Laura L.C. Johnson, MBA, MA, is a licensed professional clinical counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. Visit the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center web site. She integrates positive psychology with cognitive behavior therapy, which has been shown to be effective for a wide variety of problems in hundreds of studies. Her clients learn skills to build positive emotions, optimism, and resilience while decreasing unhelpful thinking, behaviors, and emotions. Full bio. Laura's articles are here.
In the “Love Lab,” researchers claim they can predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will thrive or fail after watching and listening to them for just five minutes. The Love Lab is actually Dr. John Gottman’s Relationship Research Institute near the University of Washington in Seattle. Gottman and his team have been studying how couples argue and resolve conflict and have followed hundreds of couples over time to see if their marriages last. Using a scientific approach, they have found four negative factors that can predict divorce and seven positive principles that predict marital success.
The Four Horsemen
Gottman says he looks for certain kinds of negativity, which he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” to predict a relationship’s failure:
- Criticism – Global negative statements about your partner’s character or personality.
- Contempt – Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor can be poisonous because they convey disgust.
- Defensiveness – This is a way of blaming your partner and can escalate the conflict.
- Stonewalling – A partner may disengage from the relationship, signaled by looking away without saying anything and acting as though he/she doesn’t care about what the other is saying.
Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to deescalate tension during conflict – “to put on the brakes so flooding is prevented.” The Four Horsemen alone predict divorce with 82% accuracy but when you add in the failure of repair attempts, the accuracy goes to 90+%.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Based on Gottman’s research, he has developed seven principles that help improve a marriage’s chances of success:
1. Enhance Your Love Maps
Emotionally intelligent couples are familiar with the details of each other’s world. They remember the major events in each other’s history and keep up to date as the facts and feelings of their partner’s world changes. They know each other’s goals, worries and hopes in life.
2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
This is one of the most critical elements in a rewarding and long-lasting marriage. It involves feeling that your partner is still worthy of honor and respect in spite of their flaws. Gottman found that 94% of the time when couples put a positive spin on their marriage’s history, they are likely to have a happy future.
3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away
When a partner makes a bid for your attention, affection, humor or support, turning toward your partner is the basis of emotional connection. The real secret is to turn to turn toward each other in little ways every day.
4. Let Your Partner Influence You
The happiest marriages were those where the husband was able to convey honor and respect for their wife and did not resist sharing power and decision making. These husbands actively search for common ground instead of insisting on getting their way. Gottman found women were more likely to let their husbands influence them by taking their opinions and feelings into account.
5. Solve Your Solvable Problems
Resolving conflict involves five steps: soften your startup, learn to make and receive repair attempts, soothe yourself and each other, compromise and be tolerant of each other’s faults. Some suggested practices include:
• Complain but don’t blame.
• Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You.”
• Describe what is happening, don’t evaluate or judge.
• Be clear, polite and appreciative.
• Don’t store things up.
6. Overcome Gridlock
Ending gridlock doesn’t mean solving the problem, but rather moving from gridlock to dialogue. Some steps are:
• Learn to uncover your partner’s dreams.
• Understand why each of you feels so strongly about the gridlocked issue.
• Soothe each other to avoid flooding.
• End the gridlock by making peace with the issue, accepting the differences between you, talking without hurting each other and compromising.
7. Create Shared Meaning
See if you can agree on the fundamentals in life. Create an atmosphere where you can speak candidly and respectfully about your values and dreams. Accept and respect that you each may have some dreams that the other doesn’t share.
How the Principles Work
Gottman did a nine-month follow-up of 640 couples who attended a two-day workshop where couples were trained in the seven principles for making marriage work. He found that the relapse rate, or return to their previous level of marital distress, was only 20% for couples who attended the workshop versus 30% to 50% for standard marital therapy.
Driver, J. L. & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Process, 43 (3), 301-314.
Gottman, J. Making Marriage Work
Gottman, J. M., Driver, J. & Tabares, A. T. (2002). Building the sound marital house: An empirically derived couple therapy. In Gurman, A.S. & Jacobson, N. S. (Eds.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 373-399). New York: Guilford.
Gottman, J. M. & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analysis using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41 (1), 83-96.
Gottman, J. M. & Notarius, C. I. (2002). Marital research in the 20th century and a research agenda for the 21st century. Family Process, 41 (2), 159-197.
Gottman, J. M. & Carrere, S. (2000). Welcome to the love lab. Psychology Today, September/Ocober Issue, 42-87.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.