What makes your love work?
The ‘Love Lab’ maintains that how a couple deals with conflict is a sign of whether they will remain together, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
AFTER WATCHING a couple for only five minutes, Dr John Gottman can predict with 91 per cent accuracy whether or not they will happily stay together. So claimed publicity material on the American relationship guru, who is speaking in Ireland for the first time at the end of this month.
That sounds like pretty good odds for saving a lot of couples the expense of a wedding, followed by divorce proceedings – never mind the heartache.
It turns out the claim is a bit of an exaggeration. He needs about three hours, he tells The Irish Times in a phone interview from Seattle. That’s still a pretty impressive boast.
Gottman’s success rate is calculated across seven longitudinal studies of couples he observed in the “Love Lab” he founded in 1986 at the University of Washington. He has researched more than 3,000 couples to identify what makes a relationship work.
Key to a successful prediction is observing a couple when they are discussing areas of conflict for at least 15 minutes, he explains. “We also interview them about their history of their relationship, how they met, and their philosophy of relationships.”
A physiological assessment is made too. “We look at heart rate, how fast blood is flowing, how much sweat is on the palms of their hands, how much they are moving about when they talk.”
The couples who are physiologically calmer have better relationships, which improve over time, he says.
Do they ever tell couples who look for a relationship “check-up” ahead of their marriage that they haven’t a hope of staying together?
“Sometimes we do. If you have a relationship where there is not a lot of admiration or fondness, they are just going through the motions and there is a lot of disrespect and lack of attraction, we say ‘We don’t get it – why are you guys getting married?’ ”
There are logical reasons why relationships fail, he says. “Part of it is that there are mismatches – we are drawn to people who are not quite right for us.”
In the early stages of being attracted and being in love, we ignore the “red flags”. The fact that a partner is, for instance, lying, is disregarded or minimised. However, once the initial hormone rush, which affects our judgment, abates, we start to take a long hard look at our partners, and to confront those red flags.
The real test of a relationship is whether or not trust can be built at that stage. It is the time, Gottman says, when people are asking each other: “Are you going to be there for me? Will you be sexually faithful? Will you keep finding me attractive? Will you continue to have fun with me? Will you want me as a person? Listen to me when I’m upset? Prefer me over your mother? Talk to me when I’m lonely? Be there for me when I’m horny?”
Those are the things that couples argue over, he says. Conflicts, which are endemic to all relationships, serve an important function.
“Conflicts are about learning to love one another. If you can understand one another through the conflicts then it becomes constructive and you wind up getting closer and wind up being able to turn towards your partner’s needs.”
The “most important finding” of research, he says, is that even in good relationships, “people really mess up”.
“Miscommunication and hurt feelings are much more probable than really effective communication and empathy.”
However, the “masters” of relationships have enough going for them in the friendship that they can repair it when they hurt each other’s feelings. For “disaster” couples, the repair is ineffective. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t do anything because the behaviour doesn’t change.”
If behaviour can be changed, relationships can be salvaged.
However, the work of the Gottman Institute, which he founded in Seattle with his wife and fellow psychologist Dr Julie Schwartz Gottman, is most effective if couples come before things get bad.
“We’re 70 per cent effective at preventing disasters – particularly when a couple is expecting a baby,” he says. “We have smaller effects once the relationship is in trouble.”
A baby affects a couple’s relationship in a very dramatic way. “Intimacy, courtship, friendship, adventure, playfulness – they all decline – and the family runs the risk of becoming very child-centred and ignoring the romance in the relationship between parents.”
A two-day “prevention” workshop for new parents, which the Gottmans devised, can change all that, he says.
The four main areas they work on are:
Making conflict constructive, so when it occurs it results in greater understanding of one another.
Preserving the romance and friendship in the relationship.
Explaining to mothers and fathers how important fathers are – how important it is for dad to be involved with the baby.
Understanding the psychology of babies and how they differ from adults.
Gottman does not agree that the first child is the biggest challenge: “I think each subsequent child makes it even worse.”
Another common problem the Gottmans see is that once people have “hooked” a partner and start living together, they tend to neglect the relationship. They turn their attention to other things such as career and having children.
“You can buy a really fine automobile and if you don’t maintain it, in seven years it will be a wreck – it is even more true for a relationship,” he says.
“You have to keep putting in energy – and the most important way of putting in energy is not leaving each other in pain. The thing we see the most in our clinical offices is where couples have left each other in discomfort, pain and loneliness for many years and just ignored the pain. That really takes its toll.”
There must certainly be an onus on the Gottmans, who are married 25 years this year – both having been married once before – to stick together.
“We are not these angels who are always sweet to each other,” he says. On the second day of their workshops they usually go through the latest argument they have had to show participants “we are not superior – we are in the same soup as they are. All relationships have the same problems.”
What do they argue about? “It can be about anything. Most couples do not hit topics; they just get irritable with each other. It can be nothing . . .”
However, he singles out a recent area of disagreement as being their differing attitudes to the health of their only daughter.
“Julie’s father was a cardiologist and his attitude was nobody should get sick and they denied illness . . . My family wasn’t like that.”
Ahead of Gottman’s speaking engagement in Dublin, one of a number of events to mark the 50th anniversary of Relationships Ireland (see panel), he is attending a week-long bodhrán workshop on Inis Oírr, which he did last year and enjoyed so much he is returning, having persuaded Julie to take part this time.
Although describing himself as an “Irishophile”, he has no Irish roots – his parents are from Vienna.
“The secret of staying in love is cherishing and nourishing gratitude,” he says in winding up the interview from his home on Orcas Island, outside Seattle.
“Couples whose relationship fall apart really nurture resentment for what they don’t have – rather than gratitude for what they do have.”
DR JOHN GOTTMAN ON
EXTRA-MARITAL AFFAIRS . . .
Sex is not the primary reason for extra-marital affairs – that’s a “universal finding” of relationships research.
“It doesn’t mean that there aren’t some affairs that are just about sex, but the majority are about people being lonely in a relationship and finding somebody who likes them and finds them interesting again,” he says.
“What you should do in that situation is go home and tell your partner. But who wants to introduce that sort of conflict into their relationship? “They don’t come home to their partners and say, ‘I have just had this wonderful conversation with somebody at work and it made me realise that we are not having those kind of conversations anymore and we need to change things a bit so I am having those conversations with you,’” he points out, because they fear their partner will get angry.
However, it is a “big mistake”, he says, not to go to the partner with those complaints. “Conflict avoidance is invariably the condition of every relationship where there is an affair.”
Reaching out to someone else is just trying to substitute what is missing in your relationship without bothering your partner, he explains. “It really doesn’t work very well!”
SAME-SEX COUPLES . . .
Same-sex couples have better relationships than heterosexuals, partly because they are much more sensitive to fairness and power.
“Women are very likely to just accept the second-class citizen status in a heterosexual relationship. In a lesbian relationship they are totally unwilling to accept that.”
Gay and lesbian couples have a better sense of humour, which also helps – they don’t take themselves quite so seriously.
“In research we found that they are very blunt and very direct about what they need sexually.” Heterosexual couples tend to be more embarrassed talking about sex with each other and are also much more defensive.
Their attitude is likely to be, he says: “‘If you’re complaining about sex, get somebody else, you don’t love me.’ Whereas gay and lesbian couples say, ‘If you have a complaint about sex, I want to hear about it because we can do something about it.’”
Generally there is much less deception within committed gay and lesbian relationships, he adds.
“Part of it is that they have a smaller pool to choose from, so when they find somebody they can talk to, have fun with and enjoy sexually, they want to hold on to them.”
BEWARE CONTEMPT . . .
There are “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that can appear during conflict between partners: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. When people use all four, he is able to predict by this alone, “with 85 per cent accuracy”, that a couple is going to get a divorce.
The worst is contempt. The “masters” of relationships don’t use contempt, he says. “Not only is it negative for love but it is also negative for the immune system.”
It is well established that recipients of contempt become sick. “Recent research shows that being contemptuous also makes you sick.”
‘EMOTION COACHING’ OF CHILDREN . . .
When it comes to parenting, there is too much emphasis on controlling misbehaviour rather than the feelings which underlie it.
“It is important to have co-operative children,” he acknowledges, “but it is not enough. We want so much more from our children than obedience – we want them to be good people, to have a purpose to their life, not to be materialistic, to care about others.”
This won’t be achieved through discipline alone. What children need is “emotion coaching”, which he describes as “connecting when your child is particularly upset, and being able to listen and understand feelings”.
Children are very aware that they are small, and most people don’t want to listen to them – they just want them to be obedient and disappear, he says. “So when a parent really sits down and listens, it is very powerful.”
Dr John Gottman will provide the keynote address at “Making Relationships Work”, a day-long conference on Saturday, June 30th, 10am to 4.30pm, in the Mansion House, Dublin. For more information, see relationshipsireland.com; also gottman.com
RELATIONSHIPS IRELAND: SERVICES
The services of Relationships Ireland, established 50 years ago, are more in demand than ever.
Last year, almost 1,000 couples and a further 500 individuals attended for a total of 7,679 hours of marriage/relationships counselling – a 5 per cent increase on 2010.
The independent, non-denominational charity, formerly known as the Marriage and Relationship Counselling Services, also provided counselling through its Teen Between programme to 139 teenagers affected by their parents’ separation – an increase of more than 60 per cent on 2010.
Some 10 per cent of its counselling in 2011 was directed towards marriage preparation for 324 couples, a drop on the 381 couples who attended for this service the previous year.
“Since our founding in 1962 we’ve seen fundamental change in Irish society and family life. However, one constant has remained: the desire for people to form strong, sustaining relationships throughout their life,” says its chief executive, Brendan Madden.
Future plans include developing telephone support and online services. It also intends to expand its services for new parents – research indicates that a critical pressure point in relationships is the arrival of the first child.
As well as the Making Relationships Work conference on June 30th, other 50th anniversary events include an evening with social philosopher Charles Handy, the nephew of one of the organisation’s founders, Canon Maurice Handy, who will speak on The Changing Shape of Work and Home on June 28th, and a two-day workshop on couples therapy, presented by trainers from the Gottman Institute, in September.