Dr. John Gottman is one of the most rigorous and far reaching researchers in the field of marriage counseling. He has reviewed virtually all the formally existing research in the area of marriage counseling, done extensive scientifically based research to determine the validity of those findings and has developed procedures based on his findings. Dr. Gottman uses both self-reporting measures (the subjects rating themselves) and objective measures (review of video tapes and biofeedback equipment). His work spans a 25-year period and includes hundreds of couples. Dr. Gottman is the founder and director of the professionally acclaimed research facility The Seattle Marital and Family Institute. He is also a professor at the Washington University, a superb researcher and excellent teacher.
Dr. Gottman’s three most prominent books are:
Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
The Relationship Cure: A Five Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage,
Family and Friendships
Please note that the material presented here is intended to give you an introduction to his work and is not a substitute for reading it. Dr. Gottman has a number of quizzes, checklists and exercises in his books. These tools help readers get a better understanding of where they are in their marriage.
Dr. Gottman’s books guide couples toward positive and long-lasting relationships. They are written in an easy to read, straightforward style and yet are based on sound research principles. Below are 11 of his basic principles that can help couples work toward achieving successful relationships:
- Couples engage in negative behaviors that Dr. Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” He defines these as: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail he details how relationships manifest these dynamics and offers questionnaires to help couples determine whether or not they are “guilty” of such negative interactions.
- Couples should pay attention to their small day-to-day exchanges. These interactions are the basis of strong positive relationships. Being thoughtful about ordinary matters is essential.
- Couples need to do thoughtful things for each other that are out of the ordinary routine and give each other positive feedback. These actions will act as deposits into the marriage’s “emotional bank account.” Having the emotional bank account full is a good start when setting the stage for resolving conflicts. Those deposits also go a long way toward having rich relationships, even when there are issues that cannot be resolved and the couple has to accept that each has a different point of view.
- For a relationship to succeed there must be: respect, acceptance, friendship and knowing when to stop an argument (not letting it get overheated).
- Partners need to think before they speak.
- Both partners need to feel they have influence over the other, but be careful not to confuse this with control. Each partner must feel that the other has seriously considered his/her opinions and responses.
- There has to be a low tolerance for negative behavior. What Dr. Gottman means is, that in order for a relationship to be successful there must be 5 times as many positive statements as negative statements. Unless that ratio is present partners will not feel safe and accepted.
- Being different and having diverse opinions is acceptable. People can agree to disagree, but it is how they deal with their differences that is key.
- People must take real responsibility for their actions and for being wrong and not just give lip service.
- Individuals must show a willingness to change behavior.
- Valuable attributes in a relationship are: kindness, a sense of humor and understanding your partner.
Dr. Gottman has created what he calls “Love Maps.” Understanding your partner’s Love Map means understanding your partner and being able to complete sentences such as :
- My partner’s major life dreams are. . .
- My partner’s 3 favorite movies are . . .
- I think my partner would say my major life dreams are. . .
Another dimension of the Love Maps is his use of a rating scale. An example of his rating scale is “Rate the following on a scale of 1(not true) to 5(very true):
- My partner is aware of what I like most about him/her.
- I have complimented my partner in the past week.
- My partner has complimented me in the past week.
Dr. Gottman believes that within 5 minutes he can predict with 92% accuracy, which couples will and will not stay together. However, even though he can predict this with great certainty, he doesn’t say he can help all the marriages. He also disagrees with many of the myths about divorce, such as the belief that affairs are at the root of most divorces. His research has uncovered some surprising facts about couples that stay together. He has found that in some strong marriages, there are screaming matches between the partners and that not every problem is resolved. Dr. Gottman gives the example of Allan and Betty. “When Allan gets annoyed at Betty, he turns on ESPN. When Betty is upset with him, she heads for the mall. They each regroup and later when together again, go on as if nothing has happened. Never in forty-five years of marriage have they sat down to have a ‘dialogue’ about their relationship.” While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, Gottman found that they pass the love-lab tests and can honestly say that “they are both very satisfied with their relationship and they love each other deeply.”
Where Gottman Leaves Off
Dr. Gottman’s technique starts with the idea that it is important to create a relationship that is positive enough to overshadow the negative factors between the couple. He focuses on teaching a couple how to relate to each other, rather than on how to resolve specific problems. Dr. G shows couples how to spot problems and deal with conflict as they show up in relationships. One difficulty that may arise with this approach however, is that not all couples are in the best emotional position to accept his approach. There may be times when couples are so angry at each other that they don’t have the emotional wherewithal to work on the friendship. Another situation that Gottman’s approach does not explore occurs when one or both of the partners are very involved with themselves and have limited ability for empathy, insight, or personal responsibility.
Dr. Gottman also does not deal with couples that are struggling with issues such as infidelity, substance abuse or addictions (such as sex, internet or gambling). There are however, other therapists who have ventured into that area and they will be discussed later. One of the experts in the area of infidelity is Shirley Glass. Despite the limitations mentioned above, Dr.Gottman’s approach of teaching couples how to more deeply understand each other, deal with conflict when it happens and build an emotional future together is an extremely valuable contribution to helping a relationship work.
To read more about Dr. John Gottman you can go to Gottman.com. If you would like to read other interpretations of Dr. Gottman’s work you can read the article John Gottman Proposes Revolutionary New Form of Couples Therapy – or Does He? by Milton Spett.