Using Science to Determine Why Relationships Succeed or Fail

John and Julie Gottman and the 'Four Horsemen' of the Relationship Apocalypse

John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman

Recently, there’ve been thousands of studies on what works and doesn’t in individual psychotherapy treatment. Now we know that for many people, cognitive therapy eases depression, behavioral desensitization cures phobias, and medication helps contain psychoses. As therapists, we look to these methods to help our clients because they’ve been scientifically validated and have proven helpful. But what methods do we use when it comes to treating couples?

Science has substantiated the value of interdependency. Medical research has demonstrated that when patients depend on others and aren’t alone, they recover faster and better from a whole host of problems, including heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. Psychological studies have also shown that people who are in committed relationships tend to live longer and are happier and more successful than those who live alone. In addition, sociologists have found that people who possess greater social capital—that is, networks of others they depend on---report greater life satisfaction than those with little social capital. There’s little doubt that interdependency has distinct life-giving benefits.

Scientific studies did well at exposing the myths about relationships. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone actually observed couples’ relationships to discover the truth of why some relationships succeeded while others failed. Up until then, most studies had relied on partners filling out questionnaires or supplying self-reports. But these methods were littered with flaws and bias. There were still no valid answers to explain the course of relationships.

In 1976, John and Robert Levenson teamed up. Levenson brought to the research a specialized knowledge of psychophysiology and its measurement that was added to rating dial procedures. In the lab, couples were wired up to instruments that measured heart rate, sweat gland production, blood velocity, and overall bodily movement. These measurements were synched to the video timecode. Then the couples were asked to discuss a conflict issue for 15 minutes. For some couples, as they became upset their physiological measurements rocketed into the stratosphere. They might have looked calm on the outside but inside, their heart rates would jump to 100–150 beats per minute. Their hands would sweat, their blood would race, and their bodies would jiggle. These data indicated that they were experiencing an attack. In the moment the partner facing them resembled a saber-toothed tiger with fangs bared. In response, they shifted into diffuse physiological arousal (DPA), a state of fight-or-flight.

The Four Horsemen

Since then, we’ve studied more than 3,000 couples and participated in studies of 3,500 more. Here’s a summary of everything our couples have taught us.

First, there are four big predictors of relationship demise. We call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, after the biblical harbingers of doom. The first Horseman is criticism. If partners regularly use criticism to voice their complaints where one partner blames a problem on the other partner’s character flaws, the relationship will slowly sink. Words like “You never wash the dishes!” or “You’re so selfish” only inspire resentment, not cooperation or care.

The second Horseman is contempt. This one leads couples to gallop over a cliff. Partners who are contemptuous act superior and punctuate their criticisms with a sneer, a left lip corner raise, or an eye roll that signifies their superiority and disgust. They may also mock their partner or use sarcasm, like “Aw, your pinkie hurts? Poor baby. Guess that gets you out of doing the dishes...again.” When partners bludgeon each other with contempt, it not only destroys relationship happiness, it also shreds the listening partner’s immune system. The number of times one partner hears the other partner’s contempt during a 15-minute conflict discussion predicts how many infectious illnesses the listener will have the following year. Contempt quickly destroys relationships.

Partners who respond to each other with the third Horseman, defensiveness, are also riding roughshod toward demise. Defensiveness goes hand in hand with criticism and contempt, since few partners can withstand being trampled without wanting to defend themselves. When being defensive, partners may either play the innocent victim, as in “I do the dishes all the time. Why are you being so mean?” or they can counterattack, as in “You’re a fine one to talk. When was the last time you paid the bills?” This is the toughest communication habit to eradicate.

The fourth Horseman we call stonewalling. Gottman and Levenson found that when partners become physiologically aroused during conflict discussions with heart rates above 100 beats per minute, they often shut down all verbal responses, divert their gaze, and turn their bodies away, thus blocking out their partners and becoming in effect a stone wall. Slamming into walls is terrible for a relationship.

These Four Horsemen bear bad tidings for a relationship. In fact, couples plagued by them divorce an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. On the other hand, we find that almost everyone uses them from time to time (including us). But the difference between happy couples who are relationship masters and unhappy couples who are relationship disasters is that master couples make repairs; disaster couples don’t. Relationship masters don’t sweep bad fights or regrettable incidents under the rug and pretend they never happened. Instead, they return to them, talk about them, and try to understand them. They listen to each other’s feelings and points of view. They figure out what they each did wrong. Then they take responsibility for what they regret saying or doing and apologize. When regrettable incidents are processed like this, they lose their destructive force, like a typhoon that’s grounded and halted by moving inland.


So we come to our first principle for doing effective couples therapy: use research-based methods to treat couples.

The couples we see are often in terrible distress. Don’t they deserve the best we can give them? Couples therapy, like any form of psychotherapy, is an art form at its best. But underlying the art, we need methods built on the truth of what couples need to succeed, rather than those based in myths patched together out of stereotypes. And science is the avenue that can best lead us toward truth.

This blog is excerpted from “Lessons from the Love Lab." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Couples

Tags: depression | divorce | fighting | John Gottman | psychotherapy | relationships | therapist | therapy | marriage | love | couples research | couples thearpy | couples therapist | failing marriage | healthy relationships

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