Dr. John Gottman – A Smarter Approach to Relationships
A Smarter Approach to Relationships
Jonathan:Hey, everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Listeners, you know we talk about a lot more than just slimness on the show; it’s really all about using science to live better in every sense of the word. When you think about using science to live better, there are some names that immediately come to mind – or let’s say should immediately come to mind. One who I have had personal experience with attending seminars, I also happen to live in the same state he conducts a lot of research in, is a world-renowned professor and researcher by the name of Dr. John Gottman, who is our guest today.
Folks, let me just tell you a little bit about Dr. Gottman because he is basically the Michael Jordan of his respective research arena. His work on marriage and parenting, which have a lot to do with living our best lives, have earned him numerous major awards including four National Institutes of Mental Health Research Scientist awards; the National Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Distinguished Research Scientist Award; The American Family Therapy Academy Award for Most Distinguished Contributor to Family Systems Research; The American Psychological Association Division of Family Psychology; Presidential Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Research Contributions; and last, but certainly not least, The National Council of Family Relations 1994 Burgess Award for Outstanding Career in Theory and Research.
Dr. Gottman was one of the 10 most influential therapists in the past quarter century, and he is an awesome individual as a person. I’ve experienced his work personally; it’s phenomenal. Dr. Gottman, welcome to the show.
John: Thank you, Jonathan. Great to be here.
Jonathan:Dr. Gottman, let’s just start from the very beginning. You have really pioneered an entirely new approach to relationship research. Can you talk about that?
John: I think probably the way we started, Bob Levenson and I, who’s my collaborator, about 38 years ago we were pretty clueless about how to improve our relationships with women. So we built a lab and had couples come into the lab and just talk about how their day went after they had been apart for eight hours, and talk about areas of conflict and things they enjoyed talking about. I built an apartment lab at the University of Washington later to just study 130 newlywed couples.
We were looking for how the masters of relationships were different from the disasters of relationships, and I include myself in the disaster list. Fortunately, Bob and I are both in very good relationships now, in part because we really learned a lot about how the masters go about conducting their relationships. So I think that was basically the contribution, was to observe people and interview people and really discover, and maybe plagiarize, their knowledge of how to make relationships work.
Jonathan:Let’s get into the scope and detail of observations you’ve done over the past couple decades; by doing these observations, you then systematized this and said, These are the characteristics, these are the predictors, these are the things that you should try to do and try to avoid to ensure relationship success; right?
John: Exactly. Just sort of organizing all of the findings and making them available to the general public and to the therapeutic community is really what my wife and I have been trying to do for the past 18 years.
Jonathan:Tell us a bit about how you gather this data in more detail, and the amount of data you’ve gathered, and the types of predictions it allows you to make.
John: Basically, we built a lab that allowed us to coordinate and synchronize physiological data from couples as they talked to one another. So we could look at their heart rates, how fast their blood was flowing, how much they were sweating, how much they moved around, their respiration, and sort of collate the physiology with behavior.
We found that the disasters of relationships really talked about conflict in a very different way. They pointed their finger at their partner and they said, You know, I’ve been watching you and as far as I can tell, I’m pretty much perfect but you’re defective. So they started with criticism, and then that led to defensiveness and contempt, and it really sort of maximized the possibility that conflict would escalate; rather than the way the masters proceeded, which was to point their fingers at themselves and talk about what they felt and what they needed. The masters were very gentle in the way they approached conflict, and very positive.
So just seeing those differences allowed us to predict whether a couple would divorce or stay married, or stay married and be miserable rather than happy, with over 90% accuracy. We were as surprised by that prediction rate as anybody else, and yet it held up across seven different studies and allowed us to develop really a mathematical set of equations that help us understand why the prediction works, and then help us be able to help couples and evaluate the interventions that we’ve generated.
Jonathan:Let me get this straight. You bring people into what I believe you now affectionately call The Love Lab, and in a matter of minutes you can watch them and essentially use this series of algorithms to look at how they are interacting and their physiology and predict in a matter of minutes, with 90%-plus accuracy – and this has been demonstrated across many academic studies – whether or not they will stay together and be happy in a certain number of years?
John: That’s right. It sounds shocking that we can do this, because we think love is kind of chaotic and hard to understand. Yet we can, in about 15 minutes of a couple discussing an area of conflict, we can describe and understand that prediction; and the prediction is valid and very high. For example, taking newlyweds just a couple of months after the wedding, where they’re supposedly very blissful and utter these life-long vows to one another, just the way they talk about an area of continuing disagreement, we can tell whether they’ll wind up six years later being divorced, happy together, or still together and really unhappy and miserable with one another.
Jonathan:There is obviously a tremendous amount of science backing this, but as you said earlier and as I’ve experienced personally, you are unique in the sense that you spend so much time making this science accessible to the lay population, and I appreciate that. That is no better represented than in your book The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work. So now that you have all this data, you’ve distilled it into seven principles. Can we talk a little bit about those principles and how we can apply them to our relationships?
John: Sure, absolutely. Basically what we learned is that conflict has been really misunderstood by most researchers. Most conflicts in relationships never get resolved because of personality differences between partners that last; and they create these perpetual issues that people will have for the next 50 years.
We’ve learned that the way to get people to really understand one another and compromise around these perpetual issues is to take a look at what the issues mean to people, what the dream within the conflict is for each person. Among solvable problems, we also learned in conflict that a very gentle approach where people do softened startup, accept influence, and then move gently toward compromise is the best approach for dealing with conflict.
The other thing we learned is that what makes conflicts work is friendship and intimacy, so that we can really build friendship and intimacy by having people turn toward their partners’ requests for connection rather than turning away. There are just some very simple skills involved in listening and attuning to your partner that build friendship and intimacy and great sex in a relationship.
The other thing we learned is that the third area that really needs to be worked on is the sense of shared meaning and purpose that happens when people really build a life together. They have values, they have a philosophy of life, they have things that are in common like goals and ways of connecting, rituals of connection. We can intentionally and systematically help couples build all three domains, friendship and intimacy, constructive conflict, and a shared meaning system. That’s where the seven principles come from.
Jonathan:Dr. Gottman, I remember in your workshop you were talking through the principles and you told a story. I can’t remember if it was a beaver or an otter, but you told the story of rubbing of cheeks. Is this sounding familiar, or am I mis-remembering the story?
John: The story was a film that I saw at the Kensey Institute when I took a class on sexuality that was how these two particular porcupines made love. The male porcupine has a special problem he has to solve; like other mammals, he can’t just mount the female when he wants to. He has to make sure her quills are down because if she’s scared, if she’s worried and tense, then her quills will be up and he’ll seriously injure his private parts if he tries to mount her in that state.
So this porcupine came around and he sat in front of the female and he gently stroked her face while she closed her eyes. Then after a long time of doing that, he went around to the back of her to see whether her quills were up and they were still up. So he went right around to the front and continued to caress her until she was calm and relaxed and receptive, and then he mounted her. So I thought the male porcupine really displayed a tremendous amount of wisdom and sensitivity in lovemaking that a lot of us guys really need to adopt.
Jonathan:I love that story. This was in your Art and Science of Love Workshop. My takeaway was that it doesn’t have to be necessarily sex, but anytime we want to accomplish or do anything together, the idea of really us taking ownership for making the other person feel understood or feel comfortable, if we don’t take that ownership, if we don’t, like you said, point to ourselves, that’s really all we can do. If we’re pointing to the other person, we can’t change them, we can only change ourselves; right?
John: We’ll get their quills up if we criticize them and point out their mistakes instead of really talking about what we need and what our preferences are and what we want in any relationship encounter. We really need to find out where the other person is at and listen and understand before we demand or ask for what we need.
Jonathan:Dr. Gottman, you’ve been a very, very busy man. You’ve published over 190 academic articles; you’ve authored or co-authored over 40 books, many of which were bestsellers; you have your workshops; you have an entire curriculum. What is next? How is this wealth of research and tool set going to be used in the future?
John: My dream, and I think my wife’s dream, is that eventually all of these new ideas about how to make relationships work will just be a part of the culture. It will be taught in schools, in churches, in health centers, so that everybody kind of knows these things, they’re second nature. People will know how to listen.
What worries us is that now young kids, we know from Shelly Turkle’s research who wrote this book, Alone Together, that young kids prefer to text rather than talk to one another face to face, and they’re minimizing interaction. They’re not learning how to listen and how to be responsive to people. So we would like to turn the tide toward people really being skillful in the way they relate to one another, and emotionally sensitive. We’d like to see emotionally-sensitive schools and churches and hospitals and so on.
Jonathan:Dr. Gottman, that seems so important because obviously you understand the research way more than I do. It seems like across your research and all the positive-psychology research out of the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, those kinds of things, the relationships in your life and the strength of them really are predictors, maybe more so than anything else, of your overall happiness and life satisfaction; is that correct?
John: That’s right. Epidemiologists started realizing this about 30 years ago. They were really surprised when they studied data on mortality. For example, in the Alameda County study, Berkman and Syme discovered that the quality of your friendships and the quality of your love relationships really wind up predicting longevity and predicting health and recovery from illness when you do get sick.
In the functioning of the immune system, T-like lymphocytes’ ability to proliferate when there’s an antigen or a pathogen in the blood; natural killer cells’ ability to be cytotoxic against small tumors; all of that is predicted really strongly by the quality of our relationships. So it’s been a big surprise to a lot of people. It has yet to filter down to the consciousness of the general public, who spend a lot of time and money on exercise, but very little time and money on just listening to our partners and being understanding and compassionate.
Jonathan:It’s amazing that you brought up the example of exercise because I literally have that written down in my notes as what I was just about to say, and the amount of time and effort we put into maintaining our physical fitness, not to say that that is bad…
John: No, it’s great.
Jonathan:Even like we have PE in schools, but there is no concept of how to interact interpersonally; that’s just not talked about, it seems.
John: Right. Our teachers may not be the most sensitive people to teach this to our children. I think the route that is probably the best for kids learning these skills are parents, because parents are around all the time and parents interact with kids all the time. We parents really care about our kids’ emotional life; and so teaching parents these basic concepts of how to have a great relationship can impact the family directly and then impact children as well.
Jonathan:Dr. Gottman, you talked about the rubbing-of-the-cheek example; you talked about the listening and understanding. Similar teaching by Dr. Stephen Covey who talked about seek first to understand, then to be understood, once gave the recommendation – which really stuck with me and I’ve always been curious to ask you your thoughts – is if you’re in a disagreement with another person, until you can articulate their point as well as, if not better than they can, until you literally say, “I believe you’re saying this,” and you repeat it back to them, until they say, “Yes, that is what I’m saying,” anything you say is basically not going to be heard.
John: That’s exactly right. This is really the principle of a really great social scientist name Anatol Rapoport, who said a very simple principle of dealing with people is postpone persuasion and problem-solving until each person can state the other person’s position to their satisfaction. It’s a simple idea, but it’s so intelligent. Until you listen and take in the position of the other person, they’re not going to hear you. I think you said it very well, Jonathan.
Jonathan:Listeners, I really want to drill that home because one, it’s very hard. It’s very hard to actually do it, but if you can do it, it’s one of the closest things to a magic pill I’ve ever experienced. Because you’re in this debate with someone and then if you can just pop up and say, “What I hear you saying is blah,” and if you get it right — and if you don’t get it right, you refine it. It’s almost like someone infuses air into the room, or like you were drowning and all of a sudden it’s like you pop up from the water because they’re like, “Oh, you are listening.” Is it then like a cognitive dissonance where they’re like, “Well, if he’s listening then I have to listen, too.” What makes them then want to listen to you, Dr. Gottman?
John: I think it needs to be an agreement that both people reach together. It can’t be one-sided. It can’t be one person listening to the other and giving in and accepting influence. Both people have to agree to do that with one another or it doesn’t work. That’s why in intimate relationships, you have to really be able to talk to one another about how to talk to one another, have the ground rules first. If both people are going to agree to listen and understand and accept influence, then conflict becomes really a source of growth, a source of understanding and compassion, and brings us closer to one another.
Conflict is inevitable. When you have two different minds communicating with one another, it’s just inevitable that you won’t see things the same way. Having this underlying principle of being able to state the other person’s position to their satisfaction before you begin problem-solving and persuasion is just brilliant. It works very well.
Jonathan:You mentioned earlier children texting, things like that. And we all talked about how relationships in your life in many ways determine the quality of your life. So let’s say I have 10,000 Facebook friends and no actual friends. Is that better or worse than having one really close actual friend? I only mean this half-sarcastically. What is the quantity-versus-quality dynamic and digital-versus-physical dynamic when it comes to how much relationships benefit us?
John: I don’t want to take an extreme position on this because I see my daughter, she doesn’t have a lot of Facebook friends, but she has this little community that’s much bigger than my community. It really seems to serve as a support network, but it doesn’t take the place of really close friends. So she has really intimate, close friends who she can count on. She can stay at their place if she’s unhappy or visiting; they keep up with one another; they Skype with one another if they’re far apart; and they visit one another.
So I think you need both. I think you need a support network, sort of like a safety net, of people who really are in your corner and care about you; but you also need very close friends, very intimate friends, very special friends, and you have to maintain those friendships as well.
Jonathan:John, when is it time to cut bait? We try to do these things, and when do we know it’s just, “This isn’t going to work,” or does that ever exist? Do we always have the power to make it work?
John: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s a very important question to take seriously. We need to know when a relationship really is not in our best interests. We need to leave those relationships, because some of them are just not workable. My wife is much more optimistic about relationships than I am. I think that just having your partner always start a conversation negatively and in a hostile way is a very good index that the relationship is doomed. We can predict just with startup, how people start the conversation about a disagreement, that’s going to predict things.
I would say if you’ve got a lot invested in a relationship, a lot of time and emotional energy, and you love this person, it’s really important to go to a couples therapist and see if you can work it out. A very good friend of mine has a deal with his wife that every year they’re together earns them one month of couples therapy before they break up.
So I think it’s worth trying. I think my sort of absolute rule about when to cut bait is when fondness and admiration has turned to hostility and contempt. When that system of really feeling respect from your partner is gone and it’s been replaced, respect has been replaced by contempt and insult and degradation and humiliation, I think that’s the acid test; that’s the time to leave.
Jonathan:I believe you have work, John, where you found that marriage or a life partnership, this is a different relationship than your in-laws, which is a different relationship than the grocery store checkout person; and the amount of positive- versus negative-interaction ratios that need to exist based on how close you are to a person, I find this to be amazing. Can we close on that subject?
John: Absolutely. These are findings that just leapt from the page of data analysis, not anything that I thought of at all. Other people have found similar things, that you can’t have an equal amount of positive and negative interaction and have the relationship work. You need at least five times more positive emotions than negative emotions, even during conflict, to make that relationship work. It has to be a very rich climate of understanding, of kindness, of politeness, of compassion, of empathy, of fun and play and adventure, all those positive things that we want out of life in interacting with people in order for it to work. A lot of people hang in relationships when there’s just as much negativity as positivity, and that’s a very bad idea.
Jonathan:When you say positive versus negative, these can even be small. When we say a positive interaction, that’s as little as an affectionate touch, isn’t it? I mean, we’re talking small but positive things?
John: Right, just interest, having a partner who’s interested in us. You know those couples we see in restaurants who aren’t talking to each other throughout the dinner; they don’t even express interest in one another, let alone excitement or joy or pleasure or affection or shared humor. There’s nothing there. Yet they stay together, sort of like birds on a wire. They’re caught in this web where there’s nothing positive going on in the relationship. That’s a big mistake, because that’s not going to help our health.
Jonathan:John, to close, what is next for you as an individual? What is your next goal? What is your next project?
John: The next project I have is really to end domestic violence everywhere on the planet. We now have an intervention that we’ve done a randomized clinical trial on. We can really eliminate situational domestic violence, which is about 80% of all domestic violence. There is so much aggression toward women throughout the planet that is sanctioned and condoned, either directly or indirectly. I would like to work to put an end to domestic violence.
Jonathan:Friends, certainly you can see why I admire and respect Dr. Gottman so much and wanted to bring him on the show. Let’s all show our support for his transformational research and work, and we can do so by visiting Gottman.com. That’s G-O-T-T-M-A-N.com. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Gottman’s book, Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. He has many others. If you are in the Washington area, I have attended personally his Art and Science of Love workshop, very much enjoyed it, found it to be very helpful. So a personal thank you to Dr. Gottman. Thank you so much, Dr. Gottman.
John: Thank you, Jonathon, for having me on.
Jonathan:I appreciate your work.
Jonathan:My pleasure. Listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did. Please remember, this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, be nice and listen to each other based on our conversation with Dr. Gottman today, and live better. Chat with you soon.