What Predicts Stability & Instability?
Dr. John Gottman has been studying relationships for a long time. Why do some relationships feel like ticking time bombs ending in divorce or chronic unhappiness? What is it that creates satisfying relationships that remain stable over a long period of time? 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. Dr. Gottman’s best prediction rate of which couples will get divorced is 94%.
Gottman’s research began in 1972 and continues today, with the “Love Lab” grand re-opening (hear interview with Research director Carrie Cole). Over 3,000 couples in 12 different studies include seven studies on what predicts divorce. Gottman identified specific behavior patterns in couples he later termed the “Masters” and “Disasters” of relationships.
However, it wasn’t until he teamed with his psychologist wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, some 20 years ago that methods were developed to prevent relationship meltdown.
The Key To a Successful Relationship
What have we learned from the Gottman’s about what works and doesn’t work in relationships? The key findings really boil down to the following. Happy couples handling conflicts in gentle and positive ways. They are able to repair conflicts and negative interactions.
How partners treat each other when not fighting is predictive of the couple’s ability to manage conflict and repair arguments and negativity. Consider the following tips to strengthen your friendship with your partner.
Tip #1: Expressing Interest
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?” The Masters responded to their partner’s attempts to initiate conversation or connect in some way 86% of the time. The Disasters only responded to these bids 33% of the time. Emotional connection happens when asking about your partner’s internal world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, etc.
Tip #2: Be Gentile During ConflictEmbed from Getty Images
Secret to Raising an Issue: Describe self not partner
Avoiding criticism and blame. Instead, focus on how you see things. Express your feelings about what you see and what you need or want. For example, a critical bid would be “You never help around the house and it’s making me crazy”. Instead a non-critical approach would be, “The house clutter is really bothering me, and I would really like for us to work on it together. How about watching another episode of Tidying Up and coming up with a plan?”
Avoid statements of “You never…” or “You always…” A core research finding is that the Masters stayed positive in conflict. They listen to their partners without becoming defensive, shutting down, or acting superior.
The Masters handled conflict demonstrating mutual respect, humor, and interest. They also showed openness, the ability to be influenced, and acknowledging the partner’s ideas or feelings. Literally, these positive responses consistently were found to be at a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative. The Disasters had a positive to negative ratio of 0.8:1.
Tip #3 Repair Conflict
Repair negative interactions and conflicts by acknowledging your part in what did not go right. 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 partners make mistakes, hurt one another, or have fights, 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 defines healthy conflict.
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.
Information is Power
Share with your partner these research-based tips for relationships and try implementing these approaches, thinking of your relationship as a work in progress.
You may want to consider attending a two-day Gottman Workshop titled, The Art and Science of Love Workshop: A Weekend Workshop for Couples. The workshop was designed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman. The workshop is experiential and partners are given tools and opportunities to practice exercises designed to deepen intimacy, manage conflict, and create deeper meaning in the relationship. These workshops are given nationally and internationally by Certified Gottman Therapists. The Gotman Institute has a number of research-based books, videos, and other learning methods to provide useful resources for couples.
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