Dr. John Gottman has become famous for his ability to predict marital success by observing a couple’s interactions. He claims that he can predict with 95% accuracy whether a marriage will end in divorce within 15 years, through an in-depth analysis of the pair talking for one hour.
While I don’t dispute his findings or his ability, he seems to leave out one important factor. For today’s interaction to be a prediction of a much later divorce, the two partners in this relationship must remain completely stagnant. They must continue their destructive patterns of communication. They mustn’t change.
This runs counter to the Jewish mandate not just for marriage but for life in general.
We are obligated to constantly work on growing and changing. We need to become better both as individuals and as a marital unit. That is our job.
Our tradition teaches us that the Jewish people are not bound by “fate.” Not because there isn’t any such thing but because every choice we make changes who we are as a person, thereby changing our destiny. Every action, every word, has an impact.
Just as we are not bound by any predetermined outcome, we are not bound by Dr. Gottman’s predictions.
One new choice by one spouse can make all the difference. “I’m sorry that I haven’t been listening attentively; I’m all ears now – and anytime you need me.”
One new action by your partner can create a new marriage. “I know how much you enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the morning. Not only will I make it for you but I will watch the kids so you can have that space – and not just today, but everyday.”
And even better – if both parties to the marriage seek counseling and commit to change, the possibilities are endless.
We all make a lot of mistakes. The Almighty has given us a big gift – the ability to do teshuvah, to repent and change. This is not a once-a-year Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur opportunity. This is something we can – and should – always do. We can apologize. We can ask for forgiveness. We can start afresh.
I’m very afraid that Dr. Gottman’s predictions may become self-fulfilling prophecies, that couples will despair and give up, that they will decide that it’s just not meant to be. Not only is that the worst possible outcome but it reflects a mistaken attitude.
Relationships don’t develop easily. Marriage is a lot of work. There are many (yes, many) bumps along the road. Perhaps if we expect everything to flow smoothly we give up too easily. But that would be a shame.
If our interactions are so negative as to warrant Dr. Gottman’s gloomy prediction, we can change. We can treat our spouse with greater kindness and sensitivity. We can bite our tongue when a negative comment threatens to escape (Imagine you are speaking to your boss or your child – would you dare address them like that?)
I know that Dr. Gottman’s goal is to save marriages. Perhaps this statistic is meant to be a wake-up call. But we need hope also. We can do it. Not only can we save these supposedly doomed marriages but we can turn them into something truly wonderful.