Dr. Gottmann studied over 3,000 married couples. What he learned can improve your relationship drastically.
Since 1970 he debunks common relationship myths. For example, he disagrees that active listening is key to happy ones. Within 3 minutes, he can reveal if a couple gets divorced. By watching a one-hour-long discussion, he can even predict with 95% accuracy if they’ll still be married 15 years later.
Sounds insane? It is. Gottman says it takes him 28 hours to analyze one hour of videotape.
What follows summarizes his 8 key findings; knowing them will help you make better decisions in your romantic relationships.
- Happy Couples Don’t Practice Active Listening
Whilst therapists dwell on the power of active listening, Gottman’s research found different: Those who practiced active listening weren’t able to diminish their problems. Only a small group managed to practice with success but relapsed after a year.
Why? Active listening means constantly checking if one partner has truly understood the other, by paraphrasing and repeating what the speaker has said.
A: I get angry when I cook dinner and you come home late from work.
B: Did I understand correctly that you get angry when you prepared dinner but I arrive home late from work?
In theory, this model sounds promising. In reality, it often leads to awkwardly stilted and therapist-like conversations. In his lab, Gottman found that happy couples don’t practice traditional active listening.
Instead, they make use of a lot of “positive affect”. For example, when an issue arises, they show affection like gentle physical touch or holding the other person’s hand. Other than just paraphrasing, they show genuine empathy by acknowledging the other’s feelings and truly apologizing if they felt they did wrong.
- Happy Couples Fight
“Happy couples don’t fight” is a belief you hear often. Yet, Gottman found that fighting is not a predictor of divorce. He even claims successful relationships incorporate fights just as much as unhappy ones.
In his book “Decoding Love”, Andrew Trees summarizes Gottman’s findings on this:
“Arguing regularly is healthier than never fighting, so couples who fight less are also less satisfied over time. The problem for non-fighting couples is that, by never fighting, they let things build up too much — way too much.”
The average couple waits 6 years before seeking professional help. That’s a lot of time to build up unhappiness and anger if you never talk about what bothers you.
Don’t avoid conflict and disagreement, they are part of every relationship. But if you’re unhappy seek help rather sooner than later. The earlier you are in your problem, the easier it will be to resolve it. For example, you can write a letter about what bothers you to your partner if speaking up is difficult for you. Also, couple counseling provides a safe space to be guided through your disagreements.
- Happy Couples Start Fights Peacefully
According to Gottman, there are 3 key factors at the start of any discussion that differentiate happy couples from unhappy ones:
Tone of voice
Is the conversation opener harsh or soft? Research shows, in 80% of the time women bring up issues in heterosexual relationships. Thus, they carry a big responsibility for how the rest of the conversation goes. Happy couples start discussions in a calm way, not with a harsh tone of voice.
Level of complaint
Is the complaint specific or something that relates to the character of the person? Successful couples bring up a specific incidence like “Yesterday, when I came home from work, dirty dishes were left in the kitchen.” Unhappy couples insult the person in general: “You are so lazy — you can’t even bother to wash the dishes”.
Partner’s First Reaction
Once it’s the partner’s turn, it’s crucial how they react. Are they open to suggestions? Do they keep calm or do they get defensive? Happy couples manage to stay calm. Those who get defensive have a higher chance of getting divorced.
- Happy Couples Disrupt Their Arguments
Gottman slams another approach: in traditional couple’s therapy, the uncomfortable person is forced to endure this feeling during an argument.
He found that happy couples don’t follow this method. In fact, they interrupt their arguments in all sorts of ways: some tell jokes, others talk about something irrelevant for a while.
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What’s essential is that they don’t let their arguments escalate. Gottman has a solid explanation for this: he measured couples’ heart rates during fights. Once an argument escalates, the person’s heart rate goes above a hundred, and they can’t argue rationally anymore. In short: they completely lose it.
By disrupting their arguments, happy couples counteract this pitfall: they get a chance to breathe and keep their bodies from reaching this breaking point.
One technique is to make up a code word — something funny like “Hullaballoo” or “Bumfuzzle”. If one person says it, it’s time to go to different rooms/outside and take a few breaths. Only come back to the argument when you have recharged. Another method is to buy a yellow and red soccer referee card.
Put them where you most regularly fight. Once an argument gets heated, showing the yellow card means “we can go on but let’s lower our voices a bit”. Red means “Stop, let’s disrupt the argument and come back later”.
- Happy Couples Don’t Resolve Their Problems
Here’s some good news: Failure to resolve conflicts is not necessarily a sign of a bad relationship.
Of the 3,000 examined couples, Gottman found a whopping 69% never resolve their conflicts. Yes, never. Indeed, most of them fight about the same old things like money, division of labor, or children. So, if you also rediscuss the same issues with your partner, it’s normal and you’re not set up for relationship failure.
What matters is not whether you find solutions to your issues but how you talk about them. As mentioned above, happy couples disrupt their arguments and stay calm. Issues like “You never wash the dishes” never become “You’re a bad person”.
- Happy Couples Have a 5:1 Ratio of Positive to Negative Comments
Gottman found that the most successful couples make 5 positive comments for every negative comment. Even when they fight.
Contrarily, unhappy couples don’t even manage to say one positive thing for every negative.
You might ask yourself now: How do you maintain a 5:1 positive ratio during a discussion with your partner?
Andrew Trees summarizes Gottman’s answer to that:
“The key is that happy couples never go for broke in an argument. They never find themselves in that fatal position when each partner is simply trying to wound the other because of how angry he or she is.
A woman in a happy couple will say “I appreciate how hard you work at the office, but I still think I deserve more help at home” rather than “You never help me at home, and you don’t even make enough money so that we can afford a cleaning lady.”
- Doing “a Favor for a Favor” Makes Things Worse
Have you ever done something nice for someone without truly expecting anything in return? Remember that warm feeling you got?
Well, unfortunately, that feeling gets lost if you practice the “if your partner does something nice for you, do something nice back” method. According to Gottman’s research, this approach even harms relationships.
Couples no longer felt any pleasure in giving as it has become part of an explicit exchange. As a result, it didn’t feel like giving at all.
According to Andrew Trees, if you want that warm feeling back, don’t ask your partner what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.
- Happy Couples Pay Attention to Their Partner in Daily Life
Every day, there are key moments when your partner asks for your interest in something. It’s nothing big: figuring out what to eat for dinner, a problem at work, or what to wear for the next conference.
Successful couples understand the importance of this: they respond positively to those moments and develop a pattern of showing regular interest. Unhappy couples ignore each other. That in turn becomes a fatal habit.
If you want to improve your relationship, pay better attention to the small things your partner mentions. Answer their questions and engage in conversations with them instead of scrolling through your phone or ignoring their approach. It doesn’t require much effort, but it’ll make a big change in the long term.
Gottman’s research with 3,000+ couples doesn’t lie. His findings have become common relationship knowledge that experts like Esther Perel often refer to.
If there’s one learning you can take away from his expertise, it’s this: Happy couples talk about their concerns often, but they do so in a respectful way. It’s not about why you fight, but how you fight.
This article originally appeared on Your Tango.