Gottman Research: Why We Should Pay Attention
Dr. John and Julie Gottman have been studying relationships for a long time. John’s longitudinal research on the course of relationships began in 1975 after teaming with Dr Robert Levenson to determine why some relationships can be like ticking time bombs ending in divorce or chronic unhappiness, while other relationships work well, are satisfying, and remain stable over a long period of time.
They conducted their first study in 1980, collecting multiple types of data from volunteer couples including measurements analyzing emotions, physiology, and video-recall of two assigned conversations. While John and Robert did not make any predictions, in a three-year follow up they were able to link physiology and emotions to divorce and relationship unhappiness. They discovered a never-before finding with such strong correlations to divorce.
This began the longitudinal research on divorce prediction, resulting in follow up research and collaborations with other labs. While social scientists usually do not have a good track record predicting individual behavior, it turns out that predicting relationship behavior isn’t difficult if you know what to look for. The best prediction rate of which couples will get divorced, found in subsequent studies, is 94%.
Intervention Research and Divorce Prediction
John began working with his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman in 1994, co-creating the Gottman Institute moving from divorce prediction to divorce prevention. Early intervention research included studies from, Bringing Baby Home, The Emotion-Coaching Intervention, and The Couples Workshop (The Art and Science of Love).
Creating the Sound Relationship House Theory, the Gottmans were able to put theory to practice, by providing concepts and tools for couples to use for relationship blueprints, to strengthen intimacy, manage conflict, and create emotional connection.
Key Findings Summarized
The Key Findings Boil Down To The Following
Treating your partner like a good friend
Handling conflicts in gentle and positive ways
Repair conflicts and negative interactions
Three Top Tips
Consider the following tips to strengthen your friendship with your partner:
- Express interest in learning what is happening in your partner’s world. Ask questions that show you are interested in your partner’s day-to-day life. We sometimes forget to check in with our partner or fail to respond to our partner’s attempt to connect; over time this can create serious damage to the relationship. It can be as simple as asking “How was your day?” In stable, happy relationships partners responded to their partner’s attempts to initiate conversation or connect in some way 86% of the time. In distressed relationships partners only responded to these bids 33% of the time. Levels of connection happen when asking about your partner’s internal world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears.
- Be gentle in conflict, avoiding criticism or blame, instead, focusing on your needs. For example, instead of saying “You never help around the house”, focus on what you do need stating “The house needs cleaning and I would really like some help. Avoid statements of “You never…” or “You always…” A core research finding is that in stable relationships partners stayed positive in conflict, listening to each other without criticizing, becoming defensive, shutting down, or acting superior. Instead, they handled conflict with qualities like mutual respect, humor, interest, openness, the ability to be influenced and acknowledge the partner’s ideas or feelings. Literally, these positive responses consistently were found to be at a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative, as opposed to the unhappy relationships who had a positive to negative ratio of almost 1:1.
- Repair negative interactions and conflicts, acknowledging your part in the difficulty. It can be difficult to admit being wrong or making a mistake, but John Gottman holds repair as one of the most important relationship skills. We can’t always avoid conflict, we are not perfect, so when couples make mistakes, hurt one another, or have fights, and it is essential to have ways to repair the relationship. Out of conflict, intimacy can occur actually bringing couples closer together aiming for that 5:1 ratio of positivity as opposed to patterns of criticism, blame, or defensiveness. The ability for couples to repair is directly related to the strength of their friendship identified in Tip #1 above. Distressed couples have as many repair attempts as happy couples, it is just that these repair attempts tend not to work because these partners don’t feel close, accepted, or safe enough.
Share with your partner these research-based tips for relationships and try implementing these approaches, thinking of your relationship as a work in progress. More tips and information on my YouTube Station and soon to launch online classes for couples and therapists.