Analytics and data don’t sound like a formula for romance, but John Gottman, PhD, has devoted 40 years to figuring out the math that makes relationships work. In his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington, he has analyzed how couples communicate verbally and nonverbally and followed them for years to find out if the relationships survive. More than 200 published articles later, he claims to be able to predict the outcome of a relationship with up to 94 percent accuracy. Dubbed “the Einstein of Love” by Psychology Today, Gottman—along with his wife and research partner, Julie Gottman—now teaches other marriage therapists the most common misunderstandings about love based on observations from the Love Lab.
Myth: Marriage should be fair. Couples who engage in quid pro quo thinking—if I scratch your back, you should scratch mine— are usually in serious trouble, John Gottman says: “We become emotional accountants only when there’s something wrong with the relationship.”
He cites a 1977 study by Bernard Murstein as the first to find that quid pro quo thinking was a characteristic of ailing relationships rather than happy ones. “We’ve found in our research that the best marriages are the ones in which you are really invested in your partner’s interests, as opposed to your own,” Julie Gottman says. The happiest couples have a high level of trust, which lets them give without expecting anything in return because they know their partner has their back.
Myth:Your partner isn’t a mind reader, so you should tell him or her exactly what you want. Make no mistake: Open communication is an essential tool for a happy relationship. But the Gottmans have found that successful couples also understand each other’s feelings and needs without having to be told all the time. One of John Gottman’s studies found a link between satisfied marriages and a husband’s ability to interpret his wife’s nonverbal cues.
Myth: Couples who have screaming fights are headed for divorce. “Volatiles” have been flagged by the Gottmans as one of three types of “happy-stable” relationships. (The other two, if you’re curious, are “validaters” and “avoiders.”)
In fact, the average happy volatile couple has at least a five-to-one positive-to-negative ratio during conflict—meaning they have five times more positive interactions than negative ones—which John Gottman has found to be the marker of a healthy relationship. In contrast, couples who end up headed for divorce have a ratio of 0.8 to one. The key is that even though happy volatile couples can have intense fights, they still balance arguments with kindness and attentiveness.
John Gottman notes that each style has its pros and cons. “Conflict avoiders have a very peaceful life, but on the other hand, they can wind up leading parallel lives in which they’re very distant,” he says. “The very passionate couples who argue a lot—they run the risk of devolving into constant bickering.”
Myth: Talk things out until you agree with each other. Sixty-nine percent of marriage problems are managed rather than solved, according to John Gottman’s research. “The common lore is that conflict avoidance is a bad thing, but it really works for a lot of people to just ‘agree to disagree,’?” he says.
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The key is to avoid a “gridlocked conflict,” in which you can’t make headway in a recurring fight. At the bottom of these issues, the Gottmans have found, are core-value differences that take couples by surprise. For instance, a fight about finances isn’t just about the cash but about the meaning of money, power, freedom, and security. You might not be able to find the perfect compromise, but by creating an open dialogue, you can discuss the issue without hurting feelings.
Myth: Gender differences are behind your mega fights. Men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus; we’re all just from Earth. As it turns out, “men are just as in touch with their emotions as women,” Julie Gottman says. “On the other hand, some women are very reluctant to express their negative emotions. So it balances out. There are more similarities than the culture generally believes.”
A study in Cognition and Emotion found that when women thought long term about their lives, they reported themselves as more emotional than men. But when participants rated their emotions on a moment-to-moment basis, the gender differences disappeared. Your cultural upbringing and family environment have a much bigger influence on your willingness to express your emotions than your X or Y chromosome, the Gottmans say.
Myth: You repeat your parents’ relationship problems. How you carry your childhood baggage is more important than the fact that you have any. “Nobody escapes childhood without some crazy buttons and triggers, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a great relationship,” John Gottman says.
Tom Bradbury, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, coined the phrase “enduring vulnerabilities” for these historical triggers. Certain words and actions might dig up old feelings and provoke a reaction. Make sure you and your partner understand what sets the other off, and avoid those weaknesses.
Circumstances from your past could also prompt what psychologists call projective identification—an example is taking something you resent from your childhood and applying it to your partner. If you had a distant, cold parent, for instance, you might assume your partner is being distant and cold too. Instead of blaming your partner’s character, explain how the actions make you feel and what he or she can do to help you feel better.
You can have a happy, stable relationship despite any emotional baggage.
Myth: Opposites attract. The idea that one partner’s strengths compensate for the other’s weaknesses and vice versa sounds good at first, but the Gottmans say that their research provides no support for this. You can be opposites on some smaller subjects (you’re on the sand reading a book; he’s hitting the waves), but when it comes down to the core issues, it’s best to be similar. “The major incompatibility that we’ve found that is really predictive of divorce is how people feel about expressing emotion,” John Gottman says. For instance, if one person wants to talk about anger and sadness while the other thinks you should keep negative feelings to yourself, each partner will start to resent the other.