Lately I have been studying the work of Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist and researcher who has been studying relationships for over thirty years. He published his findings in the book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, And How You Can Make Yours Last.” Based on his research, Gottman is able to predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, which couples will stay together and which couples are headed for divorce. Dr. Gottman can make such accurate predictions based on his observations of the partners’ interactions, and their physiological responses during their interaction (e.g. heart rate, sweating). While studying thousands of (heterosexual and same-sex) couples for over more than thirty decades, Dr. Gottman has learned some important lessons about what makes relationships successful, and what struggling couples can do to improve their relationship.
Dr. Gottman learned that there are four types of interactions that take place during conflict that can seriously damage the relationship. He called these the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These interactions are:
- Criticism – Blaming and finding fault with your partner as a person, instead of focusing on a particular action you did not like;
- Defensiveness – Not being able to hear what your partner is saying because you feel personally attacked, denying any responsibility for the problem;
- Contempt – Going even beyond blaming, and treating your partner as a person who is not even worthy of basic respect;
- Stonewalling – Shutting your partner out, ignoring your partner, blocking communication.
When you notice that the four horsemen are creeping into your relationship, it means that you are in danger as a couple. The good news is that there are several things you can do to improve your relationship, and banish the four horsemen. From successful couples, Dr. Gottman learned that having conflict in a relationship is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, conflict is a sign of a healthy relationship, and is inevitable when you get two people together. It is how you deal with conflict that makes the biggest difference. Dr. Gottman found that it is crucial to have a ratio of five positive interactions to one negative interaction when in conflict. This means that even when arguing or disagreeing, partners who have a successful relationship are able to relate with each other in a positive way (e.g. asking questions, listening non-defensively, having a sense of humor, showing affection for one another). If you feel like this is not the case in your relationship, there are several things you can do to increase your ratio of positive to negative interactions. One of these things is to build your friendship with your partner in daily life. By showing fondness and admiration to your partner, responding positively to your partner’s bids for your attention and communication, and by sharing activities you can enjoy together you put deposits in the “bank account” of your relationship, that you can then draw on when you are experiencing conflict.
There are many more ways you can build a positive and lasting relationship with your partner, all described in this book, and in Dr. Gottman’s many other books. If your relationship is in serious trouble and you have difficulty making headway in improving your relationship, you can find a couple’s therapist who has received training from the Gottman institute, to help you make the changes in your relationship that research has shown are effective.