John Gottman is one of the most well-known couples therapist. He has an institute in Seattle and has done enormous amounts of research on what makes couples successful. Gottman has found, “that marriages fall into the danger zone for divorce when the ratio of positive to negative interactions falls below five to one. Just by watching a videotape of a couple in the first few moments of a conversation about an area of marital contention, Gottman can predict with 94 percent accuracy which couples will later divorce.” He says that it is not that healthy couples don’t disagree or fight it is just that they know how to repair after a disagreement. He also finds that the positivity, whether it is a comment or laughing or a touch or gesture needs to be felt by the other in a positive way to keep the connection stable and solid. This section below explains Gottmans ideas in a succinct way: It comes from an article in Psychology Today called “Marriage Math”, by Hara Estroff Marno, which was written in 2004. Gottman teaches these 6 basic skills:
- Recognizing (and avoiding) the 4 Horsemen: Criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. He states that all couples use these sometimes but frequency can be a big problem and may lead to destroying the connection between 2 people.
- Softening and gentle startups: By this he means be mindful of the way you talk to your partner about difficult subjects.
- Accepting influence (especially for men): It can be hard to be open to the impact your spouse has on you but without that both partners tend to feel isolated and alone.
- Soothing physiological arousal (relaxation techniques can help partners calm down during heated arguments, but once they are upset, it may take over 20 minutes for the body to slow itself down to calm levels);
- Recognizing (and responding to) repair attempts: This is very important. Reaching for ones partner is not always easy. When these attempts are not reciprocated it easy for a retreat to begin which may lead to further disconnection.
- Compromise: This is not always easy and I think is much more easily arrived at when empathy is in play.
What is also emphasized is recovery after a fight. Sure, you would prefer they avoid nasty fights, but Gottman has found in his research that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. In fact, couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced. You may not be able to teach them to avoid fighting anyway, and reflective listening skills (“What I hear you saying is…”) likely won’t help since no one uses them in a fight. Instead, the best bet is to teach them how to recover after a fight.
- Effective repair is easier to accomplish when there are Rituals of Connection, or standard and every-day ways the couple connects and feels bonded to each other. This means decreasing negativity during and after fights, as negativity is the best predictor of divorce over six years (85% accuracy), and effective repair skills increases prediction accuracy (97% accuracy), as among even highly negative newlyweds, 85% of those who effectively repair stay happily married.
The Gottman website has many articles and blogs. If you are struggling in your relationship or simply want to learn more I highly recommend looking in to it.