The Sound Marital House

The Sound Marital House

John Gottman has been conducting marital therapy research for almost 30 years, and is a well-respected leader in the field. Based on this research and clinical testing of the theory, he and his wife Julie Schwartz-Gottman have developed a solid understanding of why some relationships last and why some do not, as well as an effective model for relationship therapy. The Gottmans have studied both the “masters and disasters” of marriage (as the absence of what makes for a good relationship may not necessarily be the same thing as what makes for a bad relationship), and offers that there are a number of myths about why relationships succeed or fail.

The Myths and Truths About Relationship Problems

  • Myth #1 Affairs cause divorces – Gottman reported that 20-25% of people in divorce mediation groups say an affair was a reason the marriage ended, but the reason given by 80% is the deterioration of intimacy in the couple. In fact, Fisher et al (2009) reported in their sample of over 2500 men that relationship problems typically pre-date the infidelity. Campbell and Wright (2010) reported that 81% of Americans say the primary reason for marriage is love, and so it makes sense that the breakdown of that love would be the primary reason for ending the marriage. While in the 1970’s men had (or at least reported having) more affairs across their lifetime than women, the numbers are now about equal; today 32% of men and 21% of women admit to sexual infidelity at some point during the marriage (Tafoya & Spitzberg, 2007). Of note, when you read studies obtaining estimates of infidelity, realize that anonymous interviews can yield estimates of infidelity that are six times higher than face-to-face interviews (Whisman and Snyder, 2007), and older married partners report higher rates of infidelity in part because they have had more year of marriage in which they could have engaged in infidelity. It is thought that the equalization of infidelity rates in men and women is largely due to women moving into the work force, and having greater access to partners and financial freedom to pursue other options if they are unhappy in the marriage.
  • Myth #2 Gender differences cause divorce – If this were so, the divorce rate would be 100% for heterosexual couples, and 0% for gay and lesbian couples. The whole “Men are from Mars: Women are from Venus” stereotype is based on outdated gender norms.
  • Myth #3 – Communication problems cause marital conflict – Actually, distressed people communicate quite clearly what they feel and mean. The Gottman’s note that you can’t really teach people to never disagree or argue, as all couples disagree and argue at some time. Rather, what is important is what they do about it, how they reach some kind of agreement afterward, and how they handle the emotions stirred by conflict. While the Gottman’s offer that men are somewhat more likely to engage in some processes of emotional shutdown (flooding), and that women are somewhat more likely to begin sensitive discussions in harsh ways (nagging), both men and women engage in both processes.
  • Myth #4 No quid pro quo makes for an unsuccessful marriage – The idea is that doing good things for your partner is contractual on getting good things back; if you do this for me, I’ll do this for you, but if you don’t do this for me, I won’t do this for you. The Gottmans’ research shows this is not the case for unhappy couples (“disasters”), but neither is it true for happy couples (“masters”). This makes sense when you think about… Quid pro quo reasoning is good for legal contracts, but not for relationship contracts. The goal of American marriage is love, and so having your partner do things for you because they get things from you doesn’t really make you feel loved.

So what IS true?

  • Truth #1 Positivity in interactions in happy couples is 20 to 1, in conflicted couples is 5 to 1, and in soon-to-divorce couples is .8 to 1 – Watching a couple interact when they are not in conflict is the best way to predict their risk for divorce. Unhappy couples tend to have a filter that screens out positive events and makes even neutral ones seem negative. Happy couples, however, tend to have a filter that screens out negative events and makes even neutral ones seem positive. I use an anonymous quote to explain this in my class: “If you dislike someone, the way they hold their fork will make you furious. But if you like them, they can turn their plate over in your lap and you won’t even mind.” Thus, the number and type of positive activities in fdaily life is what marks the difference between happy and unhappy couples.
  • Truth #2 Marriages tend to end at one of two times – Marriages tend to end at 5-7 years due to high conflict, or at 10-12 years due to the loss of intimacy and connection. While certainly marriages can end at other times, The Gottmans argue these are critical or high risk periods for most relationships.
  • Truth #3 When it comes to arguments, it’s more your match than your style – The Gottman’s found that the conflict style of the partners (attackers, soothers, avoiders) matters less than the match between the couple:
    • soothers overwhelm avoiders, and you get the distancer-pursuer dynamic where the first chases the second seeking some reaction while the second avoids the first to avoid being hounded
    • soothers and attackers have little ability to influence each other, little positive sentiment, and a great deal of emotional tension
    • avoiders and attackers are the worst pairing, showing severe distancer-pursuer patterns
  • Truth 4 Most problematic issues are not solved, but managed – The Gottmans’ found that masters and disasters in marriage both faced chronic problems. The difference was that masters tended to find a way to deal with them to keep them in check, while disasters tended to constantly fight and feel gridlocked around what to do.

Happy and Unhappy Relationships

As noted above, The Gottmans’ offer that there are two states that a relationship can exist in:

  • In Positive Sentiment Override (PSO), positive comments and behaviors outweigh negative ones about 20:1. This means that there is a positive filter that alters how couples remember past events and view new issues. PSO is built on a few basic processes:
    • An intact Fondness and Admiration System, in which the couple is affectionate and clear about the things they value and admire in the other. Remember Oprah’s idea of a “thankfulness log,” or a daily list of things you appreciate and are thankful for? This is how it helps marriages.
    • Love Maps or a good knowledge of the partner’s world (work, family, self) and showing an interest in it during non-conflict times. Have you ever seen those marriage quizzes that ask things like, “True or False: I know what my partner wants to be doing in five years” or, “True or False: I know my partner’s most painful childhood memory”? These are the kinds of things that people know about their partners when they have well-defined Love Maps.
    • An absence of serious conflict, marked by
      • Softened Startups, or tactful ways to bring up a problem
      • soothed Physiology during the argument so no one gets “emotionally overheated,”
      • Acceptance of Influence, so partners (typically men) can accept the desires and wishes of their partners (typically women)
      • Repair Attempts or efforts to make up by using humor or conceding a point (there’s about one effort every three minutes for most couples)
      • De-escalation of hot emotions and efforts to compromise
      • Bids for Affection or efforts to connect through a shared joke, a quick kiss, or a quiet smile that is returned
      • lack of Gridlock on problem issues by finding the underlying reason for the conflict and finding a way to meet both partner’s needs
  • In Negative Sentiment Override (NSO), negative comments and behaviors just about equal positive ones, with five or fewer positive comments for every negative one. However, couples showing about one positive for one negative comment are on the path to divorce. This means that there is a negative filter that screens out the few positive events that exist, and may cause the couple to “rewrite” their history together. Ask them what drew them together in the first place, and listen for a negative emotional tone to see this.
    • You can not confront NSO directly
    • Rather, you have to build the infrastructure for PSO first, and slowly shift the couple to building it further.
    • NSO is based on a few basic processes that spiral out of control:
      • Conflict shows a pattern of Demand change and Withdraw from the discussion; Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) is high especially during arguments, with elevated heart rate, perspiration, and pulse
      • Women are more likely to begin with Harsh Startups, while men are more likely to become Flooded and Stonewall, and to rehearse stress-inducing thoughts. Some (such as Rampage) criticize Gottman for not realizing that gender differences in most relationships make women less powerful, and thus more likely to begin an argument more harshly as a way to communicate “I can’t take it any more”; however, such criticisms often ignore why gender differences that leave men feeling they have to “Buckle down and take it” when arguments become emotionally overwhelming or even abusive to them
      • This leads to Gridlock, which may be resolved in one of two ways: Disengagement, which spells a slower divorce that ends at 12+ years, or a high conflict period marked by the 4 Horsemen, which spells a faster divorce in 5-7 years.
      • The 4 Horsemen are soooo bad, Gottman will cut-off couples immediately when they do one of them, and confront them with how harmful this behavior is. While everyone engages in these negative communication patterns some of the time, distressed couples do them more, and couples who do them a lot are on the fast track to divorce:
        • Criticism – “What kind of person are you?”
        • Contempt – “I would never be so low as to do something like that!”
        • Defensiveness – “Yeah? Well what about what you did?”
        • Stonewalling – (shutting down, associated with high physiological arousal and efforts to self-soothe with thoughts like “I can’t believe she’s saying this!”)

The Sound Relational House Model

Gottman follows a clear but flexible model of what to do in therapy:

  • Teach recovery after a fight – sure, you would prefer they avoid nasty fights, but Gottman has found in his research that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. In fact, couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced. You may not be able to teach them to avoid fighting anyway, and reflective listening skills (“What I hear you saying is…”) likely won’t help since no one uses them in a fight. Instead, the best bet is to teach them how to recover after a fight.
  • Teach six basic social skills
    • recognizing (and avoiding) the 4 Horsemen
    • softening startups
    • accepting influence (especially for men)
    • soothing physiological arousal (relaxation techniques can help partners calm down during heated arguments, but once they are upset, it may take over 20 minutes for the body to slow itself down to calm levels)
    • recognizing (and responding to) repair attempts
    • compromise
  • Effective repair is easier to accomplish when there are Rituals of Connection, or standard and every-day ways the couple connects and feels bonded to each other. This means decreasing negativity during and after fights, as negativity is the best predictor of divorce over six years (85% accuracy), and effective repair skills increases prediction accuracy (97% accuracy), as among even highly negative newlyweds, 85% of those who effectively repair stay happily married.
  • Move Gridlock to Dialogue – sure, you want to solve some problems, and so teaching the couple to use basic compromising skills, avoiding crazy buttons that instantly escalate the argument (“You are just like your mother!”), and using video review of the couples’ arguments in the office are all important. However, since over 60% of marital problems are not solved, but managed, you want to start them talking about ways to manage these issues in the future, just like you manage a chronic illness like diabetes. The conflict is not about the topic they are discussing; rather, the real problem is some underlying or symbolic meaning, tied to a dream or fantasy of their future, that they feel they simply can not compromise on without invalidating their dreams.
  • Fade out the therapist – Gottman starts with 90 minute sessions, then eventually moves to once every two weeks, then month, and finally to “therapy checkups” to help the couple function on their own without the therapist, and avoid relapsing into previous problems.


Interested in learning more about Gottman’s Theory?

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  1. Very interesting perspective. I would add that what often gets in the way of a successful and happy relationship is one or both partners not being willing to work on their own issues that come up either in the context of the relationship or in their lives in general. If a relationship is not growing, eventually the life will likely go out of it.

  2. Practitioners & trainees interested in Gottman’s work can attend a training with John & Julie Gottman in Plano, TX on April 17 –18. The workshop: “Bridging the Couple Chasm,” will be at the SMU-in-Plano campus & is sponsored by the SMU M.S. in Counseling Program. For more info & to register:

  3. I am a family therapist and nurse, teaching a course on Family Nursing. I’m excited to have discovered your website! Thank you for your very clear summaries and reliable information. I’ll be providing the link to your site to my students.

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