How to predict a divorce or the breakup of a relationship

"Content of Character" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Content of Character” by Mimi Stuart ©

How do you tend to respond to your partner’s benign comments about the weather, the news, or your surroundings? Do you often make cutting or critical remarks or ignore his or her comments? You may think that this is an insignificant issue. However, John Gottman’s research shows that the quality of every-day interaction makes all the difference in the world in the success of any relationship.

Among couples who get divorced within six years of getting married, one partner or the other is either ignored or receives a negative response 67% of the time. On the other hand, among couples who are satisfied with their relationship, the response to their partners’ actions and comments were negative only 13% of the time. They responded positively 87% of the time!

This is highly significant and shows that a relationship thrives or dies in large part as a result of all those brief moments and minor communications throughout the day.

Bids and turns

Gottman calls verbal attempts to make a connection “bids,” and he categorizes the responses people make as either a “turn toward” the partner or a “turn away” from the partner. When you turn toward a person, the person feels valued, whereas when you turn away from a person, he or she may feel invisible or not valued.

Here are some examples of bids and responses:

Bid: “Dinner’s ready.”
Turn away: “Spaghetti again?”
Turn toward: “Thank you, sounds great.”

Bid: “Wow, it’s cold today.”
Turn away: “Well it is winter in Idaho. We’re not in the tropics.”
Turn toward: “Yep, it sure is cold.”

Bid: “How do you like my new shirt?”
Turn away: “Are you kidding me? What did you pay for that?”
Turn toward: “Love it. Where did you get it?” Or “Interesting design. You always look good.”

Bid: “I’m so tired from work.”
Turn away: No comment.
Turn toward: “I’m so sorry, anything I can do to help?”

Bid: “Sorry I’m late.”
Turn away: “You’re always late. It’s driving me crazy!”
Turn toward: “I’m sure there’s a good reason. I hate to bring this up, but I think we should figure out a way where I’m not waiting for you so much. It’s starting to get really frustrating for me.”

Contempt vs respect

Contempt is the number one factor leading to unhappy relationships and divorce. When your response “turns away” from a person through neglect, criticism or a negative tone of voice, you express contempt or lack of regard for that person.

“Turning toward” a person does not mean that you have to agree with all comments made or become obsequious. It simply means showing that you are listening and responding with respect. As long as you don’t criticize or ignore your partner, you can disagree all you want.

When people repeatedly respond negatively or ignore their partners’ comments, there is often an underlying issue, such as resentment, feeling unappreciated, or a lack of self-empowerment in their lives. These issues are best dealt with through honest reflection and candid communication, not with passive-aggressive contemptuous behavior.

Sometimes a person is simply busy or focused on a project and does not want to be interrupted. Even in such situations, take the time to use a kind tone of voice when saying something like, “Do you mind if we talk later because I’d really like to finish this project. Thank you.”

Often couples don’t know why they have “drifted apart” or “fallen out of love” over the years. They need to realize that relationships wither or flourish depending on the daily care shown in how they respond to their partners’ attempts to communicate and connect. If you want your relationship to flourish, make sure you respond to bids for connection with kindness.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Changing Relationship Dynamics: ‘It’s too late to start telling my boyfriend to let me know when he’s coming home late because our communication patterns have already been established.’”

Read “Five Keys to a Great Relationship: ‘There’s nothing we can do to stay in love.’”

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2 thoughts on “How to predict a divorce or the breakup of a relationship

  1. Chelle

    Thank you for this article…Dr. Poulsen. I’m experiencing this situation currently, I did not notice when it started and then over time it becomes a way of life. Until one day you realize that there is so much resentment and that the relationship is essentially over.

    I will be more aware of contempt within a relationship and also this type of contempt can be very subtle and therefore can take more time to slowly corrode the relationship.

    I enjoyed the examples of “turning-away” and “turning-towards” you.

    Printed this for future reference!

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