Predicting Marital Satisfaction
Studies conducted by psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues have revealed surprisingly accurate criteria for predicting marital success. Gottman did not study longterm cohabiting gay and lesbian couples. Some of his findings would apply to same-sex couples, but the patterns based on male-female relationships do not. Gottman and his associates identified a number of patterns that predict marital discord, unhappiness, and separation. Identifying such patterns has provided the basis for predicting with better than 90% accuracy whether a couple will separate within the first few years of marriage. These patterns included the following:
■ A ratio of at least five positive interactions to each negative interaction
■ Facial expressions of disgust, fear, or misery
■ High levels of heart rate
■ Defensive behaviors, such as making excuses and denying responsibility for disagreement
■ Verbal expressions of contempt by the wife
■ Stonewalling by the husband (showing no response when his wife expresses her concerns)
For successful marriages, the ratio of five positive interactions to one negative interaction is key. Gottman summarized, "It is the balance between positive and negative emotional interactions in a marriage that determines its well-being—whether the good moments of mutual pleasure, passion, humor, support, kindness, and generosity outweigh the bad moments of complaining, criticism, anger, disgust, contempt, defensiveness, and coldness" (1994, p. 44). The 5:1 ratio is even more important than how much a couple fights or how compatible they are socially, financially, and sexually. When couples maintain or improve this ratio, they can have long-lasting, satisfying marriages regardless of their particular relationship style. Gottman’s research found that both men and women say that the quality of the friendship with their spouse is the most important factor in marital satisfaction (Gottman & Silver, 2000). Another study found that people in marriages where individuals believed in shared decision making and husbands shared a greater proportion of housework had greater satisfaction and less conflict (Dush & Taylor, 2012).
Gottman found other critical patterns in newlyweds who wind up in stable and happy marriages (Gottman et al., 1998). These successful patterns are distinct for women and men. Women typically initiate discussions about concerns and problems in the marriage. To the extent that women use a "softened start-up"—a calm, kind, diplomatic beginning to the discussion—they have stable and happy marriages. Conversely, men who accept influence from their wives end up in long-term good marriages. Husbands who reject their wives’ requests and concerns—in essence, husbands who refuse to share their power with their wives—find themselves in unstable, unhappy marriages that are more likely to lead to divorce. A husband’s ability to accept his wife’s influence is unrelated to his age, income, occupation, or educational level. The following Your Sexual Health box on the next page contains a quiz devised by Gottman.
Although these patterns are unique for each sex, the positive interaction between them is evident: A wife will be more inclined to use a softened start-up if she knows her husband will be responsive to her, and a husband will be more likely to accept the influence of a wife who begins a conflict discussion in a diplomatic fashion.