed their partner emotionally, weren’t being understood emotionally, or weren’t feeling loved) was the most common theme of the marital discussions. Money and finances also were frequent topics. After choosing the topic for discussion, couples were asked to sit quietly and not interact with each other during a 2-minute baseline.

The couples discussed their chosen topics for 15 minutes and then viewed the video recording of the interaction. Both the husband and wife used rating dials that provided continuous self-report data.

The researchers collected continuous physiological measures and video recordings during all of the interaction sessions. The tapes were coded using a computer-assisted system developed in our lab to index facial expressions, voice tone, and speech content to characterize the emotions expressed by each couple. Coders categorized affects displayed using five positive codes (interest, validation, affection, humor, and joy) and 10 negative affects (disgust, contempt, belligerence, domineering, anger, fear and tension, defensiveness, whining, sadness, and stonewalling).

Drs. Carrère and Gottman found that the startup of the conflict discussion was key to predicting divorce or marital stability. Of the 17 couples who later divorced, all started off their conflict discussions with significantly greater displays of negative emotion and fewer expressions of positive emotion when compared with couples who remained married over the course of the 6-year study. In stable marriages, both husbands and wives expressed less negative affect and more positive affect at the first three minutes of such discussions.

Dr. Gottman on his 6-year study: “The biggest lesson to be learned from this study is that the way couples begin a discussion about a problem — how you present an issue and how your partner responds to you — is absolutely critical.”

Reference:

Carrere, S., and Gottman, J.M., (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion, Family Process, Vol. 38(3), 293-301


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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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