How to become masters of the Gottman universe




I could just imagine the conversations going on in our neighbors’ homes every time we pulled into our garage.


“They’re home.”


“Oh yeah? I bet six times and 30 minutes.”


“Nah, it’s not that late and they are laughing. Six times but one hour.”


Our neighbors were trying to guess how many tries it would take John to park. And how long we would stay in the car. Because after John parks we usually sat there. In the dark. Talking. Sometimes for an hour. I don’t even remember what we talked about. My marriage was a 22-year conversation, interrupted.


“These are our salad days,” John liked to say. Then we’d laugh.


Yes, we were one of those disgustingly happy couples. We were “masters” of the Gottman universe.


Dr. John Gottman is the author of “Marital Interactions: Experimental Investigations,” research about reliable patterns of behavior that showed the difference between happily and unhappily married couples.


Gottman, who has a background in advanced mathematics and statistical analysis, developed an observational coding system that could predict, with 94 percent accuracy, just by observing couples, whether they would stay married or divorce.


In 1994, John Gottman started to work with his wife Dr. Julie Gottman, a clinical psychologist, and developed interventions based on John Gottman’s research.


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They co-founded the Gottman Institute to share their research and clinical interventions to the world. The Gottman Method is widely considered effective.


The pandemic has forced many couples to spend intense time together in a small space. Cracks in the relationship that used to be covered over by activities can be magnified and exacerbated in these times of uncertainty. Conflict in marriages affects the mental health of children and teens. It follows them to school and through adulthood.


“Masters” in the Gottman universe have three key conditions in their relationship. First, they have well-defined “love maps”. How well do you know your partner? Do you know his or her friends, the people irritating him or her right now, the least liked relatives, favorite vacation, dreams, philosophy in life?


Second, “Masters” have genuine and deep fondness and admiration, affection and respect for each other. This shows in expressing appreciation for each other in the smallest things (“Thank you for that dinner, hon.”), which develops a positive culture, a habit of mind that undergirds your relationship. Masters have 8:1 ratio of positive vs negative (conflict) interactions. Disasters have .8:1. Big difference.


Third, when a “Masters” partner makes little “bids” for emotional connection (“What a lovely sunset.”), the other one turns toward him or her and pays attention to that call for attention (“You are so right. Let’s sit here and enjoy it for a while.”) This is so important because according to Gottman, there is usually no rebidding after zero response, and your partner crumples a little bit inside when you turn away.


When those three things are present— love maps, genuine fondness and admiration, and positive response to bids for attention – there is a huge deposit in your emotional bank account. This huge deposit will later override negative sentiment that normally arises in any relationship. So when, for example, a partner says a hurtful comment, a positive balance in the emotional bank account will override the comment with “Oh, sorry about that. Are you okay?” instead of easily taking offense.


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In a 14-year longitudinal study, Gottman and his colleague Dr. Robert Levenson could predict that the “Disaster” couples divorced an average 5.6 years after the wedding, while the emotionally disengaged couples divorced an average of 16.2 years after the wedding. All “Disasters” have the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:” Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. But there are antidotes for each one.


Criticism: “What is wrong with you? Are you so stupid and lazy that you cannot put your dirty clothes in the hamper?” Antidote: “I need help clearing the floor. I get anxious when the floor is not clear. I am more relaxed when the floor is clear.” Use “I” messages, address your need that is not being met because of the behavior. “When X happens, I feel Y. I want to feel Z.”


Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault we are broke.” Antidote: Practice active listening and go beyond what you feel is the attack. Ask yourself what is really going on with your partner? Is this caused by fear, insecurity, hurt? “How can I help?”


Contempt is the No. 1 predictor of divorce or separation unless something is done about it. ”Ugh. What an idiot.” “You are so lazy.” Eye rolling, sneering, name-calling, sarcasm, are examples. Antidote: Develop a culture of appreciation and mutual respect. Focus on appreciating a positive trait or behavior, even an effort to do better. “Thank you for taking out the trash.” Look for positive things your partner is doing, no matter how small.


Stonewalling is emotional withdrawal. You no longer want to express what you are thinking or feeling, and answer in monosyllables. Sometimes we do need time to calm down. But make it a productive time out. “I need a break. Let’s come back together in __minutes/days.” Take slow deep breaths. Because if you are still agitated when you come back together, the pattern is not broken.


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Meanwhile, pray. Do not abandon the relationship. .


Conflict is present in all relationships. John and I had fights. So do the Gottmans. Gottman says 69 percent of conflicts in a marriage are never really resolved. But “Masters” are able to work through them with grace and humor.


The app called “Gottman Card Decks” provides questions you and your partner can ask each other to help you become “Masters.”


There are no easy fixes but by God’s grace and a commitment to grow and change, any marriage - the So-So’s and the “Disasters” - can become “Masters.”


In the Gottman universe, anyone has the potential to become one of those disgustingly happy couples.

Jeni Ann Flores is an educator, blogger and freelance writer. You may read more of her writing at https://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/. You may reach her at teachersedition.flores@gmail.com


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