Love Lab Goes Live: An Interview with Carrie Cole, Gottman Director of Research

The original Gottman Love Lab first opened in 1986 at the University of Washington. The new Love Lab recently opened, integrating state of the art science and mathematical models to assess relationships, plot the projected course of the relationship, and suggestions to positively improve the direction of the relationship. Marathon sessions are offered in Seattle and at private retreats with the Gottmans. I interviewed Carrie Cole, Love Lab Director of Research to find out more.

Dr. Bob Navarra: Thank you for taking the time to talk about what’s going on with the Gottman Institute, and you have some really exciting news.

Carrie Cole: I do.

Navarra: As the Director of Research there’s a lot of activity going on.

Cole: Yes.

Navarra: And there’s some other new events happening that I’d like you to share.

Cole: Okay.

Navarra: So what’s going on?

Cole: Well, we opened up the Love Lab back in February, so it’s kind of a new thing. And we are having couples come in and have their relationships evaluated based on all of John’s scientific math models and that kind of thing. So, it’s really exciting stuff. And we can really kind of pinpoint where they’re struggling in their relationships, and find some minimal things that they could do that would really help their relationship relatively quickly. So, that’s pretty exciting,

Navarra: So, sooner rather than later-

Cole: Way sooner, yeah.

Navarra: So, what does the Love Lab provide in terms of information that gives you that spot detail?

Cole: So, we do an assessment. Before the couple ever comes in they fill out these questionnaires, online questionnaires that I get. And then I see them, get a little bit of a history of what brings them in, and what we call an oral history interview. The story of their relationship.

Navarra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cole: And then I meet with each one of them individually for a little bit and get some family background and a psychological history from them. And then we wire them up to some physiology, and they look a little bit like, um, cyborgs (laughter).

Navarra: Try to get assimilated somewhere.

Cole: Right. (Laughter). There you go.

Navarra: Into a good relationship, right?

Cole: Yes.

Navarra: That’s what we want, to assimilate to a good relationship.

Cole: So we do a kind of rudimentary EKG and we get some skin conductance on them, and two different channels of muscular, and facial stuff for their facial expressions. Also their respiration and pulse transit time. So, we collect six channels of physiology on them as they have these conversations … So, then once they have the physiology on they have two conversations.

Navarra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cole: One of them (conversation) is about just some relevant events in their lives that are happening, doesn’t have to be the same event. And then the other one is about an area of difference that they have between the two of them. And we video record those. And then we have the couple rate them with the Gottman rating dials. So, they actually watch these videos and rate themselves as they’re observing the video. Pretty interesting.

Navarra: Wow. So, there’s a lot of data points to draw from.

Cole: Multiple.

Navarra: And I imagine for people not familiar with Gottman research, this whole idea of physiology being an important, significant factor in determining relationship outcomes could be brand-new information.

Cole: Yes, it is.

Navarra: And yet it’s very clearly identified in a long history of research that physiology is a great predictor (of relationship satisfaction), which is what got John’s work originally on the map.

Cole: Right, that’s right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Navarra: How is this similar to the original version of the Love Lab?

Cole: It’s very similar to the original version. We added the facial expressions recently, but everything else is… well, we don’t collect blood and we don’t collect urine, and I’m really happy about that.

Navarra: That would be a good choice if I were in your position too.

Cole: (Laughter). Yes.

Navarra: I totally agree…fluids only go so far in research.

Cole: That’s right. I’m okay with sticking electrodes on people’s bodies.

Navarra: Yeah. (Laughter). Understandable.

Cole: Yeah. Pricking them is not my… cup of tea.

Navarra: So, that was quite fine with you-

Cole: (Laughs).

Navarra: Right. And what are couples’ responses when you let them know the protocol, what’s involved?

Cole: Interested. Some people are a little self-conscious when they have this stuff on. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna look so weird,” and, “How can we have a conversation with all this stuff hooked up?”

Navarra: Right. Uh-huh (affirmative).

Cole: And then by the time they’re finished, they’ve forgotten that they have it on. So, they, ah, they adapt to it very quickly. I’ve had to catch people before they walked out of the door. It’s like, “Wait, I need to take those off.”  (Laughs).

Navarra: I think it’s like, I imagine, when you see a physician  for some sort of test that you’ve never done before, you go, “Okay, this is odd,” but you know it’s there for a reason.

Cole: That’s correct.

Navarra: And I think the science underneath this supports the reason. So clearly when you’re explaining to people, that they have an idea, “Okay, so this makes sense and this will actually help our relationship.”…

Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

Navarra: …which would not be evident necessarily, unless they had the context or why you’re doing something.

Cole: Right. A lot of people have done their homework and they know about Gottman’s Research and they’re coming to us specifically because of that. So that’s been true for a vast of majority of the people who have come into the lab.

Navarra: And so integrating the physiology part with other components…  this multi-dimensional research piece offers the most complete picture.

Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Navarra: It is really kind of an unusual take on (laughs) relationship assessment and treatment.

Cole: Right.

Navarra: I’m not aware of any other therapist, therapeutic model that actually does that.

Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right. Probably not. We also do SPAFF coding on each of these videos.

Navarra: Ah, explain that.

Cole: It’s a coding system based on facial expression, Paul Ekman’s work of facial expressions. And then John added to that kind of the dialogue between the couples so, the words and the tone of voice  that people use, we are actually measuring. We’re observing facial expression, tone of voice and actually what’s being said between the couple, so the affect in addition to the words. It’s a 20-code system. We’ve actually reduced that down to 10 codes but we’re still observing the 20 codes. Just some of the codes are combined at this point.

Navarra:  Well, Ekman’s research  is really well-established in the literature as authentic and helpful and reliable.

Cole: Right.

Navarra: And the concept of these micro-expressions that kind of come and go very quickly can help therapists understand what the emotion is underneath what’s being said or not said.

Cole: That’s correct. Yeah. So, even if someone is not saying anything, there could be a facial expression that gives us an indication that this conversation is not going well for them, even though they might be nodding their head, it could be that there’s a very sad expression on their face or that there’s an angry expression on their face.

Navarra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cole: We are noting that, so then we generate some diagrams based on all of this information. And that’s synthesized into a pretty hefty-sized report. It’s about 40 pages or so.

Navarra: Wow, yeah.

Cole: And, so different diagrams… We are looking at the internal stuff that they’re feeling, you know, and also the external stuff, the SPAFF coding and the physiology and we’re combining all of that into parts of this report.

Navarra: You know, I think this emerging field of the neurobiology of relationships is such a significant advance in the field…

Cole: It is.

Navarra: …and the thing that could almost sound counterintuitive, is that we have all the science, we have research, and it’s really in service of helping people access and understand and explain their emotions because that’s what therapy’s mostly about, that’s an affective therapy as we’ve described.

Cole: Right, exactly. And so based on this stuff we can look at some of the reports; the diagrams that are generated really tell us does the positive affect that one person displays in the relationship. Does that impact the relationship in a positive or negative way and does the negative affect impact the relationship in a positive or negative way? So, sometimes there’s a place to start, right?

Navarra: Yeah.

Cole: That the only time that they’re ever listened to is when there’s a negative affect. So, it ends up having a positive effect on the relationship just because the person is finally heard, which is an interesting finding. We would expect the opposite to be true, that when someone is feeling bad that the other person feels bad.

Navarra:  Makes sense. Well, this whole therapeutic approach, I think any time you can help couples understand what’s problematic and what might help, then psychology is really helpful. (Laughs)…

Cole: Right.

Navarra: …literally, in terms of piecing it together. Then finally there are some ideas, possibly, about making this type of assessment available to therapists who are interested in integrating (this technology and approach), is that right?

Cole: That’s in the future. We’re kind of interested, if this were available to every therapist and every therapist office, would that be something that therapists would find beneficial? The therapists that we’ve asked have found that it would be highly beneficial.

Navarra: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Cole: I mean, you’re not really stabbing in the dark. You have it’s like we start here, and we’ve got this area that needs to be worked on, and this area, and this area. And so we’ve kind of really fine-tuned, and pointed out, “These are the places where this couple needs to change. And if we do that sooner and get them started down this path, then their relationship is going to be in a much more positive place.”

Navarra: Carrie, thank you very much for this information. It’s really exciting, revolutionary stuff. The field is about to undergo another major change (laughs) I think.

Cole: I think it is, yes.

Navarra: And you’re part of it.

Cole: Thank you. Yes, I’m excited to be on the cutting-edge of that.

Navarra: You are absolutely that. (Laughter).

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