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.”