Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Respect:The Key To Successful Marriage

October 23, 1995

Psychologist John Gottman of the University of Washington recently summarized his thoughts and research on marriage, marriage problems and divorce. He describes the key factors that help him predict with 94 percent accuracy which couples will divorce within four years. He also isolates what he considers the key factor men do wrong in marriage.

What steps precede a divorce? 1. A couple is unhappily married. 2. They have continued low marital satisfaction for some time. 3. They start having serious thoughts about independence and separation. 4. They try separation as a prelude to divorce.

Unhappy couples react to their partner's negative emotions - anger, irritability, fear, sadness, blame, defensiveness, whining - with negative emotions of their own. They have high levels of negative emotions and low levels of positive emotions. They try to fix problems with negative emotions or only pay attention to the negative emotions of their partner.

What predicts a divorce?

  • When the relationship has less than five to one positive to negative interactions, Gottman can predict divorce within four years with 75 percent accuracy.
  • These same couples can drift into what Gottman calls the "Four Horsemen of Apocalypse" - Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. When this takes place without positive emotional connections, the prediction of divorce goes from 75 percent to 85 percent.
  • When one partner is emotionally flooded during conflict, he or she finds it difficult to listen to their partner or learn something new and resorts to habitual thoughts and explanations. Gottman explains, "Unless people learn to self-soothe, and unless couples learn to soothe their partners, the negativity is bound to escalate." With the arousal factor, the prediction of divorce moves to 90 percent.
  • When a partner's negative ideas and attitudes about their partner's qualities resist change and when the assessment of the marriage is decidedly negative, the prediction of divorce is 94 percent.

Gottman describes three kinds of stable marriages.

The volatile marriage.

  • Values openness and honesty, hates phoniness and deceit.
  • Values direct confrontation, tooth and nail debate, often bicker.
  • Is highly emotional, both positive and negative, passionate.
  • Uses affection, humor and teasing, remains romantic.
  • Values separateness but also equality.

The validating marriage.

  • Values unity, being friends and being supportive companions.
  • Listens well and seeks understanding.
  • Picks issues to disagree about, values compromise and problem solving.
  • Is moderately emotional.

The avoiding marriage:

  • Values shared basic beliefs - is often quite traditional.
  • Expresses point of view, "agrees to disagree" as a solution, learns to live with many unresolved issues.
  • Believes that time can heal problems, minimizes problems and conflict.
  • Is not emotional, values separateness.

What all these marriages have in common is at least a five to one ratio of positive to negative interactions. They have a low incidence of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. They recognize each others effort to repair the relationship. They feel a fondness and admiration for their partner. They enjoy a comfortable level of emotional engagement.

Gottman describes some typical mismatches in couples headed for divorce.

1. A Validator with an Avoider. The Validator is constantly pursuing the Avoider and feeling shut out emotionally. The Avoider starts feeling flooded.

2. A Validator with a Volatile. The Validator starts feeling not listened to and flooded, feels like he or she is always doing combat. The Volatile feels the Validator is cold and unemotional, distant and unengaged. There seems to be no passion in the marriage.

3. An Avoider with a Volatile. The Avoider quickly feels that he or she has married an out-of-control, crazy person. The Volatile feels he or she has married a cold fish, feels unloved, rejected and unappreciated.


What one pattern contributes most to marital failure? Men react to their wives high or low levels of negative emotion with strong rejection and negative emotions of their own - belligerence, defensiveness or contempt. They reciprocate in kind or they escalate the fight. Women take this as rejection. Gottman’s principal advice is for a husband not to reject his wife's high or low intensity negative emotions.

If a husband in a happy marriage is not rejecting his wife's feelings and fighting back, what does he do in disagreements? Does he ask questions, stay responsive and engaged, show understanding and validate his partner's negative emotions? Gottman found to his surprise that in the stress of real life circumstances, this rarely happens.

Respect is the key. Gottman found that conflict avoiders either change the subject or occasionally validate their partner while keeping their emotions neutral. Volatile or validating couples primarily engage in "respectful persuasion," again with neutral emotion.

Besides teaching communication skills, empathy and understanding to distressed couples, Gottman thinks men need to learn how to regulate their negative emotions. They need to respond with respect and courtesy when their wives are raising issues or are showing negative emotion. This will keep the basic climate of the marriage constructive and positive.