If you happened to be sat next to a man named John Gottman in a restaurant, he could tell with astounding accuracy whether your relationship would last long term – just by how your conversation unfolded.
And all before you even received your menus.
A six-year landmark study, published in 1998, found that the first three minutes of an argument can predict the compatibility of a couple.
The study asked couples to sit down for 15 minutes and discuss a disagreement.
If, in the first few minutes, there is even a hint of contempt, Gottman posited that the relationship was doomed. And, according to the study, he was accurate 83 per cent of the time.
He identified four kinds of negativity that destroy relationships, termed ‘The Four Horsemen’.
They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (withdrawing and shutting down).
“The biggest lesson to be learned from this study,” he said, “is that the way couples begin a discussion about a problem — how you present an issue and how your partner responds to you — is absolutely critical.”
Gottman found that the couples who were able to avoid what he termed a ‘harsh startup’, beginning the disagreement with negativity, were significantly more likely to stay together in the long term.
Within his findings, he was also able to identify six key indicators for divorce.
They include: the harsh startup, The Four Horsemen, Flooding (when your partner ‘floods’ the relationship with negativity), body language, failed repair attempts (after disagreements) and bad memories.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel echoes Gottman’s sentiment, espousing that the biggest predictor for a relationship breakdown can be boiled down to the word ‘contempt’.
She explains on The Tim Ferris Show podcast, contempt is “the belittling, the infantilising, the demeaning, the degrading, all of these categories of a relationship which ultimately amount to abusiveness. To me, that is the moment where a relationship really is done. Because what it means, is that in order to protect one self, one needs to leave.”
Contempt, she says, “really involves a profound sense of dehumanisation,” and a “sense of self-loathing” that is extremely difficult to come back from for any couple.
So, if your disagreements start with contempt, negativity or criticism, then it might be time to ask if your relationship is right for you.