Oliver James: Marriage breakers

Fundamental social changes, such as feminism and greater access to legal aid, mean there are now 635 divorces a day. But if 40 per cent of us divorce, that leaves 60 per cent who don't. What explains the difference?

The dominant modern explanation is incompatibility. Troubled marriages are seen as the product of ineffectual communication patterns resulting from poorly matched couples. The king of this model is the American psychologist John Gottman.

He asked 100 newlywed couples to pick a perennial bone of contention between them and videotaped their ensuing discussion. The way they dealt with the problem predicted whether they were still together four years later.

The patterns of disharmony in the couples fated to break up are as follows: the husband becomes very physiologically aroused as the argument gets under way, with his heart racing and fight-flight hormones flooding his blood. Then he starts to 'stonewall', with an immobile expression, no eye contact, rigid neck and very few positive encouragements like nods and grunts of assent. The wife becomes aroused in trying to re-engage the now distant husband.

Then the wife withdraws and begins to express criticism and disgust. The husband shows signs of fear. By the end, both are highly defensive and showing 'miserable smiles' (the kind you have when you are in a bad mood and someone asks you to smile for the camera).

By contrast, the couples whose relationships endured or got better were much more open to disagreement and more supportive. Gottman concluded that for a relationship to have a good future, there needed to be a ratio of 10 positive communications (humour, or assent...) for every negative one.

In this view, a successful marriage is a case of finding the right person for you and making sure that destructive patterns of problem solving do not develop. An important implication is that if you are with the wrong partner, jacking them in and finding the right one will lead to happiness.

It is no coincidence that this model became dominant when broad social changes were causing a divorce epidemic. The true reason for the increase was not that more people were making lousy decisions in choosing mates. But incompatibility was a convenient reason for ending marriages when the going got tough, and shrinks queued up to give it credibility.

Of course incompatibility can wreck marriages, but emotional problems predating the marriage in one or both of the partners can also cause the marital dysfunction.

Put more bluntly, there are some people who would be liable to have relationship problems whoever they were with because of their own pathology, and once the reins of marriage are loosened by social change, they will divorce like lemmings. The implication of this is that it's the disturbed individual, not the relationship, that needs treatment... tune in next week.

· Oliver James is unable to enter into any personal correspondence

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.