Fifteen minutes. That’s all the time John Gottman needs to observe a couple interact over a touchy subject. From that observation alone, Gottman has a 91% chance of correctly predicting whether the couple will end up staying together or divorcing.
As we’ve said before on this blog, for a variety of reasons trans and non-binary survivors have often missed out on essential life lessons many people learn as children. We may therefore need to do some work to gain knowledge and skills others may take for granted. So what is it that Gottman can teach us about building healthy relationships?
His book (co-authored with Nan Silver) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (Harmony Books, 2015) is structured around – wait for it! – seven principles:
Principle 1: Enhance your love maps
Principle 2: Nurture your fondness and admiration
Principle 3: Turn toward each other instead of away
Principle 4: Let your partner influence you
Principle 5: Solve your solvable problems
Principle 6: Overcome gridlock
Principle 7: Create shared meaning
Each principle is discussed in its own chapter, then woven together in the afterward, which gives very concrete details on how an additional six hours a week of applying those principles makes a huge difference in couples’ satisfaction. That’s all well and good, but what caught my imagination were the occasional gems. Here are some of my favorites.
Focus on the friendship. What is critical is to strive to always feel you and your partner are on the same side. Gottman says flatly that most couple disagreements (69%!) are “rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values,” and therefore cannot be resolved. How does a couple survive with unresolvable conflicts? Gottman answers, “[with] a deep sense of meaning. They don’t just ‘get along’ – they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together.”
They also learn to stay focused on what’s important: their relationship with each other. Gottman reminds us that, “When someone is upset, they want to know that their experience matters to you, so they don’t feel alone.” Partners want to hear, in essence, “When you are in pain, the world stops and I listen.” It may help you stay focused on listening to a partner in pain by keeping a metaphor in mind: “Imagine that you’re a traveler visiting the landscape of sadness. Your partner is the tour guide.”
When couples begin to take sides against each other, Gottman says they’ve gone to the Roach Motel:
“When couples become trapped in the Roach Motel, they each come to believe that their partner must be fundamentally selfish. Their minds fill with thoughts like, ‘He doesn’t care how I feel’ and ‘All that matters to her is getting her way.’ Each becomes increasingly convinced that the other isn’t on their side and doesn’t have their back. The relationship devolves into a zero-sum game in which one partner’s victory is perceived as the other’s defeat.”
The Roach Motel must be quite big, because it can accommodate what Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, lethal to relationships:
“Usually the four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.”
Gottman clarifies that criticism is not the same as a complaint: “A complaint focuses on a specific behavior or event…In contrast, a criticism is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality.” Contempt stems from a sense of superiority over one’s partner. “It is a form of disrespect,” Gottman notes. Defensiveness is about blaming: “One common form of defensiveness is the ‘innocent victim’ stance, which often entails whining and sends the message: ‘Why are you picking on me? What about all the good things I do? There’s no pleasing you.” Stonewalling emerges when use of all of the above approaches results in an emotional and cognitive shut-down, often leading to one or both partners leaving the scene.
Particularly problematic is starting an argument with criticism and/or sarcasm. These “harsh startups” are hard to recover from, as they set the stage in a way that’s hard to shift. What can shift some arguments are repair attempts. Gottman says, “This term refers to any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control. Repair attempts are a secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples….” One couple, for instance, called out “clip clop, clip clop” whenever one seemed to be bringing a Horseman into the room, allowing them to gracefully back up and start over.
Also worth noting are bids for attention. These can come during arguments, but actually happen all the time. Bids can be as simple as asking a partner to look with you at something outside, or as big as asking for help with an aging parent. What caught my attention, however, was this:
“In our six-year follow-up of newlyweds, we found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids an average of 86 percent of the time in the Love Lab, while those who ended up divorced had averaged only 33 percent. It’s telling that most of the arguments between couples in both groups were not about specific topics like money or sex, but resulted from those failed bids for connection.”
No more hiding behind my poor hearing for me! It’s time to pay attention!