When John Gottman talks, I listen.
Actually I’ve never heard him talk, but when he writes, I read.
So when a newly revised edition of his best-selling “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” (Harmony Books) hit my desk this week, I cracked it open immediately.
Gottman is a psychology professor at the University of Washington and the founder/director of The Gottman Institute, a marital research and counseling center in Seattle.
Maybe you’ve read about his theory on “master couples” versus “disaster couples.”
Co-authored with Nan Silver, “Seven Principles,” which has sold a million-plus copies, was first released in 1999 — before Tinder, before Facebook — heck, before some of us even had cellphones.
The updated version (out next week) offers tips for dealing with digital distractions, including Gottman’s suggestion to agree on rules of tech etiquette: How much are you comfortable with your partner sharing on social media? When is texting/posting off-limits (mealtimes, date nights)? Do you create cyber-free zones in your home?
Most compelling of all, though, is Gottman’s “magic six hours” theory, based on interviews with couples who attended marital workshops at The Gottman Institute.
“We wondered what would distinguish those couples whose marriages continued to improve from those whose marriages did not,” Gottman writes. “To our surprise, we discovered that they were devoting only an extra six hours a week to their marriage.”
If your first thought is, “Only? Where am I going to find an extra six hours in my week?” — I hear you.
If that was not your first thought, forget I said anything.
Anyway, back to the winning formula.
Couples who saw their relationships improve devoted extra time each week to six categories.
First up: Partings
“Make sure that before you say goodbye in the morning you’ve learned about one thing that is happening in your spouse’s life that day,” Gottman writes. “From lunch with the boss to a doctor’s appointment to a scheduled phone call with an old friend.”
(Two minutes per day for five days, for a grand total of 10 minutes per week.)
Gottman recommends greeting your partner each day with a hug and kiss that last at least six seconds and ending each workday with stress-reducing conversation that lasts at least 20 minutes. (About 1 hour and 40 minutes per week.)
Third: Admiration and appreciation
Spend five minutes every day finding a new way to communicate genuine appreciation for your spouse, he says. (35 minutes per week.)
“Show each other physical affection when you’re together during the day, and make sure to always embrace before going to sleep,” he writes. (Five minutes per day, seven days a week: 35 minutes.)
Fifth: Weekly date
For two hours once a week, Gottman recommends one-on-one time, during which you ask each other open-ended questions. “Think of questions to ask your spouse, like, ‘Are you still thinking about redecorating the bedroom?’ ‘Where should we take our next vacation?’ or ‘How are you feeling about your boss these days?'” (2 hours per week.)
Sixth: State of the union meeting
Spend one hour a week talking about what went right that week, discussing what went wrong and expressing appreciation for each other. “End by each of you asking and answering, ‘What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?'” he writes. (1 hour per week.)
All of it adds up to six hours per week.
Some of these suggestions sound a tad awkward. “What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?” reminds me a little too much of the last time I bought a car. (“What can I do to earn your business today?”)
But I like to think of marital advice like the food pyramid: You’re not going to adhere to it every day, but it’s an instructive guide to shape your habits around.
Once upon a time, in the Pony Expresso cafe in Seattle, a man and a woman began to experience the long-mysterious but increasingly scientifically investigated thing we call love. The first stage is called “limerence.” This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can’t-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing. The man, a then-44-year-old University of Washington research psychologist named John Gottman, was drawn to the woman’s wild mane of black curly hair and her creativity: She was an amateur musician and painter as well as a psychologist like himself. The woman, a then-35-year-old named Julie Schwartz, who’d placed a personal ad in the Seattle Weekly that John had answered, was turned on by John’s humble little car—voted the ugliest vehicle in the University of Washington faculty parking lot—and his expansive curiosity. He read physics and math and history and kept a little spiral-bound notebook in his pocket that he used to jot down things his companions said that captivated him.
We’d come to see the Gottmans because the pair has spent the last 20 years refining a science-based method to build a beautiful love partnership yourself. They reveal it over a two-day, $750-per-pair workshop called “The Art and Science of Love.” “It turns out Tolstoy was wrong,” John told the crowd in an opening lecture. “All happy relationships are similar and all unhappy relationships are also similar. … Is there a secret? It turns out, empirically, yes, there is a secret.”
Over decades, John has observed more than 3,000 couples longitudinally, discovering patterns of argument and subtle behaviors that can predict whether a couple would be happily partnered years later or unhappy or divorced. He has won awards from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Council of Family Relations and has become the subject of increasing public fascination. He went on Oprah and the “Today” show. A book he co-authored that summarizes his findings, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is a New York Times best-seller.
His work took off because the consistency of his predictions is astonishing. One 1992 experiment found that certain indicators in how couples talked about their relationship could forecast–with 94 percent accuracy–which pairs would stay together. This was magic–a virtually foolproof way of distinguishing toxic partnerships from healthy ones even before the couples knew themselves–but it was also science, so it appealed to our contemporary desire to use empirical data to better our lives. Walk by any newsstand, or trawl the Internet for three minutes, and you’ll find data-driven methods to improve everything we do. “Is This the Ultimate Healthy Meal?” “The Best Workout Ever, According to Science.”
You might expect love to be the last frontier breached by data. It is the Antarctic of the human experience, richly feeding the oceans of our emotions, yet somehow remaining elusive and unknown. Philosophers have argued over it for millennia without arriving at a satisfactory definition. Poets like Erich Fried capture its strange mix of pleasure and pain, the sense of its essential ungovernability: “It is foolish, says caution / It is impossible, says experience / It is what it is, says love.”
I first encountered Gottman’s research last year in an Atlantic article called “Masters of Love.” It went viral; my own friends posted it on Facebook saying, “This is what it comes down to.” Finally, love had been harnessed in the laboratory, seen, understood and broken into building blocks we could all apply to our lives.
The article proposes a recipe for becoming a love “master” instead of a love “disaster” by responding the right way to what Gottman calls your partner’s “bids for connection.” A “bid” is when your lover points out your kitchen window and marvels, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” You could go “Wow!” and get binoculars (an active “turn-towards”); mumble “Huh,” and keep reading your newspaper (a passive reaction, less good); or say, “I’m sick of your fucking birds. What about the broken garage door?” Gottman found that masters turn towards their partners’ bids 87 percent of the time. Love, he concluded, comes down to “a habit of mind.”
And habits of mind take work to instill. Everyone at the workshop was given a kit in a box with a handle. Inside were decks of cards proposing questions to help us learn about our partners (“how are you feeling now about being a mother?”) or offering ways to connect erotically (“when you return home tonight, greet each other with a kiss that lasts at least six seconds”). A manual provided us with a vocabulary to demystify and contain some of the scary things that go on in love: fights are “regrettable incidents,” the things that make us feel good together are our “rituals of connection,” the dark inner chasms that regrettable incidents seem to reveal are our “enduring vulnerabilities.”
One of the Gottmans’ employees, Kendra Han, estimated that a quarter of the couples in attendance were the kind of ickily self-aware duos who try this kind of thing for “fun and enrichment” while the majority were in some state of “relational distress.” The prevailing mood was a mix of hope and fragility. “This is already not going well,” I overheard one woman say, laughing a little. “My husband’s late.”
As I watched the Gottmans from my own seat two rows from the stage, I felt anxious, too. I had come with my own love problem to solve.
Some traditional Arab cultures believed that when you fall in love, your lover steals your liver. The ancient Chinese told their children that love could take out your heart. Romantic love, in older human cultures, was often something dark. It involved physical dissolution, the sense of falling apart. It made us act irrationally and tore a hole into the neatly woven fabric of our lives, beckoning us to step through it into a land of terrors. “You get lots of stories of getting tricked,” William Jankowiak, an anthropologist who has extensively studied love in folktales, told me.
Simon May, a British philosopher who has studied the development of beliefs about love over two millennia of Western culture, suggests that we’ve placed vastly more importance on finding love since the retreat of Christianity and the rise of relativism. “Human love,” he writes in his magisterial Love: A History, “is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.” The grounding we used to find in devotion to ideals like nationalism or communism, or in our faith in an ever-caring Shepherd, we now seek from individual, fickle human beings.
After I read May’s theory that love “is now the West’s undeclared religion,” I began to see evidence of it everywhere. “When you get down to it … [love is] the only purpose grand enough for a human life,” writes Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees. At funerals, we praise the way the deceased person loved as the ultimate sign that his life had meaning. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his Supreme Court opinion legalizing gay marriage nationally, identified marriage as the ultimate wellspring of all the other essential human joys, from “expression” to “spirituality,” while Sheryl Sandberg counsels young women that their choice of a mate is the most important decision of their lives. According to May, we no longer view love as “the rarest of exceptions,” as older cultures did, “but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it.”
These expectations are crazy-making, and it’s no wonder scientists have jumped in to try to save us. In the 1930s, sociologists began to generate charts to try to predict what kinds of love marriages would last a lifetime. You could take your own personality traits—loves sewing circles?—and plot them against your beau’s to forecast the happiness and stability of your match.
Starting the ’70s, with divorce on the rise, social psychologists got into the mix. Recognizing the apparently opaque character of marital happiness but optimistic about science’s capacity to investigate it, they pioneered a huge array of inventive techniques to study what things seemed to make marriages succeed or fail. They had partners write down everything they hated or loved about each other and then studied how close the pair subsequently sat together on a couch. They even generated fights, instructing couples to argue over how to pack the car for a vacation while each partner twiddled dials under the laboratory table assessing their mate’s helpfulness. One study showed that couples who did novel things together fared better; another revealed that intense emotions, once believed to be a sign of immaturity in love, could be worked with to create very deep intimacy. Given how central our love partner had become to our well-being—research had begun to show a good marriage was more predictive of long-term health than eating right or not smoking—Sue Johnson of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute told me she felt like she was “in the most exciting revolution that’s happened in the 20th century for human beings.”
“Imagine proving all those poets and philosophers from way back wrong!” she said. “Finally, we can make sense of love and actually shape it with deliberation.”
“Oh, yeah,” John deferred. “I forgot about that.”
Seeing the Gottmans’ marital interaction up close is almost alarming at first. Most couples tone down the perpetual spats, adjustments, sideways glances and hopeful asides that constitute one-on-one intimacy when they’re in public. The Gottmans don’t. Sitting across from them at a conference table, you feel as though you’ve come upon them tucked into bed, working it out with each other. They exchange constant meaningful looks. They interrupt each other, or Julie mostly interrupts John, correcting his behavior and memory. John accepts it. They use couples-therapy language. (“Boundaries!” Julie reminds John, when he starts speaking about his ex-wife.) They openly refer to deep wounds in their relationship. They also snuggle. John puts his arm around Julie, she arches into him and they wrinkle their noses at each other. In my presence, Julie wept twice, once recounting a time John had made her feel like a bad mother and once when John said she had been “the answer to my prayers.”
They started their parenting support group in 1989–just 10 couples, once a week, talking about the ups and downs of having children at the Seattle Jewish Community Center. John approached it like a lab. “He was all about observing and learning,” Julie said. “And I would jump in and talk about their emotions, looking for ways to try to help these parents. We’d have these great discussions afterwards and laugh about it. ‘Why are you trying to help these people?’ John would say. And I’d say, ‘Honey, why are you not trying to help?'”
When John got his start researching couples in the mid-1970s, he was the one who needed help. He’d grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey a diminutive nerd with few friends. As an adult, his love life felt perpetually unstable and unhappy. He found it hard to be satisfied with the woman he was with. In one two-year relationship, he and a girlfriend argued so much he ended up with stress-induced pneumonia.
Psychology, which he studied at the University of Wisconsin, gave him a way to use his problem-solving mind to attack the question of his own loneliness. Like a science-fiction android who pins electrodes on his human subjects to try to figure out where their emotions come from, John set about creating experiments that were as broad as possible: What does a good relationship look like? What does it feel like to be in it?
His career took off when he met a psychologist named Robert Levenson. Each man turned out to be exactly what the other had needed. Levenson was investigating the remarkable variance in how different people react to stress by testing their heart rates and sweat-gland activity after receiving a jolt. By teaming up with John, he says he finally felt as if he was working on something more “personally relevant and emotionally rich” than administering electric shocks. Meanwhile, by joining with Levenson, John thought he might uncover a way to measure marital happiness that was more “real” than people’s self-reporting on surveys.
Their collaboration led John to create an actual mock apartment where couples could do “ordinary” things like cook and watch TV together. “It was just like being at a bed and breakfast,” he said, “except you were hooked up to electrodes … and there were surveillance cameras hanging from the ceiling.” Then, he harnessed the emerging power of computers to analyze a vast amount of data from the interactions. Professionals trained in interpreting facial expressions evaluated hours of video, rating the couples for emotions like delight, disgust and fear; assistants coded questionnaires the partners filled out about their relationship history for positive and negative feelings; and machines took constant measures of the couples’ heart rates and vascular tone while they flirted and fought.
Years afterwards, the psychologists followed up to see which couples were happy and which had split up. They plugged that information into a computer, along with all the data they’d previously gathered, and asked the machine to create equations that associated certain behaviors and physiology with long-term happiness. What emerged were fascinating and often surprising observations on lasting love. They found that couples that stay happy used a lot of “we,” whereas couples that turned out unhappy used “I,” “me” and “mine.” They also discovered that when partners with a good long-term outlook argued, they somehow managed to maintain a ratio of five positive comments to one negative one. “At the time, everybody was enamored with this idea that romantic relationships were full of fireworks,” Levenson remembered. “Well, that was not the finding. It is the capacity of couples to calm down, to soothe, to sort of reduce the level of arousal for each other, that is the most important factor in predicting whether the marriage will last.”
In the beginning, the two men’s techniques were viewed as dangerously iconoclastic. “When Bob and I were assistant professors getting evaluated for tenure our committee said, ‘Look, you guys are crazy. We can’t predict one person’s behavior. How are we going to predict two people’s behavior? You’ll never find anything. You’ll never get a grant,’” John recalled. But as the astoundingly robust predictions started rolling in, all that changed. John got elected to chair the family psychology research unit of the American Psychological Association. The New York Times profiled his findings. Where John had once felt hopelessly bewildered by love, he began to feel as if he could eavesdrop on a couple sitting across from him in a restaurant and get a pretty good sense of their chances of divorce.
“John had these brilliant insights,” Julie told me, “but nothing was being done with them.”
Canoeing together on the Salish Sea outside Seattle, Julie remembers saying to John, “Why don’t we try to help couples with what you know?” They spent the next year creating a master theory of good relationships based on John’s research. He sat in his red chair, she sat on an ottoman. “We argued a lot,” John remembered.
“Oh, God, we argued a lot,” Julie said.
In the beginning, John was hesitant to embrace some of the ideas about love that Julie had picked up from her decades of practice as a therapist. “I thought, if there wasn’t solid evidence, we wouldn’t put it into the theory,” he recalled. Always formula-driven, he imagined the Gottman Method would comprise a rigid set of 14 well-structured sessions. Julie wanted a looser set of guidelines. “I was tearing my hair out because I had worked with people for 20, 25 years, and I knew that there’s huge variation in how people react to therapy,” she said. She threw John a teasing smile. “He had to learn how to respect my knowledge. Finally.”
They imagined that a happy relationship was built consecutively in seven layers. The foundation was a strong friendship, based on John’s laboratory findings that couples who spoke more fluidly and in more detail about each other and their pasts were more likely to stay together. Then came sharing admiration, “turning towards” each others’ bids and developing positive feelings about the coupling. Once that had all clicked into place, a pair could proceed through learning to manage their fights with, among other techniques, a process they dubbed “dreams within conflict,” whereby people try to see the positive dream inside what looks like a partner’s negative position. At the top–the pinnacle of a great relationship–came helping each others’ dreams come true and building a shared sense of purpose, like volunteering or traveling the world.
The “dreams with conflict” technique was inspired by the Gottmans’ own marital strife. One fight involved Julie’s wish, for her 50th birthday, to climb above Mount Everest’s base camp with 10 female friends. “John gets altitude sick on a ladder,” Julie said. He didn’t want her to go. In bed at night, he’d pepper her with questions: “What if you get caught in a blizzard? What if you fall in a glacier? What if you get altitude sick?”
“What if you get hit by a bus?” she’d reply.
Julie invited a sherpa to their house to give a presentation on the trip. The sherpa stood in the living room, 6 feet tall, dark and sexy, and showed slides of fabulous rope bridges snaking over river chasms as her friends ooh-ed and aah-ed. Afterwards, Julie asked John what he thought of the evening. “I don’t trust that sherpa. I think he just wants to have sex with you 10 women,” John recalled saying. “I was right about that, by the way.” But he came to realize what seemed like Julie’s peculiar urge to “sleep on rocks where there’s no air” stemmed from her yearning for far-flung adventure born from her difficult childhood.
They also fought over whether to buy a second home. It was a priority for Julie to return to living in the forest, her childhood safe space. John initially refused. Over many “dreams within conflict” discussions, they discovered that John’s intransigence came from his own upbringing. His father, a rabbi, fled Vienna shortly before World War Two with “only some sugar and a lemon.” He counseled his son about the power of feeling free of possessions, including real estate, saying, “The only possessions you can count on are the ones inside your mind.”
Finally, after a year of bickering and breakthroughs, the Gottmans felt as if they’d perfected their method, and they took on a partner to help them turn it into a business. At first, they recruited participants to their workshops by posting fliers and placing pamphlets in therapists’ waiting rooms. But within a few years, such aggressive flogging wasn’t needed anymore. Crowds flocked to the workshops and, later, to the Gottmans’ online store, which offers products like a board game that takes you and your partner, represented by little plastic pieces, on a journey across painted cardboard through the steps to building a fulfilling relationship.
“There’s so much more of a burden placed on marriage now to be your social support system,” Julie reflected. “People turned out to be starving for this knowledge.”
And yet as fervently as I hoped one of these recipes would make my confused love life resolve itself, deep down I wasn’t sure love could or should be built out of a manual, like something you assemble from IKEA. We live in an age that generally denies the possibility of the unpredictable. My and all my friends’ unspoken goal is to live flawlessly plotted lives based on perfect self-knowledge. We have to-do lists and bucket lists and two-year, five-year and 20-year plans created with the help of therapists. One of my friends has jiggered his iPhone to blink him reminders of his “core values” all day long, so he won’t even briefly swerve astray.
For me, though, love has been the thing that has broken me out of this dreary quest for perfection. We can only consciously construct what we can already imagine, which is very little. When I was 19 and living in Belgium, I happened to fall in love with a completely inappropriate man, a 33-year-old German pastor who wore white cigarette jeans like a ’70s sitcom hustler and had spent his twenties bicycling around Europe. I never could have dreamed him up with the help of a therapist. That’s what made loving him so life-altering. He was wild, irreverent, given to reading the Song of Solomon in bed and playing hooky from his internship at a theological seminary to take the train to a town he’d never heard of–in other words, nothing like the driven, well-scheduled East Coasters I’d grown up with. And he touched those dormant qualities in myself. At the time, I wrote in a journal that being loved by him felt as if I’d been living in only three cramped rooms of the mansion that was my spirit, and then he came in with a big flashlight and led me by the hand through a warren of never-seen halls, laughing and tearing the sheets off the furniture while I trailed behind him, mouth agape.
Of course, his alluring differences also bashed painfully up against my longing for a partner with whom I felt comfortable all the time. He was too old, he was too odd, he smoked too much; I agonized over the thought of introducing him to my parents. I felt at the time that forcing our relationship to “work” according to some norm would shatter it; it only worked insofar as it was broken, a queer, misshapen thing that just happened to rest beautifully atop the equally queer, misshapen circumstances that constituted our lives at 19 and 33.
Likewise, surfing the web for the solution that would bring my more recent relationship to heel, I feared we couldn’t make it conform to an ideal template. A recent Quartz article insists that when choosing a life partner, we have to search for the right “eating companion for about 20,000 meals,” “travel companion for about 100 vacations,” “parenting partner” and “career therapist”–all while admitting that contemplating such a project “is like thinking about how huge the universe really is or how terrifying death really is.” The author assures you, though, that using a spreadsheet will help you feel as if it’s “fully in your control.” I guess this is supposed to be empowering; I suspect it actually puts relationships under a kind of pressure beneath which many would crumble. My boyfriend and I came from very different countries, from different kinds of families. That we managed to love each other at all was already a miracle.
When we imagine that every human life and every complex love can be molded to fit a scientifically derived ideal, we cover our eyes to the realities of circumstance–and shame people who can’t manage to twist their circumstances to that ideal. Simon May, the philosopher who writes on love, told me that he’s known people who were accused of basic psychological failings when they couldn’t make their relationships work out. “But we have to take into account all the literature on unhappy love,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just people getting it wrong or not trying hard enough.” He called love an “earthy emotion” that often provokes restless feelings like tension and guilt, and suggested the assumption that every love affair can be managed denies the full humanity of our partners, their own “inscrutable and uncontrollable” natures. They aren’t things we can program for maximum impact like a FitBit.
As I dug a little deeper into the work behind the love articles, I found that some of the people responsible for the science felt it held fewer definitive answers than we want to believe. One of them was Arthur Aron, the Stony Brook research psychologist whose work the Times glossed in “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” He was working at his second home in California when I called him. He laughed when I mentioned the Times story. He’d designed the 36 questions, he said, to artificially “create closeness” in a laboratory setting between same-sex heterosexual strangers, not lovers. One of his grad students had also tried the method on some heterosexual opposite-sex pairs, and one pair had, funny enough, fallen in love, but the lab hadn’t followed up with the others.
Aron has studied love in many other experiments, and he’s been struck by how contextual factors influence relationships. “Unfortunately the single biggest [factor], if you look across the world, is stress,” he said. “If you’re very poor, if you’re in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it’s hard for any relationship to work out very well. That’s not one we can do much about as individuals.”
Aron also pointed out that a lot of the science on happy love was based on averages, creating a norm away from which couples can stray very, very far and still be happy. Take a recent study claiming the ideal age to marry is between 25 and 34. The study reflects the center hump of a scattered group of dots representing pairs older and younger that all work in their own way. And the reporting on it outrageously inverts causation. The study’s authors mused that people who married younger might have been less settled, and those who waited until later might have been be more “congenitally cantankerous,” upping their divorce rates. That doesn’t mean arbitrarily marrying in your late twenties would do anything whatsoever to improve your chances. And yet, I still read a story on Vox headlined, “Want to Avoid Divorce? Here’s the Best Age to Get Married.”
John Gottman designed his experiments to allow numerous variables to emerge, creating a much richer formula. But his findings were limited by the pool from which he drew his test subjects, communities in Illinois, Washington, Indiana and the San Francisco Bay Area with their own local habits. “There’s this sort of big mystery at the heart of things,” another psychologist told me.
That psychologist was Robert Levenson–the same man with whom John had pioneered his work. I reached him on the phone at Berkeley, where he now teaches. He and John are still close, and Levenson praised John’s “fierce interest” in what makes marriages last. “It’s not surprising that at the end of the day, after our research, he spent a significant part of his life working on interventions,” Levenson reflected.
But he wasn’t so sure the actions he and John had observed happy couples performing could be turned into a do-it-at-home blueprint. “We actually don’t know what got the happy couples to that point,” he said. What makes two human beings want to turn towards each others’ bids 87 percent of the time, give a shit about the fragile dreams hiding behind each others’ most intransigent and frustrating opinions and have that magical effect on each other like a powerful chemical tranquilizer in the first place? This, he said, still “requires scientific study.”
Kendra Han, the workshop employee, admitted she doesn’t follow up after couples leave the conference to see whether the method made them happier. Two studies conducted by the Gottmans show that the method really can move people along a happiness spectrum: A 2000 intervention given to already-healthy couples expecting a child revealed that it helped them weather the difficulties of becoming parents, and a 2013 Journal of Family Therapy study of 80 couples showed that most maintained gains in marital satisfaction a year after “The Art and Science of Love” workshop.
This is less definitive than the promise to transform disasters into masters, though, and the method wasn’t directly compared to other therapies. Robert Levenson told me couples-therapy purveyors can be reluctant to do comparative studies, and gave a hypothetical example of why based on the finding that happy couples use “we” a lot.
“What if I have the Levenson ‘We’ Therapy, where people come to my ‘We’ training and learn how to use ‘We’?” he asked me. “Then I do a study and compare it with the Gottman approach and it turns out the Gottman approach does much better. But what about my ‘We’ building and my ‘We’ weekends and my ‘We Retreat’ at Club Med?”
In their lectures, the Gottmans performed the same quirky, vulnerable marital dynamic that I observed in my interview. In one memorable hour, they role-played a past “regrettable incident,” first handling it in a bad way, then in a good way. As we all watched, John harshly criticized Julie for being too worried about their daughter’s health. Julie slumped over the podium and actually cried. Then he started over with empathy, gently teasing out the issue from her personal history–the polio she contracted as a child due to her parents’ neglect. As we saw the change on Julie’s face, we all drew a breath. Suddenly, altering the trajectory of those terrible fights, the ones that can feel as though they’re breaking our partnerships apart, seemed possible. We saw it happen.
It’s not hard to find people who vow that the Gottman Method completely transformed their relationships. Last month, I called one of the thousands of couples-therapy practices that use the Gottman Method, BestMarriages in southern British Columbia, and asked for referrals to couples who were willing to talk. Several pairs emailed me, eagerly requesting to be interviewed.
Bonnie, 49, told me that she and her husband Brian, “definitely a disaster couple,” were going to end their union, but a year of biweekly counseling in the Gottman Method “completely turned things around.” Donald, 50, said he’d also given up on his 24-year marriage to Donna. There had been affairs; the two had drifted apart.
But encountering the Gottmans’ lingo—the “enduring vulnerabilities,” the “rituals of connection,” the “turning towards”—suddenly put meaning to the language-less, mysterious eddy of emotions that had been the relationship. It gave them things to do. Donald started sending Donna text messages every afternoon: “How was your day?” When he had a difficult encounter with a testy colleague, Donna shared her admiration for him, telling him how proud she was of him for handling it well. When Donna had a cold and snored, the “old Don,” she said, would have roused her by “huffing and puffing with annoyance.” Instead, he employed the Gottmans’ patented “softened start-up,” waking her gently, expressing concern for her sore throat, and later sending her a note from work thanking her for rolling over to the other side of the bed.
Talking to them by video Skype, I never would have known the two had struggled. They cuddled up to one another in the frame and giggled like smitten high-schoolers as they retold the story of how they met.
“We spotted each other,” Donna grinned, sticking her tongue out at Don.
“She was on a balcony,” Donald said, smiling back. “It was like Romeo and Juliet.”
I also got to watch Julie counsel a couple, Shantel and Paul, using the Gottman Method. The pair comes from a poorer neighborhood in Seattle, and they got free therapy in 2007 in exchange for agreeing to be filmed to help train other Gottman Method counselors. I’d intended to dip in just for a few minutes to get a sense of how Julie worked. But I ended up viewing six hours of the counseling in one afternoon, transfixed. Though Paul and Shantel could hardly have seemed less like me and my partner in their particulars–they had children; a low ebb in their relationship occurred after Paul got shot–so much of the by-turns-playful-and-reproachful dance that they did with each other on Julie’s couch reminded me of my own relationships: the flirty exchanges, the deep concern for each other, the subtle digs at each others’ flaws, the sudden flares of anger as they touched each other on open wounds. Shantel wept as she recounted how Paul criticized her; Paul cried himself as he recalled being abandoned by his godmother and how he fears Shantel’s rejection.
I called Shantel in late July. Like the other couples I spoke to, she reckoned the Gottman Method “kept us married.” Since they’d met as young teens, she and Paul had basically been each other’s only ports in an incredibly stormy world. In his teens, Paul got involved in the drug trade; later, the pair got caught up in the predatory lending crisis and briefly became homeless. Add to that the fact that they had not selected each other to ride out this turmoil on the basis of a problem-solving-compatibility survey but on love, which often, like a trickster determined to upend our tidy plans, draws opposites together and, by reminding us of our emotionally fraught childhood bonds with our parents, brutally reveals just how vulnerable and childlike we really still are. Add to that the fact that our culture teaches us to expect love to “feel right,” to feel like a peaceful resolution rather than an adventure, to feel as calm as faith.
“Every time we got into a huge argument, we thought it must not be ‘meant to be,’” Shantel said. Julie’s techniques gave them a way to navigate the astounding complexity that is a marriage based on love. “One of the biggest things is being able to notice when we are ‘flooded’ and when we are at a place we can’t even engage and giving each other that space,” she told me. “We love telling each other when we’re ‘turning towards’ each other. ‘Hey, I’m making an attempt here to turn towards you. What I did was wrong. It was unfair.’ And the other person is receptive to that because we both have an understanding of what it means.”
In private, the Gottmans are much more nuanced on the impossibility of healing some relationships than they are in public. “Sometimes, really, people’s dreams don’t mesh,” John reflected. “There are all kinds of reasons why therapy can fail.” I got the sense they deeply care about couples in pain—they asked me several times about my own relationship. Their promise that mastering love is possible is, in part, an effort to comfort couples enmeshed in terrifying complexity. “Even if you can give somebody one little nugget of something they can take in, it’s helpful,” Julie said.
I still don’t quite know what’s going to happen with my relationship. But I left the workshop wanting to try the Gottmans’ techniques. They brought to mind a line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. … Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.” The new love science may be just a string in the increasingly huge and windy maze that is contemporary love, no more absolute than all the other ways of thinking about love we’ve invented over 50,000 years—but we need that string.
“It’s mostly Julie,” John said proudly as we tucked our feet into sheepskin slippers. “She’s a frustrated architect.” He stopped in front of a huge oil portrait just off the foyer depicting the two Gottmans together, smiling and leaning into each other. A friend had painted it. “I love this because it really captures our relationship,” he said. He paused for a moment before the painting as if to take it in anew.
Settling into their brown couches, I asked John and Julie if they felt the pain depicted in the millennia of literature on love, the ups and downs and the sense of bewilderment we now try to manage, was somehow necessary, or if better science could increase our skill at love such that we wouldn’t have to go through such torment anymore.
Both fell silent for 20 seconds. “I think the pain has to do with balance, and how difficult it is to balance between attending to your partner’s needs and staying true to who you are,” Julie said.
“I have a different answer,” John said. “I don’t think it’s necessary. When you haven’t been able to build trust, there’s the constant sense that this person isn’t there for you. They’re there for themselves but not for you. But we now know that there are really systematic processes through which people build trust and commitment.” Recently, he’d been working on the mathematics of building trust in relationships based on John Nash’s concept of the cooperative equilibrium, where two players in a game seek the best possible outcome for both of them.
But he also acknowledged that his painful younger relationships were steps on the path to Julie, showing him what he really wanted and how he needed to change. Julie said the same of her first marriage.
If everybody involved had known then what you know now about how to build a good relationship, I asked, could you have made your earlier marriages work?
“No,” Julie said.
“I don’t think so,” John said.
There’s another way to tell the story of how John and Julie fell in love, one that brings to the fore not the scientifically based steps by which they built their coupledom but rather the awesome workings of destiny. I got the sense this story was more important to them than the other one. Revealing it, they curled closer together on the couch, Julie nestling her head into the crook of John’s neck, John massaging her leg.
Two years before she met John, Julie said, she’d had a vision of the man she would spend her life with. Her vision had shown the man from behind. When John got up from the table to pay the bill on their first date at the Pony Expresso, and turned around, she felt a shock so sudden it left her trembling: It was him, the man from her vision. Later, she came to believe fate had brought them together for the higher purpose of helping couples: “I see our predestiny, the sacred holiness, as to do this little tiny bit of healing as tikkun olam”–Jews’ duty to repair the world.
Julie’s scientist brain knows that feelings of intense attraction come down to hormones and pheromones, but, she said, “I don’t know how to put that together with the fact that I had this vision of him.”
Perhaps, someday, a scientifically observable process will allow us to understand exactly what it is, that sense of mysterious destiny we can find in other people, not created but seemingly sent from on high. But is that a world in which we’d actually want to live?
John smiled as he recounted the puzzling sensation he experienced that evening in the Pony Expresso, similar to Julie’s. He’d been unhappy for decades. In the months before that encounter, he said he’d gone on 60 dates, trying to establish a “database” of women to choose from. And then he met Julie and felt unaccountably whole. “I’ve never felt alone since,” he said.
“Oh, sweetie,” Julie murmured. “You’re going to make me cry.”
Survivors of childhood trauma deserve all the peace and security that a loving relationship can provide. But a history of abuse or neglect can make trusting another person feel terrifying. Trying to form an intimate relationship may lead to frightening missteps and confusion.
How can we better understand the impact of trauma, and help survivors find the love, friendship and support they and their partner deserve?
How People Cope With Unresolved Trauma
Whether the trauma was physical, sexual, or emotional, the impact can show up in a host of relationship issues. Survivors often believe deep down that no one can really be trusted, that intimacy is dangerous, and for them, a real loving attachment is an impossible dream. Many tell themselves they are flawed, not good enough and unworthy of love. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.
When early childhood relationships are sources of overwhelming fear, or when absent, insecure or disorganized attachment leaves a person feeling helpless and alone, the mind needs some way to cope. A child may latch onto thoughts like
- Don’t trust, it’s not safe!
- Don’t reach out, don’t be a burden to anyone!
- Don’t dwell on how you feel, just move along!
These ideas may help a person cope when they hurt so badly every day and just need to survive. But they do not help the emerging adult make sense of their inner world or learn how to grow and relate to others. Even if the survivor finds a safe, loving partner later in life, the self-limiting scripts stay with them. They cannot just easily toss them and start over. These life lessons are all they have (so far) to survive the best way they know how.
Noticing Trauma’s Impact On Behavior and Mood
Many times, trauma survivors re-live childhood experiences with an unresponsive or abusive partner (an important topic for another article). This often happens without the ability to see the reasons why they feel compelled to pursue unhealthy relationships. Beneath awareness is a drive to revisit unresolved trauma, and finally make things right. Of course, childhood wounds cannot be repaired this way unless there are two willing partners working on changing those cycles. But if these forces remain unnoticed, survivors can get caught in a cycle of abuse.
Even with a safe partner, a trauma survivor may
- Experience depression
- Develop compulsive behavior, an eating disorder, or substance dependence to try and regulate their emotions
- Have flashbacks or panic attacks
- Feel persistent self-doubt
- Have suicidal thoughts
- Seek or carry out the adverse behavior they experienced as a child
Partners of trauma survivors may want desperately to help. But partners need to “be clear that it is not your problem to fix and you don’t have the power to change another human being,” says Lisa Ferentz, LCSW in a post for partners of trauma survivors. Rather, know that both of you deserve to connect with resources to help you find comfort and healing.
Seeing Trauma’s Impact On Relationships
It is important to recognize unhealed trauma as a dynamic force in an intimate relationship. It can super-charge emotions, escalate issues, and make it seem impossible to communicate effectively. Issues become complicated by:
- Heightened reactions to common relationship issues
- Emotionally fueled disagreements
- Withdrawal or distant, unresponsive behavior
- Aversion to conflict and inability to talk through issues
- Assumptions that the partner is against them when it is not the case
- Lingering doubt about a partner’s love and faithfulness
- Difficulty accepting love, despite repeated reassurance
In a relationship, a history of trauma is not simply one person’s problem to solve. Anything that affects one partner impacts the other and the relationship. With guidance from therapy, partners begin to see how to untangle the issues.
Many people do not even realize that they have had traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed therapy works by helping couples begin to see how they experienced traumatic abuse or neglect, and how it still affects them, and impacts their current relationships. This approach enables the therapist to provide specific insights to help couples separate past issues from present ones. Progress often comes more readily through a combination of individual sessions and work as a couple.
Trauma-informed therapy helps partners give each other the gift of what I and other therapists call psychoeducation – learning to understand each individual’s story, how it impacts their relationship, and how to process thoughts and emotions in healthier ways.
The Importance of Self-Care For Trauma Survivors and Their Partners
Trauma survivors and their partners have different needs for support. How can one respond when the other is grappling with mental health issues? How do you calm things down when overwhelming emotions get triggered?
It takes therapy for couples to find answers that are most healing for them. But some general tips for trauma survivors and their partners that can help are:
- Have a really good support system for each of you and the relationship. Make time for family and friends who are positive about your relationship and respect you and your loved one.
- Find a trauma-informed therapist to guide you as a couple or as individuals in your effort to better understand yourselves and each other.
- Find resources outside of therapy such as support groups or other similar activities
- Take time for psychoeducation. Learn about the nature of trauma, self-care and healing techniques like mindfulness. For example, one helpful model is Stan Taktin’s “couple bubble.” This is a visual aid to help partners see how to become a more secure, well-functioning couple. Surrounding yourself and your partner with an imaginary bubble “means that the couple is aware in public and in private they protect each other at all times. They don’t allow either of them to be the third wheel for very long, at least not without repair. In this way, everybody actually fares much better.” See More Helpful Resources below.
Communication Tips for Partners of Trauma Survivors
Building a healthy bond with a trauma survivor means working a lot on communication. Grappling with relationship issues can heighten fear and may trigger flashbacks for someone with a history of trauma.
Learning how to manage communication helps couples restore calm and provide comfort as their understanding of trauma grows. For example, couples can:
- Use self-observation to recognize when to slow down or step back as feelings escalate
- Practice mindfulness to raise awareness and recognize triggers for each of you
- Develop some phrases to help you stay grounded in the present and re-direct your dialog, such as:
- “I wonder if we can slow this down.
- “It seems like we’re getting triggered. Can we figure out what’s going on with us?”
- “I wonder if we are heading into old territory.”
- “I’m thinking this could be something we should talk about in therapy.”
- “I wonder if we could try and stay grounded in what is going on for us – is that possible?”
Communication can also help a partner comfort a loved one during a flashback. Techniques include:
- Reminding the person that he or she is safe.
- Calling attention to the here and now (referencing the present date, location and other immediate sights and sounds).
- Offering a glass of water, which can help stop a flashback surprisingly well. (It activates the salivary glands, which in turn stimulates the behavior-regulating prefrontal cortex.)
Healing childhood wounds takes careful, hard work. But it is possible to replace old rules bit by bit. Finding a therapist who can recognize and acknowledge the hurt, which the survivor has carried alone for so long, is key to repairing deep wounds.
Partners may decide to work individually with their own trauma-informed therapist, while working with another as a couple, to provide the resources they need. When a survivor of early trauma can finally find comforting connection with a therapist, and then with their partner, the relationship between the couple can begin to support deep healing as well.
The more we understand about the impact of trauma, the more we can help those touched by it to go beyond surviving, and find the healing security of healthier loving relationships.
More Helpful Resources
Articles and Websites
“Helping a Partner Who Engages in Self-Destructive Behaviors” by Lisa Ferentz, LCSW
“Trauma-Informed Care; Understanding the Many Challenges of Toxic Stress” by Robyn Brickel, M.A., LMFT
Sidran Institute (resources for traumatic stress education and advocacy)
Trust After Trauma: A Guide to Relationships for Survivors and Those Who Love Them by Aphrodite Matsakis
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel
In a long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, Dr. John Gottman discovered that men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce.
This critical skill is not limited to heterosexual couples. It’s essential in same-sex relationships as well, but the research shows that gay and lesbian couples are notably better at it than straight couples. See The 12 Year Study for more on this.
I want you to meet Lauren and Steven.* While Steven believes an equal partnership is the key to a happy and lasting marriage, his actions speak differently.
Steven: “The guys and I are going fishing this weekend. We are leaving later tonight.”
Lauren: “But my girlfriends are staying with us on Friday, and I need help cleaning the house tonight. We talked about this. How could you forget? Can you leave tomorrow morning?”
Steven: “How did you forget I have my guys trip? I can’t change our departure schedule. We are leaving in a few hours.”
Lauren’s anger boils. She calls him a “selfish asshole” and storms out of the kitchen.
Feeling overwhelmed, Steven pours himself a glass of whiskey and turns on the football game.
When Lauren walks back into the room to talk, he stonewalls her. She starts to cry. He announces he needs to work on his truck and leaves the room.
Arguments like these are full of accusations, making it difficult to determine the underlying cause. What is clear is Steven’s unwillingness to accept Lauren’s influence.
It’s not that marriage can’t survive moments of anger, complaints, or criticism. They can. Couples get in trouble when they match negativity with negativity instead of making repairs to de-escalate conflict. Dr. Gottman explains in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that 65% of men increase negativity during an argument.
Steven’s response doesn’t show that he hears Lauren’s complaint. Instead, he responds with defensiveness and sends a complaint right back: Why didn’t she remember his plans?
The Four Horsemen – criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling – are telltale signs that a man is resisting his wife’s influence.
My point is not to insult men. It takes two to make a marriage work and it is just as important for wives to treat their husbands with honor and respect. But Dr. Gottman’s research indicates that a majority of wives – even in unhappy marriages – already do this.
This doesn’t mean women don’t get angry and even contemptuous of their husbands. It just means that they let their husbands influence their decision making by taking their opinions and feelings into account. Data suggests that men do not return the favor.
Statistically speaking, Dr. Gottman’s research shows there is an 81% chance that a marriage will self-implode when a man is unwilling to share power.
What Men Can Learn From Women
There are books that say men are from Mars and women are from Venus. While this isn’t literally true, men and women often do feel alien to each other.
This starts in childhood. When boys play games, their focus is on winning, not their emotions or the others playing. If one of the boys get hurt, he gets ignored. After all, “the game must go on.”
With girls, feelings are often the first priority. When a tearful girl says, “we’re not friends anymore,” the game stops and only starts again if the girls make up. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman explains, “the truth is that ‘girlish’ games offer far better preparation for marriage and family life because they focus on relationships.”
There are plenty of women who are unaware of these social nuisances and men who are deeply sensitive to others. In Dr. Gottman’s research, however, only 35% of the men were emotionally intelligent.
Two Roads Diverged
…and I took the relationship-focused one.
The husband who lacks emotional intelligence rejects his wife’s influence because he fears a loss of power. And because he is unwilling to accept influence, he will not be influential.
The emotionally intelligent husband is interested in his wife’s emotions because he honors and respects her. While this man may not express his emotions in the same way his wife does, he will learn how to better connect with her.
When she needs to talk, he’ll turn off the football game and listen. He will pick “we” over “me.” He will understand his wife’s inner world, continue to admire her, and communicate this respect by turning towards her. His relationship, sex life, and overall joy will be far greater than the man who lacks emotional intelligence.
The emotionally intelligent husband will also be a better father because he is not afraid of feelings. He will teach his children to respect their emotions and themselves. Dr. Gottman calls this Emotion Coaching.
Because this man is deeply connected to his wife, she will go to him when she is stressed, upset, and overjoyed. She’ll even go to him when she is aroused.
How to Accept Influence
Dr. Gottman suspects men who resist their wives influence do so without realizing it. Accepting influence is both a mindset and a skill cultivated by paying attention to your spouse every day. This means building your Love Maps, expressing your fondness and admiration, and accepting bids for connection.
And when conflict happens, the key is to understand your partner’s point of view and be willing to compromise. Do this by identifying your inflexible areas and searching for something both of you can agree to.
For example: Steven understands that Lauren is stressed about having company when the house is a mess. While he may not be able to delay his trip until the next morning, he can push it back to later that evening so he can help her around the house first. Maybe instead of Steven vacuuming and wiping down the counters (typically his task), Lauren could wipe them down in the morning before her friends arrive so Steven could leave a little earlier with his buddies.
Accepting your partner’s influence is a great strategy for gaining more respect, power, and influence. Want to have a happy and stable marriage? Make your commitment to your partner stronger than your commitment to winning. If you do that, your marriage wins.
Forgo the dinner and a movie and go straight to really connecting with your spouse. Love is not self sustaining but requires constant maintenance. We can often get stuck on surfacey conversations but need to work hard at diving deep in to heart level conversations. Don’t talk about this kids soccer schedules, your crazy boss, or your never ending to do list. Instead take these questions with you on your next date night and take turns answering them. Spend the time listening to your spouse’s heart and soul.
What is your favorite memory as a child?
What’s my best physical feature?
If you could change one thing about your looks, what would it be?
What is your favorite memory of us dating?
Which of your parents are you most like?
What are your top 3 strengths?
What’s a new hobby you’d like to try?
How often do you prefer sex?
What was the first thing you thought of me?
If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do?
What do you like most that I do in bed?
How would you describe an ideal day?
What is something I can do to make us feel connected even more?
What do you think we need to work on the most in our relationship?
What can I do to make sure you feel safe with me?
What’s the happiest you’ve ever felt?
What do you want to do when you retire?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
If you could meet one famous person, who would it be?
What’s another career that you think you’d love?
If you could go back in time, what age would you be?
Are you an optimist, pessimist or realist?
What was your favorite date night you’ve ever had with me?
What can I do that best says, “I love you.”?
In what areas are we the same?
Tell me a time when you felt really close to me?
How are we different?
Who do you know that has the best marriage? And what can we do to get there?
What’s your biggest regret in life?
If you bought a boat, what would you name it?
When did you first know you loved me?
How have I succeeded in our marriage this week?
What fears do you have?
What brings you the most joy?
How can I show you love this week?
If you gave money to charity, which one would you pick and why?
What turns you on?
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
What things do I do for you that refresh you the most?
What’s a question you’ve never asked me?