When Dr John Gottman began researching the subject in the early 1970s, there was very little solid scientific data on marriage and the factors that make it work. Marriage counsellors depended on conventional wisdom, opinion, intuition, religious beliefs or the ideas of psychotherapists to give advice to couples, with the result that they were not particularly effective.
In 1986, Gottman, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who had previously studied mathematics at MIT, set up his Family Research Lab, colloquially known as the ‘Love Lab’. A furnished apartment overlooking a lake, the lab was set up to film and record the conversations, arguments and body language of couples living together.
Surprisingly, the project was the first to scientifically observe real married couples in action. By the time Gottman published The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, his team had observed more than 650 couples over a 14-year period. Most of the people who came to his marriage classes were on the brink of divorce, but after learning his principles their relapse rate back to marital misery was less than half the average for marriage counselling.
There are hundreds of titles on improving spousal relationships, but Gottman’s research gives his the edge because its advice was forged from actual data rather than well-meaning generalities. As a consequence, many of its answers are counterintuitive, and the author delights in busting a few myths about what makes a happy and stable marriage.
Attendees at Gottman’s workshops are always relieved to hear that even the happiest and most stable couples have their fights. What makes a good marriage is not simply ‘chemistry’ but how the partners handle conflict.
Under the heading ‘Why most marriage therapy fails’, Gottman reveals the biggest myth of professional counselling: that communication between the partners is the key to a happy, lasting marriage. Counsellors will tell you that your problems relate to poor communication, and that ‘calmly and lovingly’ listening to your partner’s point of view will transform your marriage. In place of the screaming matches, you are taught that repeating back and validating what your partner is saying, and then calmly stating what you want, will create breakthroughs in understanding.
This idea originated with psychologist Carl Rogers, who taught that non-judgemental listening and acceptance of another person’s feelings creates rapport. Applied to the marriage relationship, however, Gottman says it definitely does not work. Most who use it become distressed, and for those who do seem to benefit, most of them relapse into their old conflicts within a year. However nicely each partner is made to air their grievances, it was still a case of each person trashing the other, and very few people – maybe the Dalai Lama, Gottman suggests - can remain magnanimous in the face of criticism.
Major differences of opinion will destroy a marriage
Gottman reveals a shocking truth about marital conflict: “Most marital arguments cannot be resolved”.
His research found that 69% of conflicts involve such perpetual or unresolvable problems. For example, Meg wants to have children, but Donald does not. Walter always wants more sex than Dana does. Chris always flirts at parties, and Susan hates it. John wants to bring the kids up Catholic, Linda wants to raise them Jewish.
Couples spend years and huge amounts of energy trying to change the other person, but significant disagreements are about values and different ways of seeing the world – things that don’t change. The successful couple knows this and attempts to live with or incorporate the conflict nevertheless.
When people feel judged, misunderstood or criticized there is no chance at all that they will change. If you can still try to accept the other person’s position, the problem can be managed. Even if you can’t resolve all your issues, when you can accept your partner ‘warts and all’ you will have a good marriage.
Happy marriages are unusually open and honest
The truth is, plenty of good marriages shove a lot of issues ‘under the rug’. When many couples have a fight, the man will storm off to watch TV, and the woman will storm off to the mall. When they see each other a couple of hours later, it has all blown over and they are pleased to see each other again. Many partnerships remain stable and satisfied without an airing of deep feelings.
Gender differences are a big problem
The fact that men are from Mars and women are from Venus may have an impact on marriage problems, Gottman notes, but they do not actually cause them. 70% of couples said that the quality of friendship with their partner was the determining factor in happiness, not gender or anything else.
After many years research, Gottman’s astonishing claim is to be able to make 91% accurate predictions of whether a couple will end in divorce or stay married – after observing them for only five minutes.
Couples do not end up in the divorce courts because they have arguments, he writes, it is the way they argue that massively increases the chance of them splitting up. In watching endless hours of taped interaction between couples, Gottman identified several signs that they may be on the road to divorce - if not in the next year, then some years hence. They include:
When discussions begin with criticism, sarcasm or contempt – what Gottman calls a ‘harsh startup’. What begins badly, ends badly.
There is a difference between complaints, which refer to a particular action of your spouse – and personal criticism.
Includes any form of sneering, eye-rolling, mockery or name-calling that aims to make the other person feel bad. A worse version of contempt is belligerence, often expressed in the phrase ‘What are you going to do about it?’
Trying to make the other person seem like they are the problem, as if you have not made any contribution.
When one partner ‘tunes out’, unable to take regular criticism, contempt and defensiveness. By disengaging they are less exposed to being hurt.
Gottman notes that in 85% of marriages, it is the man who is the stonewaller. This is because the male cardiovascular system recovers from stress more slowly. A man’s response to conflict is likely to be more indignant, with thoughts of getting even or ‘I don’t have to take this’. Women, on the other hand, are better able to soothe themselves down following a stressful situation, which also explains why women nearly always have to raise the issues of conflict in the relationship and men try to avoid them.
Regular emotional ‘flooding’ is when either partner are overwhelmed by verbal attacks from the other. When we are attacked, heart rate and blood pressure go up and hormones are released, including adrenaline. On a physiological level we experience verbal attacks as a threat to our survival. As Gottman puts it, you respond the same way, “whether you’re facing a saber-toothed tiger or a contemptuous spouse demanding to know why you can never remember to put the toilet seat back down”.
When frequent flooding occurs, each partner’s wish to avoid the experience results in them emotionally disengaging with each other.
Failure of repair attempts
Unhappy couples fail to stop a heated argument in its tracks by saying, for instance, ‘Wait, I need to calm down’ or employing an amusing expression to prevention escalation of the conflict. Happy couples all have this vital ability, which prevents the argument from descending into personal insult.
On their own, the signs do not necessarily predict divorce, but if occurring on top of each other over a sustained period are very likely to end a relationship. He describes defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt as 'the four horseman of the apocalypse'. The level of negative sentiment slowly starts to overtake the positives, so that the ‘set point’ of happiness in the relationship declines to a point that it becomes too painful.
The partners emotionally disengage, stop bothering to try to sort things out, and begin leading parallel lives within the same house. This is the point at which affairs are most likely, because one or both of the partners becomes lonely and seeks attention, support or care elsewhere. An affair, Gottman points out, is usually the symptom of a dying marriage rather than the cause.
Most of Gottman’s principles for creating sustainable and happy marriages revolve around one crucial factor: friendship. The partners are able to maintain a mutual respect for each other and enjoyment of their company. Friendship kindles romance, but also protects against things getting adversarial. As long as you can retain ‘fondness and admiration’ for your partner you can always salvage your relationship. Without it, there is more chance that in arguments disgust will be expressed, and disgust is poison to a relationship.
According to Gottman, the purpose of marriage is ‘shared meaning’. That is, each partner supports the others dreams and hopes. A marriage is going in the wrong direction if one partner has to sacrifice what they want to make the other person happy. Genuine friendships are equal.
Related to this central issue of friendship is the need to:
Have familiarity and interest in your spouse’s world
The birth of a first baby is a major cause of marital strife and divorce, but for one third of couples the event brings greater satisfaction. These partners had good ‘love maps’ of the other person – in touch with their partner’s feelings and wants, and knowledge of basic things like who their friends are. Without such knowledge, a major event such as a first child is likely to weaken the relationship, not strengthen it.
Turn towards your partner
Romance can stay alive even in the most humdrum conversations, Gottman points out. It is when you stop even acknowledging each other (turning away) that the relationship is on its way out. While some couples believe that romantic dinners or holidays can make a marriage happy, in fact it is the little daily attentions given to the other (turning towards) that count.
Allow yourself to be influenced
Women are naturally open to the influence of their partners, but for men it seems more difficult. Yet the happier marriages are generally those in which the man listens to his wife and takes account of her views and feelings. Better, longer lasting marriages are those in which the power is shared.
Gottman’s research originated in what seems like a rather obvious question: why, exactly, is marriage so difficult at times? His research taught him that although it is often challenging, it does not need to be as difficult as it is. Once you understand ‘what makes marriage tick’ at a scientific level you are in a much better position to improve yours and protect it against failure.
This, of course, applies to long-term relationships of any kind. Gottman has also conducted a 12-year study of gay and lesbian couples, and found that their interactions were not that different to straight couples. Gays tend to take things a little less personally, use fewer hostile or controlling tactics, and generally employ more affection and humor when they bring up a disagreement - but the basic dynamics of conflict and conflict resolution are the same.
It is probable that in fifty years time we will look back and be amazed how little knowledge the average person had on physiological and psychological responses to conflict, and on how to manage relationships overall. Paradoxically, hard science has much to teach us about the soft things – love, romance and friendship - that make life worth living.
Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.
"At long last a chance for those outside the profession to discover that there is so much more to psychology than just Freud and Jung. 50 Psychology Classics offer a unique opportunity to become acquainted with a dazzling array of the key works in psychological literature almost overnight".
Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist, The Maudsley Hospital London, Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry
VS Ramachandran MD PhD, Professor and Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego
Douglas Stone, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, author of Difficult Conversations
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John M Gottman
Born in 1942, Gottman is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, where he was first appointed in 1986. He is the author of over a hundred academic articles and many books, including The Relationship Cure, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, A Couple’s Guide To Communication, What Predicts Divorce, The Mathematics of Marriage, and The Science of Trust.
The Gottman Institute, founded with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, provides training to professionals and families. His Family Research Lab, which received funding from the US National Institute for Mental Health for 15 years, is now part of an independent body, The Relationship Research Institute. Co-author Nan Silver is a contributing editor of Parents magazine.