Sep 04

“Making Marriage Work”: John Gottman Quotes

The following quotes from relationship expert John Gottman regarding marriage are from two of his most read books:

I. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert  by John Gottman and Nan Silver (1999)

…one of the most surprising truths about marriage: Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.

Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best protection against feeling adversarial toward your spouse.

The problem is that therapy that focuses solely on active listening and conflict resolution doesn’t work. A Munich-based marital therapy study conducted by Kurt Hahlweg and associates found that even after employing active-listening techniques the typical couple was still distressed. Those few couples who did benefit relapsed within a year.

II. The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples by John Gottman, 2011

…(T)he most common research finding across labs is that the first negative attribution people start making when the relationship becomes less happy is “my partner is selfish,” a direct reflection of a decrease in the trust metric. They then start to see their partner’s momentary emotional distance and irritability as a sign of a lasting negative trait. On the other hand, in happier relationships people make lasting positive trait attributions, like “my partner is sweet,” and tend to write off their partner’s momentary emotional distance and irritability as a temporary attribution, like “my partner is stressed.”

Converting a complaint into a positive need requires a mental transformation from what is wrong with one’s partner to what one’s partner can do that would work. It may be helpful here to review my belief that within every negative feeling there is a longing, a wish, and, because of that, there is a recipe for success. It is the speaker’s job to discover that recipe. The speaker is really saying “Here’s what I feel, and here’s what I need from you.” Or, in processing a negative event that has already happened, the speaker is saying, “Here’s what I felt, and here’s what I needed from you.”

Most couples are willing to spend an hour a week talking about their relationship. I suggest that emotional attunement can take place (at a minimum) in that weekly “state of the union” meeting. That means that at least an hour a week is devoted to the relationship and the processing of negative emotions. Couples can count on this as a time to attune. Later, after the skill of attunement is mastered, they can process negative emotions more quickly and efficiently as they occur. If the couple is willing, they take turns as speaker and listener. They get two clipboards, yellow pads, and pens for jotting down their ideas when they become a speaker, and for taking notes when they become a listener. It’s not a very high-tech solution, but the process of taking notes also helps people stay out of the flooded state. I suggest that at the start of the state of the union meeting, before beginning processing a negative event, each person talks about what is going right in the relationship, followed by giving at least five appreciations for positive things their partner has done that week. The meeting then continues by each partner talking about an issue in the relationship. If there is an issue they can use attunement to fully process the issue.

May 02

Active Listening Debunked By At Least Two Leading Researchers

“Many ‘active listening’ seminars are, in actuality, little more than a shallow theatrical exercise in appearing like you’re paying attention to another person. The requirements: Lean forward, make eye contact, nod, grunt, or murmur to demonstrate you’re awake and paying attention, and paraphrase something back every 30 seconds or so. As one executive I know wryly observed, many inhabitants of the local zoo could be trained to go through these motions, minus the paraphrasing.” Robert K. Cooper, co-author of Executive E.Q.

Neuroscientist Robert K. Cooper, quoted above, has extensively studied the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Psychologist John Gottman, often cited as one of our foremost marriage researchers, similarly pooh-poohs active listening. Like many therapists, he once thought it worked—he regularly recommended it to his clients. But eventually he found that it didn’t really help them.

“It’s my job to talk and yours to listen, but please, let me know if you finish before I do.” Anonymous

In an interview with Randall C. Wyatt on, Gottman explains that the concept works better in therapeutic dialogue than in real-life dialogue. The difference? In therapy, he states, “…the client is paying, the therapist isn’t paying. Usually the client is complaining about somebody else, so it’s very easy for the therapist to say: ‘Oh, that’s terrible what you have to put up with, your mother is awful, or your husband, or whatever it is. I really understand how you feel.'”

Why is it different in marriages? “(Be)cause now you’re the target, and your partner is saying: ‘You’re terrible,’ and you’re supposed to be able to empathize and be understanding. We found in our research that hardly anybody does that, even in great marriages. When somebody attacks you, you attack back…”

He adds that while empathy is important, “Real empathy comes from feeling your partner’s pain in a real way, and then doing something about it.” Just reflecting it back, therefore, isn’t the key—making a needed change in your behavior is what’s going to make the difference.