Gottman's Best Relationship Advice, Pt. 2

If you want to know what makes relationships thrive and what tears them apart, learn from John Gottman, one of the leading marital researchers in the world. In this episode, we’ll continue sharing some of his best research-based tips for happy and healthy marriages.


Transcript

Chris:

Welcome again to the Art of Relationships, a podcast with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. I'm Chris Grace, and we have an opportunity to just visit and talk with you, and Tim, with each other, about some really cool topics related to relationships. One of the things we began exploring last time was this notion of some researchers, and some therapists, and some people out there that we would call relationship experts, one in particular was John Gottman. People ask all of the time, "What do you think about him? Is this a good book? Would you recommend?" We both would recommend some of his material and books. What we did last podcast was just have a discussion about some of his findings, some of the research that's out there. I think we want to continue that podcast because there's a little bit more out there.

Tim:

Yeah, sounds great. We have, based on our podcast, Noreen and I named our living the love lab, we just went for it. It's awesome. We got a pony in the middle of the love lab.

Chris:

Come back and listen to the other podcast and ...

Tim:

Go back and you'll understand the pony joke.

Chris:

That's right. Well, let's do this, Tim you had mentioned there are a couple of ways we're going to look at this. This isn't a John Gottman love-fest, that is it's not all positive. There's a lot of things out there that could be somewhat critiqued, so we're going to just hit what we think are the most important points and we'll go through those and talk about some of the things.

Tim:

Almost Gottman's greatest hits.

Chris:

There you go.

Tim:

That's what we're doing. You mentioned, when we were talking, that I think is absolutely fascinating, how much do you recognize what your spouse does for you? Explain a little bit about what Gottman means by that.

Chris:

Yeah. In his particular studies, one of the things he had found is that people, in terms of turning towards each other instead of turning away, he calls that this notion of ... I think he uses this thing called an emotional bank account. He says what happens is when you turn towards each other you're making a deposit into this emotional bank account so that when things get a little bit rougher, you have some savings to pull on. You can get over the rough patches. What's interesting is, as we make a deposit into this emotional bank account, there are some couples that are doing something that is a little bit disturbing and it's something we can all pay attention to and learn from. That is, about 50%, well let's put it this way, of the unhappily married couples, many of them are under estimating by about 50% their loving intentions.

 

That is the good thing that their partner is doing, they are under estimating how much they're doing that by about 50%. In struggling, unhappy marriages, they don't seem to recognize what they did before was something that they were being treated well, they were making a deposit, they were seeing their spouses doing something kind, and loving, and intentional. They are beginning to underestimate that, which is a fascinating finding.

Tim:

Noreen and I were speaking at a marriage conference. Just to illustrate this underestimating, a couple walks up to us, the wife is first. She says to me and Noreen, "My husband doesn't do anything for this marriage." I looked at her and I said, "Can I ask you, is he here at the conference?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Well, isn't that one?" Chris, it was like ... Go back to the last podcast and you'll have to go back and re-listen, but we talked about the 5 to 1 ratio. 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction, John Gottman is success in marriage. What you're saying, Chris, based on another Gottman observation, I'm not recognizing the 5 positive interactions.

Chris:

That's right.

Tim:

If his research is true, I'm only recognizing maybe 2, 2 and a half of those 5 interactions and that's causing massive problems.

Chris:

It is. I think psychologically, some other researchers in my field have found that sometimes we just don't always pay attention to another person's world. They asked them one time, they asked different people: roommates, friends, and married partners, about how much they did house cleaning and housework. The numbers always added up to more than 100%. They would ask 2 roommates, "How much house cleaning do you do?" The numbers were like 140%, "Oh, I do about 70. Oh, I do about 70." All of a sudden, nobody got to 100. In other words, it was always overestimating their own and underestimating the other.

 

I think what happens is it's natural for us to do that. What some of this research, that people have found, including Gottman, is that when you do pay good attention to, you're able to more clearly see those things that a person is doing.

Tim:

Just for our listeners to know, Chris and I aren't just objectively, in a detached way, looking at Gottman. We actually try to put Gottman into practice in our own marriages. Let me share one way that Noreen and I have tried to do this. Every marriage gets in a funk, right? You have great seasons where you're making deposits into the emotional bank. Then there's just seasons where you're not. Noreen and I, when we've gotten into this funk, have applied Gottman, what you have just been talking about, by saying this, "The day will not end until we've complimented each other at least once."

 

If you're in that funk, it's the first compliment that's the hardest. You want to give a pseudo, back-handed slam. You compliment a person at the end of the day by, "Well, you know, you weren't that much of a jerk today." Once you start it, get the ball rolling, you really start to recognize what your spouse or roommate is doing for you. We need to really prime the pump. Dennis Rainey, who is the founder of FamilyLife Marriage Conferences, has this great phrase, "Get in the habit of catching your spouse doing what's right."

Chris:

I love that.

Tim:

Let's note that and celebrate that. The book of Proverbs says, "Life and death is in the power of the tongue." To compliment a person and say, "I noticed you did that for me, thank you for doing that for me."

Chris:

What we need to do is another podcast, and I think we ought to, on the topic of gratitude. [crosstalk 00:06:06] has a great book out there on the gratitude and the power of being grateful and recognizing those things. That ties it all together for us when we start to recognize these good things our spouses are doing. Let's try another one. In relationships, there's a finding that Gottman has thrown out there as well, that in conflicts that people have, whether in marital conflict or other conflicts, most of these conflicts fall into what they call perpetual problems, rather than solvable. He says up to 70% of conflicts are perpetual, they just keep going. Some solvable ones, great, we can take care of those, but what does that mean when you hear that?

 

It goes like this, some couples are struggling with the idea, for example, of how they spend money. Gottman would say, "If you're view on money is probably something pretty deep, pretty built-in, and you're not just going to simply change when you get married to have a different view of marriage." In ours, Alisa loves to save up to do one thing, to spend. She likes to save to spend and sets aside things to spend. Well, I'm more, I save to save. Here all of a sudden, now we have this almost perpetual conflict about money and whether or not we should spend it or not.

 

One of the things is, how do you identify and know the difference between a solvable problem and a perpetual problem? That's some of the material that Gottman will provide, some ways to see some differences in those conflicts so you avoid this gridlock. Couples we've talked to have been arguing about the same thing for the last 7, 8, 10 years, they still keep arguing about it. Gottman says, "Okay, here is something that we need to work on, is how do you get to a point where you can still accept your spouse's personality, or the friend's differences that you have, and honor that, and respect that, even though you view things very differently?"

Tim:

That word compromise is one that we lost today. We've lost it in politics, we've lost in the disagreements we have. In marriage, when you hit this perpetual conflict, you have to get it out of your mind that, "I'm going to fix my spouse. We're going to nail this one, we're never going to talk about it again because I'm going to win this debate." Gottman's saying, "No, because nobody's right or wrong in the situation, you're going to have to compromise." Which, in Latin, means middle way.

Chris:

It does.

Tim:

Which we hate, we hate the middle way, because I want mostly my way. We've got to compromise or we're going to be miserable. Think of that couple for 10 years, same argument over and over and over.

Chris:

I think if there's one verse that has challenged, in our marriage, that Alisa and I apply a lot, it's in the Psalm, Psalm 139. He talks about, at the very beginning of the Psalm and at the end, he says, "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts." Then he says, "See if there's any hurtful way in me and lead me in." That, right there, when we can apply that in this conflict or any of the times we're dealing at gridlock a little bit and say, "Lord, what am I doing? What can I do to fix, to change?" That's one start and there are a lot of other things. Some good research out there, some good findings.

Tim:

Perpetual conflict reminds me of something else Gottman said that I always thought was fascinating. He said, "Show me a couple who argues and I can save the marriage. Show me a couple who no longer argues, I'm not so sure I can save the marriage because they don't care enough to fight."

Chris:

That's right. Tim, that is leading into this topic that I think is an important one, because one person who is no longer fighting might actually be falling into one of, what you called, a danger zone, that he calls. You're in what, this, as you said, the four horseman of relationship apocalypse. One of those is they are simply withdrawing and they are no longer paying attention, they're stonewalling. Let's talk about those. What have you learned? What do you like about the four horseman?

Tim:

Gottman crashed onto the communication scene by this claim. Again, remember we said, this isn't a love-fest of Gottman. If you googled Gottman and critiques of Gottman, you're going to hear some concerns about maybe some of his pronouncements, his confidence. The quote that came into communication theory circles was this, Gottman said, "I can watch a couple argue for roughly 3 minutes and predict in the ninetieth percentile, ninety-first percentile, if they're going to get a divorce or not." That's amazing. I could do that? If a couple is having an argument and one person had an ax in their hand, I'd say, "Okay, this couple is in trouble. I'm going to say 95% this is not going to go well."

 

Gottman was entrusted to say there are precursors, that if they're habitual, which means they're happening over, and over, and over. Then, he's confident that this couple is really heading, what did he call it, the cycle of negativity. It's kind of a corny concept, I think you could find something better. He introduced all of us to what he calls the four horseman of a relational apocalypse. Each one of them is really interesting to think about. The key, for Gottman, would be, this is habitually present. It's not that you have a bad day and you knock off 2 of these horseman, it's that we're regularly seeing it. Chris, why don't you tell us a little bit about what the first horseman is?

Chris:

Yeah. These horseman, or danger zones sometimes he calls them, they're almost attitudes that can poison a relationship. They're very destructive patterns and they built upon each other and what happens is they sabotage this couple's ability to communicate, which is why it landed in the communication area. Probably, the first one, there's no particular order, no one of these is more dangerous than probably the others. The first one he mentions is criticism. Criticism would be like this, you could tell the difference, if someone says, "We don't go out as often as I'd like to." Versus, "You never take me anywhere."

Tim:

Yeah, that's so good.

Chris:

The first one is a complaint, right? That's pretty healthy, it's just saying, "You know what, we just don't go out as often as I'd like to." That's pretty healthy. When you begin to, now, attack a person's, maybe, character, or blame them, that is when you've maybe fallen into this harmful level of, what he called, criticism, by saying, "You never take me out." Those are pretty absolute statements, but if they take up residency in any relationship, it could begin to undermine some foundations.

Tim:

Yeah. To even tighten it just a little bit more is what Gottman would say is, of course, you have the right to say to your roommate, "I'm upset at how you leave your clothes around the apartment." Of course you have the right to do that, he'd call that a criticism. It goes negative if I make a value-character judgment and I say, "Listen, you're a slob, and I know you don't care about me as a roommate, but could you at least pick up your shirt?"

Chris:

Right there's saying, yeah, you're attacking a person's personality and this law, that's when it becomes this blame and attack, which can be now, one of the horsemen and one of the signs in a relationship that it's going bad.

Tim:

Which leads us to a really cool idea that came out of comm theory and psychology, is what we call the self-serving bias. What happens for me, let's say we're both messy in the apartment, I always, with a self-serving bias, give myself an out. If you were to say to me, "Hey, by the way, you're leaving stuff around the apartment." My out is, "Hey, you know I have a test on Friday. You know I've been incredibly busy. You know this." When I look at you, I don't acknowledge that you also have a test, I say, "No, you're a slob." I always have the out, there's an excuse for my behavior, "Life's crazy, I'm tired, I haven't been sleeping well." When I look at you, I make an absolute value judgment on your character, self-serving bias.

Chris:

Yeah. If two people, if I'm walking down the street and trip, it's because something reached up and grabbed me, and tripped me. If you trip, it's because you're clumsy, lazy, you're whatever. I was pushed, you tripped. That's the idea of seeing it from our own perspective. Let's try another one, besides criticism. This one, I think, Gottman would call the most damaging of all the four horseman, would be the notion of contempt. This one is something that the dialog would go something, someone would say, "Hey, why did you not do this work that I asked you to do, or this job? You're being irresponsible." Then, someone reacting by almost with an attitude of contempt, it's kind of like this: insult, or name-calling, or mocking. The non-verbal is eye rolling. It's a combination, we say, of anger, and this notion of disgust. That's called contempt. That can do some very significant damage to a relationship.

Tim:

Chris, this is what's interesting about marriage. Noreen and I have been married for 26 years. After 26 years, you know what your spouses' Achilles heel is. I know what not to kid Noreen about after 25 years, 26 years. Even in our friendship, we love to joke with each other, there are just certain things you don't joke about. When he's talking about contempt is, I either explicitly go there. Though, I think, man, you'd have to be in a pretty rough place for me to explicitly do it, but I can implicitly do it. For instance, Noreen just doesn't like it if we're getting ready to leave, and Noreen knows, we've got to leave, we've got to be at this place at 7:30. It does no good for me to look at Noreen and say, "Let's go." I even know not to do that.

 

The non-verbal is interesting because what I will do is, I will simply just stand there and I'll push my glasses up, and just rub my nose a little bit, and I'll just do this. I'll just start to say something under my breath but stop, like, "Wish we ..." What's beautiful about that is it has plausible deniability. Noreen can say, "What is that?" I say, "I'm sorry, I'm praying for a trade." You know what I mean? We choose to go in those very sensitive areas and that is what he calls contempt, because I do want to hurt you. That's dangerous.

Chris:

It is. Contempt, because of its emotional component of something like disgust and anger, starts to, probably, erode very quickly. By the way, just as a reminder, these four horsemen can show up in any relationship. It's when they take root, it's when they build in and start to become part of a relationship over a long period of time that they can be so damaging. Contempt can fall into this category of, "I just don't like you." By the way, he would say, he could watch a couple, if they're showing clear signs of contempt, his accuracy of predicting divorce, that's one of his most important variables. Up to 80% he says, just if they're showing contempt.

 

Another one, Tim, he talks about is defensiveness. This follows closely on the heels of contempt. It involves making excuses, or maybe even denying responsibility. All of a sudden, now, I am saying, "That's not true, you, it was your doing. You said you were going to do this."

Tim:

That's right. This is so damaging because you never can have a conversation. Go back to the roommate situation, where it's a messy apartment. Defensiveness would be this, I say to you, "Hey, Chris, would you mind just putting away the dinner dishes after you're done?" Your response is, "What? I'm the only one who leaves dinner dishes? Dude, last night you left dinner dishes." That's defensiveness, where it's like every time I bring up a critique, you hit me with a counter critique. Now, it's tit for tat and we never get to the issue. Defensiveness is, man, that can really derail productive conversations.

Chris:

Yeah. You're both forced to start pleading innocence and saying, "Oh no, I wasn't like that. That's not true." All of a sudden, now you're fighting about something and missing a very critical moment of being able to understand, at a deeper level, what's going on there. Yeah. We have criticism that can turn into unhealthy. We have this notion of contempt, which is almost this emotional component. Then, there's defensiveness. Then, the last one, is something he calls stonewalling, other people call it, there's a lot of different names for this one. Building a stonewall around our emotional parts in life.

Tim:

We call it the exit response as well, either emotionally exit or physically exit. You want to talk about this issue and I'm just done, I'm finished, I'm not talking about this issue anymore. Why? "One, it won't do any good, so why even talk about it? Why get all worked up about this issue? We're not going to resolve anything. I'm a disappointment to you. Wow, newsflash, I'm a disappointment." That's where Gottman says, "Show me a couple who has enough emotional energy to argue, I can work with it." Show me where one of them just says "Fine, you're yelling, wow, newsflash. Like you never yelled at me before, I don't care." You either just sit there and you're zoned out completely, or you physically get up and just leave the room.

 

What happens is, we call that the chase response. Sometimes I've heard spouses and roommates and friends say, "By golly, I will get a reaction from you. I'm going to get a reaction. If that means having to scream, if that means having to throw a glass across the room and shatter it against the wall, I will get your attention. The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference, and you will not be indifferent to me." Obviously, that's where verbal abuse can enter into very quickly, physical abuse, "I will make you sit here and talk to me if I have to sit on you, if I have to hold you."

 

He says the culmination of these four horsemen, the result is stonewalling. That's just a really hard place to be.

Chris:

It is. I think, the research that stands out to me too, Tim, in this, is that 85% of the time, it's going to be the male partner in a relationship.

Tim:

That does the stonewalling.

Chris:

Yeah, who does the stonewalling. You might fall into that 15% as a male, or on the other side as a female. As a general rule, that idea of turning into a wall of silence is really the problem.

Tim:

Let me make an observation and then ask you a question.

Chris:

Okay.

Tim:

Observation, another thing Gottman says, because again, you might be listening to this and our female listeners might be thinking, "That's really interesting that it's the man who is the stone-waller." The reason is, Gottman talks about another concept called flooding. That men get emotionally flooded very quickly. Kind of like a person that's in charge of a nuclear reactor, when you start to realize, "Hey, this whole thing is going to blow." Men shut down the system, "Better for me to shut it down than to blow in ways that I might regret."

 

Gottman makes a point, and again, whenever I share this at a marriage conference, it is a weird reaction from women, because in a way it's like, "Well, I'm supposed to treat him like a baby? I have to handle him with kid gloves?" Remember, Gottman says, "Ladies, men can only really handle 1 or 2 things at a time." If you sit with your husband and you say, "Okay, I'm upset about this, this, this, this, this, this, and this." He's shutting it down because, at the second one, he's starting to feel overwhelmed.

 

Often, what we do and life is so busy is we want to talk about the finances, we want to talk about the kids' schedule, we want to talk about the cleanliness of the apartment and we don't have time. Finally, you have the conversation, and this has been building up forever, "I've stopped at Kinko's, I've got a colored chart to show all of the ways you're wrong." When we finally have the finances, I've got 10 things that I'm mad about. Gottman will say, "Ladies, you just need to know, he shuts down after 1 or 2, he gets flooded."

 

Here's my question to you, if we have listeners driving in the car going, "Wow, the four horsemen: criticism, check, defensiveness, check, contempt, check, stonewalling, check. Are we the 91%?" What do we say to a listener who says, "Yeah, this is habitual, you've just described our weekly interactions." What would we say to this couple?

Chris:

I think it's a great question, Tim. I think a lot of people have to face this and do it in a sober, calm, careful way, because actually one option is going to need to be professional counseling and therapy.

Tim:

Absolutely, yeah.

Chris:

In particular, if these have been in this area, and you've been doing this and it's been in your relationship for a little bit of time now, and more routine, to break out of that is going to take an outside person to help you navigate this. We would recommend, for couples that are struggling in that way, counseling and a lot of prayer and time, and thinking through, and just giving them some skills on how to do that.

Tim:

I would say more tools. What I love about the conferences that we do, the Going Deeper conferences, or a FamilyLife conference, is you have a relational toolbox. When you open that toolbox it's like anything. A good friend of mine was going to help me put up a basketball hoop and he said, "Hey, grab your tools, let's do it, we'll stick this in the garage." I go into the house and I grab Noreen's do-it-herself toolkit. That's it, there were 3 tools, they all had lavender handles. My friend looked at me and he said 2 things, he said, "One, you're not a man. Two, you cannot do that job with these tools."

Chris:

They're just not the right ones.

Tim:

If you're looking at the four horsemen and you're regularly doing 2 of those, 1 of those, 4 of those, then you're going to need relational tools to get out of that. Counseling is a tool, but also there's great tools that you can get in a 1 day conference, or 2 day conference. Gottman does offer some tools in each one of his books. You're going to have to have a pretty good toolbox and then an expert to even show you how to use the tools.

Chris:

That's why some of his book can go through these and help you, like you said, giving you some of this equipping, some of these tools to help you do it. Just as we get ready to end here, I think there's, just as a summary, we started by talking about Gottman said if there's one thing that he felt, one word, it was the notion of friendship. That was in a previous podcast we talked about that idea that it's so important. That reminds me, and just to end here, one of the studies, he asked wives, do wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage. The determining factor, if wives feel that, by 70%, that's the determining factor, is the quality of the couple's friendship.

Tim:

Wow.

Chris:

For men, the determining factor, if they feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage, by 70%, is the quality of the couple's friendship.

Tim:

Wow.

Chris:

At the end of the day, what happens is these four horsemen come in, they start to erode this friendship and this relationship, they start to erode and there you go, there's your problems that can be helped by investing in this emotional bank account, as he says, and working on a friendship.

Tim:

There's another study, that just reminds me of another study, where women were asked, "Would you rather have sex with your husband or a conversation on the couch?" Over 80% said sex. No, I'm kidding, doggone it. No, they said they would rather have a conversation. That kind of connection, that kind of friendship, that kind of, you know what I mean? Why can't these studies ever turn out like you'd hope that they would? Hey, this is good stuff. Gottman is well worth the read, his book needs to be in your library, at least to consider it and to critically evaluate it. Boy, he's got some good thoughts and a lot of people use Gottman, you've even been trained in Gottman's stuff, you and Alisa.

Chris:

Yep, level 1 training. It's great stuff. Tell you know, let's look at some other researchers next time and talk about some books like, for example, Gary Thomas has some stuff out there on sacred purpose, sacred marriage, things like that. It would be awesome. Let's just continue this conversation. Great podcast, loved to have you guys, thanks for listening and have a good day.


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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