Lessons from the Love Lab

Categories: Marriage.

Some very compelling research on marriage has emerged from the University of Washington in the last few years.  Psychology professor John Gottman and his team of researchers have developed a lab the press has dubbed “The Love Lab.”  In their laboratory which is set up like an apartment, Gottman and his fellow researchers observe couples as they interact.  They see it all; the good, the bad, and the ugly interactions that can take place in marriage. Each partner’s stress levels are measured several times a day through heart rate monitors, stress hormone levels, video monitoring, blood pressure, and interviews.  This data is then used to create mathematical models that can predict whether a couple will divorce or not in the next three years.  Research has shown their prediction models are more than 90% accurate!

Dr. Gottman has called one set of predictors “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Criticism is negative evaluation of the person in which they receive the basic message that they aren’t good enough.  Defensiveness is reacting as if your spouse is attacking you.  Contempt is conveyed through belittling remarks, spiteful tones, and verbal abuse.  Stonewalling is a refusal to engage in any interaction with your mate.  It’s a “tuning out” of the other partner. Gottman states that when these four types of communication patterns are consistently present, divorce is imminent.

Another predictor of divorce is maintaining a one to one (1:1) ratio of positive to negative marital interactions.  Gottman’s research shows that couples who instead maintain a five to one (5:1) ratio are much more likely to stay together.  This shows that it is important to have many more positive interactions than negative.  This seems logical, but in real life can be challenging.  A positive interaction is any type of spouse to spouse contact where both feel better afterwards.  A negative interaction is any time one or both spouses feel worse for having had that contact with each other.  The lesson here is to provide padding for any negative interaction by purposefully creating positive interactions to offset the negative.

An additional divorce predictor is the failure of repair attempts.  Couples can’t avoid conflict for long, and after a conflict must try to “repair” the damage to the relationship.  Failure to repair occurs when attempts to break the tension and make peace do not work.  Two things are important to do here: 1) try to “make up” after a conflict, and 2) allow your spouse’s attempts to break the tension to work.  When your partner is attempting to make up, it’s like they are knocking at the door of your heart.  If you don’t answer the door, your partner may get discouraged and quit trying.  When that happens, it’s a deadly blow to your marriage.

Several behaviors have also been identified by Gottman to be predictors of marital stability.  Warning! – practicing these skills in your marriage may result in a long and happy marriage.  Research indicates it’s important to show interest in your partner’s thoughts and feelings.  Sharing positive emotions on a daily basis helps.  Displaying affectionate behaviors such as hugging, holding hands, and flirting seems to work.  Showing acceptance and respect, even in areas of disagreement, strengthens marriage.  Expressing appreciation and showing pride in your partner is helpful.  Checking in, touching base during the day increases stability.  Using humor and having fun together is also essential to marital stability.

As you look over these research results, you can probably agree these are important and seem to be common sense findings.  You certainly did most of these positive things, and avoided all the negative behaviors, when you were dating and during the “honeymoon” phase of your relationship.  However, as the relationship progresses and gets challenged in various ways, our common sense instincts for loving our mate can disappear.  Rather than learning new information, we often just need reminded of what we already know.  If you find your marriage is in trouble, use the research! Make sure to avoid the predictors of divorce and make use of the predictors of marital bliss.

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