Deciding if and when to go to couples therapy is really tough. We often hear people talk about efforts being “too little, too late.” According to the Gottman Institute (, the average couple waits 6 years before seeking help for marital problems. This is especially disappointing because unhealthy marriages can be sickening—literally!! Research has consistently suggested that people in happy relationships have better sleep habits, healthier behaviors, comply with medical regimes/advice, and have lower levels of coronary heart diseases (the world’s number one killer) relative to divorced, single, or separated people.

What can contribute to an unhappy marriage? John Gottman has done really amazing research on this—he was able to bring couples into a lab, have them argue for 15 minutes about an unresolved argument, and predict with 90% accuracy if they would stay together or get divorced years later. How does he know?

3 Contributions to an Unhappy Marriage

He paid attention to physical responses like nonverbals, paralanguage, and heart rate. Based on his findings, he found the following:

  1. The four horsemen are dangerous! These horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and can all predict early divorce. Criticism is the first behavior that is typically used in conflict amongst couples and involves attacking one’s character (“you’re so lazy”) versus the behavior (“I’m frustrated you didn’t do the dishes yesterday”). Contempt involves blatant disrespect and can be observed through eye-rolling, sneering, and being passive-aggressive. Defensiveness occurs when we begin making excuses, blaming, and avoiding taking responsibility as opposed to listening to our partners. Last is stonewalling, which is when partners become unresponsive, silent, or physically absent.


  2. The absence of positive affect during conflict can also predict divorce. You might be rereading that sentence wondering how positive affect can be included in conflict. When you argue with others, you likely have moments of comic relief. For example, my husband and I were discussing our vastly different opinions on paint colors and as I tried to pronounce “razzmatazz,” we both laughed at my inability to speak coherently. There can also be affection and empathy displayed in conflict—a desire to understand the other’s perspective, reaching out to show care, and being emotionally engaged.


  3. The ratio of positivity: negativity during conflict should ideally be at 5:1. Instead, unstable marriages typically have a ratio of 0.8:1. This means that for stable and healthy marriages, for every negative thing said such as, “I’m really frustrated that you told me you’d be home at 5 PM and got home at 6 PM without texting/calling” there should be five positive things said “I appreciate that you usually let me know when you’re home” or “I feel really special when you keep me updated.” These positive statements don’t disregard or excuse the negative comments; rather, they soften them in a context of love.

When couples get stuck in unhealthy patterns, it’s difficult to break the cycle and create a new, more adaptive one. Couples therapy can help you become aware of the unhealthy cycle you and your partner may be in and to unite against the problem while establishing new ways of communicating and behaving. If you find yourself unhappy or struggling with your relationship with your partner, consider couples therapy. If you’re near me in the Buffalo area, I invite you to call me and I can set up a time to meet with you and your partner.

Tacianna Indovina

About Dr Tacianna

Dr. Tacianna Indovina knew that she wanted to be a therapist since she was in high school. From that time, her love and enthusiasm for the healing power of psychotherapy hasn’t wavered. It’s a good thing for our community that Tacianna is as enthusiastic as ever for helping people when they feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and alone. Through her authenticity, gentle directness, and sense of humor, Tacianna works with you to identify patterns of thinking and behaving that may be making it difficult for you to meet your goals. Tacianna’s easy rapport encourages, validates, challenges, and empowers! With her down-to-earth and relatable style, Tacianna provides counseling for late adolescents, adults, and couples, to provide support to recover from interpersonal loss and trauma, overcome mood struggles, cope with anxiety, and adjust positively to life transitions. Tacianna adapts her approach to what you want and need, and aims to help you build healthier relationships with yourself and others. Contact Dr. Tacianna to schedule your free initial consultation today!

Dr Tacianna graduated from Ball State University with her master’s degree in clinical mental health and her Ph.D. in counseling psychology with a specialization in couples therapy. She has spent most of her training at university counseling centers and community mental health clinics where she focused on sexual assault prevention, relationship and couples issues, depression, anxiety, and concerns unique to gender, sexual, and affectional minorities. Through her authenticity, gentle directness, and sense of humor, Tacianna works to identify patterns of thinking and behaving that may be making it difficult to meet goals.