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The Profile Dossier: John Gottman, the Love Scientist
“Successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures, and small acts.”
Math and science have no place in matters of love, right? Psychologist John Gottman would disagree.
Gottman, who has been called “the Einstein of Love,” has spent more than 40 years studying divorce prediction and marital stability. He’s researched all sorts of relationships over the decades by applying mathematics and creating what he calls “love equations.”
In his most famous study, Gottman set up an apartment-like laboratory called the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. He videotaped thousands of newlyweds, which allowed him to dissect their interactions into hard, quantifiable data.
From the data he gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. He found that the masters were still happily together after six years, whereas the disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.
Gottman has developed models, scales, and formulas to better predict marital stability and divorce in couples. His research focuses on the process of conflict within a marriage — the way couples fight and reconcile — and less on the content of the argument.
Based on his research and experience in the last several decades, Gottman can predict with up to 94% accuracy whether couples — straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not — will break up or live happily ever after. He co-founded The Gottman Institute with his partner and wife Julie in 1996.
Here’s what we can learn from his research about what really makes love last.
On becoming the Einstein of Love: In this in-depth profile on Gottman, we learn more about why he’s drawn to applying math to love. When he was a child, his father took him and his sister for a walk in the park and shocked them by saying they would have to decide whether they wanted to live with their mother or their father. “I got so angry,” Gottman recalls. “I told him that I was just a child and that I shouldn’t have to make that kind of decision. I told him that I hoped they would stay together. They did.” It was his first awareness of how fragile marriages can be.
On mastering the secret to love: Gottman and his partner Julie have found that kindness glues couples together. OK, that’s obvious. But here’s the small nuance that separates happy couples from unhappy ones. The happy people tend to think of kindness as a muscle — something that grows stronger the more you use it. The unhappy partners see kindness as a fixed personality trait — either you have it or you don’t. “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
On the 7 principles to a happy relationship: Gottman has written a number of books, but this is the one where he brings the reader into his Love Lab at the University of Washington. The book is an overview of the concepts and behaviors that make you a better partner (and person). He outlines seven skills that make for a thriving relationship, and you’ll benefit from practicing them regardless if you’re single or coupled up.
On taking a peek inside the love lab: In this fascinating conversation, John and Julie share some of their secrets on what makes love work — and keep working for life. Drawing upon Julie’s decades of clinical observations and John’s 40 years of breakthrough research, they’ve developed stunning insights into what makes relationships last.
On giving your relationship a boost: Gottman believes that successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures, and small acts. The Gottman Institute hosts a podcast called “Small Things Often,” which explores everything from emotional intelligence to mindfulness to self-soothing — in five minutes or less.
On the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Certain negative communication styles are so lethal to a relationship that Gottman has dubbed them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and the most dangerous one, contempt. These four communication patterns predict relationship failure with over 90% accuracy if the behavior isn't changed. This video shows the antidote for each “horseman.”
On calculating the 5-to-1 ratio: Gottman believes it’s the mundane moments of marriage that are the makers of romance. One of his most concrete findings is that happier couples had a ratio of five positive interactions to every negative interaction. The interactions don’t have to be grand gestures. “A smile, a head nod, even just grunting to show you’re listening to your partner—those are all positive,” Gottman says. That’s because this magic ratio enhances the positivity in your relationship.
On keeping your standards high: The most important question to ask, Julie says, is: “How does my partner make me feel about myself?” If you are insecure, scared, and constantly over-analyzing their texts, that indicates the relationship may not be working for you. It’s important, they note, to keep your standards high and understand it’s OK to bail on a relationship with a partner that treats you poorly.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Answer the bids: Throughout the day, you and your partner make requests for connection, which Gottman calls “bids.” Say that your partner is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to you, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” Your partner is requesting a response, or “a bid for emotional connection.” Happy couples acknowledge and respond to each other’s bids even if it’s just for a quick moment. Remember the motto: “‘Small things often’ is so much more important than ‘big things occasionally.’”
Build trust with “sliding door moments:” Gottman believes that “sliding door moments” build, maintain, or crumble the foundation of trust in our relationships. These moments are the seemingly inconsequential everyday things we haphazardly throw back and forth at each other on a daily basis. What does your partner do when you reach out to hold their hand? Or when they see you are visibly upset? Do they ignore you and turn away or do they lean in and respond with empathy? Most relationships don’t collapse because of one blow-out fight. They often fall apart because the partners have eroded the foundation of trust by consistently turning away from each other.
Practice “soft-startups:” Gottman believes that the way you start a tough conversation determines how it will end. He recommends broaching difficult topics with a “soft-startup,” which means you bring up a legitimate concern or need without blaming your partner, or judging their character. When you start sentences with “I,” he says, you are less likely to be critical than if you start them with “you.” Instead of saying “You are not listening to me,” you can try, “I don’t feel heard right now.”
Don’t throw spears: In every interaction with our partner, we have two choices: react with kindness or throw a spear. Here’s how Gottman explains the difference in reaction between masters and disasters of love when their partner is late: “Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say, ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.’”
Repair, repair, repair: Even happy couples have ugly screaming matches and stonewall each other. They do many of the same things unhealthy couples do, but at some point they have a conversation where they recover from it. The difference is that healthy couples have effective strategies to repair the conflict quickly rather than letting it fester. Gottman describes a repair attempt as “any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” It could be anything from a smile to taking a break to asking for clarity.
Build a love map: Happy couples make what Gottman calls "love maps.” When you enter a marriage, he explains, you hand your partner a map of your inner world. Over the course of your relationship, the task for couples is to intentionally add details to that map. A detailed love map brings perspective to the twists and turns that inevitably enter a marriage. In other words, you need to continue learning new things about your partner by being curious. Gottman says the best way to ensure a healthy marital friendship is to keep asking questions.
Avoid entropy: The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that there is a natural tendency in closed energy systems to degenerate into a more disordered state over time. The same is true of closed relationships like marriages. “If you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time,” Gottman says. “To maintain a balanced emotional ecology, you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.”
Use humor to diffuse tension: In good marriages, couples actively de-escalate conflicts by doing things like injecting well-timed humor into tense and difficult situations. Humor can lower the tension level of an argument, destroy the division between you and your partner, and remind you that you’re human. This behavior, Gottman says, is the one that he can’t program into you. It just happens when couples have a positive shared experience and a generally positive outlook on their own life.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures, and small acts.”
“Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best protection against feeling adversarial toward your spouse.”
“Some people leave a marriage literally, by divorcing. Others do so by leading parallel lives together.”
“Admit when you're wrong. Shut up when you're right.”
“Alice doesn’t look back and doesn’t question the adventure she’s chosen. That’s commitment.”
“Our partners don’t always have to think like we think. That’s what makes life interesting—it would be boring to be married to yourself.”
“Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you.”
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