How to make your relationship amazing: 6 secrets from the top marriage researcher

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You get all kinds of relationship advice but it’s usually worth as much as the fortune cookie paper it’s printed on. Romance novels, self-help gurus and your aunt Margaret who still quotes “When Harry Met Sally.” Nobody has a straight answer.

So what if we looked at the data? Like real data.

But some would say that’s not romantic; that the answer is obvious — couples just need clear communication. The backbone of marriage counseling. People need to just speak openly and clearly to one another…

And if you believe that you’re dead wrong.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

The assumption was that if people could give one another feedback, then communication would become clearer and pathology would just vanish. This was a very good idea. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t usually true. In ailing marriages people generally communicate very clearly; but what they communicate is mostly negative…

Wha…? Well, people just need to use “active listening.” Works for hostage negotiators. Therapists recommend it. I even read about it on some guy’s blog…

Wrong. Lovely idea in theory but nobody can actually do it when their spouse is screaming at the top of their lungs and throwing things.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

In the stability analyses, all the statistics were nonsignificant: These sequences occurred very infrequently for all couples, approximately 4 seconds out of 900. In the satisfaction analyses, the statistics were again all nonsignificant. Hence, to summarize, these active listening exchanges hardly ever occurred (4.4% of the time) and they predicted nothing.

Hmmm. Looks like a lot of what we’ve been told doesn’t mesh with the data. In fact, the research shows that many of the people we assume have terrible marriages often have the best ones.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Both conflict-avoiding and volatile, passionate couples can have stable, happy marriages. In fact, I discovered that the bickering, passionate couples were the only ones to still have a romantic marriage after 35 years (Gottman, 1994a, 1994b).

Confused yet? Me too. So where is all this data coming from?

Gottman. Professor John Gottman. The man, the myth, the legend. All relationship roads lead to Gottman. He’s like the Olympic Gold Medalist of Marriage Research, the Nobel Prize of Nuptials and Reigning Champ of Romance all rolled into one.

He’s done the research, got the data and brings the answers in his book The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy.

He knows what really produces divorce and actually makes relationships last. And since we’ve got a lot of myths in our heads, it’s time to steal a little academic fire from the gods and use it to bring the warmth back in our love lives.

Let’s get to it…

I’m Positive Being Positive Is A Positive

Most marital therapy talks a lot about clear communication and problem-solving. But that sounds more like it’s coming from McKinsey Consulting than the Kinsey Institute. You’re not creating a marketing plan for a new line of detergent — this is a relationship. You don’t want to be “efficient and conflict-free” — you want to be happy.

And that’s what the research shows; troubled relationships shouldn’t lead with problem-solving. Positive feeling must come first. What do you appreciate about your partner? What wowed you so much that you got together with them in the first place?

If the positive feeling is there, problem-solving is easy. If the positive feeling isn’t there, no amount of problem-solving gimmicks are going to save you.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

The two necessary “staples” of marriages that work (whatever their typology) are (1) an overall level of positive affect, and (2) an ability to reduce negative affect during conflict resolution.

Did I mention that this #1 marriage researcher — the leading academic relationship expert — actually started out as a mathematician? So he’s good about giving specific answers. How much positivity do you need?

A 5 to 1 ratio, to be exact. Five good things for every one negative. When the ratio is closer to 1 to 1, you might want to start thinking about who is going to get the house in the divorce settlement.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

We discovered that the positive/ negative ratio in interactive behavior during conflict resolution is at least 5 to 1 in stable, happy marriages. In marriages headed for divorce the positive/ negative ratio is only .8 to 1, so that there are 1.25 as many negatives as positives… The basic result of these predictions is that the ratio of negativity to positivity predicts marital outcome.

Just as the amount of positive emotion is positively critical, your new nemesis is “negative affect reciprocity.” That’s PhD-speak for escalating anger. She yells and then he yells louder and then she yells louder until the kids are asking for noise-canceling headphones for Christmas.

The level of negative affect reciprocity distinguishes happy and unhappy couples better than any other metric Gottman has come across. Do not let conflict escalate like an out of control nuclear reaction or you’re headed for marital Chernobyl.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Negative affect reciprocity has been the most consistent discriminator between happily and unhappily married couples. It is far better a measurement even than the amount of negative affect. This discrimination has been replicated in labs worldwide (for a review of this research, see Gottman, 1994a, 1994b).

The best marriages have “positive sentiment override.” Basically this means you are irrationally biased toward the positive when it comes to your partner. When they do something negative, you see it as fleeting and situational. (“Must have had a bad day.”) And when they do something positive, well, that’s just indicative of who they truly are — a lovely person.

And, yes, the opposite is seen in bad marriages: negative sentiment override. When this point is reached, even good things are seen in a bad light. (“You bought me a gift? Okay, what stupid thing did you do that you need to apologize for?”) And when they screw up, that’s who they are.

Obviously, positive sentiment override is better. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt, believe the best about them. When couples have this attitude fights are less frequent — and when they do happen they’re far gentler.

(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

So we know positive emotions are good — but what’s bad? And what’s the one thing that spells absolute doom?

Hint: no, it’s not anger…

The Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse

Anger doesn’t predict divorce. This isn’t a license to get furious but anger is normal and natural when there’s conflict.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

In two longitudinal studies Gottman (1994a, 1994b) reported that anger in marital interaction did not predict divorce… We have found in our research that reciprocated negative affect in marriages is quite natural— anger is met with anger— and it is not dysfunctional.

Now what does cause Splitsville? Gottman’s research found 4 things that are no bueno and, over time, do kill relationships. He nicknamed them “The Four Horsemen” because he’s clever like that. They typically interact in an escalating progression:

Criticism -> Defensiveness -> Contempt -> Stonewalling -> Calling Lawyers

(Yes, I added the fifth because if you spent all day reading about the statistical analysis of marital dissolution, you’d need to make jokes too.)

Let’s break’em down, quick and dirty:

1 –  Criticism

Complaining is fine; criticism ends relationships. The difference? Complaining is saying “you did something bad” while criticism implies “you are bad.” It’s moving from being upset about a specific, situational problem to labeling it a global personality trait.

GOOD: “You didn’t take out the trash.”

BAD:  “You didn’t take out the trash because you’re a lazy, fetid, open-sored abomination of fiendishness unworthy of my love and affection.”

If you ever feel like you’re not doing quite enough to screw up your relationship, it’s easy to turn complaints into criticisms. Just add words like “you always”, “you never” and “the trouble with you is…”

I’m here to help, folks.

So you launch a criticism and what does your soon-to-no-longer-be-your-partner do?

2 – Defensiveness

Rather than discussing the issue or taking some blame, an excellent way to throw kerosene on the situation is to opt for outright denial, deflection or counterattacking. That’s defensiveness.

The subtext is: “I’m bad?! No, you’re bad!” This is the adult equivalent of (sing-song) “I know you are but what am I? I know you are but what am I?” and about equally as effective at resolving conflict.

The self-righteous criticizing unstoppable force has met the self-righteous defensive immovable object, often leading to…

3 – Contempt

Mocking. Sarcasm. Eye-rolling. Contempt is anything that implies, “I’m better than you. You are inferior to me.”

And contempt pushes things over the line to…

4 – Stonewalling

Withdrawal. Shutting down. Checking out. Not even responding.

How bad are these four actions? Just the Four Horsemen alone allow prediction of divorce with 85% accuracy.

Alright, I know what some of you are thinking, “Oh, no. I do that one and my spouse does the other two…”  Calm down. All marriages occasionally have three of the horsemen. It’s an issue of frequency and severity. Try and limit them, but being defensive now and then doesn’t spell doom.

Now you may notice I said all marriages have three — not four — of the horsemen. Ah-hem…

One of them is special. Not special-good, more like special-lethal.

Contempt. It is the single best predictor of divorce in all of Gottman’s research. For those of you in the cheap seats, I repeat: contempt is the single best predictor of divorce. It is not found in happy marriages that last.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

It is important to note that our best single predictor of divorce is contempt. It is not the case that in happy, stable marriages criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling never occur. They just occur less often, and they tend to be effectively repaired when they occur. So everyone “messes up” in marriages, but not all repair attempts are successful. Contempt, however, was in a category of its own. The amount of contempt in stable, happy marriages is essentially zero.

If you’re seeing contempt in your relationship, from you or your partner, it should be a big red flag. Gottman refers to it as “sulfuric acid for love.”

(To learn more powerful tips from John Gottman, click here.)

So you’re making sure The Four Horsemen aren’t galloping around when you and your partner fight. Good. But how do you stop the arguments in the first place?

Especially those issues you two never seem to be able to resolve? The ones that come up again and again, making your life feel like “Groundhog Day”? How does Gottman recommend you solve perpetual problems? It’s easy.

You don’t…

The Best Way To Not Solve Your Problems

69% of a couple’s ongoing problems never get resolved. No, I have not been drinking. Those are the stats. So if you were expecting me to tell you how to solve that big issue, uhh… sorry?

I know, I know. That is neither helpful nor encouraging. I get it. But this is also how you know I’m honest. If you want gift-wrapped, saccharin-sweet perfection go watch the Hallmark Channel or something. We’re dealing with real life here and it’s messy, okay?

So let’s take a different approach: since you’re not going to solve your perpetual problems, what is the very best way to not solve your problems?

Again, we’re back to positive emotion. As Gottman says, “What is important here is the affect around which they don’t solve the problem.”

You want dialogue, not gridlock. You want to uncover the meaning behind why your partner feels the way they do about that thing you disagree on. You don’t have to be on board with their beliefs, but you need to understand and respect their values and their dreams instead of just looking at them thinking, “WRONG WRONG WRONG.” If the only result you’ll ever accept is other people 100% complying with your wishes, you might want to find a little desert island for one like in those New Yorker cartoons.

Just have them explain where they’re coming from. And then ask yourself one question:

“Is there any part of their reality I can understand?”

Most issues just aren’t that important. And marriage is not about always getting your way. What makes a marriage work is more about the process than the result, the how over the what. And if you can understand and respect their point of view in a loving way, if you can disagree and still feel close to them, you’re in good shape for the long haul.

Perpetual problems are the “trick knee” of relationships. You can’t fix it but you can learn to live with it. You can take ibuprofen or give it more support. But being frustrated about it all the time and arguing with it does no good. Knee isn’t listening. If you’re lucky its pain will predict the weather. (Wow, I am really murdering this metaphor, aren’t I?) You adapt to it. You work around it. You can laugh about it.

You need to focus on those feelings and understanding where your partner is coming from when you can’t agree. Because it turns out there is something worse than The Four Horsemen: emotional disengagement. Even when the equine quartet are trotting around, Gottman can often still bring couples back from the brink because when people are criticizing and defensive they still care. But when a pair has reached the next stage — apathy and living parallel lives — it’s the death of the union.

Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems. That’s not cynical; it’s just realistic. Everyone routinely does something that is going to get on your nerves. You want to be with someone whose flaws you can tolerate — because nobody is flawless. Including you.

(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)

So we’re not going to resolve some of these issues. But how can we make the arguments less tense and negative? Ladies, this one’s on you.

(Oh, I bet that got your attention…)

Ladies, You Started It

Don’t worry — we’ll get to the problems the guys typically cause soon enough. Nobody is blameless here. But Gottman did find gender differences in who is usually responsible for what. And it’s usually the ladies who start the conflict.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

It is well-known that women typically start most conflict discussions (Ball, Cowan, & Cowan, 1995; Oggins, Veroff, Sc Leber, 1993).

Now there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. The issues can be totally legit and maybe even vital. Some relationship conversations need to happen. And, as Gottman hastens to point out, they’re often started in response to something the guy did.

But whether the ensuing argument becomes a playful pillow fight or a bloody no-holds-barred brawl is often an issue of how the problems are raised.

That first horseman? Criticism? Well, it’s usually a horsewoman. Gottman found women are disproportionately the criticizers in a relationship. So making conflict discussions a “complaint” instead of a “criticism” can go a long way toward softening things.

The second thing to keep in mind is that beginnings are important. Gottman found that when conversations start negative they almost never recover. In studies, he only needed to know the tone of the first minute of a 15-minute exchange to predict how things would turn out.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

How important is the way the conflict starts? How much of the data from a 15-minute interaction do you need to make a prediction? In our research only 4% of the graphs ever reversed directions, that is, looked like a checkmark. For the other 96%, only the first minute of data was necessary for the prediction of divorce or stability… Harsh start-up (escalating from neutral to negative affect) by the wife was associated with marital instability and divorce.

So complaining is okay, criticizing not so much. And start gently. Even if the issues you’re raising are 100% legit and you’re totally in the right, things aren’t going to go well if you make it personal and start with negativity. The number of people who respond well to that, male or female, are exactly zero.

(To learn the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)

Okay, time to beat the guys up…

Guys, Stop Stonewalling

Stonewalling is definitely a horseman.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Men are consistently more likely to stonewall than women. Eighty-five percent of our stonewallers were men (Gottman, 1994a, b).

Women usually raise the issues and usually it’s the man who shuts down emotionally and tunes out. And Gottman found exactly what you’d expect: this male response understandably drives women bonkers and the whole thing is often downhill from there.

Why are men so likely to stonewall? It’s not so much about societal gender roles as it is male physiology. It’s the same reason men are more likely to die of heart disease than women. The male stress response is just far more vigilant. Once a guy’s adrenaline meter goes into the red zone, it just takes longer for levels to drop.

While this might be a good thing in a fist fight, in a relationship discussion it’s terrible. The male computer gets overwhelmed at lower levels and his emotional server crashes. System shutdown. Must reboot.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

A very simple but brilliant experiment by McCarter and Levenson (1996) shows the modern-day reality of these gender-specific differences. It is well known that between the ages of 20 and 50 men are twice as likely as women to die from cardiovascular disease. The researchers hypothesized that any stimulus that suddenly evokes this male response to danger and vigilance would produce a greater adrenergic response to stress in men than in women… Essentially, all of these hypotheses received support.

So what to do? When relationship discussions get too intense, men need a time-out so those epinephrine levels can get back to baseline. Guys, don’t just stand there like a guard at Buckingham Palace. If you’re emotionally overloaded, you need to politely ask for a breather and set a time to resume the discussion. And do not stew over things during the break.

Gottman found that if he told arguing couples they needed to pause for 20 minutes while his team “reset the equipment”, when they started up again the two were much more positive and the conversation was more productive.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Taking breaks and creating a withdrawal ritual, a time away from the discussion, is an essential aspect of soothing for physiological reasons. Because of the slow decay of the sympathetic neurotransmitters (such as norepinephrine and epinephrine after their release into the bloodstream), an effective break must be at least 20 minutes long. It cannot involve rehearsing distress-maintaining thoughts like “I don’t have to take this,” or “I’m going to get even,” but it should include a specific time to get back together again.

Women criticize and men stonewall. But there’s an easy way to prevent both. The great military strategist Sun Tzu should have been a marriage counselor. He once said, “All wars are won or lost before they are ever fought.” Relationships are no different.

If the couple’s interactions have been very positive all day before the argument, the amount of criticism and stonewalling during the conversation plunged.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

The likelihood of both criticism and stonewalling was, in turn, predicted by the total positive affect experienced by both husband and wife during the preceding events of the day. In other words, the negative behaviors have an etiology in non-conflict interaction.

An ounce of positive prevention is worth a pound of marital harmony.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

So we’ve discussed everything except the actual content of the arguments. What is it that unhappy couples fight about that leads to divorce?

Don’t Resist — Repair

So what do couples headed for divorce argue about?

It’s a trick question: they argue about the same crap that happy couples do. In fact, when Gottman surveyed both types they even ranked topics in the same order. (Yes, finances and sex consistently came out on top.)

Simply put: all couples face the exact same issues. But there was a difference in style. Again, it was positivity. But what shocked Gottman was just how little made a difference. Literally 30 seconds’ worth out of a 15-minute conversation.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

The number of seconds of positive affect (interest, humor, affection, and engaged listening) during timed interactions in the first few months of their marriage turned out to be a great predictor of whether the couple would eventually (six years later) be in one of three groups: divorced, together and miserable, or together and happy. I was puzzled by the finding that the whole difference between the three groups of newlywed couples was, in each case, about 30 seconds of positive affect. That is, in the first few months of marriage, out of 900 seconds of a conflict discussion, couples who eventually wound up happy and stable had 30 seconds more positive affect (interest, affection, humor, etc.) than couples who wound up unhappy and stable, and unhappy stable couples had 30 seconds more positive affect than couples who wound up divorced.

Here’s the secret: the 30 seconds weren’t random and nor are they evenly sprinkled throughout the fight. Those bits of positivity were used strategically for “repair.”

While couples headed for divorce kept escalating negativity, doubling down, happy couples had a habit of injecting positive moments into the middle of an argument to stop it from overheating. To reconnect, de-escalate and take a step back. They’d make a joke, accept influence, or acknowledge a point the other had made. These deliberate moments of repair in the middle of an argument kept the conversation within bounds.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

What is repair? It can be almost anything, but it is generally the spouses acting as their own therapist. They comment on the communication itself, or they support and soothe one another, or they express appreciations to soften their complaints.

And repair is insanely powerful. If The Four Horsemen are tuberculosis, repair is a truckload of penicillin.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

In a study of 130 newlywed couples, we found that even when the Four Horsemen were above the median, if repair was effective, then 83% of these couples wound up in stable and happy marriages. Hence, the effectiveness of repair made all the difference for these very negative couples. This meant that we could predict the ultimate fate of 97.5% of the couples just by using the variables of the Four Horsemen and repair effectiveness.

So perpetual problems usually don’t get solved and the content of conversations rarely matters. It’s how positive you feel about each other — displayed at the right times, that can make all the difference.

Stop worrying about the resolution of conflict. Focus on the regulation of conflict.

(To learn a top divorce lawyer’s tips for not ending up in his office, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered a lot and hopefully, I displayed far less contempt than usual. (*rolls eyes*) Let’s round it all up and learn the secret to a happy marriage that nobody ever talks about…

Sum Up

Here’s how to make your relationship amazing:

  • Positive emotion beats problem-solving: Good feelings come first otherwise you’re solving problems with… someone you don’t like very much.
  • Avoid The Four Horsemen: Less criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And no contempt.
  • Perpetual problems don’t get solved: You can walk fine on a trick knee if you understand its quirks and don’t let it frustrate you.
  • Soft startup to conflict discussions: Ladies, complain but don’t criticize. Conversations that begin negative almost always end negative.
  • Time-outs beat stonewalling: Guys, don’t tune out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Ask for a 20 minute break.
  • Don’t resist — repair: Laughing, being nice or acknowledging what was said doesn’t mean you immediately lose the argument. And it might stop you from losing your partner.

Gottman found that very happy couples don’t just “interact well” moment for moment. There was a bigger overall phenomenon…

They created a culture together. Their own little world. Shared rituals, roles, goals, symbols… In short, a shared meaning system. It started with understanding and honoring one another’s dreams and extended to a meshing of their life dreams.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Each family creates a unique culture— a unique compilation of meaning— complete with its own symbols, metaphors, and narratives. The degree to which a marriage enables both partners to feel that their life dreams are supported can make or break it.

How do you do that? It starts with time together. Gottman found the average couple only converses for 2 hours a week. Sorry, not enough. You need time to know each other’s worlds, to appreciate and show fondness for each other, to share your day, and give and receive affection. How can you honor and mesh dreams you don’t even know about?

Remember Sun Tzu — it’s what happens before the battle. When the amount of positivity is high in general, the frequency and severity of fights goes down. “Problem-solving” is often a too-little-too-late phenomenon. You want positive sentiment override to cut both of you some slack when you’re not your best and give you full credit when you are. If you’ve got that working for you, no problem can get between you. But if you let negative sentiment override take hold, no action can save you.

Sound like I’m asking too much? Like expectations are too high? Good.

Because couples with high expectations do better — not worse.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

If people had more reasonable expectations, they proposed, they wouldn’t get so disappointed. Donald Baucom has systematically investigated this hypothesis (e.g., Baucom, Epstein, Rankin, & Burnett, 1996) and has found exactly the opposite to be true. People who have higher standards and higher expectations for their marriage (including romantic ones) have the best marriages, not the worst.

Everybody thinks affairs end marriages. Nope. Not supported by the research. Lack of closeness ends marriages. Affairs are usually the result, not the cause, of lack of closeness.

From The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

The major reasons for divorcing given by close to 80% of all men and women were gradually growing apart and losing a sense of closeness, and not feeling loved and appreciated. Extramarital affairs were endorsed as a cause of the divorce by only 20-27% of all the couples. Severe and intense fighting was indicated by 40% of the couples— 44% of females and 35% of males.

So spend the time now. Get close. Be positive. Ask about their dreams. Bank a bunch of good feelings and warm emotions. Remember: “All wars are won or lost before they are ever fought.”

Because if you build that closeness now, you may not need to fight at all.

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This article first appeared on  Barking Up the Wrong Tree.