There are too many myths about what makes a relationship work. Drs. John & Judy Gottman researched this for over 15 years and found the actual, practical relationship issues that actually make a difference. Understanding these essential communication skills and concepts can make the difference between relationship failure or success.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
No conversation about the Gottman Method can be complete without mentioning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The four things that are significant predictors of divorce as they make it very difficult to arrive at a solution to issues. They are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.
Why is criticism so dangerous to a relationship? Criticism is when we blame a relationship problem on personality flaws in your partner. It’s really a way of fueling an attack: You state your complaint as an attack on the other person. What you’re going to get back is defensiveness or more criticism. But it’s not constructive. Instead, it leads to an escalation of the conflict. Examples of criticism include:
- “You always…”
- “You never…”
- “You’re the type of person who…”
- “Why are you so…”
Defensiveness ends up responsibility for the problem. We act like an innocent victim or counter-attack your partner by criticizing them while ignoring their complaints. This is the opposite of good communicators, who say things like, “Ok, what’s your point” or “That makes sense to me, tell me more.” They take responsibility for even a small part of the problem. Then you’re kicking around the problem together, like you’re playing soccer and kicking around the problem. It’s like you’re a team working on this joint problem. Defensiveness gets in the way of this. You can recognize defensiveness when you hear things like:
- “I didn’t…”
- “That’s not true!”
- “You’re the one who…”
- “I did that because you…”
Stonewalling involves shutting down completely and refusing to offer any verbal or non-verbal responses to your partner’s statements. Over 85% of my stonewallers are men. They’re not really trying to make things worse; they’re just trying to calm down and not make it worse. But when you’re faced with somebody who is silent like that, you can’t help but get upset. You can recognize stonewalling by the following behaviors:
- Becoming silent
- Changing the subject
- Giving the silent treatment
- Leaving the room
- Muttering or avoiding eye contact
Why is contempt so toxic? It combines criticism with an air of superiority, and we end up mocking the other person. You’re essentially saying, “I’m pretty close to perfect, but you are defective.” Contempt is the best predictor of divorce. It’s sulfuric acid for love. You need respect in a relationship, and contempt is disrespect. Contempt can also have physical repercussions: It’s a predictor of how many infectious illnesses your partner is going to have in the next four years; it erodes the immune system. Contempt is most easily recognized by:
- Insults (“Bitch”, “Bastard”, “Fat”, “Stupid”, “Ugly”, “Lazy”, etc)
- Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery
- Rolling your eyes
Friendship and Intimacy
Anyone can learn the tools for effective communication and how to fight fairly. What a therapist can’t do is make you be friends with each other. A strong friendship between partners is linked to a long-lasting relationship and to sustained passion and romance. At times, I’ll have a couple in my practice where one person already has one foot “out the door” and is highly ambivalent towards repairing things; if they aren’t interested in learning the skills to become closer and better friends, there’s not much that can be done. You have to (at least) want to want to be friends with each other.
Feeling Loved, Respected & Admired
Problems can emerge if one partner doesn’t feel adequately known, loved, admired, or respected by the other. This can leave one feeling that their partner is not interested in them anymore, that they won’t respond to your needs, or feeling that you’re being taken for granted. Often this is caused by a host of problems, including poorly managed conflict, leading parallel lives, a partner’s lack of knowing how to connect, wanting more friendship from the other but not getting it, and so forth.
Sex, Passion & Romance
Romance and passion are a huge priority for any meaningful relationship. Anyone can have sex, but feeling truly valued and loved is a whole different level. Sometimes, we genuinely forget how to keep this alive in our relationship in the face of busy or chaotic lives. It’s also possible that there may be too much, or not enough, sex in the relationship. In this case, we often don’t know how to make our needs known to our partner in a way that they can both hear and understand us.
Emotional Disengagement and Loneliness
You can measure the level of friendship by seeing if the couple has fun or shares laughter together. If their interest and enthusiasm are rarely matched by their partner, this may contribute to feeling disconnected, isolated and lonely in their relationship. Knowing that you can count on one another when you need to connect is crucial to feeling safe and secure in the relationship or marriage. This can be hard to do as needs are often expressed as negative statements rather than positive requests, which can quickly turn into blame or criticism.
Not surprisingly, being committed to making the relationship work is crucial. For example, after an argument one partner may have serious doubts about whether they should stay in the relationship. While the other person works on the relationship, they may not know how uncommitted the other person is. As a result, while working hard on the relationship, you can end up feeling that your partner is not working with you. This dynamic can leave one feeling very lonely.
Feelings and Emotions
This difference in attitudes about emotions is often a source of conflict and discomfort in a relationship. You might feel lonely and misunderstood because you can’t share your emotions with your spouse or partner. Talking about your feelings is part of your life. You may feel that your partner is not there for you when you need them. You may also think that your partner disapproves of your feelings, and that you have to hide them in order to be accepted.
Your partner, in turn, may feel that emotions aren’t productive or helpful. It wouldn’t be surprising for your partner to then think that you “can’t control” your emotions and are much too needy and demanding. In reality, your partner may not know how to deal with negative emotions and may be overwhelmed by them. Your partner may even believe that people should just “get on with life” and “roll with the punches.”
Soft vs. Harsh Startup
A soft startup may sound like this: “I couldn’t help but notice the garbage is still sitting out,” whereas a harsh startup comes across like: “What the hell is this!?!”. The first three minutes of how a couple begins a conversation predicts how it will end. When Softened Start-Up is used to start a conflict discussion, it tends to predict that the conversation will go well, whereas a Harsh Start-Up usually predicts a negative outcome.
“Flooding” means that when a couple discusses disagreements or hurt feelings, one or both tend to feel overwhelmed. It’s as if we want to either run away from each other or make our partner stop talking. If they can’t do either one, they may lose control and resort to verbal, and in some cases, physical attack, or they may stay in one place but shut down entirely. Withdrawing is a partner’s attempt to shut out the stimulation so that he or she can internally calm down. Often, one partner doesn’t understand the effect that flooding has on the other person.
Accepting influence is when you are flexible and consider the other person’s feelings and suggestions. This helps to ease the way towards a compromise. This helps to avoid power struggles and to create “win/win” rather than “win/lose” solutions to relationship problems. Rejecting influence from your partner often comes from an underlying fear about what will happen if you do accept influence. Sometimes a partner has experienced painful repercussions from accepting another person’s influence in the past, either in his or her family-of-origin or in earlier adult relationships.
If you feel like you are always giving in when there’s a disagreement, this can grow into a deep resentment. This lack of compromise can result in viewing your partner as stubborn or rigid. You may eventually disengage from him emotionally and/or physically, leaving both of you feeling lonely and frustrated. In turn, the parter who refuses to compromise may feel victorious in often “winning” their arguments, but then feel hurt and confused if their partner eventually shuts down and pulls away.
You might feel unjustly accused, attacked or criticized by your partner. You might feel that the problems the two of you are discussing aren’t your fault. Or perhaps you just want the negativity to stop. If this sounds familiar, you may be struggling with being hyper-vigilant for your partner’s negativity and expecting that your partner will criticize you or put you down. It’s like wearing a pair of dirty glasses: Everything you see is filtered. Your partner could come at you with rainbows and unicorns, and you could still end up saying, “What is this crap?!”
Conversations can slide downhill when one person rejects the other’s attempt to repair a conversation that has gotten off track. As a result, you can’t get the conversation back on track. The problem can escalate if you make a repair attempt and your partner ends up responding, “No, I can’t rephrase it. You heard me the first time!” This refusal to accept your repair attempts may leave you feeling hurt, frustrated and powerless.
Couples with emotional distance between them lose track of who their partner really is and how that partner may have changed over time. One spouse may feel close to his wife, but his wife’s feeling distant would imply she doesn’t feel well known by him. Using things like The New York Time’s 36 Questions that Lead to Love is a good way to help deepen your knowledge of each other’s feelings, goals, needs and experiences. Successful couples respond to their partner’s request for connection 85% of the time, while unsuccessful, unhappy couples only do this 35% of the time.
It’s normal for most people to feel insecure from time to time, and what helps the most is receiving reassurance from your parter that they still find you desirable. Both partners need to feel secure with one another. If one or both partners feel insecure in their relationship and worry their partner isn’t committed to them, this can lead to distorted views of their partner’s behavior.
Emotional or Sexual Affairs
Affairs can destroy the fabric of any relationship. The commitment between partners is understandably questioned as trust in the relationship has been shredded. Feelings of insecurity about the betrayal and resulting mistrust must be urgently addressed. It’s worth noting that couples therapy is highly unlikely to be helpful if the affair is still happening.
Many couples have sought help for affairs but have been told to either not discuss them or to forgive their partners prematurely. Neither approach is likely to have worked. Affairs typically generate a type of PTSD in the betrayed partners, including hyper-vigilance, nightmares, intrusive thoughts about the affair, depression, emotional numbing, and occasional emotional explosiveness. Only after most questions have been answered and feelings have been heard, and after the betraying partner has deeply apologized for having the affair, can the problems in the relationship that may have precipitated the affair be explored.
Basic Values and Goals
Over 80% of all relationship breakups involve people drifting apart from each other in their basic values, goals and lifestyles. The goal is to negotiate compromises on differing viewpoints and to accept influence from one another to reach a compromise that both can agree to.
Having Fun Together
Being able to enjoy time with your partner and have fun together is deeply nourishing to the relationship. Unfortunately, life often becomes an infinite to-do list, with fun being the last priority. Research has found that couples that laugh together have a greater chance at a long-lasting success.
Gridlock On Perpetual Issues
Research shows 69% of all problems couples have, including healthy couples, are perpetual problems. The difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships is in how a couple processes these problems. If they are discussed with humor, positive affect, and acceptance, they don’t usually trouble the couple. However, if discussions of these issues lead to explosive fights, tense avoidance of the issues, or escalated quarrels, the issue is said to be “gridlocked.”
Rituals of Connection
Spending intentional time with each other should be a source of joy, fun, contemplation, and connection. We do this by creating our “rituals of connection” with each other. This helps to build trust and friendship between marital partners. Examples of rituals include how a couple parts in the morning and reunite at the end of the day as well as how they typically spend birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays together with one another. These rituals of connection help the couple anchor themselves in the good times when bad times roll around.
My Problems with the Gottman Method
“We’ve done research on the Gottman Method and find it intriguing and liked what you wrote on your website about your approach.” – Client Review
One of the main reservations that I have about Gottman Method Couples Therapy is that it is built upon correlational-based evidence (instead of cause-and-effect). In short, correlation does not imply causation.
For example, the number of ice cream cones sold in the U.S. is directly related to the amount of home burglaries. If more ice cream cones are sold in a given month, you can generally assume that the number of home thefts will also increase (correlational). However, this does not imply that the sale of ice cream causes home robberies (cause-and-effect). Why then is there a correlation? The answer is that there is a shared variable between these two events. During the summer, more ice cream is sold. Also, during the hot summer months, more people leave their windows and doors open, and as a result, more people can easily gain unauthorized access to one’s home.
This means that we need to be very clear on differentiating between the factors we tend to see in poor communication versus what are good predictors of successful marriages. The Gottman Method is a solid and well-founded theoretical framework that I have found to produce reliable and consistent results; we just must proceed carefully before drawing solid conclusions of any cause-and-effect nature.
The Gottman Method is also a Brand
Gottman Method Couples Therapy is not only a viable, solid therapeutic approach towards relationship recovery; it is also a brand. Most marital partners recognize the name and actively seek it out for counseling. The problem occurs when the research is not consistent. For example, assume that additional research finds that part of the Gottman approach is inaccurate. What will the Gottman folks do? Will they officially recall all training materials and refund all financial revenue? Will they rebrand the new method “Gottman Version 2.0”? This is doubtful, and to be fair, somewhat unrealistic to expect.
Whether we like it or not, the findings of Gottman’s research are in demand, actionable and mainstream. Knowing this while practicing the techniques involved is what keeps us honest and helps maintain a clarity of focus.