There is now a science behind what really makes happy relationships and happy couples. The most comprehensive and long-term studies in the field have been done by Drs. John & Julie Gottman. Their theory of what makes relationships work is based on forty years of studying couples at all stages relationship, before, during and after commitment and babies. In total, they’ve studied more than 3,000 couples and were part of 3,500 more studies.
The Gottmans are two of the world’s leading couple therapists and researchers. Here’s a summary of everything their research on couples taught them, which makes up their evidence-based couples therapy.
First, they found four big predictors of relationship failure. The Gottmans named them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The first Horseman is criticism
If criticism is regularly used, especially in ways which blame a problem on the other partner’s personality or character traits, the relationship gradually goes under. Words like “You always make a mess!”, “You never think of me” or “You’re so uncaring” only bring about resistance, not teamwork or concern for the critical partner.
The second Horseman is contempt
This is the biggest relationship killer. Partners who use contempt behave in a superior way and lace their opinions with scorn, or eye rolls that show they think they’re better than their partner. They use sarcasm or make nasty fun of their partner, using scathing comments like “You’re so sensitive, that was a joke”. If contempt is regularly present, it wrecks any chance of relationship happiness. In addition it destroys the receiving partner’s immune system. Frequent contempt is linked to the number of infectious illnesses the listener has in the following year. Contempt annihilates relationships.
The third Horseman is defensiveness
This is closely tied to criticism and contempt, because it is rare not to respond to attack with defense. The two main defensive patterns are: playing the innocent victim, for example “I take out the rubbish all the time. Why are you so moody?” or counterattack, such as “What right do you have to say that? How often do you do the vacuuming?” This one’s the most difficult communication pattern to clear out, but it must be done.
The fourth Horseman is stonewalling
If couples become physiologically flooded (over-stimulated) during arguments, their hearts beat over 100 beats per minute. This causes a rapid shut down of their ability to talk or think clearly, they look or turn away, which shuts out their partner. They literally become just like a stone wall. Running into walls shatters relationships.
The Gottmans’ research showed that if the Four Horsemen regularly feature in a relationship, on average the couple divorces 5.6 years after the wedding. But don’t despair! Most of us use them occasionally. What sets the “relationship masters” (happy couples) apart from the “relationship disasters” (unhappy couples) is that relationship masters repair their arguments/mistakes. Relationship disaster couples don’t. Relationship masters don’t ignore fights or “regrettable incidents”, as Paul Ekman calls them. Nor do they carry on as if it hadn’t occurred. They do the opposite, they arrange times to talk about them, to try to discover what triggered the fight so they progressively understand each other better.
One very important research finding showed that positive interactions between couples count for a lot – especially during a fight. When talking about a problem, if partners show they care, listen, try to understand, smile, use appropriate touch, make a harmless joke, apologise effectively or try to make amends, their relationships are likely to be happy. The Gottmans found that if there’s a magic ratio of 5 positive to every 1 negative interaction during conflict that the relationship would be likely to succeed.
Relationships headed for failure have an average ratio of roughly one positive interaction for every negative one. In peaceful times, the ratio that predicts success is much higher, around 20 to 1. It is obvious that relationships need full bank accounts of positive emotional interactions to really blossom over the long haul. Just like a garden, relationships need feeding, watering, fertilizing, weeding and plenty of sunshine to flourish.
The other pattern that pointed to divorce was found in the research. There were couples who didn’t have the Four Horsemen during conflict. What they had was emotional disconnection: they lacked response, and had low levels of positive emotions during conflict, there was distance and loneliness. These emotionally disengaged couples divorced around 16.2 years after the marriage.
With this vast amount of data gleaned from their research about what predicts relationship success or failure, the Gottmans devised a theory to account for the ingredients of relationship success. They tested their theory, which they called the Sound Relationship House (SRH), by devising clinical interventions and studying the outcomes of their application to many couple problems. The results of these studies validated their theory. They discovered that nine building blocks make up the Sound Relationship House—seven floors supported by two walls. This is how they explain the building blocks:
What Makes Happy Relationships? Really!
• Build love maps
The foundation of a healthy relationship, the first floor of the SRH, is partners knowing each other’s psychological worlds well enough to describe them. The process of building these maps is to ask open-ended questions, being curious about your partner. As couples grow and change, it’s important to keep updating this information.
• Share fondness and admiration
The second floor builds a habit appreciating each other. This fills a relationship’s emotional bank account with riches and keeps it topped up. Partners must frequently express the love they feel for each other, through words and actions.
• Turning toward versus away
The third floor is built from those frequent, small moments when partners make a bid for each other’s attention and connection. Masters of relationship turn toward most of their partners’ bids rather than away or against their partner.
These first three floors of the SRH determine how well couples maintain their friendship, intimacy, and passion. The fourth floor is a freebie. It comes from the relative strengths of the lower three floors plus the floor above it.
• Positive perspective
Robert Weiss at the University of Oregon found that couples could either be in positive sentiment override (the “positive perspective”) or negative sentiment override (or “negative perspective”). Positive perspective refers to the overall feeling partners have about each other. If a husband wakes up grumpy, a wife with positive perspective will figure he just had a bad night’s sleep, whereas with negative perspective, she’ll think he’s being mean. Positive or negative perspective is formed by the relative durability of the couple’s friendship, the first three floors of the SRH, plus how well they manage conflict. This floor can’t be worked on directly, but a strong friendship and good conflict management skills help ensure the positive perspective.
The next two floors of the SRH are fundamental to good conflict management.
• Manage conflict
There are six skills that form this floor.
1. Raising a complaint with a softened start-up rather than criticism or contempt. Describe yourself rather than naming a negative trait of your partner. Begin with “I feel . . .” as in “I feel scared about the kids not getting support for their homework,” rather than words like “You are so . . . (lazy, irresponsible, etc.).”
2. Accept influence from each other when working toward a compromise.
3. Make repairs in the middle of a conversation when it begins to slide downhill—the sooner, the better.
4. Deescalate a quarrel if the Four Horsemen have taken over.
5. Self-soothe before physiological arousal/flipping your lid blows the discussion into havoc. Take a break from the conversation to calm down.
6. When all else fails, process, repair and recover from a regrettable incident or bad fight.
• Make life dreams come true
Couples who support and respect each other’s dreams and help other to fulfill them have relationships that are almost indestructible. Research revealed that when couples get gridlocked on an issue and can’t resolve it, each partner may have a dream at the core of their inflexible position. This needs to be brought to the surface and understood. When partners disclose these dreams to one another, rigid opposition often melts away, paving the way towards negotiation and compromise.
• Create shared meaning
Life impacts each individual forming unique values and beliefs. Some overlap is useful here. More important is that couples can talk about them with each other. A strong overlap in shared meaning level is built through discussing questions like what is the purpose and meaning of each of their lives and what legacies they want to leave behind. This level relies on good love mapping, so it circles us back to the bottom level of the SRH.
The seven levels of the SRH stand strong when the two walls supporting them are solid. The walls are Trust and Commitment.
Trust refers to each partner knowing that the other partner will be there for them in a host of ways: when they’re sad, angry, frightened, humiliated, overweight, underweight, triumphant, defeated, joyous, despairing, sick, broken, helpless, hopeful, dream-filled, and so on. Trust is erected by one partner choosing to show up for the other—not perfectly, not every time, but as much as one can.
Commitment is about loyalty, cherishing one’s partner above all others, not scanning the horizon for who might be better. Commitment doesn’t always imply marriage, given that some partners don’t feel it necessary to legally formalize their commitment, and in some places, partners are forbidden to marry even if they want to. But with or without a legal document, commitment means a lifelong promise of devotion and care. Where there’s commitment, there’s no worry of being replaced if someone “better” comes along.
No doubt there is much more to understand about couples. But at this point, the Gottmans say that science has helped us understand what makes relationships succeed or fail. My therapy and couples intensives are based on research which works for the majority of couples, if they practice the research-based skills that I teach them.
If lack of happiness or relationship doubts are causing problems in your relationship, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
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