John Gottman is one of the most influential researchers and purveyors of couple’s therapy. With over 40 years of research on 3,000 couples, he and his team have accomplished the most extensive study ever done on marital stability and divorce prediction. Research done in the "Love Lab." involves interviewing couples while they are being physiologically monitored for heartbeat, perspiration, blood pressure, etc. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book, Blink, that Gottman can tell with high accuracy (95%) if couples will divorce after watching them for an hour. After 15 minutes he can tell with 90% accuracy. Gladwell calls this, “thin slicing”: knowing which information to attend to and which to throw away. Here are the things John Gottman looks for to determine a healthy relationship:
- Knowing each other well. Being friends means less likely to divorce (know names of co-workers, interests, kids teachers, etc.) and research shows that infidelity generally happens after the friendship has gone stale. On average, happy couples spend six hours more a week than unhappy couples.
- Working to like each other. Happy couples continually remind themselves of each other’s good points, remember and access good memories from the beginning of the relationship and are grateful for each other.
- Acknowledging and reassuring each other, aka “turning towards” each other when one partner “bids” for connection. “Turning towards” and “bids” are phrases coined by Gottman. Respectively, these two things mean the small behaviors that a partner displays to shows they care and a show (ranging from subtle to obvious) of a desire for connection.
- Taking spouses opinions into account. Happy couples change their minds to accommodate partners. In this way they take their partners happiness seriously.
- Solving solvable problems. Solvable problems are specific and immediate issues that arise and can be settled using “repair attempts”: actions taken by a partner to diffuse the tension and keep a conflict from escalating out of control. His research states successful use of repair attempts is one of the greatest predictors of relational success.
- Accepting irresolvable/perpetual conflicts. These are the conflicts that involve differences in life dreams, values and goals. Gottman says that it is a waste of time to try to resolve all conflict in a relationship, he is more interested in how couples deal with conflict. Healthy couples face irresolvable differences by clarifying personal values, showing value for their partner, and affirming commitment to the relationship. The use of turning towards, bids and repair attempts are all crucial to surviving this very difficult part of the relationship.
- Having shared meaning. This includes work, commitments, values, religious involvement, friendships, family, etc. Anything shared can bolster shared meaning in a couple's relationship. Research shows that couples who have been married longer are less likely to divorce due to longer time spent building a shared world.
These qualities are sometimes inherent in a relationship and sometimes require therapy and hard work. If you are a therapist working with couples there are many ways to incorporate Gottman’s research into your work. One tool we suggest is the Marriage Minute: a daily email from the Gottman Institute that gives quick, practical advice for building stronger marriages.
Katie Woodruff has a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy with a specialization in trauma-informed care. She has worked in community mental health, female prison, and in private practice. A Louisiana native and Tennessee transplant, she is currently living in post graduate/pre-licensure purgatory and understands the need for Motive all too well. She enjoys unpredictable weather, her misunderstood pit bull and most of all, a good sense of humor.