Though it was dark and the scenery was without landmarks, I remember it all clearly. Tony and I were on a road trip, moving from our home in Washington to start a new adventure in Wisconsin. It was late at night and we were somewhere in the middle of Wyoming listening to an audio book: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. This book about trusting your instincts had us hooked and Gladwell began to share about one person, a famous researcher, who could predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a couple would get divorced simply by witnessing a fifteen minute interaction. This was no parlor trick. Malcolm Gladwell was talking about Dr. John Gottman.
A chill went down my spine and we paused the audio book. We both wanted to take in that concept, the idea that a couple’s success or failure in marriage could be predicted. We wondered what Dr. Gottman would say about us, about our friends. It was devastating to imagine that some might be destined for divorce, that even we could be destined to split up, and not know it. Then we asked each other if we would even want to know his prediction at all. It was a long intense conversation. We held hands, reaffirmed our love for each other over and over, and then continued to listen to the audio book. It is very likely that from that moment on, we have taken how we treat each other in our marriage much more seriously.
You see, it’s not that Dr. Gottman, in his now famous “Love Lab,” is just making a guess. He and his team have been studying couples for decades and he has figured out the key factors that help couples stay married as well as those factors that help him predict divorce. He calls the divorce factors The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. There is a lot to learn about each of these, but the one factor that kept us talking and immediately changed our behavior was a seemingly harmless body language reaction that Gottman says is a display of contempt – the eye roll.
Have you ever rolled your eyes at someone? Has anyone ever rolled their eyes at you? It’s a move I think I learned in elementary school and definitely mastered in high school. It communicated perfectly without a single word that I thought my mom had no idea what she was talking about and I had no intention of listening. Now, in marriage, it could potentially communicate the very same thing to my husband and shockingly start us on a path toward divorce! Body language is a powerful communicator and it is precisely the roll of the eyes that Dr. Gottman is trained to notice and categorize as one of the indicators of these “four horsemen.”
You may think rolling your eyes is just a mindless reaction and wonder how you can even help it when your spouse has clearly said something ridiculous. If you knew, and now you do, that a seemingly no-big-deal-eye-roll was actually indicative of a deeper disrespect and disregard for your spouse, could you stop yourself from doing it? The truth is you do have control over your behaviors, even the little ones. All of the little ways we communicate with our partners matter. They build up into patterns and set the tone for how we treat each other overall.
There are many things we should not do if we want to stay on track to have a healthy marriage. But, if you will notice how often you are tempted to do this one thing, to roll your eyes, and stop yourself, you may also begin to notice how often you are using other types of body language to communicate disrespect and unkindness.
Noticing first, then taking responsibility, and finally choosing a better route could make a drastic difference in your interactions. Besides, if you’ll practice not rolling your eyes, you could be one step ahead of other couples if you ever happen to be called on to sit in front of Dr. Gottman in the love lab. Who knows, he may just watch your interaction and say to himself, “These two are doing great! They must be one of those #staymarried couples.”
The #staymarried blog was created to offer hope, stories, and resources for couples who want to stay married.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some other posts where we’ve featured Gottman research like It Really is the Little Things, The Six Second Kiss, and Feed the Good Stuff. If you think these could benefit someone else’s marriage, we would love for you to share them.
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