Gottman's Best Relationship Advice, Pt. 1

Today’s episode dives into a discussion about one of the leading marital researchers in the world – John Gottman. We’ve highlighted some of his best research-based tips for happy and healthy marriages and relationships, including the 5:1 ratio, the magic of 5 hours, love maps, and more!


 

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Transcript

Dr. Grace:

Well, welcome today to "The Art of Relationships," a podcast that we're doing here with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. I'm Dr. Chris Grace, and we have been excited to bring you a number of topics related to the art of relationships, and today, interestingly enough, we're going to bring you one. If we are going to call this podcast something different today, I think it would be "The Science of Relationships," because Tim, today, I think it would be great for us to dive into a discussion about one of the leading marital researchers in the world, who's out there, who has sold hundreds of books, who has done an amazing amount of work, who people point to as being probably one of the premier researchers, and that's John Gottman, so let's talk about John Gottman today and a little bit about some of his work. People have asked about it, "Is it good? Do you like it? What are some things that we can take home from it?" Tim, I think in your area in Communications, my area in Psychology, he has made a big impact, so it might be good to do that today. What do you think?

Dr. Muehlhoff:

We get asked all the time who are the people that we read, who are the people that we're aware of, and absolutely when it comes to marriage and relationships, John Gottman is at the top of the list popularity-wise, both in academic circles and in popular circles. He's really been able to cross the bridge.

 

Again, this isn't going to be a love-fest of John Gottman. We really appreciate his work. We use his stuff in even the materials we do for the Center for Marriage and Relationships, but there are critiques of him. If you want to google "Gottman" and "critique of Gottman," no doubt you'll hear some academics talking about maybe his usage of percentages and how vast his claims are and how dogmatic he can be. We don't want this to be an overly technical discussion, but he has a lot of great things that you just need to be aware of and even think about as you're navigating your own relationships.

 

What's great about Gottman is, though he primarily focuses on marriage, this can be used in roommate relationships. You don't have to be married to take a look at what he's saying. These are great principles of human communication.

Dr. Grace:

I think that's exactly right. What we'll do is, let's spend some time doing that. On another podcast, let's take some other authors that you also, both of us, have used and have worked with, including Gary Thomas, who has written some work, "Sacred Marriage," for example, some other things. Let's spend some time with some other researchers as well and some good books. What do you think?

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Sounds good. Everybody loves a good book. Even more important, everybody loves not having to read the book and trying to get the Cliff Notes.

Dr. Grace:

Let's do it, man. Let's take one of the New York Times best sellers, a million copies sold, "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." He has another book called "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last." Let's talk about John Gottman's work with that.

 

What stands out to you, Tim, and immediately when someone asks, "Hey, why would you recommend him or this book?" What comes to mind?

Dr. Muehlhoff:

What comes to mind is this powerful quote that I always share with my students, but I don't complete the quote. I write on the board, "Gottman says this, 'The first thing to die in a marriage is ...'" and then I just write a blank, and I say to my students, or we say at a CMR conference or Going Deeper conference, marriage conference, "What would you put in the blank? What is the first thing, according to Gottman, with all this research, the first thing that dies? He

 

The answer is (drum roll): Politeness, which is super convicting, because, Chris, remember like when we're dating, when I'm dating Noreen? Oh my gosh, you just fall over each other, right? "Honey, thank you so much for dinner. Oh, thank you for thinking of me. Oh, thank you for saying 'thank you' to me." Then you get married, and I think Gottman's right, "Okay, what time's dinner, and why wasn't my laundry ..." I remember when we were first married, I said to Noreen, "Hey, what's for dinner?" and Noreen said, "I don't know. What are you making?" Right? I think he's right that politeness just kind of goes by the wayside.

Dr. Grace:

The reason I think Gottman is so powerful and influential in some respects in this field is because of two things he does very well. One, he takes and he looks at relationships from a scientific perspective. He has a great lab. He's been spending time there, him and his researchers, and they come up with great, interesting findings. Then, also, he seems to narrow it down to things like: The most successful way a relationship works is by somebody keeping or maintaining what? So, my quote that I like to start off with, he will say, "You can best summarize a good marriage with one word." In fact, they ask him one time. They said, "John if you had to take all your research, all you've ever done, and you had to narrow it down to one principle, one phrase, one idea as to why marriages succeed or fail, what would you do?" He said, "I'll give you one word." He said, "That word is friendship."

 

Look, it's related to politeness, and it goes like this: Couples that succeed, in all of their research, couples that thrive and do well, are almost always identified with the same idea, and that is their relationship is based upon a solid, deep, and an abiding friendship. Well, that doesn't really tell us everything it means, but it tells us enough to go, "If you want a couple to succeed, if you want to find a good marriage, you start with how do you cultivate a friendship," right?

Dr. Muehlhoff:

I wonder if we went and just took some of the top money-producing movies today from Hollywood and did like a thematic analysis of these movies to say, "What is it that they start with?" I think a lot of them would be passion, this deep attraction to each other, and then maybe that leads into a friendship eventually, but Gottman's saying, "No, no, no, no, no, go back. It's the friendship with this thing."

 

So many times we do this quick analysis. If you're single, you look very quickly at people, and you think, "No, a friend. No, I'm attracted to this person. Nah, this is just a friend." Well, I think what Gottman's saying ... By the way, C.S. Lewis would say the same thing about friendship. Those friends, we ought to take really hard looks at to say, "Maybe this would be a great dating relationship just to see if it could go in that direction."

Dr. Grace:

Yeah, that's right. That's good.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Two great quotes from Gottman.

Dr. Grace:

Yeah, so if our readers aren't familiar, remember one more time, it's John Gottman. He's written a couple of famous, well known, well used books, "The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work" or "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail." He studied up in what he called or what they identified as, the "love lab" in Seattle, Washington, where they bring couples in.

 

What is intriguing is the way they've set this lab up, right? They bring in couples. They wire an apartment so they can record both audio and video of couples, and they have them live there for a week. Then what they do at the end is they analyze the tape, and they analyze the interactions. They look at things like ... They've been influenced by a researcher in my field, named Paul Ekman, who studied facial expressions, so they have facial expression coding. They look for signs of nonverbal emotion, signs of anger, or whatever these-

Dr. Muehlhoff:

-They're hooked up for blood pressure, respiratory, all that kind of stuff.

Dr. Grace:

That's exactly right, so from that data, he is able to go very deep with these couples, and from that, can make some very amazing interpretations and findings, so I think that's why some of his book has been successful and some of his materials have gotten-

Dr. Muehlhoff:

-And the key about the "love lab" is ... Because on one hand, you would think this. If Noreen and I are part of a study, and we're going to be there for a week, and we know that we're being studied, there's no way I'm going to be the loser couple that has an argument in front of John Gottman and all of his researchers. What they discovered was, based on questionnaires and when you found out what your partner said about you when it comes to finances, there's just this great moment where couples are like, "Really? Am I going to go there?" And over a week, they go there.

Dr. Grace:

Oh they do. It doesn't take very long, and they found that many people just start ignoring the cameras, and they just start living, right? Like, oh, dear lord, here we go!

 

Lets talk then ... If you were to recommend this book, there are some other things that you would do, and I think there's some principles. Let's dive into one that stands out to you, and ... Go ahead.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Chris, I think what has been the most helpful thing for me and Noreen, and even speaking at conferences, I bring this up every single time, is Gottman said the secret to marriage is what he called a five-to-one ratio, five positive interactions for every one negative interaction.

 

What's a positive interaction? Don't think of things super-grandiose like buying you a pony. A positive interaction could be looking at your spouse and smiling. A positive interaction would be to send him or her a text message. A positive interaction would be you get up and ask your roommate, "Hey, I'm going to get some ice cream? Do you want some?" You talk about facial stuff? Just a smile when a friend walks in the room or your spouse walks in the room and you smile, that's a positive interaction. He's saying, and I think sometimes we react against this, I want to say, "Five-to-one?" I'm thinking if I'm doing two-to-one, three-to-one is divine.

Dr. Grace:

Certainly a pony has got to be worth 30.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Come on! But five-to-one ratio, that's a really interesting way to think about my interaction with my wife, my kids, my colleagues, very powerful to think that way.

Dr. Grace:

Yeah, I think what happens is, and really it's about being nice to each other in some respects, right? These positive moments ... I love his notion that he talks a little bit about this idea of a positive sentiment override. That means that positive thoughts about each other are so pervasive that they supersede their negative ones. That's why the five-to-one is there because, one, that negative can be pretty impactful, pretty strong, pretty damaging, and that notion of five actually shows that those moments, those positive moments, kind of nurture affection, right? They give people this ability to weather the rough spots. It's a great ratio.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

I think it can be made even more effective, like when we do premarital counseling with couples or we speak at marriage conferences, we have people sit down and actually write out: Give me ten positive interactions from your perspective. What really do you view as a compliment? Let's say you walk home, and you write down as one of your five positive interactions, "I would love for my spouse just to get up and give me a hug. I would love for my spouse to say, 'How was your day?'" You actually write out the ten, and then we have people write out five negative interactions. Man, that kind of understanding of what I find positive and what I find negative can be really powerful.

Dr. Grace:

Yeah too, I think what's really important there is, for example, some people think, "Okay, I'm just not going to be negative, so I am going to give you nothing. I'm going to give you no emotion whatsoever. Therefore, while I'm not being positive, at least it's not going to count against the ratio," and that notion could be very damaging. He went on, and others have shown the same thing, that in a couple relationship in which one person is neutral or actually keeping any emotion away from the other person, they call it stonewalling, which is one of his other ideas, which is one of the "four horsemen," right? Somebody who stonewalls, who doesn't give you emotional feedback, while it may not be negative, in reality is listed for many couples as a negative. "I talk to you, and you don't talk back. It's almost like you zone out. It's like you're not interacting with me," so when they list these positive and negatives, it's funny, because some people will go, "Wait a minute. That's not a negative; that's a neutral," when in reality, it's perceived that way.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Another quote I write on the whiteboard for my students, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's ..." and then I draw another blank. The answer is "indifference." Hate is actually a very powerful emotion.

Dr. Grace:

It is, yeah.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

I'm a huge hockey fan. You know that. We actually like different hockey teams. I'm from "Hockey Town." We've won 11 Stanley Cups in Detroit, Michigan, and the Ducks in Anaheim have won ...

Dr. Grace:

Well, we won once.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Hockey is hugely important, and for me, a positive interaction is that Noreen will say something as simple as, "Hey, isn't hockey season starting?" I looked at her one time, I said, "That is the most arousing thing you've ever said to me," right?

 

These positive interactions are just incredibly important and not to be just indifferent toward each other, because that is often interpreted as, "You just don't care." Let's understand each other as much as possible, and let's not debate the negatives.

 

I remember one time, a negative when we were married, early. I think this was like within our first month after coming home from the honeymoon. I'm shaving, and I'm letting the water run. It's like my centering moment, right? I hear the water hit the basin. It's like this chi moment, right? I love it. Noreen turns to me and says, "Honey, don't let the water run."

 

"No, no, no, Noreen, you need to know this is my centering moment. This is how I begin. This is how I'm with the force of the universe."

 

Noreen said, "Yeah, but we're paying the water bill," and I just kind of looked at her in this moment. For Noreen, that's just like this irritating little negative when I let the water run. Again, I need to just say seriously I'm going to fight this battle. I going to remove that negative, and by the way, even removing the negative is seen as a positive. It's a great way to think about it.

Dr. Grace:

It's a great way to think about it. Let's try another one of his that I think is fascinating, and that is "the magic of five hours." They have done research, which I think is powerful in that they have taken couples that were struggling, and they looked at these couples, and they found a difference after three years. They looked at them at time A, time 1. Three years later, they follow up, right? All these couples were struggling, but at time 3, within this third year, there were many couples who were now out of struggle. They were thriving.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Oh wow.

Dr. Grace:

He took and compared after three years. They were in this at-risk group. Now they're thriving. Then there were some who didn't change. They were still struggling. He said, "What's the difference between these two?" He found the magic, he said, of five hours. Couples who are thriving have simply found five more hours a week-

Dr. Muehlhoff:

-A week.

Dr. Grace:

-To invest into their relationship. That was the one variable that separated out the thriving couples from the still-striving couples, five hours a week. Think about that.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Doing what? What would be-

Dr. Grace:

-It could be literally anything. If you took a lunch and had lunch together that you didn't have before during the week, that's one hour. You can count that.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Walking your dog.

Dr. Grace:

If you walk the dog together one night or twice a week, all of a sudden now, if you took a 45-minute walk, now you're almost there at five hours. If you add a Saturday afternoon date or if you did dishes together, whatever it is, five hours-

Dr. Muehlhoff:

-Oh, don't go there. Why, Chris, why?

Dr. Grace:

Sorry about the dishes.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

We were having a great conversation, and you poisoned the well.

Dr. Grace:

At this point, that to me shows that, first of all, there's intentionality there. These couples probably now are able to to do a little bit more reflecting during these times. Again, there's nothing magic. It's not like a date every week, but again that could count.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

That's seasons of life, Chris, because you think of a couple with toddlers. They're losing their mind. There's just no time. Remember that study that was done in Communications circles. How many minutes a day did a couple have significant conversation. I remember it was like three minutes. People well say, "Wait a minute! I talk to my spouse more than three minutes a day." Yeah, but that's organizational communication like, "Hey, remember Tommy's got a Tai Kwan Do practice. Remember Sarah's got to be here. Remember we've got that." That's organizational. We're talking significant conversation. Couples were less than three minutes, so them getting to that five hours might seem like a gargantuan step. It's going to take forethought, and it's going to take intentionality, but what a great way to think in terms of those five hours, where are we doing on any kind of given week?

Dr. Grace:

Yep, and you can do so many cool things that way that won't be hard to do. He even found people were simply making sure they spent a few minutes saying good-bye and hello at parting. I mean, a few minutes just to say, "Hey, honey, how's your day? Looking forward to it. I'll be praying for you," and then saying good-bye and then greeting each other. A lot of ways you could do it and add up to that. Yeah, go ahead.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

You could listen to a CMR podcast together.

Dr. Grace:

There you go, baby!

Dr. Muehlhoff:

That's roughly 30 minutes, and just start to add. But again, even watching TV together.

Dr. Grace:

That's exactly right. You are doing something-

Dr. Muehlhoff:

-But it's together.

Dr. Grace:

Another one that I think is interesting that people have talked a little bit about when it comes to Gottman, and I use this one quite a bit, Tim, and I'd love to hear your response to this one. One of the major causes of marital dissatisfaction and divorce, he has found, is the birth of the first baby. What he has found is that 67% of couples in our newlywed study underwent a drop in marital satisfaction the first time they became parents, right? The remaining 33%, however, did not. What he found was, for couples who didn't experience a drop in marital satisfaction, had a big difference. The husbands in this case didn't get left behind or didn't get left out or didn't themselves opt out of parenting.

 

That is this. They maintained an active role in both their wife's life and in the their new child's life. They engaged with their wife. He called this have an accurate, detailed "love map" of what makes your wife or each other tick. You continue to know your spouse's goals, their worries, their hopes, their fears versus those who experience this dissatisfaction oftentimes were those who kind of disengaged from the connection with the other person, and that he used, and he begins to talk about this thing called the "love map."

 

If you want to maintain a good, strong connection with your spouse, keep familiar with their inner world. What do they dream about? What do they hope for? When you're able to do that, it goes back to this notion, also, of spending more time together, right? This baby takes away from time. You kind of disengage, "Oh, that's their world." Now all of a sudden, this all-consuming part for one or the other of being a parent can take you away from each other. Those who don't experience that, spend some time together and learn that.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Chris, I love the idea of a love map, but it's going to take a lot of work. I thought of Noreen with the birth of our first child, but then add another child. If you were to say to Noreen, "Hey what are your hopes and dreams right now?" She'd say, "I hope to be in bed by 9 o'clock," because women can ... you lose yourself. Men, we still jump into the career, and we pour ourselves ... So this love map sounds great, philosophically, but it's going to take work. You know, there's a proverb in the Old Testament that says, "A person's thoughts are deep waters," and the job of a conversationalist is to surface this. That love map, I love that idea, but it's going to take some work.

Dr. Grace:

Yeah, it is, and I think the way you can apply this, for example, then to someone who's just in a dating relationship or you're in a friendship is simply this. It's being aware of that person, being aware of their world, seeking them out, asking them how they're going. I know for me, for example, when people stop and you know they're interested and they remember something, "Hey, how did your week go? How did your talk go? Hey, how was that interaction or how did that thing go that we were praying for you?" All of a sudden now, it's like, "Well, they've been thinking about me." That's another idea of his awareness of this map.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Another way to uncover the map, I remember, in grad school where everybody's losing their minds, and Noreen would simply say to me, "Hey, what do you need from me right now? Because I don't know. Do you want me to ask how your classes or papers ... " I'd be like, "No, I just need quiet. Just slide chocolate-chip cookies underneath the door," so sometimes don't think that it's just intuitive about the love map to say, "Listen, right now, what do you need most for me?" Noreen would say, I think, when the kids were young, "I need you to bathe these kids and get them down, and I need a back rub." I'm like, "Done," and let's see if that leads to another love map, maybe. I don't know how the spirit leads. I don't know. "I'm here, Lord. Use me," kind of a thing.

 

Hey, there's another thing I really appreciate about Gottman as we're wrapping up this segment. He talks about validation. By validation he means ... It's kind of like what you were saying, Chris. I at least want to know what's happening in your world, and I want to validate the difficulty of it. It doesn't mean I agree with it.

 

For example, let's say this. Let's say you have a roommate who's just over-committed, just crazy busy. On one hand, you want to say to this roommate, "This is insane. You have no time for us, our friendship. You have no time to be around the apartment. You are too busy, and you're not doing any one thing well." Gottman later is going to call that critiquing the person, but validation is simply this, it's saying, "Based on what I know of your schedule, you must be really tired. Life must be kind of crazy right now." See, we don't want to do that, because I think, "No, no, no, I am now condoning you're busy." I want to say, "No, no, no, I'm not condoning it. I'm recognizing, with all the plates you have spinning right now, life must be insane." Though I desperately want to critique the fact, and I think you have too many plates, but the place to start, says Gottman, is validate that life is just crazy, even if it's just like a self-inflicted wound, but at least validate that life's kind of crazy and see life through the perspective of your spouse or roommate.

Dr. Grace:

I think that's a great way and a great approach to opening a conversation now with somebody that can go beyond just a surface level when you validate. They feel hurt, right? I think that's one of the keys in this, is being able to say, "You know what? It is really busy," and then the self-awareness starts to kick in like, "Yeah, it is busy, and this is hard, and I haven't been able to do this well, and I'm really struggling with this." Then you can begin a dialog that way and a conversation.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Yeah, absolutely, but we want to jump in and say, "Yeah, no wonder you're tired, too many plates!" That is going to produce a defensive response from that person. It's all timing. If there's anything about the Book of Proverbs, remember that great proverb that says a word spoken in the right circumstance is compared to fine jewelry by the writer of Proverbs. I think we need to know timing, seasons, and when to say a certain kind of things.

 

Gottman, I think, his five-to-one ratio, I think his love map, it sets up an environment that you can eventually have these difficult conversations. In another podcast, we're going to talk about how Gottman talks about starting hard conversations and what surely will derail any conversation. He calls them the "four horsemen" of a relational apocalypse. It will be great stuff. That'll be the subject of our next podcast.

Dr. Grace:

Yeah, let's put it into this next podcast and talk a little bit about that. As we end here, too, there are just some things that we can see as positives, but we can also learn ... I think this is the point that we'll talk about next, is that we can also see that how do marriages succeed, how do relationships thrive, how to make them work, but looking at the negative, at the things that don't go well can be just as instructive, right?

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Yeah, just as instructive.

Dr. Grace:

All right, I'll tell you what, Dr. Muehlhoff, it's been good hanging out, visiting with you, and doing this.

Dr. Muehlhoff:

Calling me "Dr. Muehlhoff" was a positive. I consider that a positive.

Dr. Grace:

Yeah, I was gonna buy you a pony, but that definitely was not going to work and fit in here. Thank you for just hanging out with us today on "The Art of Relationships," and today, "The science of relationships," right? We'll continue this next time when we look a little bit deeper in the work of John Gottman. Thanks for being with us here today, and we'll look forward to you next time.


The Art of Relationships Podcast

The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships  — family, friends, co-workers and others.

 

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