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John Gottman can assess your marriage in 5 minutes

22 March 2008

Dr John Gottman has been studying couples for more than 15 years. His method is intriguing. Couples are invited to his "Love Lab" an apartment in Seattle, Washington State, where they are miked-up, wired for sensors that record heart rate and other physiological signs, recorded on video camera and watched from behind a two-way mirror.

Dr Gottman gives the couples some privacy, the bathroom isn't recorded and the camera's only roll between 9AM and 9PM. But Dr Gottman isn't really interested in what happens in the bedroom, he believes he can predict with 91% accuracy whether your relationship will last or fail just by watching you argue for 5 minutes.

Couples argue. Sometimes they argue a lot and sometimes a little. Dr Gottman says that arguing makes little or no difference to your overall happiness and likelihood of staying together. It's the way you argue that predicts how things will work out. Dr Gottman identifies 4 characteristics of the way couples argue that spell bad news for the marriage, he calls them "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse".

Horseman #1 : Criticism

The first warning sign in a marital argument is criticism. Criticism is an attack on the person rather than on the issue at hand. For instance, you leave a wet towel on the floor of the bathroom again. When she says "You left a wet towel on the bathroom floor again! I hate it when you do that!" - that's a complaint. But if she says "You left a wet towel on the bathroom floor again! You're so lazy!" - that's a criticism. Dr Gottman says that most people are critical at times and you don't need to worry about it unless it starts turning into Apocalyptic horseman #2...

Horseman #2 : Contempt

Contempt is what we feel for something that disgusts us. What starts as a complaint "You left a towel on the bathroom floor" turns into criticism "You're so lazy" and eventually to contempt "You're laziness disgusts me". Contempt is usually the beginning of the end for a relationship. Once one partner becomes contemptuous of the other it's hard to recover a meaningful relationship. How do you reconcile with someone who thinks you are worthless?

Horseman #3 : Defensiveness

Defensiveness is Dr Gottmans term for the way we try to deflect blame from ourselves - often turning it back on our accuser. "Yes, I left a towel on the bathroom floor but only because there was nowhere to hang it - look at all this stuff, why do you have to take over the whole bathroom?" It's a way of avoiding an apology, of facing up to the fact that yes, we did wrong. We're refusing to back down and that is only going to make the argument hotter.

Horseman #3 : Stonewalling

Stonewalling is what happens when we just switch off. Dr Gottman says that men are usually the ones to switch off and that they can't help it. He argues that men are not psychologically built to deal with interpersonal stress, at a certain level they become "flooded" and just close down. Being "flooded" really means that your fight-or-flight reflex is activated. Your heart begins to race, blood is being drawn away from vital organs and into muscles so that you can respond to danger more quickly, adrenalin begins to flow making you feel anxious and jittery. Now you will either "fight" - usually by becoming louder, more angry, more critical or defensive or you will "flee" by disengaging attention, walking away or just going blank.

Unfortunately stonewalling isn't a very effective method in an argument. It makes your partner think that you are ignoring them (you are), that they don't matter any more, that you have decided to just switch them off.

Dr Gottman says that when flooding happens often avoidance behaviors set in. One partner will go to great lengths to avoid the feeling of being flooded putting a further strain on the relationship - and this is why you see men who never seem to want to go home, who hide behind the newspaper or who never look up from the TV.

Undoing the damage of the 4 Horsemen

So what can you do to protect your marriage from the four horsemen of the apocalypse and other forms of negativity building up in your relationship? Dr Gottman offers some advice and some hope for us all.

First, he says, arguing is not the problem. Everyone argues and it can get heated. What makes or breaks the relationship is how much the couple have "banked" in terms of goodwill and friendship. The idea is pretty simple, if you love and respect a person but you disagree with them an argument isn't likely to hurt the relationship. You will "pull punches", you will use humor and your shared jokes to send what Gottman calls "repair attempts" that offer your partner an out or which show that you are sorry. But if your relationship is already a negative one, if you aren't really friends after all then what is there to lose? An argument doesn't have to have limits, it doesn't even have to be about the issue at hand, it can be an outlet for all your disappointment, anger and pain. Because you don't really have a friendship you're not connected enough to receive your partners "repair signals" even when they come.

Dr Gottman suggests that the key is friendship. Work on your friendship and on deeply understanding what makes your partner "tick". Understand their hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations. Understand their successes and failures. Know who their friends are and why. Know their likes and dislikes. Because in the end, great friends may argue but they stay together.


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