Magazine: New Age Journal
Issue: September/October 1994
Title: What Makes Love Last
Author: Alan AtKisson


My old friends Karen and Bill, married since 1955, recently 
celebrated another anniversary. "I wore the same nightgown I wore 
on our wedding night," confessed Karen to me over the phone. "Just 
as I have every anniversary for thirty-nine years." "I wore pajamas 
on our wedding night," offered Bill. "But last night I didn't wear 
nothin'." They laughed, and even over three thousand miles of 
telephone wire I felt the strength of their love for one another.

Long-lasting marriages like Bill's and Karen's are becoming 
increasingly rare. Not only do more than 50 percent of all first 
marriages in the United States end in divorce (make that 60 percent 
for repeat attempts), but fewer people are even bothering to tie 
the slippery knot in the first place. One fourth of Americans 
eighteen or older --  about 41 million people -- have never married 
at all. In 1970, that figure was only one sixth.

But even while millions of couples march down the aisle only to 
pass through the therapist's office and into divorce court, a quiet 
revolution is taking place when it comes to understanding how 
long-term love really works. Inside the laboratories of the Family 
Formation Project at the University of Washington in Seattle -- 
affectionately dubbed the Love Lab -- research psychologists are 
putting our most cherished relationship theories under the 
scientific microscope. What they're discovering is that much of 
what we regard as conventional wisdom is simply wrong.

"Almost none of our theory and practice [in marital therapy] is 
founded on empirical scientific research," contends the Love Lab's 
head, John Gottman, an award-winning research psychologist trained 
both as a therapist and a mathematician. Indeed, it is this lack of 
solid research, Gottman believes, that contributes to a 
discouraging statistic: for 50 percent of married couples who enter 
therapy, divorce is still the end result.

Gottman believes that, although relationship counseling has helped 
many people, much of it just doesn't work. Not satisfied with warm 
and fuzzy ideas about how to "get the love you want," Gottman is 
scouting for numbers, data, proof --  and he's finding it.

For the past twenty years, in a laboratory equipped with video 
cameras, EKGs, and an array of custom-designed instruments, Gottman 
and his colleagues have been intensely observing what happens when 
couples interact. He watches them talk. He watches them fight. He 
watches them hash out problems and reaffirm their love. He records 
facial expressions and self-reported emotions, heart rhythms and 
blood chemistry. He tests urine, memories, and couples' ability to 
interpret each other's emotional cues. Then he pours his data, like 
so many puzzle pieces, into a computer.

The resulting picture, he says, is so clear and detailed it's like 
"a cat scan of a living relationship." [See "Putting Love to the 
Test," at right.]

What Gottman and his colleagues have discovered -- and summarized 
for popular audiences in a new book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail 
(Simon & Schuster)  -- is mind-boggling in its very simplicity. His 
conclusion: Couples who stay together are . . . well . . . nice to 
each other more often than not. "[S]atisfied couples," claims 
Gottman, "maintained a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative 
moments" in their relationship. Couples heading for divorce, on the 
other hand, allow that ratio to slip below one-to-one.

If it ended there, Gottman's research might remain just an 
interesting footnote. But for him and his colleagues, this 
discovery is just the beginning. In fact, Gottman's novel and 
methodical approach to marriage research is threatening to turn 
much of current relationship therapy on its head. He contends that 
many aspects of wedded life often considered critical to long-term 
success --  how intensely people fight; whether they face conflict 
or avoid it; how well they solve problems; how compatible they are 
socially, financially, even sexually  -- are less important than 
people (including therapists) tend to think. In fact, Gottman 
believes, none of these things matter to a marriage's longevity as 
much as maintaining that crucial ratio of five to one.

If it's hard to believe that the longevity of your relationship 
depends primarily on your being five times as nice as you are nasty 
to each other, some of Gottman's other conclusions may be even more 
surprising. For example:

Wildly explosive relationships that vacillate between heated 
arguments and passionate reconciliations can be as happy -- and 
long- lasting -- as those that seem more emotionally stable. They 
may even be more exciting and intimate.

Emotionally inexpressive marriages, which may seem like repressed 
volcanoes destined to explode, are actually very successful -- so 
long as the couple maintains that five-to- one ratio in what they 
do express to each other. In fact, too much emotional catharsis 
among such couples can "scare the hell out of them," says Gottman.

Couples who start out complaining about each other have some of the 
most stable marriages over time, while those who don't fight early 
on are more likely to hit the rocky shoals of divorce.

Fighting, whether rare or frequent, is sometimes the healthiest 
thing a couple can do for their relationship. In fact, blunt anger, 
appropriately expressed, "seems to immunize marriages against 

In happy marriages, there are no discernible gender differences in 
terms of the quantity and quality of emotional expression. In fact, 
men in happy marriages are more likely to reveal intimate personal 
information about themselves than women. (When conflict erupts, 
however, profound gender differences emerge.)

Men who do housework are likely to have happier marriages, greater 
physical health, even better sex lives than men who don't. (This 
piece of news alone could cause a run on aprons.)

Women are made physically sick by a relentlessly unresponsive or 
emotionally contemptuous husband.

Gottman's researchers can even tell just how sick: They can predict 
the number of infectious diseases women in such marriages will 
suffer over a four-year period.

How warmly you remember the story of your relationship foretells 
your chances for staying together. In one study that involved 
taking oral histories from couples about the unfolding of their 
relationship, psychologists were able to predict -- with an 
astonishing 94 percent accuracy -- which couples would be divorced 
within three years.


In person, Gottman is a fast-talking, restless intellect, clearly 
in love with his work. Now in his late forties and seven years into 
a second marriage (to clinical psychologist Julie Schwartz), he 
seems very satisfied. Yet, in his book, he sheds the mantle of guru 
in the first sentence: "My personal life has not been a trail of 
great wisdom in understanding relationships," he says. "My 
expertise is in the scientific observation of couples."

Gottman began developing this expertise some twenty years ago, when 
a troubled couple who came to him for help didn't respond well to 
conventional therapy. In frustration, Gottman suggested that they 
try videotaping the sessions.

"Both the couple and I were astonished by the vividness and clarity 
on the tape of the pattern of criticism, contempt, and 
defensiveness they repeatedly fell into," he recalls. "It shocked 
them into working harder . . . [and] it gave me my life's work."

Struck by the power of impartial observation, Gottman became 
fascinated with research. His goal: to systematically describe the 
differences between happy and unhappy couples, and from those 
observations develop a scientific theory capable of predicting 
marital success.

This seemed a daunting task, both because "marriage is so 
subjective" and because "personality theory, in psychology, has 
been a failure at predicting anything."

The result of Gottman's passion is a veritable mountain of data: 
tens of thousands of observations involving thousands of couples, 
gathered by the Love Lab's researchers and stored in its computer 
data-bases. The geography of that mountain reveals a surprising 
pattern: Successful marriages come in not one but three different 
varieties, largely determined by how a couple handles their 
inevitable disagreements. Gottman calls these three types of stable 
marriages validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding.

Validating couples are what most people (including most therapists) 
have in mind when they think of a "good marriage." Even when these 
couples don't agree, they "still let their partner know that they 
consider his or her opinions and emotions valid." They "compromise 
often and calmly work out their problems to mutual satisfaction as 
they arise." And when they fight, they know how to listen, 
acknowledge their differences, and negotiate agreement without 
screaming at each other. "These couples," Gottman notes, "look and 
sound a lot like two psychotherapists engaging in a dialogue."

But where modern therapy often goes wrong, says Gottman, is in 
assuming that this is the only way a marriage can work -- and 
trying to force all couples into the validating mold. While 
"viewing this style of marriage as the ideal has simplified the 
careers of marital therapists," it hasn't necessarily helped their 
clients, he says, who may fall into the other two types of stable 

Volatile couples, in contrast to validating ones, thrive on 
unfiltered emotional intensity. Their relationships are full of 
angry growls and passionate sighs, sudden ruptures and romantic 
reconciliations. They may fight bitterly (and even unfairly), and 
they may seem destined for divorce to anyone watching them 
squabble. But Gottman's data indicate that this pessimism is often 
misplaced: These couples will stay together if "for every nasty 
swipe, there are five caresses."

In fact, "the passion and relish with which they fight seems to 
fuel their positive interactions even more." Such couples are more 
romantic and affectionate than most -- but they are also more 
vulnerable to a decay in that all-important five-to-one ratio (and 
at their worst, to violence). Trying to change the style of their 
relationship not only isn't necessary, Gottman says, it probably 
won't work.

Nor will conflict-avoiding couples, the third type of stable 
marriage, necessarily benefit from an increase in their emotional 
expression, he says. Gottman likens such unions to "the placid 
waters of a summer lake," where neither partner wants to make 
waves. They keep the peace and minimize argument by constantly 
agreeing to disagree. "In these relationships, solving a problem 
usually means ignoring the difference, one partner agreeing to act 
more like the other . . . or most often just letting time take its 
course." The universal five-to- one ratio must still be present for 
the couple to stay together, but it gets translated into a much 
smaller number of swipes and caresses (which are also less 
intensely expressed). This restrained style may seem stifling to 
some, but the couple themselves can experience it as a peaceful 

Things get more complicated when the marriage is "mixed" -- when, 
say, a volatile person marries someone who prefers to minimize 
conflict. But Gott-man suggests that, even in these cases, "it may 
be possible to borrow from each marital style and create a viable 
mixed style." The most difficult hurdle faced by couples with 
incompatible fighting styles lies in confronting that core 
difference and negotiating which style (or combination of styles) 
they will use. If they can't resolve that primary conflict, it may 
be impossible to tip the overall balance of their relational life 
in the direction of five-to-one.

The important thing here is to find a compatible fighting style -- 
not to stop fighting altogether. Gottman is convinced that the 
"one" in that ratio is just as important as the "five": "What may 
lead to temporary misery in a marriage  -- disagreement and anger 
-- may be healthy for it in the long run." Negativity acts as the 
predator in the ecosystem of marriage, says Gottman. It's the lion 
that feeds on the weakest antelopes and makes the herd stronger. 
Couples who never disagree at all may start out happier than 
others, but without some conflict to resolve their differences, 
their marriages may soon veer toward divorce because their 
"ecosystem" is out of balance.


Even the most stable marriages of any style can fall apart, and 
Gottman and company have observed an all-too-predictable pattern in 
their decline and fall. He likens the process to a cascade -- a 
tumble down the rapids -- that starts with the arrival of a 
dangerous quartet of behaviors.

So destructive is their effect on marital happiness, in fact, that 
he calls these behaviors "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

The first horseman is criticism: "attacking someone's personality 
or character" rather than making some specific complaint about his 
or her behavior. The difference between saying, say, "I wish you 
had taken care of that bill" (a healthy and specific complaint) and 
"You never get the bills paid on time!" (a generalizing and blaming 
attack) is very significant to the listener. Criticism often 
engenders criticism in return and sets the stage for the second 
horseman: contempt.

"What separates contempt from criticism," explains Gottman, "is the 
intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner." 
Negative thoughts about the other come out in subtle put-downs, 
hostile jokes, mocking facial expressions, and name-calling ("You 
are such an idiot around money"). By now the positive qualities 
that attracted you to this person seem long ago and far away, and 
instead of trying to build intimacy, you're ushering in the third 

Defensiveness comes on the heels of contempt as a seemingly 
reasonable response to attack -- but it only makes things worse. By 
denying responsibility, making excuses, whining, tossing back 
counter-attacks, and other strategies ("How come I'm the one who 
always pays the bills?!"), you just accelerate your speed down 

Gottman also warns that it's possible to skip straight to the third 
horseman by being oversensitive about legitimate complaints.

Once stonewalling (the fourth horseman) shows up, things are 
looking bleak. Stonewallers simply stop communicating, refusing to 
respond even in self-defense. Of course, all these "horsemen" drop 
in on couples once in a while. But when a partner habitually shuts 
down and withdraws, the final rapids of negativity (what Gottman 
calls the "Distance and Isolation Cascade") can quickly propel the 
marriage through whirlpools of hopelessness, isolation, and 
loneliness over the waterfall of divorce. With the arrival of the 
fourth horseman, one or both partners is thinking negative thoughts 
about his or her counterpart most of the time, and the couple's 
minds -- as well as their bodies -- are in a perpetual state of 
defensive red alert.

The stress of conflict eventually sends blood pressure, heart rate, 
and adrenaline into the red zone -- a phenomenon Gott-man calls 
flooding. "The body of someone who feels flooded," he writes, "is a 
confused jumble of signals. It may be hard to breathe. . . . 
Muscles tense up and stay tensed. The heart beats fast, and it may 
seem to beat harder." Emotionally, the flooded person may feel a 
range of emotions, from fear to anger to confusion.

The bottom line is that flooding is physically uncomfortable, and 
stonewalling becomes an attempt to escape that discomfort. When 
flooding becomes chronic, stonewalling can become chronic, too. 
Eighty-five percent of the time the stonewaller (among heterosexual 
couples) is the man. The reason for this gender discrepancy is one 
of many physiological phenomena that Gottman sees as critical to 
understanding why marriages go sour, and what people can do to fix 

Though flooding happens to both men and women, it affects men more 
quickly, more intensely, and for a longer period of time. "Men tend 
to have shorter fuses and longer-lasting explosions than women," 
says Gottman. Numerous observations in the laboratory have shown 
that it often takes mere criticism to set men off, whereas women 
require something at least on the level of contempt. The reasons 
for this are left to speculation. "Probably this difference in 
wiring had evolutionary survival benefits," Gottman conjectures.

An added sensitivity to threats may have kept males alert and ready 
to repel attacks on their families, he suggests, while women calmed 
down more quickly so they could soothe the children. Whatever its 
origin, this ancient biological difference creates havoc in 
contemporary male-female relationships, because men are also "more 
tuned in to the internal physiological environment than women," 
Gottman reports. (For example, men are better at tapping along with 
their heartbeat.) Men's bodily sensitivity translates into greater 
physical discomfort during conflict. In short, arguing hurts. The 
result: "Men are more likely to withdraw emotionally when their 
bodies are telling them they're upset."

Meanwhile, "when men withdraw, women get upset, and they pursue 
[the is-sue]" -- which gets men more upset.

Here is where physiology meets sociology. Men, says Gottman, need 
to rely on physiological cues to know how they're feeling. Women, 
in contrast, rely on social cues, such as what's happening in the 

In addition, men are trained since early childhood not to build 
intimacy with others, while women "are given intense schooling on 
the subject" from an equally early age. Socially, the genders are 
almost totally segregated (in terms of their own choices of 
friendships and playmates) from age seven until early adulthood. 
Indeed, it would seem that cross- gender relationships are set up 
to fail. "In fact," Gottman writes, "our upbringing couldn't be a 
worse training ground for a successful marriage."

Yet the challenge is far from insurmountable, as millions of 
marriages prove. In fact, Gottman's research reveals that "by and 
large, in happy marriages there are no gender differences in 
emotional expression!" In these marriages, men are just as likely 
to share intimate emotions as their partners (indeed they may be 
more likely to reveal personal information about themselves). 
However, in unhappy marriages, "all the gender differences we've 
been talking about emerge" -- feeding a vicious cycle that, once 
established, is hard to break.

Married couples who routinely let the Four Horsemen ransack their 
living rooms face enormous physical and psychological consequences. 
Gottman's studies show that chronic flooding and negativity not 
only make such couples more likely to get sick, they also make it 
very difficult for couples to change how they relate.

When your heart is beating rapidly and your veins are constricting 
in your arms and legs (another evolutionary stress response), it's 
hard to think fresh, clear thoughts about how you're communicating. 
Nor can the brain process new information very well.

Instead, a flooded person relies on "overlearned responses" --  old 
relationship habits that probably just fan the flames.

All this physiological data has enormous implications for 
relationship therapists as well as their clients. Gottman believes 
that "most of what you see currently in marital therapy -- not all 
of it, but most of it -- is completely misguided."

For example, he thinks it's an exercise in futility when "the 
therapist says 'Calm down, Bertha. Calm down, Max. Let's take a 
look at this and analyze it.

Let's remember the way we were with our mothers.' Bertha and Max 
can do it in the office because he's doing it for them. But once 
they get home, and their heart rates get above 100 beats per 
minute, whew, forget about it."

Teaching psychological skills such as interpreting nonverbal 
behavior also misses the mark. "We have evidence that husbands in 
unhappy marriages are terrible at reading their wives' nonverbal 

But they're great at reading other people's nonverbal behavior. In 
other words, they have the social skills, but they aren't using 
them." The problem isn't a lack of skill; it's the overwhelming 
feelings experienced in the cycle of negativity. Chronic flooding 
short-circuits a couple's basic listening and empathy skills, and 
it undermines the one thing that can turn back the Four Horsemen: 
the repair attempt.


Repair attempts are a kind of "meta- communication" -- a way of 
talking about how you're communicating with each other. "Can we 
please stay on the subject?" "That was a rude thing to say." "We're 
not talking about your father!" "I don't think you're listening to 
me." Such statements, even when delivered in a grouchy or 
complaining tone, are efforts to interrupt the cycle of criticism, 
contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling and to bring the 
conversation back on track.

"In stable relationships," explains Gottman, "the other person will 
respond favorably: 'Alright, alright. Finish.' The agreement isn't 
made very nicely. But it does stop the person. They listen, they 
accept the repair attempt, and they actually change" the way 
they're relating.

Repair attempts are "really critical," says Gottman, because 
"everybody screws up. Everybody gets irritated, defensive, 
contemptuous. People insult one another," especially their spouses. 
Repair attempts are a way of saying "we've got to fix this before 
it slides any deeper into the morass." Even people in bad marriages 
make repair attempts; the problem is, they get ignored.

Training people to receive repair attempts favorably -- even in the 
middle of a heated argument -- is one of the new frontiers in 
relationship therapy.

According to Gottman, "Even when things are going badly, you've got 
to focus not on the negativity but on the repair attempt. That's 
what couples do in happy marriages." He's convinced that such 
skills can be taught: One colleague has even devised a set of flash 
cards with a variety of repair attempts on them, ranging from "I 
know I've been a terrible jerk, but can we take this from the top?" 
to "I'm really too upset to listen right now." [See Upfront, 
July/August 1993.] Even in mid- tempest, couples can use the cards 
to practice giving, and receiving, messages about how they're 

Breaking the Four Horsemen cycle is critical, says Gottman, because 
"the more time [couples] spend in that negative perceptual state, 
the more likely they are to start making long- lasting attributions 
about this marriage as being negative." Such couples begin 
rewriting the story of how they met, fell in love, made 
commitments. Warm memories about how "we were so crazy about each 
other" get replaced with "I was crazy to marry him/ her." And once 
the story of the marriage has been infected with negativity, the 
motivation to work on its repair declines. Divorce becomes much 
more likely (and predictable -- consider that 94 percent accuracy 
rate in the oral history study).

Of course, not all relationships can, or should, be saved. Some 
couples are trapped in violent relationships, which "are in a class 
by themselves." Others may suffer a fundamental difference in their 
preferred style -- validating, volatile, or conflict-avoidant -- 
that leaves them stuck in chronic flooding. With hard work, some of 
these marriages can be saved; trying to save others, however, may 
do more harm than good.

In the end, the hope for repairing even a broken marriage is to be 
found, as usual, in the courage and effort people are willing to 
invest in their own growth and change. "The hardest thing to do," 
says Gottman, "is to get back to the fundamentals that really make 
you happy." Couples who fail to do this allow the Four Horsemen to 
carry them far from the fundamentals of affection, humor, 
appreciation, and respect. Couples who succeed cultivate these 
qualities like gardeners. They also cultivate an affirming story of 
their lives together, understanding that that is the soil from 
which everything else grows.

The work may be a continuous challenge, but the harvest, as my 
long-married friends Bill and Karen would say, is an enormous 
blessing: the joy in being truly known and loved, and in knowing 
how to love.


A slew of new books appearing in 1994 address some of the most 
entrenched problems facing long-term lovers:

Hot Monogamy: Essential Steps to More Passionate, Intimate 
Lovemaking, by Patricia Love and Jo Robinson (Dutton, 1994). This 
is a wonderful guide to enriching your sex life in a host of 
imaginative ways, and to reducing the shame and anxiety caused by 
differences in sexual appetite. (Also available as an excellent 
workshop on cassette from The Sounds True Catalog, 800-333-9185.)

When Opposites Attract: Right Brain/ Left Brain Relationships and 
How to Make Them Work, by Rebecca Cutter (Dutton, 1994). A very 
helpful and thorough guide to dealing with the wide range of 
problems that can stem from fundamental differences in brain wiring.

The Couple's Comfort Book: A Creative Guide for Renewing Passion, 
Pleasure, and Commitment, by Jennifer Louden (Harper SanFrancisco, 
1994). A highly usable compendium of nurturing and imaginative 
things to do together, cross- referenced so you can hop around the 
book and design your own program of relationship rebirth.

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