Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in a specially outfitted studio apartment in Seattle that reporters nicknamed the “love lab,” mathematician-turned-psychologist John Gottman videotaped ordinary couples in their most ordinary moments–playing solitaire, chatting, kissing, disagreeing, watching TV, cooking dinner.
Sometimes Gottman, then a professor at the University of Washington, asked them to discuss an area of conflict while monitors strapped to their chests recorded their heart rates. Sometimes he sat them on spring-loaded platforms to record how much they fidgeted. He looked at how they brought up painful subjects, how they responded to each other’s bids for attention, how they fought and joked, and how they expressed emotion.
Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, he and his colleagues studied newlyweds, men who battered their wives, couples who shouted a lot, and others who beat around the bush and never raised their voices. He used an elaborate coding system to track not only their verbal exchanges, but less obvious indicators of emotion: flickering facial expressions, sighs, clammy hands, rolling eyes, and galloping heartbeats. He followed some of the couples for more than two decades, recording who got divorced, who established parallel lives, and who stayed together–more or less happily.
He then took his data and translated them into numbers, quantifying an area of human life usually relegated to the psychotherapist and the novelist. Using complex computer models, he found that he could predict divorce with 91-percent accuracy, simply by analyzing seven variables in a couple’s behavior during a five-minute disagreement. What he discovered made him famous. He appeared on network television and was immortalized by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Most of what we reliably know about marriage and divorce in its natural state comes from his work.
In the course of studying more than 3,000 couples, Gottman discovered that most of them fought, and that even the most happily married couples never resolved 69 percent of their conflicts. When they returned to his lab at four-year intervals, the issues and even the phrases were essentially the same. Only their clothing and hairstyles changed.
What was crucial, Gottman learned, wasn’t whether a couple fought, but how. Among those couples whose marriages survived well, whom Gottman and his colleagues came to call the “masters of marriage,” wives raised issues gently, and brought them up sooner rather than later. Neither husbands nor wives regularly became so upset with each other that their heart rates rose above 95 beats a minute. They broke rising tension with jokes, reassurance, and distractions. They didn’t escalate their arguments.
Faced with a request or complaint from their wives (and 80 percent of the complaints did come from wives), the successful husbands didn’t play king or cross their arms like rebellious teenagers. Instead they changed their behavior–doing more dishes, working fewer hours, giving more than lip service to their wives’ dreams, or taking an older child to the park to give an exhausted new mother a break. When news of these findings hit the newspapers in the late 1990s, my boyfriend at the time called it the “yes, dear” path to marital harmony.
Perhaps most notable, the master couples made at least 5 positive remarks or gestures toward each other for every zinger during a fight ; in calmer times, their positive-to-negative ratio was an astounding 20 to 1.
The “masters of disaster” in Gottman’s study group–those who eventually divorced–fought differently. Wives raised issues harshly–especially when their husbands ignored them or put them down. (He named the wives’ openers “harsh start-ups.”) The husbands got upset more easily during arguments like these and had a harder time calming themselves down. And 94 percent of the time, conflicts that opened harshly didn’t get any better as they went along.
Rather than complaining about specifics, the wives frequently globalized their criticisms, using phrases like “you never” and rhetorical questions like “What’s wrong with you?” The husbands, for their part, frequently shut down, playing emotional possum or becoming as blank as a cement wall. The reverberation between them was so toxic that Gottman named criticism and stonewalling as two of his Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse. (The other two are defensiveness and contempt.) The presence of the Four Horsemen alone, he found, combined with pulse rates that rose above 95 beats per minute during a disagreement, were highly reliable predictors of divorce.
The background music of the less successful relationships, not surprisingly, was halting. In both happy and unhappy couples, partners made plenty of subtle bids for attention, closeness, or reassurance. But the partners headed for divorce responded to each other’s bids only 33 percent of the time, while the happy couples’ response rate was 86 percent.
Finally, Gottman’s research showed him that it wasn’t only how the couple fought that mattered, but how they made up afterward–what he called a “repair,” echoing the language of engineering. In a longitudinal study of 130 newlywed couples published in 1998, Gottman found that 83 percent of marriages initially exhibiting the Four Horsemen became stable over time, as long as the couple learned to reconcile successfully after a fight.
Then in 1994, John Gottman went canoeing in Puget Sound off Orcas Island with his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, an experienced clinical psychologist in her own right. Mindful of the dismal showing of most existing couples therapies in outcome studies, he suggested that they combine his research and her therapeutic wisdom to fashion a science-based couples therapy.
They began writing a manual that night. Later they organized weekend workshops and started a Seattle clinic eventually staffed by 16 clinicians. In 1998, they began leading advanced trainings for therapists. By 2004, 4,000 couples had gone through their workshops or their clinic. By 2006, more than 3,000 therapists had taken a basic training workshop with them, 65 therapists had been certified in their approach, and 600 more were well on their way to certification.
The Gottmans call their new approach Gottman Method Couples Therapy. It braids together classic therapeutic skills with two new elements: scientific dispassion and scientific authority. The dispassion comes from their extensive use of assessment and feedback, a legacy of John’s research training. More than 30 pen-and-paper questionnaires are methodically administered to each partner before therapy begins; videotaping and heart-monitoring are part of therapy itself. The authority comes from the research showing that therapists using this approach can decisively stop their clients from exercising the Four Horsemen of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. They can teach their clients the behavioral skills used by Gottman’s “masters of marriage,” including little kindnesses that build a strong marital friendship, and tools to regulate conflict. Perhaps most important, the dispassion, structure, and authority of the approach act as counterweights to the discouragement and chaos often generated by couples in trouble–emotional storms that blow many a therapist into taking sides or losing control altogether.
Last April, Brian, my almost husband, and I flew from San Francisco to Seattle to attend a two-day weekend couples workshop with the Gottmans called “The Art and Science of Love.”
An old joke says that women marry expecting men to change, and men marry expecting women not to. Even though we aren’t yet married–we’re both long divorced from other people–Brian and I fill that bill. I want him to dress better, set limits with his adult sons, and change his job. He wants me to lighten up. After seven years together, he still leaves me notes saying how much he loves me, and I still bring coffee and the newspaper up to our bedroom on Saturday mornings. But much as I hate to admit it, if John Gottman installed a video camera in our home, he’d sometimes catch us cohabiting with the Four Horsemen. I’m a master at the harsh start-up. I’ve ambushed Brian with pressing concerns when he’s still half-asleep, rolled my eyes contemptuously during arguments, and couched my complaints as variants of “What’s wrong with you?”
Brian, for his part, has often promised to consult me before inviting his sons to stay with us–and hasn’t. I moved into his house six years ago, and I still sometimes feel perched there, overwhelmed by free-floating testosterone. He doesn’t always keep agreements, and when I want a straight answer, he can fend me off with stonewalling and an evasive Irish-American jokiness that drives me up the wall. By the time we flew to Seattle, we’d begun avoiding some of our most tender differences rather than risk a fight.
That, in a nutshell, is our shared emotional climate at 9:40 a.m. on a windy Saturday last spring. We sit together in the front row of a huge conference room, packed with couples in similar straits, not far from the old Seattle World’s Fair Space Needle. John and Julie Gottman are standing in front of us, warning us about the Four Horsemen, and suggesting that instead of tackling our most upsetting issues head-on, we start obliquely, building a “culture of appreciation” for each other. In sum, they want us to improve our background music.
“If you make a very small correction,” John Gottman says, “doing stuff that seems natural and small, over time, it’ll make a big difference.” The idea is to fiddle with thousands of tiny daily interactions–things so seemingly trivial that it’s hard to imagine they’d make any difference at all–as if we’re fine-tuning a complex carburetor.
“You build romance and passion and great sex through little moments,” he goes on, citing tidbits of his research showing that unhappy couples often respond positively to each other–just not often enough. He’s 64 and slight, with a white beard and luminous eyes. He’s wearing a bright-red tie and a yarmulke, but there’s something about the way he sometimes throws out terms like “vasoconstriction” and “chance levels of prediction” that makes it easy to imagine him in a white lab coat.
I wonder if Brian is getting bored.
John’s wife Julie, who’s the copresenter of the workshop, is 55, zaftig, humorous, and easy, with long, curling, black-gray hair and the full, low, soothing voice of a practiced psychotherapist. She wears sensible shoes and a therapist-as-priestess black and white kimono, banded with images drawn from Haida Indian totem poles.
Joining Brian and me in the audience are about 200 other couples from many states in the union, in varying states of wedded bliss and distress. Most have paid $600 to be here. Some women lean forward, their expressions hopeful, rapt, or desperate. Some men sit back with their arms crossed, like attendees at a weekend traffic school.
Sometimes I poke an elbow into Brian to underline a point. Every now and again he whispers to me, “Let’s acknowledge the men!” amazed that so many have agreed to be here on the opening weekend of the NBA basketball playoffs.
On our laps are melon-colored, three-ring binders entitled “The Art and Science of Love.” What differentiates this workshop from others on the market, the binder says, is that it’s grounded not in idealistic notions of what marriage ought to be, but on “solid research on what actually works in relationships that are happy and stable.”
Embedded in this sentence is a clinical hypothesis: that unhappy couples can be taught to do what happy couples do. This assumption underlies not only this workshop and Gottman Method Couples Therapy, but also aspects of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the Positive Psychology movement, and Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
The hypothesis assumes that unhappy couples have the maturity and the emotional wherewithal at least to try to treat each other differently. I wonder if that’s true for me.
There’s another difference between this and other couples approaches that the binder doesn’t mention: the Gottmans’ work is men-friendly. Some of the language that their therapy uses–“relationship repair,” “overrides,” and “harsh start-ups,” for instance–could have come from a car-repair manual. It’s a dirty little secret that men are often dragged to couples therapy, and feel emotionally illiterate or ganged-up-on once they get there. The exercises in our binders, however, look doable, practical, and circumscribed, rather than like an endless dive into the amorphous emotional depths.
The workshop’s goal is to help us learn to imitate Gottman’s long-married master couples. The bedrock of their successful relationships, it’s explained, is marital friendship, built granule upon granule, through tiny rituals of courtesy, kindness, humor, and appreciation. Successful couples, have large “cognitive maps” of each other’s worlds. They’re curious about each other’s inner lives, and they don’t stint on expressing their appreciation for each other. When one of them makes a subtle bid for attention–something as simple as “look at the pretty boats”–the other one usually responds positively.
This system of mutual stroking, according to the Gottmans’ model, produces “positive sentiment override”–an emotional tipping point that allows spouses to think, in tense moments, “My sweetie must be having a hard day” rather than “What a jerk!” or “He doesn’t love me.” And that makes it easier to disagree without being disagreeable.
It all seems eminently doable, but I’m not convinced. For me, the complex weather of human relationships conforms more closely to the dynamics of chaos theory than to Newtonian physics. The Gottmans’ structure seems too linear and mechanistic. But maybe, I think with a glance at Brian, who’s paying close attention, it’s an image that works for men.
In unhappy couples, the presenters continue, the relative dearth of positive feedback engenders a destructive cognitive shift over time to “negative sentiment override”–essentially, assuming the worst about one’s partner. This leads to what John Gottman calls the “fundamental attribution error”–a default setting of blame, in which all the problems in the relationship are the partner’s fault. Fights escalate and become a contest of wills, replete with the Four Horsemen. Both partners get painfully flooded with emotion and sometimes withdraw. Over time, this can result in a cascade of isolation, distance, loneliness, parallel lives, and eventual divorce.
When I hear this, I think of the morning 15 years ago, not long before my marriage ended, when my former husband sat opposite me at our kitchen table and gently stroked my head with the tip of a three-foot dowel, like a lobster using his antenna to groom a mate he dared not touch.
But that was a long time ago. Today, in a series of unthreatening exercises, I have a chance to do things differently. During the weekend, the Gottmans explain, Brian and I will be taught how to put deposits in our joint “emotional bank account” and engender “positive sentiment override.” We’ll learn to soothe each other and ourselves. And finally we’ll develop ways to manage the conflicts we can’t resolve, honor each other’s dreams, and create a life of shared meaning.
No longer drifting in a river of emotion, I find myself looking at our relationship dispassionately, with the mind of a scientist. I realize how often Brian pays me compliments, and how seldom I compliment him. I ask myself: Why not be nicer? Where’s the risk? “I don’t give as many small things,” I write in my notebook. “I need to criticize less. I need to learn softened start-up. I need to listen when he’s overwhelmed. I need to learn when I’m overwhelmed.”
And when John Gottman says how important it is for men to make cognitive room for their wives’ dreams and accept their wives’ influence, I think of times I’ve felt run over or ignored, and I give Brian an elbow-poke.
A few minutes later, the introductory lecture concludes and the Gottmans send us out to adjoining breakout rooms for the “Love Map,” our first partner exercise. We find two chairs facing each other and begin. One by one, Brian and I turn over cards we’ve taken from a plastic pocket in our binder and guess the answers to questions like, “Who is your partner’s best friend? What are his or her dreams and aspirations? Who is his or her favorite poet?”
I miss his favorite magazine– Mother Jones –but get both of his second choices right– Rolling Stone and Time. He gets all of my magazines right except The New Yorker. I name his best friend and he names mine, but I realize there are two women whom I talk to daily whose names he doesn’t even know. These women are aware that I dream of selling my house in Mill Valley and building a straw-bale house from scratch in the dairy country near Tomales Bay, and going there to write. I’ve never told Brian about this dream. Mired in our day-to-day struggles, I realize, we seldom talk about our larger hopes and aspirations.
I miss his favorite poet–John O’Donohue–but get the next two right–Uriah Mountain Dreamer and Mary Oliver. He misses my favorite poet–Mary Oliver–but gets the next one right: Jane Hirshfield.
We feel close and happy. This is fun. Brian loves the exercise. He says he wants us to do this once a month when we get home.
So the day goes. Every hour or so, after a minilecture and a role-play from the two Gottmans, we stream out of the auditorium with our binders into adjoining breakout rooms to do little exercises with our partners. Along the walls stand roving therapists certified (or close to being certified) in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Every now and again, a distressed or confused husband or wife holds up a small red card–like the penalty card in soccer–and a clinician quietly moves in like a therapeutic AAA truck to coach them.
Now we pick from a deck of “opportunity cards” that suggest ways we can turn toward each other. Brian nixes the notion of spending an evening discussing what I’d like to change about the interior of the house, but promises to plan a weeklong getaway when we get home. He turns down my offer to bring flowers home, but asks me to surprise him with tickets to a concert. We look down a list in the binder and circle things like “doing a favorite activity together,” “playing together,” “taking vacations together,” and “time to make love.” It’s shocking to realize how hard we work, how long it’s been since we went biking together in the country, and how much we’d like to do it again some time.
We’re working behaviorally, moving up stair-steps like the itsy-bitsy spider, building the foundation of what the Gottmans call our “sound relationship house.” The structure resembles Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–starting with a solid friendship, proceeding to negotiating conflicts, and then to higher-level relationship needs. The Gottmans’ goal isn’t for couples to achieve a relationship rivaling Antony and Cleopatra’s, but rather to learn how to have a good-enough marriage. A marriage is good enough, John Gottman once wrote, “If the two spouses choose to have coffee and pastries together on a Saturday afternoon and really enjoy the conversation, even if they don’t heal one another’s childhood wounds or don’t always have wall-socket, mind-blowing, skyrocket sex.”
The day proceeds. Between exercises, we take breaks for tea and pile little paper plates with grapes and slices of cut pineapple. The Gottmans don’t drag any of us onstage to open our hearts in front of strangers. They don’t deliver any aren’t-I-smart paradoxical interventions, tell us that men are from Mars, or teach us how to exchange quid-pro-quos, like “I’ll do the dishes and stroke your back if you’ll have more sex with me.” They don’t suggest that marriage is a sexual crucible, as David Schnarch holds, or that it’s a God-given opportunity for deep emotional healing, as Imago’s Helen Hunt and Harville Hendrix contend. They just want us to create small, gentle changes in the trajectory of our relationships–ones that might create big payoffs if practiced over time.
A good Gottman marriage, I start to think, is a bit like a 16-foot scale model of an ocean liner made from 194,000 toothpicks and seven gallons of glue. They don’t want to us to remake ourselves from scratch. They’re handing us toothpicks, some glue, and a blueprint.
Struggling to Open Up
The next exercise, after lunch, is a step more intimate. We turn to a checklist in our binders, choose three positive qualities we see in our partners, and tell each other about them.
Brian checks that I’m “thrifty,” “creative,” and “a great friend,” and writes comments like “you know your limits . . . smart bright writer and teacher . . . I trust you.”
I decide he is “virile,” “committed,” “protective,” and “playful,” remembering how he took care of both of our airline boarding passes and insisted we squeeze in a ferry ride on Puget Sound before the workshop began.
Like many couples, we come back to the big room hand in hand.
Next, after Brian takes a break, hovering around the tables laid out with tea and cut fruit, comes practicing a “stress reducing conversation.” Learning to buffer our relationship from the stresses of the world, the Gottmans say, is critical to maintaining closeness over time. This means being Brian’s ally, his sympathetic ear, his cheerleader, and not his educator, coach, critic, or mentor–a big shift for me.
For once, I simply listen and accept when he tells me he’s so stressed by his job that he doesn’t have the energy to change it. Instead of giving him a checklist of things to do, I take in his exhaustion and fragility.
When it’s my turn, and I talk about wanting to drop a work responsibility, he says, “What stops you from doing something about it?” I feel reprimanded. I ask him to just listen. Then I speak not only of my own driven work habits, but of my difficulty saying no and of the day long ago when my beloved father beat me badly when I was caught after running away.
Brian takes my hand, looks in my eyes, and tells me he’s never before really “gotten” what my childhood was like. He has tears in his eyes.
What we’ve just done together sounds so innocuous–a standard-issue exercise in reflective listening. I’ve done things like it before, although never with someone I’m so close to. And we’ve gone deeper than I expected. This isn’t territory the Gottmans warned us about. I wonder if there are hidden reasons why Brian and I don’t treat each other better, and marvel at how easily intimate partnerships can reawaken the hurts of our first deep connections. For a long time–perhaps since the end of my marriage, perhaps since childhood–I’ve been Miss Hard-Boiled, making sure I didn’t risk too much closeness. Now that I’ve been more open with Brian (and vice versa) my heart hurts.
As it turns out, I’m not alone. Others in the rooms here seem to have emotional reasons–far deeper than mere ignorance or lack of skill–for not being able to “act as if” and do what happy couples do. A man to my left spends big chunks of time either reading the New York Times sports section or sitting with his eyes half-closed. To my right, before another exercise, one woman stays behind in the auditorium, hanging onto her husband and sobbing inconsolably. I wonder about her story: what long-ago childhood betrayal or recent affair fuels her tears? Another man and woman stand outside smoking in the courtyard, not talking, not touching, just staring into space. Are they too far down the “distance and isolation cascade” to turn back? Around the breakout rooms, red cards fly up. Two sets of chairs away from us, a man points to his wife accusingly. “I saw it!” he says. “You rolled your eyes! That’s contempt!”
That night, Brian and I have a lovely dinner at an Italian restaurant across from our hotel. We bemoan the fact that we didn’t set aside a few extra days just for fun, and swear we’re going to come back to Seattle again sometime without work obligations. As we look over the bill and recap the day, Brian casually says, “I don’t know about the love maps. What difference does it make if I know who your favorite poet is?”
This strikes one of my enduring vulnerabilities: my fear of never being known or understood. Quicker than thought, I say harshly, “You’re missing the point.” In his eyes, I see reflected the altar boy he once was, being reprimanded by a nun. For a moment, the good feelings of the day are scattered like toothpicks.
We’ve been here before: what the Gottmans would call my “harsh start-up” has hurt what I’d call the little boy inside my man. Brian starts a slow, sustained, invisible burn. It’s little comfort to me that Gottman found many couples like us when he did his research: sensitive couples who easily got hurt; men incurious about their partner’s life; women who felt ignored and therefore hit their men over the head with a rhetorical two-by-four to make a point. Those were the couples who often ended up getting divorced.
Later that night, we lie side by side on a huge king-sized bed. We aren’t touching. It’s a smoking room: the little hotel is full of couples from the workshop, and by the time we signed up, this was the only room left. The smell of smoke is in the air, especially now that we’ve closed the windows against the evening cold. Brian is on his side, turned away from me, angry.
“Nothing’s ever good enough for you,” he says.
I think of the toxic effects of the Four Horsemen, and that gives me the wherewithal to tell Brian that’s a criticism rather than a complaint. Then, borne on the stream of the workshop, I reach out my hand and stroke his back. I hear two sets of footsteps, and a door open and close down the hall.
I stroke Brian’s back and shoulder for a long time, as the light in the room fades. I wonder whether his heart rate is over 95 beats a minute, remembering John Gottman’s remarks not long before the workshop day ended about the physical flooding or “diffuse physiological arousal” that often occurs when couples fight: cortisol is secreted, the heart races and the blood pumps, perceptions narrow, and the processing of new information virtually ceases. Men respond more intensely than women to a stressor, like a gunshot; they’re more likely to sustain angry thoughts after a fight; and their hearts take much more time to slow down again. Through the years, this recurrent neurological cascade can damage men’s immune and cardiovascular systems. This gender difference may help explain why women often are more wiling to engage in emotionally upsetting conversations than are men.
As I lie there, I also remember Julie Gottman telling us, in her soothing, therapeutic voice, that it isn’t the fight that matters so much as how the couple repairs things afterward. So I murmur, doing my best to own my part in things, and to nudge Brian gently to forgive me. I’m not in a rush, happy simply stroking him, simply feeling his skin. Finally he makes a joke–the kind of thing Gottman says that his master couples do to break tension. He turns to face me, and when he’s naked like this, his bright eyes and grey beard somehow remind me of the battle-scarred Ulysses returning, almost unrecognizable after 20 years, to his faithful Penelope.
Finally, after hours of closeness, we sleep.
Learning How to Fight
On the morning of day two of the workshop, the Gottmans show us that they, too, fight, and not always gracefully. They’ve been married for 20 years. Both were married before, they’ve told me, and both came from painful, though decidedly different, family backgrounds.
John was born in the Dominican Republic to poor Jewish refugees from Vienna who had lost 24 members of their extended families to the Holocaust. Julie was raised in Portland, Oregon, where her father was a successful doctor and her mother a depressed incest survivor. Her early family life was so painful that she often slept in the woods.
John found a refuge at MIT, in the precision of mathematics and science. He admits he was “clueless” about male-female relationships as a teenager, and later decided that since he wasn’t succeeding at relationships, he might as well study them. Over the years, he slowly learned to imitate what his master couples did. Julie, by contrast, had visions in the woods calling her to become a healer. She became a clinical psychologist, working with trauma survivors and Vietnam veterans, and she served long apprenticeships with two American Indian medicine women. I sometimes I wonder how they ever learned to respect, much less integrate, their different ways of being.
The fact that it’s not always easy is laid bare on Sunday morning, when they reprise an old fight and role-play “repair.” Julie begins by describing how she’d woken up one morning having dreamt that John had been flirting with other women. Already anxious about an upcoming speech, she’d wandered into the bathroom, where John was brushing his teeth. She’d told him her dream. He’d murmured reassuringly and hugged her for what seemed to her like a few seconds and what seemed to him like a long, long time.
He’d turned away–abruptly, Julie thought–and she’d gotten into the shower, feeling even more alone.
Now John takes up the thread, describing how he’d thought to himself, Wait a second! He’d apologized to Julie for things he’d done in a dream –things he hadn’t actually done and wasn’t thinking of doing. Hadn’t he been cleaning up around the house lately, the way she asked him to, without much acknowledgement? Hadn’t he been cooking her lots of great fish dinners? She has some nerve, having this dream about me being a louse, he said to himself. Don’t we have enough problems during the day without her making up new ones at night?!
Then before he knew it, John said, he was snapping at Julie, and she was standing in the shower in tears.
I glance down at the page in my binder entitled “Aftermath of a Fight or Disagreement” and its subheads: Share Your Subjective Reality, Find Something in Your Partner’s Story that You Can Understand, Are You Flooded? Admitting Your Own Role, and Making It Better in the Future.
I think of times, in my marriage and in long-gone relationships, when I, like Julie, wanted reassurance and had gotten none. At such times, I’d usually decided that I’d picked the wrong man to be with. The Gottmans don’t go there. I feel almost naughty listening in on their argument, as if they’ve raised a black curtain and I’m watching them pole-dance or violate some other cultural taboo. In this culture, very little gets said about the years after the honeymoon, the years that fairytales call “Happily Ever After” and Joseph Campbell called the “spiritual ordeal” of ordinary marriage. If Brian and I had an interchange this painful–and we did just last night, and haven’t fully recovered yet–I’d be tempted to tell nobody for fear of hearing, “What a jerk! Why do you put up with him?” or “Why does he put up with you?”
Modeling imperfection for us, the Gottmans show the normality of relationship angst–even recurrent angst. On the surface, they’re teaching us behavioral skills and evidence-based techniques–how to understand your partner’s equally valid reality, and how to reconcile. But on the metalevel, what they’re teaching doesn’t come from John’s research. It’s wordless and embodied–a normalizing of the fact that little things can set off surprising ambushes of hurt in intimate relationships. After watching the Gottmans in action, Brian and I don’t look so odd to me.
“My subjective reality is that I come from a background where I was beaten up,” Julie goes on as they model the process of repair. “I don’t have a lot of self-confidence, especially when I have to give speeches to powerful people.”
“I dream symbolically,” she continues. “The person in the dream becomes the symbol of someone who’s hurting me.”
“So I become . . . .?” interjects John.
“You’re not supposed to talk now,” Julie says quickly. “As a good little psychologist ( Do I detect contempt, humor, or just anxiety here? I wonder fleetingly), I thought you’d understand that my dream is sym-bol-ic. I needed you to be by my side, and you couldn’t be, and I felt very alone.”
Then Julie softens, moving to find something in her partner’s story that she can understand. “You try so hard to be a good husband–and you are a good husband.” She starts to sniffle.
“Are you flooded?” John asks gently.
“Yes I am,” she says. She turns away and takes a few deep breaths.
“I’m a little flooded, too,” says John. “Let’s take a minute to calm down.”
“I have been taking you for granted,” Julie goes on after a pause. “Perhaps I haven’t made time for good things between us because we’re both so darn busy. And you have been making some fabulous fish dinners”
Now it’s John’s turn to share his subjective reality. “Things haven’t been going the way I wanted them to at work,” he says, referring to a major federal grant that hadn’t come through. He adds, “I haven’t had time to play music, and when I don’t, I’m mad at the world.”
A little while later, as they move toward making it better in the future, John asks, “Next time, would you tell me that your dream is symbolic, so I’m not expected to be a psychologist all the time?”
“What if I say, ´I’m so raw, so vulnerable, I really need a good long hug?'” asks Julie.
John hesitates, pauses, and agrees, without enthusiasm.
“Okay,” says Julie. “We’re done.”
“No we’re not,” says John. “What’s one thing you could do differently?
Julie cocks her head.
“I could start by saying, ´This dream isn’t really about you,'” she says.
“That’s great!” says John, with apparently genuine enthusiasm and surprise. “Okay! Are we buddies?”
If only it were that simple, I think.
A Fight That Deepens Connection
Now it’s our turn. We stream out to the breakout room again. Brian takes an inordinately long time getting slices of pineapple and tea.
Our assignment is to take a minor, resolvable conflict and process it the way the Gottmans did. The binder tells us “there is no absolute ‘reality’ in a disagreement but rather two subjective realities.’ “We are to practice “softened start-up” and making I-statements.
I glance over the cheat sheet in the binder’s back pocket called the Repair Checklist. It contains suggested lines: “I feel defensive. Can you rephrase that? How can I make things better? Let’s compromise here.” I’m game.
I fetch Brian from the refreshment table. It dawns on me that he looks pale, and that he’s not quite as enthusiastic as I am to go on. In the middle of the night last night–after hours of touching–he’d jumped out of bed, having dreamt that I was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him.
I open my binder to the appropriate page and ask him to look over my shoulder at the Chinese-menu list of relationship differences for us to choose from. Yesterday we’d added “television” and “whether or not to get married” to the list, on top of “handling finances” (I’m more frugal), “how to raise and discipline children” (I have none and he has two), and “alcohol” (he likes it and I don’t).
“Can we just cool the jets?” he says. It’s too much, he goes on. He wants us to sit this one out.
I don’t want to say yes.
We raise our red card. A therapist comes over and suggests we try “television.” That seems too trivial to me, while everything else seems impossibly sticky. As we wander desultorily toward the breakout room, Brian hangs a few steps back.
I want to do the exercise. I’m afraid that if we don’t, I’ll miss out, we won’t learn how to reconcile after a fight, and my article won’t pan out well. I’m thinking, Okay, I get it, Brian, you’re overwhelmed. Now can we just please go ahead and do the exercise, please?
But now I’m stuck in an Escher-like paradox. In order to do the exercise, I’d have to violate the spirit of the exercise, which is to honor my partner’s reality and be willing to compromise. In the Gottmans’ lingo, I need to maintain an up-to-date cognitive map of Brian’s inner world. At this moment, his inner world is flooded by a neurohormonal cascade of cortisol and adrenaline spawned by last night’s fight and his subsequent nightmare. I ponder the strange fragility of men, especially this one particular man. This bearded guy, six feet two inches tall, who loaded all my luggage into the car in Mill Valley, is now blanching at the notion of having a 15-minute argument? This guy who bicycles and jogs and took protective care of my airline boarding pass–he can’t stand to look at a cheat sheet and try out expressions like “This is important to me. Please listen?”
Could it be that when it comes to emotional discussions, men are the ones who strain to lift the bags, and women are the triathletes? Could it be that men who tell us in so many words to back off are expressing their vulnerability, not their callousness?
These, of course, are afterthoughts. At the time, I wanted just to forge ahead, like the obedient subject in the Stanley Milgram experiment who continued to administer “shocks” to an allegedly helpless fellow subject who appeared to be in pain.
Not knowing what else to do, we recruit two more therapists, a man and a woman, from the back wall. Brian runs through his story of feeling overwhelmed again as if it belonged to us both. My stomach tightens, and I interrupt: I’m not overwhelmed. He is. I want to go ahead.
I wonder if we’re too weird for this workshop.
The four of us sit down together, Brian and I facing each other with a therapist on either side, our chairs forming a rough square. The woman therapist turns to me and suggests we two take a break. The male therapist, who’s “shadowing” the woman, as part of his certification process, says nothing.
I lean forward, my hands on my knees. I don’t want listen to her. I open the binder. I decide to make this current disagreement–over whether or not to do the exercise –the subject of the exercise. At the top of a page I see, “Find something in your partner’s story that you can understand.” I ask Brian, a bit mechanically, to tell me how he feels. I say back that I hear that he feels overwhelmed, that he needs a break. Merely repeating back what he’s saying makes me realize that it’s true: he really is overwhelmed. The odd thing is, I’m trying to do that old therapeutic stand-by, reflective listening–this is something that John Gottman says successful couples don’t do during fights.
Now I take a turn to share my subjective reality: how important it is for me to follow the rules, to move forward, to be obedient, to get things done. Saying this in the presence the two therapists, who essentially are just tracking what we’re doing without commenting, somehow loosens my hold on having to get my own way. And this, in turn, makes it easier for me to do what John Gottman calls “accepting influence from one’s partner”–realizing dimly that it’s not only men who refuse influence from their partners, not only men who sometimes bullheadedly play the king and cross their arms like adolescents.
I feel heard by the two of therapists, whose names I barely know. And I’ve heard Brian. Although the exercise isn’t officially over yet, I’m ready to stop even though it means not following the rules. Brian and I walk outside to the courtyard and breathe the fresh air until a bell sounds to bring us all back.
During the next minilecture–on how to handle “gridlocked” perpetual conflicts–Brian whispers to me that he’s decided to leave after lunch, instead of taking a plane at 3 p.m. as he’d originally planned. I’m sorry, but for once I feel no need to push him or lay out all the good, logical reasons why he should stay with me.
It’s a paradox: I feel far more connected to Brian, and yet my hands aren’t clenched. Before the workshop, I’d assumed that I was a failure–and our relationship was a failure–if we didn’t solve our conflicts, once and for all, the way I had in mind. I don’t think that way anymore.
Flying home the next day, taking care of my own boarding pass and my own luggage, I remember the cautionary words of Wendell Berry in an essay on marriage that capture some of what I learned in the workshop. “Some wishes cannot succeed. . . . Because the condition of marriage is worldly and it’s meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. . . . When you unite yourself with another, you unite yourselves with the unknown.”
I return to the chaos of the quotidian. Tulips touched with orange fire droop in a vase on our kitchen table and the weekend’s newspapers are piled around it. In the living room, my 25-year-old stepson Zack is checking his email with his best friend, Ned, standing by, and both of them, to my surprise, are planning to spend the night. If I ever needed proof of one of the Gottmans’ most basic propositions–that 69 percent of what couples argue about doesn’t change–this is it.
In the months since the workshop ended, I’ve found such Gottmanesque statistics oddly comforting–and surprisingly therapeutic. When I raise something with Brian and feel awkward, I remind myself that women raise 80 percent of the issues in relationships, and I feel normal again. When I can’t get a straight answer, I cite Gottman’s research on the importance of men’s taking influence from their wives. And when I’m irritated, I remember that 96 percent of the time, people who use a “harsh start-up” find the conversation doesn’t go the way they’d hoped.
As I write these words, it’s been four months since the night Brian and I lay on that impossibly wide bed in Seattle. For a month or so after we got back, we consciously had “stress reducing conversations” in the evenings, but lately we’ve slacked off. I haven’t yet, as I promised, surprised Brian with music tickets. (He surprised me.) Brian didn’t find us a place this summer for a getaway as he’d promised. (I did.) But he and I did go kayaking last weekend on Tomales Bay, much to our joint delight.
Things between us seem different–gentler, warmer, closer, more fun–and not so different, since we have the same old conflicts. But we discuss more and argue less. Brian never invites his sons over anymore without checking in with me (if I weren’t typing this right now, my fingers would be crossed). If John Gottman had a hidden camera running in our house today, he’d see a lot less of the Four Horsemen. I wouldn’t yet classify us as being among the masters of marriage, but I’ve become much better at the softened start-up. When I’m grateful or admiring of something Brian has done, I’m far likelier to say it out loud.
Describing things this way seems too pat, though. Not even the most complex computer model could disentangle the variables of our lives together, or even of our weekend in Seattle. When I look back, I don’t remember statistics. Instead I remember leaning into Brian’s arms and looking out at the dark blue of the bay on our ferry ride; I remember stroking his back in bed at the Hotel Marqueen; I remember the two therapists who sat and witnessed us.
In the realm of numbers and words, the world of the intuitive human community will always be at a disadvantage. Yet quantification always leaves something out. Our weekend was a union of science and intuition, and it’s far easier to write about the science. But a mysterious alchemy takes place when a person lets go of old moorings and casts off into the unknown–as I did, when Brian showed me his vulnerable face and I didn’t turn away. If he and I hadn’t happened upon those two therapists that morning, I might not have dared do that. They held me while I moved into a new experience of accepting Brian as he is. John Gottman’s research and all the weekend’s little exercises may have prepared the ground for that experience, but they didn’t take me there.
I look over my notes at Gottman’s percentages and I still find them oddly comforting and reassuring. But it isn’t the same comfort that I get from remembering how, in a smoky hotel room one Saturday night in Seattle, I reached across a huge king-sized bed and Brian turned to meet me.
Katy Butler, a former features editor and staff writer for Psychotherapy Networker, is the author of two award-winning books about aging and living meaningfully in life’s final quarter, especially in relation to modern medicine. Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2013) was a New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book of the Year. The Art of Dying Well (2019) is a road map —practical, medical, and spiritual —through the significant passages of life after 55. Katy’s groundbreaking work for the Networker was nominated for one National Magazine Award and contributed to several other NMA awards and nominations. Her writing has also appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Tricycle: the Buddhist Quarterly, Scientific American, Best American Essays, and Best American Science Writing. Other honors include first-place awards from the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists; a “Best First Book” award; and a finalist nomination for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in northern California and loves to dance in the kitchen to Alexa with her husband Brian.