Till Death Do Us Part (Unless the Math Tells Us Otherwise)

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?

Ariella Brown,

Ariella Brown is a social media consultant, editor, and freelance writer who frequently writes about the application of technology to business. She holds a PhD in English from the City University of New York. Her Twitter handle is @AriellaBrown.

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too much calme
  • 10/10/2012 9:03:08 AM

@SaneIT @Noreen In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, PhD with Nan Silver (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994) "three different styles of problem solving into which healthy marriages tend to settle" are identified.

At first blush, we would think that the "validating marriage" in which "couples compromise often and calmly work out their problems to mutual satisfaction as they arise" is the ideal paradigm.  However, there are also  other approaches that are found in successful marriages.  

In a "conflict-avoiding marriage, couples agree to disagree, rarely confronting their differences head-on." While we may think avoidance is not a good thing, (see http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/01/16/3-myths-about-happy-marriages/)  it does work for some couples who are at the opposite extreme of the third paradigm, that of the "volatile marriage." This one is much less calm: "conflicts erupt often, resulting in passionate disputes" (28). But the couple is equally passionate in its attachment. Of course, if each one has its own assumptions about how to handle conflict -- say, if one comes from a family that thrashes everything out in screaming matches, while the other comes from stoic, silent stock,  that can also be a source of friction.

How can all these work? In part because we are all different people with different ways of communicating our emotions and working through conflict. Some people want to go sky diving for excitment, while others are content to go on a roller coaster, and some find even that to be too much. But the real key to success in all of them is that there remains more positive than negative at a ratio of five to one minimum. The ones with less conflict need less on the positive side to counterbalance it, but they still need their own form of happiness and connection. 

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/10/2012 8:16:00 AM

Too calm to me means there is simply no chemistry or passion between the couple. And that is not a good thing.

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/10/2012 8:07:45 AM

You make a good point. What does "calm" really say about the couple?

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/10/2012 7:48:28 AM

It's a delicate balancing act for sure.  I think Dr. John Gottman was on to something with his magic ratio, that balance is affected by so many things that we deal with day to day.  I do wonder if too much calm has a negative effect too, since that would probably indicate zero communication.

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/9/2012 8:12:43 PM

@SaneIt The difference in expectations and patterns do add to some stress. It struck me as so odd to see all women acting as housewives -- even those with no children yet -- in a 1950s movies, though some commentators said there was a stigma for someone aspiring to middle class status to have his wife work. But I also heard of some of my former classmates giving up their careers once they hit a certain number of kids because it was just too much to juggle the job, the commute, the childcare, and everything else they needed to do. 

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/9/2012 8:09:51 PM

@Broadway I'm sure that is at work, but it does more than grant a woman independence. It changes what a person expects from his/her partner. Not all women are marrying with a "good provider" in mind (though some still are), and not all men can expect their wives to take care of everything in the home and all the childcare.

Re: How about all eternity?
  • 10/9/2012 8:08:15 PM

@CallmeBob yes, that was funny. I never thought about eternity, though, supposedly some have raised the question of what happens to those who marry again after the first spouse dies. As for football and sliding doors, so long as your wife is OK with giving you space during those times and not expect  a response, it can work.

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/9/2012 8:05:59 PM

@SaneIT It's true that marriages today are quite different than those that date from the early or middle 20th Century. The book VoiceMale, which surveys husbands of various ages contrasts the differences in motivation and attitudes toward marriages from long-time husbands.  

Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/9/2012 7:30:04 AM

@Broadway, I almost agree with you, my wife stopped working after our third child was born.  There is a lot of stress placed on the woman in the way of being an earner for the family as well.  When money gets a little tight her first thought is that she should go back to work, the competitiveness doesn't just hit the men.  Women are feeling pressure to have careers and add to the family income.  I agree that this causes a lot of friction between spouses especially when the two of them are in crunch time at work but I think the competitiveness comes from both sides.  I also think that the study shows us something else, quiet and calm downtime is important.  If you've got two people who rarely have quiet down time together those explosive moments do more damage.  In 1904 you quit working when the sun went down and you didn't spend half the night watching TV, playing WoW or on the phone with work, we've nearly lost anything that resembles quiet time as families in general.


Re: Expectations and fairytales
  • 10/8/2012 10:06:28 PM

@CalmIT, this might be a controversial explanation, but perhaps the reason that marriages are more contentious nowadays is that both partners are more often than earners. In other words, women are no longer tied into losing marriages because they need financial support. They don't have to put up with a man's b.s. anymore. So for a man, the marriage may seem more "competitive" but for a woman it's a matter of them standing up for themselves/

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