John Gottman, Ph.D. is a world-renowned clinical psychologist who has studied couples and relationships for 40 years now. He is most well known for being able to predict if a couple will divorce. I know, kind of a bummer. According to Gottman, the overriding predictor is the ratio of positive to negative emotions in conflict. So how does the couple handle conflict? Those who he would categorize as stable and happy had a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative emotions, while those he categorizes as unhappy had a ratio of 8:1. He calls those who work well together as a couple the “masters of marriage” and those who don't, the “disasters of marriage.” Masters of marriage create a rich climate of positivity, show continued interest in one another, use humor, creativity, and problem solving as tools to maintain harmony in the marriage. Does this describe your relationship?
So what else do the masters do:
They behave like friends.
They have positive interactions every day.
They handle conflict gently, in a positive manner using specific skills such as self-soothing and empathy.
They build love maps, Gottman’s term for knowing each other intimately and seeking to understand a partner’s emotional world.
They admire each other and take the opportunities to emphasize what a partner is doing right rather than focusing on the negative.
When an individual seeks attention, recognition, or affection, the masters know to turn towards these bids for couple interaction.
They live their lives together creating a shared sense of meaning.
Their behavior as a couple is deliberate, and they consider and negotiate such things as how they spend weekends, how they parent together, and how they handle disappointment.
Gottman contends that 69% of problems in a relationship are perpetual and derive from basic personality differences that do not change over time, and the masters are able to accommodate these problems.
Gottman contends that contempt is the best predictor of divorce.
Gottman also discusses the disasters of marriage. From a physiological standpoint, Gottman points out that when people do not self-soothe during times of relational anxiety, their heart beats faster, what he calls becoming “flooded,” which leads to less constructive interactions. Some of the common feelings and behaviors of the disasters Gottman discusses are sadness, frustration, hurt, speech interruption, disappointment, tension, and fear. Unhappy couples have a hard time exiting conflict once they are in it.
Gottman’s most famous for his idea entitled the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which highlights some of the negative interactions couples have. Gottman contends that some are more negative than others. The four categories are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. In Gottman’s research, he could use this model to predict marital success. Gottman addresses defensiveness and notes that partners respond to criticism with defensiveness because they feel attacked. The response to defensiveness is to counterattack or take a victim stance. By contrast, masters of marriage take responsibility for their part of a problem or take a collaborative view and define the problem as “our problem.” Gottman contends that contempt is the best predictor of divorce. Stonewalling, according to Gottman, is an attempt to manage one’s anxiety; however, it closes one off from their partner. Masters approach these situations by physiological self-soothing, rather than physically, verbally, and emotionally turning away from their partner. Masters of marriage can even calm their partners.
Gottman’s work acts as a laser pointer to issues and behaviors to address when working with clients in therapy. Paired with deeper, emotion-level work, Gottman provides much content and inspiration to use in working with couples in counseling, particularly on the topic of conflict and building a solid relational foundation. Need help with your relationship? My expertise is working with couples. Call me today!
About the author: Melissa Hudson, PhD(c) is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Plano, Texas specializing in couples counseling, anxiety disorders, and depression. She also works with adults and families on a variety of concerns. Have questions? Reach out! firstname.lastname@example.org | 214-235-8175 | www.counselingsolutionstexas.com