Contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

These are the simple, measurable behaviors that statistically destroy your chances of a successful relationship, and what renowned psychologist John Gottman MA’67, PhD’71 calls the “Four Horsemen.” Gottman should know: he’s spent more than four decades studying couples. When he looks at a marriage and predicts whether it will or won’t end in divorce, he’s right 94 percent of the time. His life’s work remains wildly popular at the consumer level — and with good reason: if half of today’s marriages end in divorce, who wouldn’t grab onto the comfort and promise of an easy, evidence-based antidote?

Long before Gottman became one of the world’s foremost researchers of marriage and divorce — before appearances on Oprah and Good Morning America, four National Institute of Mental Health awards, and forty-some books, including the New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work — he was a mildly awkward, unlucky-in-love, Brooklyn-raised MIT mathematics graduate drawn to UW–Madison by a burgeoning interest in psychology.


John and Julie Gottman have been together for 30 years. The Gottman Institute

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It was 1966, and unbeknownst to Gottman, another shy, Jewish math geek from New York was schlepping around campus — my father. The two men never met, but I wonder if they unwittingly passed each other coming in and out of Sterling Hall, or rubbed knobby elbows at an anti-war protest. Or perhaps Gottman happened to be walking by the chemistry building the moment my father met my mother, a barefoot hippie art major balancing a stack of textbooks on her head. Dad was love-struck on the spot and, uncharacteristically, managed to squeak out a hello. “Huh?” she replied. Forty-five years later, they remain on the winning side of the divorce ratio. My own stats aren’t as successful.

I already had a Gottman book on the shelf when my editor called to assign this story, and another of his bestselling books, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, had just arrived in the mail that very day. I’d recently remarried at the age of forty, and my new husband and I — each with a failed marriage under our belts — were participating in a free couples’ clinic at UW Health to make sure we got it right this go-round. It wasn’t quite the same thing as Gottman’s famous Love Lab, in which he and his colleagues at the University of Washington observed couples in a Seattle apartment laboratory, but it was definitely educational and useful.

The lead therapist suggested we read Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, after observing our interactions behind two-way mirrored glass. Like my mother, I’m more emotional, intuitive, and creative. Like Dad, my husband is an analytical, systematic thinker, and a pragmatic problem-solver. The two of us burned through Gottman’s book in one weekend, and we very quickly gleaned that my tendencies lean toward defensiveness and stonewalling, and his toward criticism. More importantly, we learned how we inadvertently damage our relationship when we give in to those weaknesses.

I’m a pretty easy self-help sell, but for my husband, this emphasis on scientific research proved critically validating.

But most valuable of all was the fact that Gottman’s work was based on decades of longitudinal data tracking thousands of couples. I’m a pretty easy self-help sell, but for my husband, this emphasis on scientific research proved critically validating. He found the knowledge comforting, its tools useful and practical. We were able to get on the same page without having to feel or think the same way first. We started to recognize our patterns and used Gottman’s tools for tempering defensiveness, de-escalating conflict, and working toward solutions.

“It has really normalized some of what couples deal with, and taken this idea that you have to have perfect harmony and perfect compatibility to make a marriage work long-term and kind of turned it on its head,” says Beth Wortzel ’70, a Madison-based psychotherapist. She and her husband, counselor Jim Powell ’73, both see clients individually and together. The husband-and-wife team has been applying Gottman’s concepts since first discovering his work in the early 1980s. Many times, they say, couples come in during a crisis and eventually leave with more than hope — they learn a shared language and realize their relationship is a puzzle that can be solved.

Powell particularly likes Gottman’s concept of the Sound Relationship House theory, developed in 1994, which identifies the key components of healthy relationships, visualized as a house built up from the foundation to the roof (with commitment and trust as load-bearing walls):

  • Build love maps
  • Share fondness and admiration
  • Turn toward instead of away
  • The positive perspective
  • Manage conflict
  • Make life dreams come true
  • Create shared meaning

The science of successful marriages

How is John Gottman able to predict with more than 90 percent accuracy whether a couple will make it or not? He uses empirical evidence drawn from multiple longitudinal studies of married couples over the last four decades. That work began in 1986, in an apartment laboratory at the University of Washington known as the “Love Lab.” There, Gottman discovered how couples create and maintain friendship and intimacy and how it’s related to conflict. In happy marriages, partners turn toward bids for emotional connection in everyday life twenty times more than couples in distress. Couples that divorced six years after their wedding turned toward bids for attention from their partner only one-third of the time, while those who stayed together turned toward bids for attention 86 percent of the time. Another of Gottman’s studies found a link between change in marital satisfaction and physiological measures, including heart rate. The more physiologically aroused couples were, the more the happiness of their marriages deteriorated over a three-year period.

Within that model, critically helpful concepts are detailed, such as the “emotional bank account” or the concept of “flooding” — in which a physiological emotional reaction makes a rational one nearly impossible.

As for the Four Horsemen that are the death knell for a relationship, Powell keeps a handout for his clients detailing each of them, along with suggested alternate behaviors. The Gottman Method is not the only one they use, but it’s a tool they find both accessible and intuitive. And there’s a bonus.

“It’s helped me be mindful myself in my own relationship, too, with Beth,” says Powell. “I think it’s quite revolutionary, what the Gottmans have done.”

Sixty First Dates

That’s Gottmans, plural, because John Gottman finally met his match in 1986 in Seattle.

After earning a master’s degree in mathematics at MIT in 1964, Gottman had every intention of continuing his studies with a PhD, until he found his roommate’s psychology books “a lot more interesting.” Gottman was more “turned on” by the softer curves of human relationships, and excited by the idea they could be scientifically measured. After a brief period as a computer programmer and mathematician at the Lawrence Radiation Lab in Berkeley, California, Gottman decided to point his sails in the direction of psychology — and he liked the way the wind was blowing in Madison.

“I picked Wisconsin because Harry Harlow was there,” says Gottman of the controversial psychologist who was methodically measuring baby rhesus monkeys’ need for their mother’s touch by depriving them of it. Another draw was the statistics department, home to “giants” in a mathematics field called time series analysis, a method of measurement that Gottman eventually applied to measure change within people for his PhD thesis. Gottman had also become actively opposed to the Vietnam War during his time at Berkeley, and was pleasantly surprised to find the Committee to End the Vietnam War was based in Madison. It wasn’t that he was anti-war per se — just anti-this one. “I would have fought in World War II,” he says.

Gottman, classified 1A, gained conscientious objector status. He finished up his PhD in clinical psychology at the UW after two years of alternative service, directing a Wisconsin program for migrant workers who’d dropped out of high school. From there, he began teaching at Indiana University, where he famously teamed up with psychologist Robert Levenson and launched the first of seven longitudinal studies that spanned and defined his career.

In the lab, Gottman and his colleagues measured physiological arousal using markers such as heart rate, skin conductance, gross motor activity, and blood velocity, and drew direct correlations with marital satisfaction. Over the years, they studied couples of all kinds (old, young, married, unmarried, gay, straight, college students, rural, and urban) and identified patterns that Gottman later coined as “masters” and “disasters” of relationships.

Their research allowed them to assess — with 94 percent accuracy — whether a couple would eventually divorce. Beyond scientific journals, Gottman made his findings accessible to a general public that was hungry for such guidance. Love had always seemed such a mystery, and here was a scientist saying it wasn’t the ultimate outlaw — which surprised even him, at first.

Meanwhile, Gottman was experiencing less promising results in his own relationships. By the time he got to Indiana, he’d been married and divorced, and struggled to meet women his own age. After moving on to the University of Illinois, he took a job as a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. That changed everything.

He arrived in May, four months before the start of the semester, and decided to finally take a scientific approach to his love life. With characteristic precision, he embarked on an experiment. He answered every personal ad and went on sixty dates in six weeks.

“Julie,” he says, “was sixty-one.”

Julie Schwartz — who would become Julie Schwartz Gottman within the year — was also a clinical psychologist. In a dizzying whir of hormones and neurotransmitters, John and Julie connected instantly. It was love at first sight, and it was thrilling. It was also terrifying.

“It was kind of like your father,” he says, referring to my own parents’ fateful meeting at the UW. But as he explained the fear that accompanied such a powerful connection between two already-divorced forty-somethings, I thought of my own second marriage instead, and those heady, scary early days. We knew our union was incredible, good and right — inevitable. But we also each carried intimidating data points of our own. So I asked, was there anything about studying all those couples that informed or comforted him?

Falling in love with Julie “wasn’t so much an intellectual decision based on research,” he says. “It was just more, really, an emotional decision.”

The Gottman Method for healthy relationships

Build love maps

How well do you know your partner’s inner psychological world, his or her history, worries, stresses, joys, and hopes? … Read more.

Masters of Love

The couple settled in Seattle and founded the Gottman Institute, where they masterfully honed the practical applications that make their findings accessible. Over the past thirty years, they’ve amassed an impressive body of research, publications, training sessions for professionals like Powell and Wortzel, and tools for couples like my husband and me.

The Gottmans host packed couples’ seminars in which they sit together on the stage and reenact any one of their ongoing private arguments, putting their own marriage on display, warts and all. That addresses one of the biggest misconceptions about this work, says Gottman: that successful relationships are those with no conflict whatsoever.

“We need conflict in order to keep learning how to love each other better as we grow older and change,” he says. The Gottmans are not some uber-evolved gurus levitating upon the marital mountaintop — they are a real live couple committed to the hard work of progress, not perfection.

The real work of marriage takes the willingness and unwavering commitment of both partners, and not every relationship is worth saving. Gottman does not claim his methods work for everybody, but they are 75 percent effective for moderately distressed couples. In the future, the Gottmans want to study other factors that affect relationships, including substance abuse, domestic violence, infidelity, and past traumatic experiences.

“I’d say we’re maybe 40 percent there in understanding relationships,” Gottman says. “Sixty percent is still a mystery, and requires more research.”

Take mate selection, for example. Although my husband and I are a Match.com success story (a modern version of Gottman’s classified-ad experiment), Gottman says the algorithms used by modern data sites are faulty because they’re based on finding someone just like you. “So that’s part of the problem, I think, is that people are pairing up with the wrong person,” says Gottman. “And not bailing out soon enough.”

Although Julie turned sixty-five this year and John is now seventy-four, the Gottmans show no signs of slowing down. Both still see patients clinically, fund research, and publish books, including The Man’s Guide to Women, released earlier this year.

Despite the comfort of having the Gottmans’ scientific findings at my fingertips, I still feel baffled sometimes, when my husband and I are in the thick of it — when I’m “flooded,” as the Gottmans say, and all my best tools and good intentions go right out the window. I look at my parents and how different they are — and their relationship still, at times, feels like a magical mystery to me. But I’ve never once doubted that they’re on the same side, nor have I doubted this with my husband — something Gottman says is key to the whole deal.

And so I can’t help but ask him: if you had to distill four decades of findings into one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t get defensive, he says. “If I was going to summarize it all in one thing, I would say that, in great relationships, they operate as if they have the motto, ‘Baby, when you’re in pain, when you’re hurting, the world stops and I listen.’ ”

Maggie Ginsberg ’97 is a Madison-based freelance writer.

Published in the Summer 2016 issue


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