The Einstein of Love
John Gottman might be the world’s most calculating romantic. Love is a form of energy, he insists, and by expressing the dynamics of human relationships in mathematical terms, he aims to save more of them.
By Kristin Ohlson published September 1, 2015 - last reviewed on July 10, 2018
"Mostly, all you can do in love is repair how you screw up."
That’s because even the best of partners miss little attempts at connection all the time. A minimum of 75 percent of the time, to be exact, says John Gottman. And Gottman is nothing if not exact. I have traveled up the West Coast and across Puget Sound to explore just how the dean of relationship research has transmuted the most ineffable of experiences—love—into something particularly precise: mathematics.
Gottman is well known for certain numbers. He long ago discovered that to maintain a satisfying relationship, couples must generate five seconds of positive emotions for every second of negative emotions during conflict discussions. That’s because negative emotions, like defensiveness and contempt, have more power to hurt a relationship than positive emotions have to help one.
The five-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative emotions has since been shown to be the closest thing there is to an axiom of psychology, generally applicable to many aspects of well-being.
Negativity just makes a bigger impact on the brain, and unless we take steps to counteract it, slights will accumulate, continually accelerating the likelihood that partners will grow apart emotionally. Let Gottman observe you and your partner as you talk about something—anything—for a few minutes and he can predict with nearly 90 percent accuracy whether you will stay together, and for how long.
The five-to-one ratio is so fundamental it is the first of 45 “natural principles of love” that Gottman sets forth in his newest work, Principia Amoris, a book he calls his magnum opus. Drawing on more than 40 years of innovative research, much of it in an apartmentlike laboratory built to monitor couples, the book reveals the order and lawfulness that Gottman insists underlie all love relationships.
Love is an energy system, he says, and when partners interact, they create a force field, each having the power to affect what a partner does next. Principia Amoris codifies and represents mathematically the ways they influence each other and what the consequences of those interactions are.
Everywhere on the planet, Gottman has found, people automatically evaluate every human transaction on a scale of positive to negative. To repair the damage of missing each other’s bids to connect, individuals must accommodate their partner’s needs as well as their own. That, says Gottman, is the measure of trust—the degree to which you believe your partner has your interests in mind and can listen to you nondefensively, even if you can’t stand each other in the moment. It is the single most important factor that takes a marriage beyond the fabled seven-year breakup point.
It is also the social embodiment of what is known in game theory as the Nash equilibrium: the point, established by Nobel Prize-–winning mathematician John Nash, at which two people in any interaction both maximize the benefit to themselves.
Those who master relationships seem to hew to the motto: “When you’re in pain, the world stops and I listen.” That phrase sounds more like poetry than mathematics. “Poetry and mathematics are not that different,” Gottman says. “When you measure the right thing, you get to the essence of emotion.”
Gottman the pioneering psychologist has always been drawn to math. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Austrian émigrés. His parents had barely begun their married life in Vienna–his father a medical student, his mother a hotel chef—when Hitler invaded in 1938. Jews were forced out of the medical schools (which lost 50 percent of their faculty and 40 percent of their students), and the young couple fled to Switzerland, carrying only a sugar cube and a lemon, according to family lore. Even though the country had decided not to accept any more Jews, the couple was allowed entry because of Gottman’s mother’s culinary training. She was assigned to cook for the refugee camps.
The Gottmans left Switzerland for the Dominican Republic when dictator Rafael Trujillo announced that the country would accept hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe. Gottman was born there in 1942. Three years later, his parents struck out for the United States, settling in Miami until his father nearly set off a riot one day by sitting in the back of a bus. Appalled at the state of race relations in the South, the family headed to New York and took up residence in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The young Gottman spent hours at the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Public Library. At the age of 9, after reading Paul de Kruif’s classic book, The Microbe Hunters, on his subway travels, he made up his mind to become a scientist. He pined for a microscope and, when his parents surprised him with one he had admired in a store window, he set up his first lab, in a closet, where he carefully examined fly wings and pond scum.
His parents had a solid, if occasionally contentious, relationship. His father had had a tough time growing up: His mother died when he was 5, and he was sent away to a yeshiva in Poland, where he became a ward of the Jewish community. “He didn’t have a role model of a good father, but he became one himself,” Gottman recalls. “He remembered what it was like to be a kid, and he had an empathy for children that other people didn’t.”
His mother was a good woman whose high ideals sometimes grated on her husband. Once the family was hurrying to synagogue when his mother caught sight of a woman crying on the steps of a nearby apartment building. It turned out that the woman, newly widowed, was being evicted. His mother lit into the landlord, also on his way to synagogue. “She told him that he had no right to talk to God and that she would make sure everyone knew what he was doing to this woman,” Gottman says. “My father was angry that she was making us late, but she told him that this is where God is, this is where we needed to be. That’s the kind of woman she was. She really had a strong sense of morality and justice.”
One day, Gottman’s father took him and his sister for a walk in the park and shocked them by saying they would have to decide whether they wanted to live with their mother or their father. “I got so angry,” Gottman recalls. “I told him that I was just a child and that I shouldn’t have to make that kind of decision. I told him that I hoped they would stay together. They did.”
It was his first awareness of how fragile marriages can be, but it never occurred to him that that was something to study. No, Gottman—like many Jewish boys his age—was in love with mathematics. In the aftermath of World War II, the Jewish community was convinced that Albert Einstein was the source of the Allied victory. “Einstein didn’t even work on the Manhattan Project, but there was this myth that E=MC2 won the war,” Gottman says. “I grew up with the idea that math was cool and powerful.”
As an undergrad at Fairleigh Dickinson, Gottman taught calculus and analytic geometry at night school. He went on to MIT on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Once there, he was disappointed by a schism between applied mathematics and theoretical mathematics—and his math classes became a lot less interesting than his roommate’s psychology texts. He picked up his master’s degree, then left math for psychology, much to the dismay of his father.
He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Wisconsin, where he became a child psychologist. He developed methods for studying the interactions among children that led to friendship and gained early expertise in measuring dyadic relationships. But his parents’ near-divorce had left its mark, and, moving to Indiana University, he set up his first official lab, to observe and study “the masters and disasters of love.”
The culture was ready. America’s divorce rate was skyrocketing in the early 1970s. Couples were increasingly willing to seek help, although little was available.
“There was no such thing as couples therapy, not in a scientifically justified way,” says Thomas Bradbury, founder of the Marriage and Family Development Laboratory at UCLA. “At that point, most psychological research was all about the individual. What was needed was for psychologists to study social interactional processes and observe them in all their immediacy and richness.”
Gottman got his hands on a videotape machine, a relatively new research tool, and began recording couples in conversation, studying the tapes over and over to see whether happy and unhappy couples differed in any way. Increasingly he focused on their emotional displays—often fleeting but nevertheless real—and their experience of their partner’s emotions. At Indiana, he teamed up with Robert Levenson, also an assistant professor of psychology, who was interested in measuring physiologic responses during couple interactions.
The two became, and remain, best friends. “It’s been a bromance,” Levenson says, laughing. Many of their colleagues laughed, too; they thought their research methods were wacky. The prevailing approach in psychology was to measure reactions to a highly controlled stimulus—the sound of a gunshot, say. Observing couples asked to talk about something difficult in their marriage? Unsettlingly free form.
“People thought it would be career suicide to work with us!” Levenson recalls. “They said if you put sensors on these couples and videotape them and ask them to talk about difficult marital issues, you’ll never get anything from them. TV is now full of people spilling their guts to strangers, but in 1974 there was no Jerry Springer.”
Couples did indeed open up, and as videotapes captured their conversations, other machinery registered their blood velocity, heart rate, skin temperature and conductance, and more. Gottman soon discerned moments of coherence, when the physiological indicators moved in the same directions in both partners, indicating strong emotion flowing between them. He tracked how the measures synchronized with other variables, like words, facial expressions, and voice tones.
The sensors also revealed that the happiest couples were internally calm and relaxed around each other, while the unhappiest, no matter how impassive they appeared, were physiologically aroused and poised for battle.
As important as the recordings were, so was the rating dial he and Levenson devised for individuals to recapitulate their experience of their partner’s emotions. Shown the videotape of their conversation, each partner was asked to use the dial to rate his or her own feelings during each interaction.
“The rating dial makes many things clear,” Gottman explains. “If one person feels good about the interaction when the other feels bad, that’s a win-lose marriage, a zero-sum game. But the people who are synchronous in the way they perceive the interaction are very cooperative. They care about each other’s values. If we’re synchronous, that means that how you feel about the interaction matters a lot to me and determines how I feel about the interaction.”
To make sense of the outpouring of words, intonations, facial expressions, and other nonverbal messages that are the building blocks of couple connection, Gottman painstakingly coded every reaction. Eventually, he went back to math. Applying the ideas and computational methods of information theorists like Claude Shannon, he found patterns in the data that allowed him to predict how the behavior of one partner drives the behavior of the other.
But just as the work was taking off, Gottman’s personal life crashed. In 1981, his second marriage—he had had a brief, unhappy marriage in grad school—fell apart after 10 years. “I wish I had known more about the whole process of selecting a partner, but it was a mystery to me then,” he confides. “I didn’t know what to look for, what dimensions were important, what the experience is like when a relationship is working well. It should all be very gentle and kind, and if it’s not, there’s something wrong. You can fix that, but we didn’t understand that back then.”
“All the really great social scientists are studying something that doesn’t come easily to them,” observes Levenson, now a professor at UC Berkeley. “There is a personal quality of discovery that’s wrapped up in the work. John’s had good relationships and he’s had bad ones, and they’re part of the mystery of how life works for him.”
In 1986, Gottman moved to the University of Washington in Seattle. He also dedicated himself to finding a new partner, dating some 60 women in six weeks by answering personal ads in magazines and newspapers. “Julie Schwartz was number 61—a total outlier,” he says. “The others could not laugh. But when I talked to Julie on the phone, four hours went by quickly and we were laughing a lot.” By then Gottman had realized the value of friendship and humor to love; humor soothes couples inside and out during conflict. The two married in 1987.
At the University of Washington, Gottman founded the “Love Lab”—a space overlooking the water and set up to resemble a bed-and-breakfast retreat. He scoured marriage announcements in the local newspapers and recruited 130 demographically representative newlyweds to spend 24 hours there being monitored and observed. Gottman was interested in how couples build intimacy when they are just hanging out together.
With the help of cohorts of grad students, Gottman pored over the videotapes and noticed that partners regularly issue bids, gambits of some sort that invite conversation, laughter, or some response. When, six years later, he contacted the former newlyweds, 17 percent were no longer married. Looking again at the videotapes, he discovered that, among those who divorced, partners had responded to only 33 percent of their spouse’s bids, while those who stayed married were turning toward their partner’s bids 86 percent of the time—building up a reservoir of positive emotions that disposed them kindly to each other in times of conflict.
Gottman’s work has long been in the public eye. It is, after all, about love, a topic central to our lives and our search for meaning, and one to which mystery and myth still cling. Even so, Gottman got a jolt of publicity in 2005 when Malcolm Gladwell described in the opening pages of his best seller Blink how the years of work coding couple conversations illuminated the power of small samplings of interactions to reveal the entire relationship.
The research has so penetrated the culture that its findings can seem to have been there all along. “Often the most valuable research confirms what we already know,” says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger. “When one person can’t offer the olive branch and the other can’t accept it, when neither takes the initiative to change direction and de-escalate a fight, when criticism, contempt, and stonewalling take over, when negative comments and interactions outnumber positive ones—well, of course the relationship is in big trouble.
“When I quote Dr. Gottman, the Mozart of couples research, people pay attention,” Lerner says. “Telling couples ‘Dr. Gottman’s research proves…’ has a powerful effect. Often change comes about when we take in, at a deeper level, the truths we already know.”
No such truths were apparent until he and other researchers uncovered them through painstaking observation and analysis, Gottman says. They seem obvious only by hindsight. “When I train clinicians, I talk about 15 myths about relationships that people used to think were true—and some people still think are true—that have been completely discredited by research,” Gottman says. For example, the “quid pro quo” idea that in great relationships people do things for each other in exchange for receiving good things. It led to therapy in which couples negotiated contracts stipulating what each wanted from the other. But it turns out that giving based on an expectation of receiving is a sign of a distressed relationship, not a healthy one.
In Principia Amoris, Gottman has polished the insights gleaned from decades of research and expressed them both in words and differential equations. He spent more than 15 years with mathematician and biologist James Murray converting the findings into quantifiable variables, then creating equations showing how the variables interact to drive marriages toward hell or a state of grace. Trying to understand love is like trying to understand the weather, Gottman argues: It’s complex, but essentially full of the kind of patterns that mathematics can interpret.
“Stephen Hawking was told he would cut his readership in half every time he put in an equation, so he put in only one,” Gottman says. “My book is full of them, and I put them off to the side, in boxes, because I know that many psychologists have a math phobia. But what they miss when they ignore the math is the theoretical underpinning for certain patterns that have been seen empirically.”
When therapists understand the patterns and variables, he argues, they can observe a couple for 15 minutes, spend 45 minutes coding the video, and deploy a series of equations that pinpoint exactly what features of the partners or their relationship need work. Even if they don’t use the equations in this way, the math still clarifies the dynamics between partners.
Ever the optimist, Gottman thinks it will take a while for the field to understand the importance of the work. Indeed, the book has drawn nary a comment from psychologists, but it has garnered attention from mathematicians like Hannah Fry, who discusses it in her new book, The Mathematics of Love, as well as in a popular TED talk.
The math of love continues to overturn common ideas about what makes a marriage thrive. For instance, it’s widely believed that a healthy marriage is one in which partners brush off the small irritations and barbs that get tossed into the air in any relationship.
“Wrong,” says Gottman. The best relationship is one in which partners not only actively repair regrettable incidents—but do so quickly. His “Threshold of Repair” metric demonstrates that partners who acknowledge their attacks and immediately reach out to make amends keep a trivial hurt from growing into a progressively larger one in which negativity compounds rapidly.
In turn, the math itself has given Gottman new insights into the workings of relationships. For example, it revealed, counterintuitively, that the most resilient of all couples are those who are conflict avoiders. They simply don’t get into the “nuclear arms race in negativity” the way other couples tend to do when bringing up a problem. “Therapists may hate hearing this finding about conflict avoiders,” says Gottman, because they see so many couples stumbling over conflict avoidance. “But what they see in therapy are couples mismatched in conflict styles. Conflict avoidance works only when both partners are conflict avoiders.”
For the past 18 years, Gottman has pushed beyond theory to develop a practical therapy that converts couples from “disasters to masters of love.” His partner in this enterprise is his wife, Julie, a psychologist. Together they founded the Gottman Institute in Seattle, where they teach their program to therapists and ordinary couples. Gottman gave up his full-time post at the University of Washington 14 years ago—not that, at 74, he’s retired in any way.
His base of operations is now a stunning property on Orcas Island. In the main house are the couple’s private quarters, so stuffed with art from their international travels—they speak and teach around the globe—that there’s no room for another painting or sculpture. Downstairs is a large room in which they run workshops. A guesthouse holds their offices and facilities where the two conduct intensive 15-hour therapy marathons spread over three days. A path leads down to the shoreline, where carved wooden benches encourage meditation. “We have to make doubly sure the couples who come for therapy understand the dynamics that trigger their conflicts before they go home,” Gottman says. “Because who wouldn’t feel better here?”
In their training and therapy sessions, the Gottmans liberally pepper insights from John’s research with examples from their own marriage. They offer up their own “regrettable incidents” and show how they worked through them. Because even though he and Julie are experts, he says, everyone is in the same soup when it comes to love: Generously assuming that couples are emotionally available to each other 50 percent of the time, the probability that both people will be emotionally available at the same time is only 25 percent. So 75 percent of the time, couples are operating in a minefield of missed communications that can lead to unhappiness and conflict.
There are still many questions to pursue. The Gottmans have developed an intervention—relationship skills and emotional self-soothing—for couples whose fights veer out of control and get violent; they want to replicate the effectiveness of that intervention with a court-referred sample. John also has interventions to test with couples in which one has had an affair, and in relationships in which one partner has PTSD or an addiction. “The relationship is potentially the greatest source of healing,” he says. “We think we have the technology to help with that.”
But at the end of the day, isn’t he the ultimate spoiler, reducing romance to a bunch of equations, I ask. Gottman counters with a question of his own: “Does understanding the way a star works eliminate the awe we feel when we look at the night sky? Or does the knowledge add to the majesty of the night?”
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