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Thursday, March 3, 2011

T3 - Predicting Fictional Breakups, Part One

If I told you that there was a man who was able to predict--with 93.6% accuracy--which couples will remain married and which will get divorced, would you believe me?

You should, because such a man exists. Dr. John Gottman, a name as well-known in my circles as Freud, based his predictions on scientific observation of the interactions between couples in his Love Lab. He used video, heart rate monitors, measures of pulse amplitude, jitteriness and skin conductivity in his research--making it fully scientfic. 

In 1994, he wrote an incredible book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. In it, he said, “A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.” He gives 6 signs of pending divorce/breakups, along with helpful quizes, to help shed light on the process of relationship deterioration.

As a marriage and family therapist, I often discuss these 6 signs in session. As a writer, these signs should be present in your manuscripts for breakups to be realistic--because our fiction should be based in reality!

Sign #1: A "Harsh" Startup

This might sound obvious, but research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note, even if there are a lot of attempts to “make nice” in between. 96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction.

Sign #2: The Four Horsemen

1) Criticism

We are all going to have complaints about our partners. That's life. But there is a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism. For example, “I’m really angry that you didn’t take out the garbage last night” is a complaint which focuses on a specific behavior. On the flip side, "You are so forgetful! You never take out the garbage when it's your turn!" is a criticism. Criticism throws in blame, accusation, and general character/personality assassination.

Criticism is present to some degree in all relationships, but just because it rears its head doesn't mean the relationship is headed for a breakup. When the criticism becomes pervasive, though, it does signal the arrival or worse horsemen.

2) Contempt

Showing contempt to your partner is the worse of all the horsemen. Contempt is attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult, demean, or psychologically abuse him or her. This can be in the form of "sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor" (Gottman et all, 29). Contempt conveys disgust, and it's impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you are disgusted with him/her.

Criticisms can lead to long-standing negative thoughts about your partner. When the differences aren't resolved, then complaints turn into global criticisms, which produce more disgusted thoughts and feelings until finally a person is fed up. The result is a decay of admiration and positive feelings for the partner.

3) Defensiveness

When one person is contemptuous, it stands to reason that the other will likely be defensive. This is a normal reaction to contempt, but it's not helpful in the least. "Defensiveness is really a way of blaming
your partner. You're saying, in effect, the problem isn't me, it's you" (Gottman et al, 31). The problem will never resolve with defensiveness, and conflict escalates further because communication is obstructed. A person who is defensive will usually play the martyr, constantly seeing themselves as the victim by denying responsibility, making excuses, "yes-butting," cross-complaining, etc.

4) Stonewalling

This is when a person withdraws from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. The withdrawer may think they are being neautral, but stonewalling conveys disapproval, disconnection, separation, and icy distance. In fact, it can even come across as smug. The "I'm-better-than-you-because-I'm-walking-away" action.

It's an absolute communication shutdown, precipitated by a length of time when the first 4 horsemen are incredibly active. "It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable out" (Gottman et al, 34). FYI, men do this more than women.

Join me here next week when I cover the next two signs that predict breakups.

Q4U: Any of you have your characters start off their arguments harshly? Do you have your arguments end well when they do?

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Raquel Byrnes said...

Wow, this book sounds so thorough and easy to understand. Interesting information for authors too.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Shannon said...

That's pretty interesting. Funnily enough, there is the odd couple who can make vicious arguments somehow work for them. Then again, maybe those people just have different definitions of vicious?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

I'm not sure it's the definition that is the problem, so much as it's further signs that the couples you are talking about are able to make work for them. For example, the sign of missing repair attempts....HUGE in predicting divorce. The couples you are talking about might be able to fight viciously, but are able to accept and respond to repair attempts from their partners in a manner that does strengthen their relationship. Maybe that'll make more sense in the coming weeks. :) Thanks for stopping by.

Miss Sharp said...

One thing I can tell you after 18 years of marriage is that even when you have "repaired" something, don't count on it always staying repaired. There are quite a few things my husband and I have repaired dozens of times! O_o

But I guess that would get kind of repetitious in a novel...

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

a repair attempt doesn't mean it's's just one person's attempt to breach the gap that forms during an could be a touch, an act of just opens the communication lines. :) i'll go more into it later.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.