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Nate’s Notes 16: Failing Relationships

By August 23, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

In the early 1980s, researcher Phil Tetlock gathered together 284 experts who made a living by commenting on, or offering advice about, political and economic trends. These experts consisted of academics, journalists, pundits, and government employees, from all across the political spectrum. More than 90% had graduate degrees and the majority had PhDs.

Tetlock then asked these experts to make predictions about the probabilities that somethings would or would not happen. The experts made predictions about all sorts of social phenomena: for example, whether inflation would rise, whether unemployment would decrease, whether there would be leadership changes in particular governments, and whether nations would go to war.

By 2003, Tetlock had accumulated tens of thousands of predictions. And then Tetlock did something that few people ever do. He checked the accuracy of the experts’ predictions.

It turns out that when you get experts to make specific predictions about specific, social events, compared to vague, astrology-like statements that encompass all possible eventualities, the experts don’t perform well.

The average expert was quote, “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” Naturally some experts did better than others, but by-and-large the experts performed at the level of chance.

Tetlock’s research is especially interesting to me because I have experienced this first hand as a researcher myself. All too often I have confidently predicted a hypothesis, and then collected the data to test my hypothesis, only to find out that my prediction wasn’t even close.

It’s easy to make predictions about the future. But it’s quite difficult to make accurate predictions about the future. And for this reason, I am all the more intrigued by world-renowned professor John Gottman, who has made his living by predicting social events.

John Gottman, named one of the 10 most influential therapists of the last quarter century, has authored or co-authored over 40 books and 190 research papers. And the social event that Gottman can predict, at greater than 90% accuracy, is divorce. And he can do so after watching and listening to a couple for just five minutes.

So how does he do it? How does he predict the behavior of two people at a rate far surpassing a dart-throwing chimp? He simply observes married couples trying to resolve an ongoing disagreement. And then he watches for 7 specific signs.

First, he looks to see how the conversation begins. If it begins harshly, with criticism and accusations, it will almost certainly end on a negative note, even if the couple tries to make nice in between. If a conversation starts harshly, it’s much better to pull the plug and take a breather rather than push through it.

Second, Gottman looks for a certain kind of negativity that he calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” because they are so damaging to relationships. The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Regarding the first horseman, criticism, it’s important to distinguish it from a complaint. Couples will always have complaints about each other. For example, “I’m frustrated that you didn’t mow the lawn this week” is a complaint. It’s focused on the problem. A criticism however, adds on a character attack: “Why are you so forgetful? What is wrong with you?”

The second horseman is contempt, and it is the best predictor of divorce. It takes many shapes, such as sarcasm, name calling, eye rolling, or sneering. But all of these behaviors have one thing in common…they are accompanied by a feeling of superiority. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a disagreement when one person is sending the message that they are superior to the other person.

The third horseman is defensiveness. Whereas accepting responsibility can diffuse a disagreement, getting defensive is a counterattack that escalates it. Defensiveness is way to blame your partner. Whether it’s playing the innocent victim or counter complaining, it essentially says, “the problem isn’t me, it’s you.”

The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Rather than confronting problems, the stonewaller turns away and avoids the problem altogether. In normal conversations, people provide verbal and nonverbal cues that they are following along, such as making eye contact, or nodding. Stonewallers do nothing. They look away or down, and act as if they couldn’t care less about what is being said.

In addition to looking for the presence of a harsh startup, and the four horseman, Gottman also looks for two final signs. The first is failed repair attempts. These are the efforts couples make to deescalate tension. These can be so simple as cracking a joke during a tense moment or just saying, “Let’s take a break.” Repair attempts signal a temporary truce, or at least signal that one’s goal is to solve the problem rather than win the fight. But all too often, these repair attempts go unnoticed or unacknowledged.

The final sign, and maybe the saddest of all, is when the past gets rewritten, when memories of good times get corrupted. When relationships become especially negative, couples often rewrite their histories in a negative light, or simply block out the good times. They might remember the facts surrounding their courtship, but forget their feelings.

But so what, why does all of this matter? At the opening of his novel Anna Karenina, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy was making the logical point that any one of a number of factors can doom a relationship, whereas a successful relationship must avoid all of those factors that would doom it. However, at a practical level, John Gottmans’ research indicates that unhappy couples may have a lot more in common with each other than Tolstoy may have appreciated.

So kids, if you find yourself in a discussion that starts harshly, take a step back and start over. If you sense any of the four horsemen creeping into your relationships, keep them out. Strive to repair relationships that are repairable, and acknowledge the repair attempts of others. And above all, don’t let your good memories be overwritten.

The quality of our lives is essentially determined by the quality of our relationships. Simply avoiding the signs of a failed relationship won’t necessarily lead to a good relationship. But giving into the four horsemen will almost certainly lead to a failed one.

Be vigilant in looking out for, and combatting, the signs of a failing relationship.

It’s a simple idea, please take it seriously.

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