HOW TO MAKE YOUR MARRIAGE LAST
The key to staying together ... It’s not what you think
ANALYTICS AND DATA don’t sound like a formula for romance, but John Gottman has devoted more than 40 years to figuring out the math that makes relationships work. In his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington, in Seattle, he has analyzed how couples communicate verbally and non-verbally and followed them for years to find out if their relationships survived. More than 200 published articles later, he claims to be able to predict the outcome of a relationship with up to 94 per cent accuracy. Dubbed “the Einstein of Love” by Psychology Today, Gottman—along with Julie Gottman, his wife of 30 years and research partner—now teaches other marriage therapists the most common misunderstandings about love, based on observations from the Love Lab.
Myth: Marriage should be fair.
Couples who engage in quid pro quo thinking—if I scratch your back, you should scratch mine—are usually in serious trouble, John says: “We become emotional accountants only when there’s something wrong with the relationship.”
He cites a 1977 study by the psychologist and researcher Bernard Murstein as the first to find that quid pro quo thinking was a characteristic of ailing relationships rather than happy ones, because of its indication of a low level of trust. “We’ve found in our research that the best marriages are the ones in which you’re really invested in your partner’s interests, as opposed to your own,” Julie says. Negotiating from a position of pure self-interest is dysfunctional; the happiest couples give without expecting anything in return because they can rely on their partner to operate with their best interests in mind.
Myth: Your partner isn’t a mind reader.
Make no mistake: open communication is an essential tool for a happy relationship. But the Gottmans have found that successful couples are better at being available and responding to each other’s subtler needs for attention, support, empathy or interest— even by simply turning away from the TV to respond to a spouse’s comments. One of John’s studies found a correlation between dissatisfied marriages
and the husband’s deficient ability to interpret his wife’s nonverbal cues.
Myth: Screaming fights lead to divorce.
“Volatiles” have been flagged by the Gottmans as one of three types of “happy-stable” relationships. (The other two, if you’re curious, are “validaters” and “conflict avoiders.”)
In fact, the average happy-stable couple has at minimum a five-to-one positive-to-negative ratio during conflict—meaning they have five times more positive feelings than negative ones, even while fighting—which
FINDING WAYS TO HONOR EACH
PERSON’S CORE NEEDS
HELPS AVOID “GRIDLOCKED
John has found to be the marker of a healthy relationship. In contrast, couples headed for divorce have a ratio of 0.8 to one, with far less positive emotions for each negative interaction. The difference is that happy couples are able to offset arguments with laughter and fun; indeed, in neutral circumstances, their ratio spikes to 20 to one.
John notes that each style has its pros and cons. “Conflict avoiders have a very peaceful existence, but on the other hand, they can wind up leading parallel lives in which they’re very distant from one another,” he says. “On the other hand, the passionate couples who argue a lot run the risk of devolving into constant bickering.”
Myth: Talk things out until you agree.
Sixty-nine percent of marriage problems are managed through dialogue rather than being definitively solved, according to John’s research. “The common lore is that conflict avoidance is a bad thing, but it really works for a lot of people to just agree to disagree,” he says.
Most disagreements arise from personality differences between partners, so the conflict is not resolvable. The key is to avoid a “gridlocked conflict,” in which you can’t make headway in a recurring fight. At the bottom of these issues, the Gottmans have found, are core differences— anything intrinsic to a partner’s belief system, history or personality, from a closely held value to an as-yet-unfulfilled dream.
For instance, a fight about finances might not be just about the cash but also about the meanings of money, power, freedom and security. The goal is to realize that a dialogue about your contrasting perspectives is much more important than trying to definitively solve enduring dis-
agreements. The Gottmans recommend finding ways to honor each person’s aspirations and core needs regarding the issue at hand.
Myth: Gender difference causes megafights.
Men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus; we’re all just from Earth. As it turns out, “men are just as in touch with their emotions as women,” Julie says. “On the other hand, some women are very reluctant to express their negative emotions, so it balances out. There are more similarities than the culture generally believes.”
A 1998 study in Cognition and Emotion found that when women thought about their lives in the long-term, they reported themselves as being more emotional than men. But when participants rated their emotions on a moment-to-moment basis, the gender differences were minimal.
Myth: You repeat your parents’ mistakes.
How you carry your childhood baggage is more important than the fact that you have some. “Nobody escapes childhood without some crazy buttons and triggers, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a great relationship,” John says.
Tom Bradbury, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, coined the phrase “enduring vulnerabilities” to describe these historical triggers. Certain words and actions might dig up old feelings and provoke a reaction. Make sure you and your partner understand what sets the other off and avoid picking on those weaknesses.
Circumstances from your past could also prompt what psychologists call projective identification. An example is taking something you resent from your childhood and applying it to your significant other. If you had a distant, cold parent, for instance, you might assume your partner is being distant and cold too. Instead of blaming the person you’re with, explain how the actions make you feel and what he or she can do to help you feel better; listen compassionately and
remind yourself that there’s no such thing as “objectively correct” or immaculate perception.
Myth: Opposites attract.
The idea that one partner’s strengths compensate for the other’s weaknesses and vice versa sounds good, but the Gottmans say their research provides no support for this. John’s analysis also indicates that similarity in core beliefs is not an important predictor of, or influence on, a couple’s prospective happiness. “The major incompatibility we’ve found that’s really predictive of divorce is how people feel about expressing emotion,” John says. For instance, if one person wants to talk about anger and sadness while the other thinks you should keep negative feelings to yourself, both partners may start to resent one another. If you’re having an argument, the Gottmans have this reminder: it’s easier to move from disagreement to mutual understanding when a relationship feels safe and one partner expresses a clear interest in the meaning behind their partner’s behavior.