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Dissecting the Dysfunctions That Lead Down the Path to Divorce


No one gets married thinking they're destined for Splitsville. But the chance of a first marriage ending in divorce over a 40-year-period is 67%, according to research. With such dire statistics casting a pall over the state of marriage, research psychologists have made it their mission to understand what happens when good marriages go bad.

To that end, psychologists recently discovered that marriages usually disintegrate by becoming dysfunctional in two distinct ways and that the patterns of these marital interactions foretell divorce at two vulnerable points in the conjugal life span.

Half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage. But a new study, which followed couples for nearly 20 years, has found that unions that end in early divorce are characterized by explosive interactions that leave one or both partners feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings, according to research conducted by John Gottman, a University of Washington professor of psychology, and Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology.

The second vulnerable period for divorce is in midlife when many couples are raising teenagers and taking stock of their lives, according to the study published in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family. These relationships are defined by emotional coolness and the suppression of feelings, the flip side of couples who split early.

The researchers started compiling data in 1983, when 79 couples who participated in the study had been married for five years. The couples were periodically contacted over 14 years, answering questions about marital quality. They were also observed in a lab, conversing with their spouse about a subject of conflict and about a pleasant topic. Researchers videotaped and monitored physiological responses during the conversations. At the study's end, 22 couples (28%) had divorced. Of those couples, roughly, 60% divorced early compared with the 40% who split up in midlife.

"There are these two bad versions of a bad marriage," said Levenson. "One is too hot, one is too cold. Both marriages end up in the same place. But one dynamic takes longer."

The early divorcers have "an attack and defend mode with escalating conflict," said Gottman, who has written six books on relationships, most recently "The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work" (Three Rivers Press, 1999). "They are desperate and don't know what's wrong with their relationship. Many of these marriages end in quick bailouts or divorces."

Couples who split early are flooded with feelings of disappointment after a fight, possess vague memories of their past together and experience mutual anger when fighting. Their interactions are characterized by what Gottman calls "the four horsemen of the apocalypse" for marriage--criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal.

The second marriage-eroding dynamic is slow-acting, "a kind of dire dance," explains Levenson. "This interaction looked like a burned out, disengaged dance."

"These couples are alienated and avoidant," said Gottman. "They stifle things and do not raise issues with their partner. Their marriages are a suppression of negative emotions and a lack of positive emotions. This style of suppression can cause intense loneliness that's almost like dying."

Earlier research by Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg established that the lowest point of marital satisfaction is when a couple is raising a teenager. Long-standing unexpressed disillusionment about the marriage is amplified by midlife triggers (the proverbial "Is that all there is?" life question). These feelings are expressed when one spouse, usually the one who suppresses more than the other, forms an alliance with a teenager, usually of the same gender. "Then you get this coalition [of two against one]," added Gottman. "The teenager is like a loose cannon ready to fire at anything. It is very destructive."

But there is hope for dysfunctional couples in either camp, said Gottman. Volatile couples can learn how to express emotions constructively. Couples disconnected in midlife can use the crisis as a bridge to find one another again.

For more information, the Gottman Institute Web site is at

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