In the positive psychology world, Dr. John Gottman is well-known for his 5:1 ratio of positive to negative language and how it can predict successful relationships. But actually, much more than the 5:1 is important. More generally, John Gottman is widely known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations published in peer-reviewed literature (see Note 1 in References below).
John Gottman Workshop – May 2009
Earlier this year, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend Gottman’s one-day workshop in Sydney: “The Art and Science of Love.” He was entertaining, informative, funny, engaging, and knowledgeable. We were all absorbed every moment of the day, partly because in all his examples and anecdotes, we could see a little bit of our own lives. (And he didn’t use a single powerpoint slide).
“A relationship is a contract of mutual nurturance. Relationships have to be a rich climate of positivity. For relationships to be strong, the ideal climate is one teeming with positive interactions.”
~ John Gottman, May 2009
In this article, rather than summarize Gottman’s work, I have provided quotes and reflections gathered during his presentation. Here are some highlights.
1. It’s more than 5:1
From the printed workshop notes: “Couples who were in a stable, happy relationship – couples who reported liking one another – had a ratio of positive to negative interactions of 5:1 when discussing an area of disagreement. Even when talking about an area of continuing disagreement, their relationships demonstrated a rich climate of acceptance, humour and interest in one another. In the Love Lab, [for] the relationships that were happy, the ratio was 20:1 of positive to negative expressions when simply conversing.” Gottman also pointed out that in relationships which are not going well, the positive to negative ratio is just 0.8:1.
2. What’s going right?
“Contempt is like sulfuric acid. Anger has to be channeled from the very beginning. It cannot be ‘catharted.’ In anger, you need to be very, very gentle.”
“Most arguments are about absolutely nothing.”
“When one is looking for mistakes, there is no such thing as constructive criticism.”
“Respect, gratitude, affection, friendship, and noticing what’s going right is a ‘habit of mind’ which creates a culture of appreciation.”
“Scan for things which go right, notice them more. This leads to more searching for positive things, to positive feedback, and therefore positive actions.”
3. Physiology and health
“When people stonewall, their heart rate goes up, and if it’s above 100 beats per minute, you can’t listen even if you want to. There is a shutting down and narrowing of attention. You can’t be empathetic and compassionate, can’t be creative or a problem solver. The physiology is restricting you. Soothing is essential to reduce the heart rate.”
“Relationships which work well lead to: healthier people who live longer and stronger; people who can cope better with adversity. Their well-being is higher.”
4. Mission, meaning and purpose
“Make it intentional how we move through time together. Those actions are about working towards shared meaning. The rituals of connection are very important.”
“Support each other’s roles, e.g. role of mother, father, friend. Let each other be who they are: this is what’s meaningful to them. Do we know our partner’s mission? Does the relationship support our separate missions in life?”
Gottman explained that the basis of great relationships is a friendship built on strong emotional ‘bank accounts,’ fondness and admiration, and knowing one another. He emphasized the importance of knowing what is right about the partner, and showing an interest in them (“interest is the lowest level of positive affect”). Open ended questions are critical. Friendship is critical for repairing things after ‘regrettable events.’ How the receiver views her partner is critical when that partner makes attempts to repair the relationship.
6. The workplace
We can learn from Gottman’s work and how to apply it in the workplace: “We should build on what’s working well, rather than creating cultures which results in competition.” He also commented on the wonderful work of Losada: “Losada’s Lab is so much better than mine!”
We learned that people need to enhance their sense of awareness and presence. Listen, tune in. Sometimes when people turn away, it can be because they lack awareness. Mindfulness enables people to become more aware of the other person’s needs and what it takes to bring out what is best in their partner:
“Every relationship is a cross cultural experience. There are two valid perceptions and realities which make a difference.”
8. Moving beyond gridlock
Finally some great words of wisdom: “Many problems are not solvable, some are perpetual. They are inherited, they come with the relationship. We need to make relationships safe enough to move beyond the gridlock. Find the dreams within the conflict. Move from gridlock to dialog, but not to solve the problem. The problem is still there, but at least we’re now talking about the meaning behind the problem.”
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.
Gottman, J., Schwartz Gottman, J., & Declaire, J. (2007). Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: America’s Love Lab Experts Share Their Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationship. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Gottman, J. Making Marriage Work
Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Note 1: John Gottman, Ph.D. is widely known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations published in peer-reviewed literature. He is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, and with his wife Dr. Julie Gottman now heads a non-profit research institute. Dr. Gottman found his methodology predicts with 90% percent accuracy which newlywed couples will remain married and which will divorce four to six years later. It is also 81% percent accurate in predicting which marriages will survive after seven to nine years.
Cat lovers courtesy of Oolong
Other images are courtesy of Amanda Horne and Karen Horne for one-time use with this article.
thanks for an inspiring article. I love the quotes from Gottman – especially about a relationship being ‘a cross cultural experience’ with ‘two valid perceptions and realities which make a difference’.
I think the great fallacy in relationships is that we eventually know each other and can stop learning.
Your article was a lovely reminder that we don’t.
John and I belong to a mutual admiration society. I can also say positive things about his wonderful work. I still remember the day when I met John at my Cambridge lab. I knew and admired his work, but I didn’t know him as a person. The person turned out to be as engaging as his work. To our mutual surprise we discovered what we have in common oly in reverse order: He started as a mathematician at MIT and ended up as clinical psychologist. I started as a clinical psychologist and ended up passionately in love with mathematics. I cannot say that I ended up as a mathematician, because I am not one. As I tell my audiences and clients: I only use mathematics to get to the heart of people.
That night at the Cambridge lab, John and I made a stunning discovery: His numbers coincided with mine in uncanny ways. We have both use similar mathematical methodologies, but he studied couples and I studied teams. Then Barb Fredrickson completed the picture providing data on individuals who flourish or languish. I find this most intriguing and beautiful because it means that behind our different data and perspectives, there is a commonality that speaks of more universal truths. Which are these truths? I hope the three of us (and others) one day will find out and report back to you. What I do know for now is that if we ever find these truths, it will be not so much because we put our minds to it, but our hearts as well.
Marcial, thank you for weighing in here so poetically. Universal truths are truly engaging as a moving-towards goal.
Amanda, thank you for making the tips and suggestions from that talk so very concrete. I really like the “habit of mind” discussion above.
All the best,
It was an inspiring workshop. I too appreciated the reminder of the wonderful nature of relationships. There was a tone throughout Gottman’s workshop of respectful acceptance and tolerance, for ourselves and our partners.
I think we all left the workshop better for having been there.
Thank you for adding your views.
When Gottman remarked that “Losada’s lab is so much better than mine”, it was said with genuine warmth and admiration. It also brought laughs out of the audience because he said it so wistfully.
Your note beautifully connects your work, Fredrickson’s work and Gottman’s work. It’s comforting to read that your numbers/ratios support each other, whether it concerns work teams, couples/relationships, or individuals. This is the kind of information which is so influential when helping people to take notice of the data.
Please do let us know what you learn about the universal truths. I think you’ve probably already pinpointed it: you mention ‘heart’ in both your paragraphs. Is there commonality in those positive emotions which touch the heart and therefore bring out the best in people? For example, love, gratitude and interest spring to mind as being powerful positive emotions and which are also ‘other focused’.
Thank you for the prompt to report on the workshop! The recent theme of ‘relationships’ for PPND in October motivated me to pull out the workshop notes. It was a great reminder of Gottman’s messages.
I’ve learned that by following your heart you can get to far away places where Beauty and Truth await you. The mind just gives you the map.
I have a map for
T = F + G + L + X
Where T is universal truth, F are Fredrickson’s findings, G are Gottman’s, L are mine’s and X the ones we dont’t know yet.
But this map is what in mathematics is called a “conjecture.” You find many conjectures in mathematics, like the famous Poincaré conjecture (if you solve it you get 1 million dollars). In this conjecture, let’s call it the “Losada conjecture”, the heart figures prominently, as you well sensed. If by heart we understand the generation of expansive emotional fields that open possibilities (let’s call this E), then I can link E to P/N (positivity to negativity ratio).
E = (P/N) / b(to the minus one) + Y (sub zero), where b(to the minus one) is the negativity bias and Y(sub zero) is the minimum emotional field (inititial condition of the field). This can sound a bit intimidating, but it is not. Mathematics was not created to instill fear in people hearts, but to liberate them from imaginary fears. Let me put into words, that are usually more friendly for the majority of people (though not as precise).
The emotional field (what we call “heart” poetically) is equal to the P/N you are able to achieve compared to the negativity bias. In other words, by how much have you overcome the negativity bias. To this you have to add a base, a minimum from where you started. None of us generates zero emotional fields. We generate at least the equivalent to the negativity bias given by evolution and that is around P/N = .365.
The question is why is this so powerful than when Barb looks at individuals, John looks at couples and I look at teams our numbers coincide? Where is the universal truth, T?
I believe T is a universal vibrational pattern. I know this sounds esoteric and it is, but it goes beyond esoteric. It comes from the very real fact that in the universe everything is vibration. String theory, one of the attempts to unify all the forces of nature, says that elementary particles are strings that vibrate, and the different vibrational patterns produce the mass, spin and charge of the elementary particles.
So the next step is to find out whether P/N is a vibrational pattern. The unequivocal answer is YES. I say unequivocal becuase this YES is backed by hudreds of thousands of data points.
When I look at the data generated at my labs in Ann Arbor and Cambridge during 10 years, I find that P/N is always a complex oscillatory pattern if it is within the Losada Zone (LZ) where P/N is at or above the Losada lIne (P/N = 2.9013) and not greater than the upper limit of the LZ which is 11.6345. If it is outside this P/N range then the pattern degrades to a periodic, repetitive, pattern typical of low performance teams, couples who end up divorcing, individuals who languish, or depressive patients. There is not enough vibration there. Life, which is a complex vibrational pattern as shown by the data from all our vital organs, is degraded and we are less alive, we languish. Dr. Grazyna Rajkowska found that in chronic depressives there is actually a loss of cerebral mass! On the other hand, when we are filled with love, our brain goes into gamma synchrony which are the fastest brain waves linking different parts of the brain and opening the gates of creativity for us. Richie Davidson did a remarkable study of Tibetan monks doing loving kindness meditation and he found that their gamma synchrony is increased by about 30%, which is exactly what I predict when the P/N ratio is about P/N = 4 as shown by the differential left prefrontal activation vs right prefrontal activation of the monk’s brain activity as measured by fMRI (see http://blog.enablersnetwork.com/2009/11/01/marcial-losada-explains-his-research-for-our-blog-readers/ whre I talk more about this remarkable finding.)
So her is my conjecture i a nutshell: the vibrational pattern we generate when our P/N ratio is within LZ is the powerful force that unites all findings related to P/N.
P/N = E
Marcial – perhaps the vibrational force might be a resonant frequency associated with heart rate variability (HRV). For example you might be interested in this research showing the link between HRV and team performance.
I read the article you sent on physiological compliance and team performance. Thanks. It is indeed interesting and adds support to my conjecture that P/N is part of a vibrational pattern that probably acts physiologically through HRV and other organs to the brain where it can create either gamma synchrony in the best case, or destroy cells in the prefrontal cortex and hypothalamus i the worst case as shown by Dr. Rajkowska. It would be interesting to see a study that directly links P/N to HRV. Do you know of any direct relationship? I am willing to conjecture that there is a connection giving that the mathematical structure of my findings is based on fluid dynamics. In the end, it is the this fluid dynamics acting electrochemically that can synchornize activities in all the vital body organs.
Furthermore, I think your idea that HRV could create resonant frequencies (or could be the outcome of some fundamental frequency, thus being a resonant frequecy itself) is well taken.
Let me explain why. When I look at all the P/N data I have gathered over the years in many different cultures and countries, I find something quite astonishing. It turns out that all major limits are resonant frequencies of the Losada line. Let me give a table with these results:
Theoretical upper limit = 4 times the Losada line
Gain function limit = 3 times the Losada line
Empirical upper limit = 2 times the Losada line
Now for the sub-harmonics:
Medium performance lower limit = 1/2 the Losada line
Empirical lower limit = 1/4 the Losada line
Negativity bias = 1/8 the Losada line
Fascinating, isn’t it? Now, what does this tell me regarding your idea? It tells me that given that P/N ratios that define important limits are all resonant frequencies of the Losada line, it is highly likely that the effects that P/N produces at the physiological level could be resonant frequencies of the Losada line.
Conclusion, the Losada line is a lot more than a “tipping point” as Barb Fredrickson explains in her book (see chapter 7). It is actually a resonant frequency and as such it must itself be resonating with some other more fundamental frequency in nature. Wh ever finds that out could be a candidate for the Nobel the prize or some other such prize.
I am interested in sharing dreams to move beyond gridlock. This clearly works in marriage and in parent-child relationships. Because the couple and family can build a dream together. This can get a little dicier with in-laws, and partially explains the difficulties that arise between mother and daughter-in-laws or sister-in-laws. I would love to see work done to help build relationships between mother and daughter in laws and sister in laws. Are you aware of any such work?
I am taking a positive psychology course at NCSU with Sean Doyle. We have talked about using our strengths to build relationships, active constructive response, gratitude and I can see that these can be applied in any relationship, including in-laws.
It would be good if women were made aware that these in-law relationships can be difficult, that it is good to have realistic expectations of the role of daughter in law, mother in law, and the grandchildren. So often in laws are vilified instead of it being understood that being part of the supporting cast is not a very fun role. How can women help each other instead of compete with one another? What sort of dreams can they build to unite the expanding family?
From what I know of Gottman’s work (e.g. he was interviewed by Harvard Business Review about workshops in general, and in the workshop he fielded a wide range of questions about all kinds of relationships), I’m sure he would have a view about your question.
I’m not aware of work on relationships with in-laws, however as I’m not a relationship expert, I’m sure there must be work out there. A friend is a relationship counsellor and she’s able to work with any family relationships.
I love your points, and agree with you! Weaving in all the work on relationships, as you point out, is relevant to anyone, not just married or defacto relationships. Have you considered doing with with groups of people?
Thanks so much for posting your comments
No one has helped me enlighten my marital/couple clients more than Gottman. He is like a strong, gorgeous draft horse hitched with positive psychology. And they lead the relationship parade.
I loved these posts. Thanks!
The workshop sounded very insightful. I am curious if John Gottman talked about if relationships that lose the “spark” or chemical connection as some would call it, could be salvaged if there was constant positive affirmation in the relationship and mutual respect and love. Did he say anything about if those types of relationships can actually flourish?
I can’t say I’m an expert at all about this. I was not aware he talked about this at the workshop, however I assume the answer to this sits somewhere in his work.
There are some points from his workshop which might help:
– relationships need to be ‘safe enough to open up gridlock’
-find the dream within the conflict / the meaning, pursuit of meaningful goals (could help reignite spark)
– “need to have similar levels of intelligence for this to work well” (‘this’ being the work Gottman was sharing in the workshop
I believe the tone of his workshop was about building great relationships, and at no time did he say they needed a ‘spark’. It was about love maps, fondness, admiration, respect, sharing meaning, small moments which build the relationship, having a positive perspective and that these all build romance and passion.
I hope that helps! I’d suggest looking at his materials and his website.
I enjoyed reading your article about Dr. Gottman’s lecture. I am taking a positive psychology class in school right now and we have spoke often of the 5:1 ratio. I still have a couple of questions regarding this ratio though. First, I assume that the degreee of positive comments vs. negative ones would have some effects? Sometimes people say negative so things and no matter how much they try to make up for it, the partner will have a hard time letting it go.
Also the two quotes “Most arguments are about absolutely nothing.” and “When one is looking for mistakes, there is no such thing as constructive criticism.” stuck out to me because it seems like we sometimes look for a problem when there isn’t one there and cause pointless fights.
It seems mindfulness is very important in remembering your partners “side” and being aware of where they are coming from.
Thanks for your time,