Well, 35 years ago, I started doing some research with my best friend Bob Levinson, who also wound up being the best man at our wedding. And 35 years ago, Bob and I got together because our relationships with women weren’t working very well. And so unlike the self-appointed gurus you’ll see on afternoon television, we really didn’t know anything about how to get along with women. So we started this research really hoping that eventually we’d learn something that would help us in our relationships.
And we really had no hypotheses, and I always think about Isaac Newton, the great physicist, who once said, “Non-fingo hypotheses” (I do not frame hypotheses). So I thought that was pretty good as a start. And so Bob and I really brought to the field of the study of relationships colossal ignorance and awareness of our ignorance.
So we started doing research by building a laboratory where couples could come at the end of the day and just talk about how their day went after they’ve been apart for about eight hours. And while they were talking to each other, Bob Levinson had a computer that in the 1970s was able to synchronize the video time code to the physiological data we collected. So as couples talked to each other, we were measuring simultaneously their heart rates, their blood velocity to various parts of their body, how much they were sweating from the palms in their hands, and we even put a little meter under their chairs called the “gigolometer” to measure how much they jiggled around.
Now, why did we do these things? We had no idea; we just thought it’d be kind of fun. And we had couples talk about an area of continuing disagreement, a conflict that they had, and then a positive topic. And then we showed them their videotapes and asked them to turn a dial that told us what they were feeling, and we interviewed them about specific moments that we didn’t understand at the time, asking them what they were thinking and feeling during these moments.
And when I came to the University of Washington about 23 years ago, I built an apartment laboratory which was sort of like a bed and breakfast getaway setting on the medical school campus. And it’s on the Mount Lake Cut where all these beautiful boats were going by, and we tried to make it as much as we could like a bed and breakfast getaway, except there were three cameras bolted to the wall, and the couples wore two channels of a halter monitor measuring two channels of electrocardiogram. And when they urinated, we took a urine sample to measure stress hormones, and we took blood from them to look at the immune system, and people were coding their facial expressions in the control room. But aside from that, it was a very relaxed bed and breakfast kind of setting.
And about 20 years into this research, my friend Bob came to the University of Washington to give a talk, and the professor I was collaborating with asked a question. He was a researcher, Neil Jacobson, who did research on couples therapy, and he said, “Well, how can all this research help couples?” And Bob said, “I’m proud to say in the 20 years that John and I have been working together, we’ve never helped anybody.” And that was true; we were really getting paid to watch couples deteriorate and making a living at it.
So we really did a series of research studies, trying to look at the masters of relationships, the ones who really stayed together, didn’t get divorced, and were pretty happy more or less, and the disasters of relationships, the ones that broke apart, and the ones that stayed together and weren’t happy as well. Bob and I also studied gay and lesbian committed relationships for a dozen years in this 35-year period, and we really were able to study couples across the whole life course. In fact, we’re just completing a study in the Bay Area now that we started 20 years ago with two groups of couples, a group of couples in their 40s and a group of couples in their 60s, and our oldest subjects are now in their late 80s, so we’re just finishing this. And across the whole life course, we’ve looked at transitions to becoming parents, what happens when a baby arrives in the relationship, how does it affect the relationship, how do relationships affect babies? Can we predict anything about child development? And we found to our great surprise that we could predict, as we followed couples over many, many years, with over 90% accuracy what would happen to a marriage by just observing couples in our laboratory.
And I think nobody was as surprised by these findings as Bob and I were because, at the time, psychologists really weren’t very good at predicting human behavior, individual behavior. And the people who were on our tenure promotions committee really said to us, “If you can’t predict one person’s behavior, how can you predict two people? You know, you’ll square the amount of uncertainty.” But it turns out that relationships have an enormous amount of stability, so that even from the first three minutes of our conflict discussion a couple is having, we can predict 96% of the time how the entire conversation will go. And from the conversation, we can predict with high accuracy whether a couple will get divorced or not, how happy they’ll be.
And in fact, one of my graduate students, Allison Shapiro, who studied couples in the last trimester of pregnancy, was able to predict the child’s temperament and the child’s neurological development and reduce 50% of the uncertainty in looking at the first three years of the baby’s life, just by looking at how the parents argued in the last trimester. So we found an enormous amount of predictability.
And what I’d like to do in the short time I have available is to just go through giving you an idea of what we learned and how we understand this. So I think that Bob and I were kind of like the early astronomers who looked at the heavens and tried to see patterns in the motions of stars and planets. And indeed, there were patterns that could be understood that the early astronomers looked at. And Ptolemy, of course, is known for over a thousand years having been able to predict lunar eclipses and very accurately predict the placement of stars and the planets and the moon. But he didn’t know why; he didn’t understand why it worked that way, except to say that as Aristotle said, the heavenly planets must move in the perfect circle, which turned out not to be true.
It wasn’t until Isaac Newton that we started really getting theory. So I want to take you through our 35 years of research in which our first question was, could we find any patterns that discriminated the masters from the disasters of relationships? And second, what theory could we develop to understand those patterns? And only when we developed that theory were we able to design interventions to help people. And so these are all scientifically based interventions that my wife, Julie Gottman, Dr. Julie Schwartzgotman, and I designed together. And she’s the one who is really concerned about helping people, so that’s what led to the Gottman Institute. I interviewed her about it to try to find out why that was so interesting.
So let me tell you how we were able to discriminate the masters and the disasters of relationships. One of the basic things that when I was in graduate school, there was a book that came out called “The Intimate Enemy.” It was written by a guy named George Bach, and his idea for helping marriages was that the problem in marriages, he said, was that people didn’t air their resentments. So we had partners face one another and take turns telling one another what they resented about each other. And he even designed these foam rubber bats that he manufactured called “Batakas,” and they would take turns whacking each other with one of the bats. “I really resent you didn’t take out the garbage!” Whack! And then, “I really resent that we don’t have sex anymore!” Whack! And they’d go back and forth, and that was kind of the state of the art when I was in graduate school.
And after hundreds of research studies, we’ve now learned that when you do that, people leave more resentful than when they came in. There is no catharsis effect for anger and resentment. And basically, what Bob and I found was that what discriminated the disasters from the masters of relationships was that the masters were really very gentle with one another. Even when they raised an issue, they raised it as if it was kind of an invisible soccer ball that they were kicking around together. They took responsibility for even a small part of the problem, whereas the disasters really pointed their finger at their partner and were critical, and their attitude was that they were kind of diagnosing their partner’s personality defects, and they wanted to be really appreciated for that by their partner. And they’re hoping that their partner will respond by saying, “Thank you for pointing out all the ways in which I am failing as a human being. Can we have lunch next Tuesday so we can talk about this some more? You are such a wise person, John. Thank you so much.”