Gottman's work has earned him plenty of attention - his research was discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, he's been interviewed by the likes of Anderson Cooper and Oprah, he was even featured in an episode of NPR's This American Life.
Everyone wants to know the same thing - how does he do it?
I decided to find out EXACTLY how he does it by pursuing certification in his couple's counseling method. What I learned is that his method for evaluating whether or not a couple will make it, isn't all that complicated. In fact, it's pretty straightforward: you have couples discuss an area of conflict in their relationship and then observe the extent to which they engage in 4 patterns of reacting. The more frequently they engage in these patterns, the more likely they are to divorce.
Gottman calls these patterns the "4 horsemen of the apocalypse" because, according to his research, they spell doom for a relationship.
So what are the 4 horsemen, and what can you do if you find yourself engaging in one of them?
Horseman # 1: Criticism
Criticism to Gottman is not about finding fault in another person's behavior. It's about how you find fault. Specifically, when we suggest that a person's character or personality is to blame for their behavior, then we are, according to Gottman, engaging in criticism.
Consider the distinction in these two statements: "You are incapable of cleaning up after yourself. You seem to derive pleasure from filth," versus, "I hate when you leave your dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the dishwasher." In the first statement I'm suggesting that the person's behavior is a character flaw, in the second I am simply stating that I don't like what they are doing. The first statement would be considered criticism, the second would not, it would just be complaining. "Complaining," according to Gottman, is the antidote to criticism.
If you find yourself getting into the dangerous territory of criticism, find a way to complain without blaming the other person. State what it is you don't like about their behavior, and steer clear of any character assaults.
Horseman # 2 - Defensiveness
This one is what it sounds like - it's coming up with excuses or whining and playing the innocent victim. Defensiveness is a common response to criticism. The antidote, not surprisingly, is to take some responsibility.
Rather than looking for excuses or trying to convince your partner that they are being unfair, look instead for the kernel of truth in what they're saying. Sure you probably don't leave your dishes in the sink after every meal; and perhaps you have been really busy. But trumpeting these points isn't likely to result in the resolution of this problem or in your partner feeling heard. A better strategy would be to acknowledge and take some responsibility for the behavior, rather than trying to justify or excuse it.
Horseman # 3 - Contempt
Contempt is acting in ways that suggest you are superior to the other person. And it's the most deleterious of the 4 horsemen, the single greatest predictor of divorce. Some expressions of contempt are obvious - name calling, insults, mockery. Others, like eye rolling, are more subtle. Regardless of the shape it takes, contempt is like sulfuric acid for your relationship - it erodes it over time.
The work that needs to be done in order to resolve contempt actually occurs outside of arguments and fights. Decreasing contempt is all about building a culture of appreciation. To begin, spend some time each day reflecting on the qualities you love in your partner. The most reliable way to do this is to work this practice into your daily routine (think about it when brushing your teeth, preparing breakfast, walking the dog). You can take this a step further by telling your partner specifically what you love about them and by making a concerted effort to do this on a weekly basis.
Horseman # 4 - Stonewalling
Stonewalling could perhaps more accurately be described as "shutting down" - it's a passive way of communicating to your partner that you don't care or aren't listening. Interestingly, 85% of the time men are the ones to stonewall. Even more interesting is that rather than being disengaged as their behavior suggests, stonewallers are usually TOO engaged - their heart rates and other indicators of distress are often through the roof suggesting that they are physiologically flooded by the conversation.
Not surprisingly, the antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing. Doing so helps regulate your nervous system enough for you to re-engage in the conversation. Common self-soothing techniques include diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. For more self-soothing strategies, check out my previous post on this topic.
In all honesty, I was pretty skeptical about the extent to which helping couples decrease the 4 horsemen would be helpful. It seemed a bit formulaic. But let me tell you, THIS STUFF WORKS! My experience has been that, although seemingly straightforward, Gottman's antidotes are very powerful when used consistently.
For anyone interested in learning more about his approach, I highly recommend The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. It's an easy read that offers concrete recommendations for how to improve and nourish relationships.