While there are many theories about what makes for a lasting marriage, for the most part they are simply conjecture – what might have worked for one specific couple at one point in time. John and Julie Gottman, however, have made a science of studying marriage, and after years of studying couples interacting together in their famous “Love Lab,” have been able to predict which marriage will last and which will end in divorce with an astounding 94% accuracy. Even more compelling, this ability has been highly replicated in predicting not just divorce rates, but relationship happiness.
The result is now a highly valid theory with precise and measurable constructs. In their new book, The Science of Couples and Family Therapy: Behind The Scenes At The Love Lab, John and Julie Gottman offer what has emerged from over 45 years of careful scientific research done with thousands of couples and families – a new general systems theory that will likely change the way we all think about relationships.
“There is a set point at which positive and negative affect are in balance for happy, stable relationships. It is 5 to 1. There is another set point of the balance between positive and negative affect for unhappily married couples. It is 0.8 to 1,” write the Gottmans.
There are many patterns, cycles, and systems, however that contribute to a good affect balance. Game theory, for example keeps people exchanging behavior strategically in order to maximize payoffs.
“If John smiles warmly at Julie, and she looks sad instead of giving him a full-hearted return smile, she might evaluate his smile as very positive, but he may be disappointed, and evaluate her sad look as very negative. They could keep going through the whole interaction like that, exchanging actions and payoffs,” write the Gottmans.
So if the goal is to increase the perceived balance of positive to negative affect, it must also shift the homeostasis of the relationship — so that overall there is far more positive interaction that negative.
To do this, the Gottmans say the amount of negative affect during conflict must be decreased – to stop the escalation of negative affect into what they call the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. In turn, the amount of positive affect during conflict must be increased, particularly through humor and affection.
Of particular importance is to stop coercive cycles.
“In the coercive cycle the child misbehaves – maybe to get attention – and the parent tries to set limits. But in response to the limits, the child only escalates their negative affect. This pattern of the child escalating in response to the parent’s limit-setting continues until the parents finally gives in, which reinforces the whole chain of escalation by the child,” write the Gottmans.
A better way is to make use of what is known as the Nash equilibrium to solve conflicts. In a Nash equilibrium, both partners work together to maximize benefits, and assume that no one person can do any better with a unilateral shift in behavior.
This sort of solution creates a balance toward positive affect, but it requires trust, which the authors contend is frequently misunderstood.
“They protested, saying of course they were committed. They had a house and children together, after all. John said, no, trust is about negotiating and making decisions always thinking about both people’s welfare. Instead they had both negotiated the best deal for themselves and ignored the best interests of their partner,” write the Gottmans.
Attuning to one another, on the other hand, allows for discussion even about potentially heated topics to be handled calmly, and with emotional acceptance.
Listening to the negative affect usually involves understanding the meaning behind emotions by asking the right questions. One example is anger, which usually signals a goal that has been blocked. Instead of meeting anger with defensiveness, a partner can learn to ask: What are your concerns?
When conflicts do arise, it is often the agreement to disagreement ratio that predicts the outcome. Couples that start their disagreements gently, acknowledging their role in the conflict, use a calm and neutral affect, remain in a state of physiological calm, and use shared humor fare much better over the long term.
Not only do successful couples cultivate a state of emotional calm, they also respond to one another bids for connection — what the Gottman’s call turning toward – much more frequently.
“In that newlywed study with 130 couples we found that the 17 couples who divorced six years after the wedding had turned toward 33% of their partner’s bids. Those who stayed married had turned toward 86% of their partner’s bids. Our conclusion is that turning toward bids is like an emotional bank account. And the more assets in the emotional bank, the better,” write the Gottmans.
Drawing on a wealth of research imbued with powerful theoretical insights, John and Julie Gottman’s book is an intellectual achievement sure to affect profound changes in many couples’ lives, and without fail, change the way we live, love, and create families.
The Science of Couples and Family Therapy: Behind The Scenes At The Love Lab
John M. Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman
W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 320 Pages