Dr. John Gottman is renowned for his research on relationships, particularly for his success at predicting whether or not a marriage will last. It’s not a parlor trick, but the result of analytics, which he explains with real math in his latest book, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal.
In previous books, videos, and articles, Gottman has taken the position that the basis of a relationship is not indefinable. He defines it with specific numbers, like a strong relationship's magic ratio of five positive interactions for every negative interaction. In What Makes Love Last, he explains that he is not predicting universal divorce rates, which experts commonly estimate to be anywhere from 43 to 67 percent. Rather, he looks at the likely divorce rates of individual couples. Because his accuracy rate is 85 percent, he's confident about the validity of his “new equations.”
Trust is one main indicator that Gottman looks at, since it's at the heart of healthy relationships. To measure that quality, he turned to game theory, in which each person seeks to maximize his or her payoff. Couples with a high level of trust found that they realized their own maximized payoff when both were happy. The research behind Gottman’s conclusions included five groups of 100 to 160 couples observed in managing conflict.
As he explains in the book, Gottman realized he had to come up with a way of scrubbing the data “to cut through this noise and pinpoint the type and frequency of interactions" that were characteristic of high-trust relationships, and of those that typified marital failure. He then classified each response under one of three categories: Nasty, Neutral, and Nice.
While the Neutral category sounds irrelevant, it's actually a key predictor of successful long-term relationships. Gottman points to an exhibit at the Discovery Museum, which featured three minutes of taped arguments between 10 real couples. People were invited to guess which five couples divorced and which five stayed together. With a 50-50 chance, even therapists and marriage counselors were frequently wrong. Their error was “focus[ing] on the fireworks” in the conflict. They failed to note the amount of calm time. As Gottamn explains, the couples who stayed together were the ones who logged the most neutral time.
To arrive at the trust metric, Gottman devised what he calls a trust-o-meter. He had partners individually view a video of their interaction as a couple, using a dial to register positive, negative, or neutral feelings at a particular point in the video. Gottman found an interdependency of reactions with in-sync couples. Their responses on the dial showed that they weren't happy if their partner was unhappy, even if they were not upset themselves at the time.
Couples who were completely out of sync would do the opposite: They would demonstrate a positive response to their partner’s unhappiness, seeing themselves in a win-lose relationship. Gottman viewed that as “a betrayal metric,” an indication of “how unwilling each partner is to sacrifice for the other and the relationship.” A high score here is not a good thing.
Another key predictor of continued marriage is turning toward each other during “sliding door moments,” which are the bids for attention that one extends to the other. “When one partner expresses a need for connection, the other’s response is either to slide open a door and walk through or keep it shut and turn away,” says Gottman.
Being attuned to a partner's needs makes one more likely to offer the right response, which strengthens the bond. Ignoring the opportunity could weaken the bond, Gottman says. The couples who stayed together turned toward each other 86 percent of the time, while those who didn’t stay together only did so 33 percent of the time. Paying attention has a real payoff for marriage success.
If you want to run Gottman’s assessment on your own relationship, the book offers a number of quizzes with explanations of what the scores indicate. You can take one of them online at the Gottman Institute Blog site, which urges you to retake the test after reading the book.
Could your relationship use a little analysis -- or do you prefer to leave the measurements and metrics to the office?