Relationship problems. Everybody has them. And sometimes you have them over and over and over.
Most of the people giving advice don’t know the research. So where are the real answers?
I decided to call an expert: Dr. John Gottman.
You might remember him as the researcher in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink who, after just a few minutes, could predict whether a couple would end up divorced.
John is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute. He’s published over 190 papers and authored more than 40 books, including:
- Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
- The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships
He’s also a really cool guy. John’s gained powerful insights from studying couples that thrive (who he calls “Masters”) and couples that don’t (who he calls “Disasters.”)
So what are you going to learn here?
- The four things that doom relationships.
- The three things that prevent those four things.
- The most important part of any relationship conversation.
- The single best predictor of whether a relationship is working. (It’s so easy you can do it yourself in 2 minutes.)
Want to be a Master and not a Disaster? Let’s get to it.
1) The Four Horsemen Of The Relationship Apocalypse
John has studied thousands of couples over his 40-year career. Four things came up again and again that indicated a relationship was headed for trouble. The Disasters did them a lot and the Masters avoided them:
This is when someone points to their partner and says their personality or character is the problem. Here’s John:
Ladies, are you listening? Because criticism is something women do a lot more than men. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to how the guys screw up soon enough.)
This is responding to relationship issues by counterattacking or whining. Here’s John:
It’s the #1 predictor of breakups. Contempt is acting like you’re a better person than they are. Here’s John:
It’s shutting down or tuning out. It passively tells your partner, “I don’t care.” And 85% of the time it’s guys who do this.
(Want to know a shortcut to creating a deeper bond with a romantic partner? Click here.)
Okay, that’s what kills a relationship. Naturally, you want to know what stops those things from occurring, right?
3 Things That Make Horsemen Go Bye-Bye
From looking at the Masters, John saw what prevented the downward spiral of the 4 Horsemen:
#1: Know Thy Partner
John calls this building “love maps.” It’s really knowing your partner inside and out. It was one of the Masters’ most powerful secrets. Here’s John:
Why is this so rare? It takes time. And the disasters didn’t spend that time. In fact, most couples don’t spend that much time.
John cited a study showing couples with kids talk to each other about 35 minutes per week. Yeah, 35 minutes.
And even most of that was just logistics — “When will you be there?” “Don’t forget to pick up milk.” — not deep personal stuff like the Masters.
#2: Responding positively to “bids”
No, this has nothing to do with eBay. We all frequently make little bids for our partner’s attention.
You say something and you want them to respond. To engage. It can be as simple as saying, “Nice day, isn’t it?”
It’s almost like a video game: when the person responds positively (“turning towards a bid”) your relationship gets a point.
When they don’t respond, or respond negatively, the relationship loses a point… or five. Here’s John:
Couples with high scores build relationship equity. They’re able to repair problems. They’re able to laugh and smile even when arguing. And that makes a big difference. Here’s John:
#3: Show admiration
Ever listen to someone madly in love talk about their partner? They sound downright delusional. They act like the other person is a superhero. A saint.
And research shows that is perfect. Masters see their partner as better than they really are. Disasters see their partners as worse than they really are.
(For more on the science of sexy, click here.)
Admiration is about the story you tell yourself about your partner. And that leads us to how to predict whether your relationship is working…
The Best Predictor Of How Good A Relationship Is
You can do this yourself: have someone ask you about the history of your relationship. What kind of story do you tell?
When your partner describes your relationship to others, what kind of story do they tell?
Does the story minimize the negatives and celebrate the positives? Did it make the other person sound great?
Or did it dwell on what’s wrong? Did it talk about what that idiot did this week that’s utterly wrong?
This simple “story of us” predicts which relationships succeed and which fail. Here’s John:
(For more on what research says makes love last, click here.)
Is there a part of a relationship conversation that’s critical? Actually, there is.
The Most Important Part Of A Relationship Conversation
It’s the beginning. 96% of the time John can predict the outcome of a conversation within the first three minutes. Here’s John:
How you start those serious relationship discussions doesn’t just predict how the conversation goes — it also predicts divorce after 6 years of marriage.
So you’re talking and you’re starting off positive and calm. Great. Now you should stop talking. Why?
When I asked John what the best thing to do to improve a relationship he said, “Learn how to be a good listener.”
The Masters know how to listen. When their partners have a problem, they drop everything and listen non-defensively with empathy. Here’s John:
And sometimes the best thing to do at the beginning of a relationship argument is to end it immediately. Why?
69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. They won’t be resolved.
Beating a dead horse, asking someone to fundamentally change who they are isn’t going to work — but it will make them angry. Here’s John:
(For more on how to listen like an expert, click here.)
Okay, that’s a lot of great stuff. Let’s round it up and finish with the thing John said that impressed me the most.
So here’s what John had to say:
- The 4 things that kill relationships: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
- The 3 things that prevent them: Know your partner, respond positively to “bids”, and admire your partner.
- The best predictor of relationship success is how you and your partner tell your “story of us.”
- The beginning of the conversation is crucial. Negativity compounds. Keep a cool head and resist emotional inertia.
One last thing that really blew me away: what makes for happy relationships sounds a lot like what makes for happiness in general.
Research shows, happy people seek out the positive and are grateful for it. Unhappy people find the negative in everything.
There’s a very similar dynamic in relationships: Masters scan their relationship for good things, disasters are always noting the bad.
And not only that — the Masters’ way of looking at the world is actually more accurate. Here’s John:
Choose to see the positive. It can cause a cascade:
- It’s fuel for your good “story of us.”
- You’ll probably start relationship conversations on a good note.
- You’ll admire your partner.
- And on and on…
Some of the same things that make you happy can improve your relationships — and vice versa. What’s better than that?
John and I talked for over an hour, so there’s a lot more to this.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Join over 145,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time