John Gottman is a legendary figure, and the legend is told best by John Gottman. He describes wading into the field of marital counseling as a young psychology postdoc, only to find it was a total mess:
When we began our research, the wide range of marital therapies based on conflict resolution shared a very high level of relapse. In fact, the best of this type of marital therapy, conducted by Neil Jacobson, had only a 35 to 50 percent success rate. In other words, his own studies showed that only 35 to 50 percent of couples saw a meaningful improvement in their marriages as a result of the therapy. A year later, less than half of that group — or just 18 to 25 percent of all couples who entered therapy — retained these benefits. A while ago, Consumer Reports surveyed a large sample of its members on their experience with all kinds of psychotherapists. Most therapists got very high customer-satisfaction marks—except for the marital ones, who received very poor ratings. Though this survey did not qualify as rigorous scientific research, it confirmed what most professionals in the field already knew: in the long run, marital therapy did not benefit the majority of couples.
Gottman decided the field needed statistical rigor, and that he – a former MIT math major – was exactly the guy to enforce it. He set up a model apartment in his University of Washington research center – affectionately called “the Love Lab”, and invited hundreds of couples to spend a few days there – observed, videotaped, and attached to electrodes collecting information on every detail of their physiology. While at the lab, the couples went through their ordinary lives. They experienced love, hatred, romantic dinners, screaming matches, and occasionally self-transformation. Then Gottman monitored them for years, seeing who made things work and who got divorced. Did you know that if a husband fails to acknowledge his wife’s feelings during an argument, there is an 81% chance it will damage the marriage? Or that 69% of marital conflicts are about long-term problems rather than specific situations? John Gottman knows all of this and much, much more.
Using his mountain of data (the legend continues) Gottman became a Divorce Prophet:
After years of research…I am now able to predict whether a couple will stay happily together or lose their way. I can make this prediction after listening to the couple interact in our Love Lab for as little as five minutes! My accuracy rate in these predictions averages 91 percent over three separate studies. In other words, in 91 percent of the cases where I have predicted that a couple’s marriage would eventually fail or succeed, time has proven me right. These predictions are not based on my intuition or preconceived notions of what marriage “should” be, but on the data I’ve accumulated over years of study.
…which is pretty interesting. But predicting destiny is only an intermediate step – as another legend once said, “the point is to change it”. So, science in hand, John Gottman resolved to fix marital counseling. And apparently succeeded:
We found that at the beginning of our workshops, 27 percent of couples were at very high risk for divorce. At our three-month followup that proportion was 6.7 percent and at nine months it was 0 percent. But even couples who were not at high risk for divorce were significantly helped by the workshops.
Twenty years later, the legend has spread to every corner of the world. He has received glowing praise from The New York Times, The Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Washington Post, The New York Times again, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, Time, and The New York Times a third time. He has published over two hundred scientific papers, some of which have been cited thousands of times. He has been voted one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century. His Gottman Relationship Institute, founded together with his wife Julie Gottman, has become a marriage counseling empire, trained hundreds of therapists in the Gottman method, and operates a referral network that can find you Certified Gottman Level 3 Therapists from Australia to Uruguay. After a long life of helping save countless marriages, his one regret is that he is so great he can no longer find an adequate control group for his studies:
When we sat down to write the first edition of this book, we were excited to share the results of laboratory research into relationships but we knew we’d face some skepticism. Could scientific study of something as intangible, idiosyncratic, and personal as romantic love deliver useful advice to couples in the real world? Well, more than fifteen years and millions of readers later we are happy to report that The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has done just that. Countless readers across the globe tell us that the book’s strategies have enhanced, shielded, or saved their relationship. We have received thank-yous from every imaginable type of couple, including newlyweds, traditional spouses, two-career partners, devoutly religious spouses, military couples, cohabitants, same-sex partners, not-yet-marrieds, divorced people looking toward the future, and counselors who work with all of the above.
It is a great source of satisfaction and pride that we have been able to help so many people. We’re also gratified that research continues to confirm what these readers consistently tell us: The Seven Principles can have a powerfully positive effect on your relationship. In fact, a randomized clinical study by John and his coresearchers (Julia Babcock, Kim Ryan, and Julie Gottman) found that married couples who simply read The Seven Principles and worked through the quizzes and exercises on their own (but received no additional professional aid) were significantly happier in their relationship, and these effects lasted when assessed a year later. Simply reading this book proved so successful that it actually bollixed the research: the original experiment had been designed to use these “book-only” couples as a control group to test marital therapy techniques!
Sounds like some book! And God knows we need good marriage therapy. The world needs it. And I need it in particular. I am a psychiatrist. I am trained to treat depression and schizophrenia and nice simple things like that. But somehow, I keep getting patients who need help with relationship problems. I am totally unprepared for this. In the past, my advice has been “go find someone trained by John Gottman, I hear he is some kind of living legend”. But at some point, I figured I should finally read his book, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide From The Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, so that I could have an informed opinion on this and maybe try helping people directly.
This is a review of that book. It starts with a summary of Gottman’s marital counseling techniques, continues to a discussion of the evidence for and against them, and ends with some random thoughts about marriage.
The secret to a happy marriage is that you should like your spouse.
Maybe this doesn’t sound especially secret, when put that way. But part of the Gottman legend is that the old school of marriage therapists kind of missed that part. They were really into solving conflicts and having good communication skills and things like that. But over his years of monitoring hundreds of couples in real-world situations, Gottman found that this was overrated. Plenty of couples had atrocious communication skills and got in conflicts all the time, but loved each other very much and had no real marital problems. Plenty of other couples had finely-polished communication skills and always used “I statements” and things like that, and still ended up divorced. Communication skills are good, and you should definitely try to have them, but you’re putting the cart before the horse unless you focus on liking your spouse.
I totally believe this. I remember my grandparents used to fight all the time. Any time my grandmother said something, my grandfather would disagree with her, and vice versa, and the ensuing argument would (to my young ears) sound absolutely vicious, and then they would laugh it off and forget about it and continue being wonderfully and obviously in love. So fine, focus on liking your spouse. But how do you make that happen?
Seven Principles excels in its selection of worksheets, activities, and games. There is a seven-week program of talking about one nice thing with your spouse every day, a “Building Your Love Maps” game, and a list of questions you and your spouse should answer together one by one. The underlying principle seems to be that to know somebody is to love them. If you get a really good mental model of where your spouse is in their life, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their daily toil, then it’s hard to not have at least some fondness for them. One activity is a quiz, with questions like:
1. I can name my partner’s best friends.
2. I can tell you what stresses my partner is currently facing.
3. I know the names of some of the people who have been irritating
my partner lately.
4. I can tell you some of my partner’s life dreams.
5. I am very familiar with my partner’s religious beliefs and ideas.
6. I can tell you about my partner’s basic philosophy of life.
7. I can list the relatives my partner likes the least.
8. I know my partner’s favorite music.
9. I can list my partner’s three favorite movies.
The more you know, the more likely your marriage is to make it.
Along with knowing the big things, you should also know what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. You should conspicuously make sure to know it. Apart from whatever other exercise you’re doing each day, Gottman recommends a ritual of checking in after work and exchanging stories about your days. This time is a Designated Support Zone, no criticism allowed. You take your spouse’s side whether you secretly disagree with them or not. If your spouse gets angry that a police officer gave them a ticket for driving 110 mph through a 25 mph school zone, you are obligated by the terms of your marriage contract to shake your head and say “I know, cops these days have no respect.”
Gottman is slightly less strict in other situations, but he still thinks it’s very important that you take your spouse’s side in conflicts. He especially highlights a common dynamic where your parents are always trying to cause trouble between you and your spouse, and your marriage will be in danger until you commit to side with your spouse whenever this kind of thing comes up:
At the core of the tension is a turf battle between [the wife and the mother] for the husband’s love. The wife is watching to see whether her husband backs her or his mother. She is wondering, “Which family are you really in?” Often the mother is asking the same question. The man, for his part, just wishes the two women could get along better. He loves them both and does not want to have to choose. The whole idea is ridiculous to him. After all, he has loyalties to each, and he must honor and respect both. Unfortunately, this attitude often throws him into the role of peacemaker or mediator, which invariably makes the situation worse.
The only way out of this dilemma is for the husband to side with his wife against his mother. Although this may sound harsh, remember that one of the basic tasks of a marriage is to establish a sense of “we-ness” between husband and wife. So the husband must let his mother know that his wife does indeed come first. His house is his and his wife’s house, not his mother’s. He is a husband first, then a son. This is not a pleasant position to take. His mother’s feelings may be hurt. But eventually she will probably adjust to the reality that her son’s family unit, where he is the husband, takes precedence to him over all others. It is absolutely critical for the marriage that the husband be firm about this, even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother cannot accept the new reality.
This is not to suggest that a man do anything that he feels demeans and dishonors his parents or goes against his basic values. He should not compromise who he is. But he has to stand with his wife and not in the middle
A final method of making yourself like your spouse: just explicitly and consciously focus on their good qualities. One of the worksheets lists a bunch of good qualities and asks you to pick some you appreciate in your spouse and explain why. Another asks you to reminisce about the old days, on the theory that presumably you liked your spouse back when you decided to marry them. This isn’t always true – Gottman finds that couples who are really far gone will export their present hostility back into the past and talk about how they always knew it was a bad idea. With typical statistical precision, he notes that “94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.” But it’s usually true enough to get both partners warming up to each other a little.
But okay. You’ve done all this stuff and you like your spouse at least a little. Now what?
Now you can start learning communication skills.
Gottman’s communication skills work focuses on what he calls “The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These may seem obvious, though Gottman takes some of them in non-obvious directions – “couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (colds, flu, and so on) than other people”. Avoiding the four horsemen is vital, especially in the crucial “startup” phase of a conversation. How do you do it?
Some tips are very small in scale. Use I-Statements like “I have trouble dealing with how messy things are sometimes” instead of You-Statements like “You never clean up around here”. Be polite. Try to make “repair attempts” – conflict-ending attempts that can be anywhere from “Hey, you’re yelling at me” to “You are right and I am wrong and I am sorry” to “Oh my god, listen to us, let’s get a drink and never speak of this matter again”. Accept your spouse’s repair attempts when offered.
Others are more general. Don’t have a fight when you’re physiologically aroused. Don’t have a fight when you’re physiologically aroused. Monitor your physiological arousal, and if you start to notice the signs – fast heartbeat, tense muscles, shallow breathing – call a time-out, go somewhere else, and use meditation or deep breathing or whatever to calm down.
This is especially important for men. Gottman has strong opinions on gender. He uncritically accepts the feminist view that men feel entitled because of patriarchy and that if they feel angry or upset it’s probably just their entitlement flaring up again. He flirts with saying that men should generally yield to their wife in a conflict (presumably because, thanks to patriarchy, everything will always be biased in favor of the man and so the wife is usually right). In the end, he softens this to a statement that men should “accept influence from” their wives, but also heavily implying that a man who doesn’t give in to his wife must not be accepting her influence – for example, an exercise on page 118 asks men to describe how they would accept their wife’s influence in various situations, and includes an answer key where the right answer is always to say she is right and do what she wants. You might object to this, but sorry, it is Evidence Based According To Science. Gottman tells us that only 35% of husbands are emotionally intelligent, and that “when a man is not willing to share influence with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct”.
But Gottman’s most controversial views on gender involve physiology. He proposes an evo psych explanation for why men can’t handle talking about problems:
This is not because of some lack on the man’s part. The reason lies in our evolutionary heritage. Anthropological evidence suggests that we evolved from hominids whose lives were circumscribed by very rigid gender roles, since these were advantageous to survival in a harsh environment. The females specialized in nurturing children while the males specialized in cooperative hunting.
As any nursing mother can tell you, the amount of milk you produce is affected by how relaxed you feel, which is related to the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain. So natural selection would favor a female who could quickly soothe herself and calm down after feeling stressed. Her ability to remain composed could enhance her children’s chances of survival by optimizing the amount of nutrition they received. But in the male natural selection would reward the opposite response. For these early cooperative hunters, maintaining vigilance was a key survival skill. So males whose adrenaline kicked in quite readily and who did not calm down so easily were more likely to survive and procreate. To this day, the male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress […]
This gender difference in how physiologically reactive our bodies are also influences what men and women tend to think about when they experience marital stress. As part of some experiments, we ask couples to watch themselves arguing on tape and then tell us what they were thinking when our sensors detected they were flooded. Their answers suggest that men have a greater tendency to have negative thoughts that maintain their distress, while women are more likely to think soothing thoughts that help them calm down and be conciliatory. Men, generally, either think about how righteous and indignant they feel (“I’m going to get even,” “I don’t have to take this”), which tends to lead to contempt or belligerence. Or they think about themselves as an innocent victim of their wife’s wrath or complaint (“Why is she always blaming me?”), which leads to defensiveness.
Obviously these rules don’t hold for every male and every female. But after twenty-five years of research, I have noted that the majority of couples do follow these gender differences in physiological and psychological reactions to stress. Because of these dissimilarities, most marriages (including healthy, happy ones) follow a comparable pattern of conflict in which the wife, who is constitutionally better able to handle the stress, brings up sensitive issues. The husband, who is not as able to cope with it, will attempt to avoid getting into the subject. He may become defensive and stonewall. Or he may even become belligerent or contemptuous in an attempt to silence her.
The problem is, men are just too flighty and emotional! They need a rational, hard-headed woman to take care of them and keep them grounded!
Sorry. To be more serious, he thinks that because women are emotionally stable and men aren’t, women tend to bring up long-standing problems that need to be solved, and because men can’t handle this level of stress they panic or shut down or blow up or otherwise start a conflict in order to avoid having to deal with it. “More than 80 percent of the time it’s the wife who brings up sticky marital issues, while the husband tries to avoid discussing them.” The solution is for men to learn calming techniques so they don’t stop the conversation as quickly.
Okay, so now you like your spouse and you know how to communicate. Now you can prepare to actually solve some conflicts.
But not all of them. Gottman divides conflicts into two types: solvable and unsolvable. Solvable conflicts are simple, specific, and about the thing they seem to be about – for example, the husband is supposed to take the trash out after work, but work has gotten really stressful lately and he keeps forgetting, and now the trash is overflowing and the wife is annoyed. The solution here is to use normal problem-solving techniques. Put a sign in the bedroom saying “DID YOU REMEMBER TO TAKE THE TRASH OUT?” or something. Whatever.
Unsolvable conflicts are temporary manifestations of deep psychological issues. The particular thing that sparked the fight this time is irrelevant, but both spouses will fight to the death because it represents something important. For example, the husband is late to dinner one night because he went out to the bar. The wife yells at him and says he doesn’t care about her. He yells back that she’s a control freak. Here the problem will not be solved by coming up with a compromise where he can go to the bar half of nights. The problem is that she secretly worries his drinking buddies have a closer connection to him than she ever will, that he doesn’t love her anymore, that he goes to the bar to escape her. He worries that he’s lost his freedom, that he’s become emasculated, that he’s become some boring old person who is never allowed to have fun. If the bar burnt down tomorrow, they would find some other excuse to fight over this dynamic.
There’s no hard line between solvable and unsolvable conflicts. One couple’s solvable problem might be another’s unsolvable one. Forgetting to take the trash out becomes an unsolvable problem if it represents how the husband is irresponsible or the wife is too controlling. Staying out too late at the bar is a solveable problem if it’s just that dinner is getting cold and neither of them has any problem with the husband eating leftovers. But usually couples can figure out whether their particular issue taps into deeper roots.
Gottman suggests dealing with unsolvable conflicts by making the underlying “dreams” explicit. He recommends both partners talk about what the dream driving their side of the conflict means to them. So for example, the husband who stays late at the bar might say “When I was young, my dad was so poor he had to work twelve hour days. Then he would come home, do some chores, go to sleep, and start all over again. I told myself that if I ever ended up like that, I might as well just die, because it seemed like such a crappy and joyless life. To me, getting to go have fun with people means that I’m successful enough that I don’t have to end up like my dad.” While one spouse (the “dreamer”) is describing this, the other spouse has to be completely supportive and try to understand them, without pointing out ways they’re wrong.
Once both partners feel like they’ve been heard and that they understand each other, they discuss the absolute minimum they would need in order to feel like their dreams were being respected, versus the beyond-minimum things that they’re willing to be flexible on. Then they both agree to a compromise that gives both of them their bare minimum and splits the difference on the flexible parts. What if the two bare minima are mutually exclusive? The book doesn’t say. Probably you got a defective dream, and you should go to the dream factory and ask if they take returns.
The last part of the book is maybe the least actionable, but also my favorite. It discusses couples as almost miniature cultures, with their own rituals, in-jokes, ideologies, and systems of meaning. Partly it’s about how to create these things, partly it’s about how to acknowledge these things, and partly it’s just John Gottman’s love letter to the concept of couplehood. It’s really heart-warming. Don’t make the same mistake I did and read it when you’re feeling lonely.
Okay, but can John Gottman really predict divorce with 91% success rate and do all the other things he says he can do? Haha, no. All of that stuff is totally false.
Richard Heyman published the definitive paper on this in 2001, The Hazards Of Predicting Divorce Without Crossvalidation (kudos to Laurie Abraham of Slate, the only one of the journalists covering Gottman to find and mention this, and my source for some of the following). Heyman notes that Gottman doesn’t predict divorce at all. He postdicts it. He gets 100 (or however many) couples, sees how many divorced, and then finds a set of factors that explain what happened.
Confused about the difference between prediction and postdiction? It’s a confusing concept, but let me give an example, loosely based on this Wikipedia article. The following rule accurately matches the results of every US presidential election since 1932: the incumbent party will win the election if and only if the Washington Redskins won their last home game before the election – unless the incumbent is black or the challenger attended a Central European boarding school, in which case it will lose.
In common language, we might say that this rule “predicts” the last 22 presidential elections, in the sense that knowing the rule and the Redskins’ record, we can generate the presidential winners. But really it doesn’t predict anything – there’s no reason to think any future presidential elections will follow the rule. It’s just somebody looking to see what things coincidentally matched information that we already have. This is properly called postdiction – finding rules that describe things we already know.
Postdictive ability often implies predictive ability. If I read over hospital records and find that only immunodeficient people caught a certain virus, I might conclude I’ve found a natural law – the virus only infects immunodeficient people – and predict that the pattern will continue in the future.
But this isn’t always true. Sometimes, especially when you’re using small datasets with lots of variables, you get predictive rules that work very well, not because they describe natural laws, but just by coincidence. It’s coincidence that the Redskins’ win-loss record matches presidential elections, and with n = 22 datapoints, you’re almost certain to get some coincidences like that.
Even an honest attempt to use plausible variables to postdict a large dataset will give you a prediction rule that’s a combination of real natural law and spurious coincidence. So you’re not allowed to claim a certain specific level of predictive ability until you’ve used your rule to predict out-of-training-data events. Gottman didn’t do this.
In his paper, Heyman creates a divorce prediction algorithm out of basic demographic data: husband and wife’s education level, employment status, etc. He is able to achieve 90% predictive success on the training data – nearly identical to Gottman’s 91% – without any of Gottman’s hard work. No making the couples spend days in a laboratory and counting up how many times they use I-statements. No monitoring their blood pressure as they gaze into each other’s eyes. Heyman never met any of his couples at all, let along analyzed their interaction patterns. And he did just as well as Gottman did at predicting divorce (technically he predicted low scores on a measure of marital stability; his dataset did not include divorce outcomes).
Then he applied his prediction rule to out-of-sample couples. Accuracy dropped to 70%. We have no reason not to think Gottman’s accuracy would drop at the same rate. But 70% is around the accuracy you get if you predict nobody will divorce. It’s little better than chance, and all of Gottman’s claims to be a master divorce predictor are totally baseless.
The first question on Gottman’s FAQ is whether he is doing this. He says he did this once, but that 6 of his 7 studies have been properly predictive. But Wikipedia notes that this claim uses “a non-standard definition of prediction in which all that is required is that predictive variables, but not their specific relationship to the outcome, were selected in advance”. Heyman and Abraham specifically criticize the 6 studies that Gottman calls genuinely predictive as being postdictive. I cannot find all the relevant studies, as many of them are in books, but contra the FAQ it looks as if he is still postdicting.
It’s hard for me to dismiss this as an honest mistake. Gottman constantly plays up his credentials as a mathematician and statistician, saying that:
In the beginning, Dr. John Gottman’s research was devoted to the discovery of reliable patterns in observational data. He wanted to see if there were indeed patterns of behavior, or sequences of interactions, that could discriminate happy from unhappy couples. It was not at all clear that these patterns existed. Dr. Gottman and his colleagues began developing the math for sequential analysis, which now is a well-developed methodology.
Anyone smart enough to invent new mathematical methodologies should also be smart enough to know you can’t validate your predictor on its training data, so he must know exactly what he’s doing. And it would be so easy to fix if he wanted to! All he needs to do is take one of his predictors, apply it to data that wasn’t its training data, and tell us how it does! How could this be an innocent mistake‽
And speaking of things that an MIT mathematician should know better than to do, what’s up with claims like “when a man is unwilling to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance his marriage will self-destruct”. Obviously you can replace 81% with any number you want by operationalizing “unwilling to share power with his partner” differently. This sentence as written is totally meaningless. It could potentially be part of a good study, where Gottman investigated different forms of power-sharing and how they affected marital stability – but only because the study would carefully explain its methods so that the end number meant something. Outside the context of that number, it communicates nothing. Yet Gottman put it in a book and expects us to be impressed by it. It feels like he’s just trying to dazzle us with mathematical precision, and hoping we don’t think about it long enough to realize that it doesn’t make sense.
But the most important statistical question is – does Gottman marriage counseling work? Gottman cites a bunch of different studies proving that it does, but he conducted or oversaw all of them. I randomly chose Shapiro and Gottman (2005) for further analysis. It is typical of this genre: it takes couples who have just had a baby (a particularly perilous time in a marriage), gives half of them a Gottman workshop, and the other half get nothing (no placebo or alternate method here!). The study evaluates husbands and wives separately (was this a preregistered decision?) on several established marital tests and subscales of marital tests (was the choice to keep some tests whole and take subscales of others preregistered?) and finds a significant quadratic effect of their program on marital quality.
I had to look up what a quadratic effect is. It means that the effect approximates a parabola. That is, things start by getting worse, then get better again, in a parabolic pattern. If I’m understanding the study correctly, then if you just do normal linear tests (did the couples’ marriage get better or worse, overall?) there was no significant effect. Gottman writes that:
Our best guess as to why the quadratic pattern occurs is the following. With intervention, things get worse at first because the immediate effects of the interventions are to increase the amount of conflict that the couple experiences. Our interventions encourage couples to honestly face and discuss their conflicts, particularly potential or actual inequities in housework and childcare, conflicts that they would naturally avoid and which they do avoid in the control group. This early increase in the amount of conflict in our intervention group probably causes temporary discomfort, which is reflected in lowered marital quality and increased postpartum depression. However, because the couples in the intervention group learn the communicative skills to cope with these issues, the conflicts get dealt with to some degree, and thereafter marital quality and postpartum depression both improve, whereas in the control group, because these conflicts have not been dealt with, things get worse over time.
This is fine, but the abstract just sums it up as “results showed that, in general, the preventive intervention using a psycho-communicative-educational format was effective”. No! If you didn’t preregister that you expected a quadratic effect, you are lost in the Garden of Forking Paths and you should give up and start over. Also, I feel like probably Gottman advertises to his clients that their marital happiness will improve. But even if we accept his argument here, the only thing he can say with confidence is that their marital happiness will increasingly approximate a parabola over time, which is not really what I think most people go to therapists looking for.
I might be misinterpreting this, and maybe I’m being overly harsh. But I am predisposed to be overly harsh because the whole “predicting divorce” thing makes me think Gottman is out to get me, and so I am less forgiving of unusual polynomials than I might be otherwise. Also, if you’re running the study of your own method, you ought to be on extra good behavior, and this does not really seem all that extra.
What happens when people who aren’t Gottman evaluate the Gottman method? A large government-funded multicenter study testing a Gottman curriculum as well as several others found no effect of any on marital outcomes; control couples actually stayed together slightly more than ones who got marriage counseling. The Gottman curriculum seemed to do worst of the three curricula studied, although there were no statistical tests performed to prove it. I have no explanation for this. Maybe the parabola is just really big, and the divorce is the low point of the parabola, and later on they’ll end up super-double-married. But I am not optimistic.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Gottman here. Rigorous psychology studies are murderous. Things that we know basically have to work, like Alcoholics Anonymous and SSRIs and psychotherapy in general, end up showing no or minimal effects. Heck, zoom out a little bit and we have twin studies showing that parenting itself, in full generality, has no or minimal effect. I find all of this very suspicious, and it would not surprise me if there’s something really wrong here that makes studies biased towards false negatives. All of this stuff about learning to respect and appreciate your spouse and negotiate conflicts in a calm loving way seems like the sort of thing that should work, and for all we know it might work in some population or situation other than the ones being studied.
But for the guy whose whole legend centers around how he’s evidence-based, it’s not a good look.
I really wanted Gottman Marital Counseling to work.
I wear a psychiatrist hat and a therapist hat. I love the psychiatrist hat. It is blue and pointy and has little glowing stars and moons on it. When I wear it, then with sufficient knowledge and understanding I can give people substances that release obsessions, calm fears, and brighten sorrows. Sometimes I can help people solve their unbearable hopeless problems, and it’s the best feeling in the world.
I hate wearing the therapist hat. I put it on as rarely as possible. I don’t advertise myself as a therapist, and if people ask me to therapy them, I try to refer them to someone else. But if someone wants to talk about their problems in a session, you can’t just say no. And so they tell me about being trapped in an abusive relationship, or haunted by guilt, or trapped in a dead end job with no prospects for improvement. And then they expect me to be able to say something that makes it all better. I know that the textbook response is something about how therapy does not solve problems per se, but by sharing them with someone else it makes them more bearable and adds perspective. Unfortunately, my patients didn’t read that textbook, and they put hope in me, and as often as not I betray it.
I think every therapist feels this way. I once talked to an important professor of therapy, who admitted to me something like “even at my stage, I feel like in the end we only have five or so techniques”, and I got really excited and blurted out “wait, what are the other two?!”
Desperation breeds gullibility. Patients with terminal diseases, however smart they used to be, turn to homeopaths and charlatans rather than face the dismal truth. Therapists are desperate – being confronted with some of the most sympathetic people in the world, day in and day out, having the burden of helping them placed on your shoulders, and knowing that your armamentarium isn’t up to the task will do that to you. And so they become marks. Gullible, gullible marks. Realistically it’s going to be really hard for me to stop recommending Gottman marital counseling to people, because they need something so much. And this is something. And it sounds so good. And I can’t just let their marriage keep falling apart. And surely there’s still a chance it might work, right?
(don’t worry, eventually I’m going to look into some of those forms of counseling that outperformed it in that study)
Bad marriages are so, so bad. They’re so bad it’s shocking. The first time I saw one, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to figure out some of the root issues, so I asked my patient something about his wife, and he immediately launched into a tirade about all the things his wife had done recently, and why she was in the wrong and he was in the right. I tried to redirect him, and briefly succeeded, but after a second or two the new line of conversation shifted to how unfair his wife was and how she was in the wrong about everything. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and say “for the love of God, just put this aside and move to the meta-level and let’s talk about some of the places we can go from here!” but he was just incapable of this mental action. I wish I could say this was an isolated case. It isn’t.
My ex-girlfriend Ozy writes a relationship advice column. Probably taking relationship advice from an ex-girlfriend is some kind of classic mistake, but I read it anyway. They describe five kinds of relationship problems – stupid problems, basic incompatibilities, problems that are actually a different kind of problem, terrible people, and horrifying soul-sucking messes. For some reason, this taxonomy has stuck with me when all the supposedly evidence-based taxonomies I hear the social workers talk about have failed. And the horrifying soul-sucking mess category sticks with me most of all:
A problem of one of the previous three types was badly managed, perhaps for years. Now, every time you have a minor argument, you bring in everything wrong that happened for your entire relationship. You don’t feel like you can trust your partner. All the quirks you used to find charming drive you up the wall. You hate even your partner’s most innocuous actions. You avoid every topic that leads to a fight, and rapidly find that you can’t discuss anything except Marvel movies and the weather. You’re defensive whenever your partner says anything that sounds like even a minor criticism. You’re sarcastic and you call them names. Somehow, when you remember good things about the past– the time you saw Hamilton together or your birthday present or being the best man at their wedding– all you can remember is the long lines at intermission, the poor wrapping job, and their incredibly rude drunk aunt. If asked to name a good trait of theirs, you draw a blank, but you can go on for hours about their flaws.
I guess it might be in theory possible to fix a horrifying soul-sucking mess with a lot of hard work, but to be honest every time I’ve seen a person in one of those relationships they were a lot better and happier and stronger as people as soon as they ended it.
A lot of my patients are horrifying soul-sucking messes. I wish there was something I could do about it, but instead I just sit and listen as they spend forty-five minutes describing every way their spouse has wronged them.
I’m terrified of this. How did it happen? At some point these people must have loved each other. How does any human relationship get this bad? Could it happen to me? Could I marry a great person who I love a lot, and then five years later sign up for therapy just so I can start talking about all my grievances without letting the therapist get a word in edgewise?
Unlike my ex, I don’t write a relationship advice blog. I write a blog about other things. One of them is politics. And whenever I hear people talk about relationships, I hear weird echoes of political problems. People who hate their spouse have an outgroup of one. A unified polity has devolved into partisanship. Social trust has been broken; a defect-defect equilibrium is in place. Gottman thinks of couples as a two-person culture, and some of those cultures are decadent and fractious.
Theodore Adorno’s right-wing authoritarianism scale asked a lot of questions about marriage and child-rearing; his thesis was that people who want top-down government will control their families the same way. Certainly there are authoritarian marriages. But it also seems like there are marriages that are nationalist in a more positive sense – one where the couple has built itself a strong mutual culture and identity, subsumed both individuals into it, and come out stronger on the other side. There are liberal marriages, where both spouses do their own thing, occasionally come together for mutually beneficial exchange of affection, and then go back to doing their own thing. There are even social justice marriages, where both partners are obsessed with how they are being oppressed by the other, interpret all discussion of compromise as hostile attempts to excuse the oppression, and have no strategy beyond proclaiming their victimization louder and louder in the hopes that their grievances are recognized.
…I’m making fun of that last one, but maybe they have a good point. Gottman’s marital counseling – and every other kind of marital counseling I’ve read – is basically mistake theoretic. It assumes that two decent people who both want to live with each other are unable to because they don’t have communication skills or problem-solving skills or some other skill that lets them fulfill their mutual aims. That model seems to accurately describe most of my patients. But Ozy’s taxonomy is more thorough, including a category for terrible people:
One or both of you just sucks. This category includes abuse, but it certainly isn’t limited to it. This is the category from which advice columnists get all their pageviews: we love viewing a train wreck. Your partner has had a suicidal crisis every night at 3am for the last month, and you’re up all night comforting them, and they refuse to find anyone else to talk to or ride out their suicidal crisis on their own. Your partner cheats on you constantly. Your baby is eighteen months old and your partner has never changed a single diaper. Your partner has demanded that you keep your relationship secret from everyone. You asked your partner to clean up dog poo from the floor, and it is three days later, and the dog poo is still there. If you have found yourself in a committed relationship with a terrible person, you should DUMP THEM.
In marriage, as in other forms of politics, sometimes exit > voice. Which is probably not something marriage counselors want to think about very much.
I’m a liberal, and my advice usually follows liberal principles. Have meetings involving all stakeholders, agree on general rules based on deep principles, and then follow the rules even when it’s hard, since that ensures a minimum of conflict on specific issues. I tell patients to have a consistent weekly meeting with their spouse, maybe a Saturday date night. During the meeting, each of them has to say one nice thing about the other, and then one problem that they want to work on. The other person thanks them for the nice thing and then they brainstorm a solution to the problem. If they both agree to the solution, they have to stick with it at least until the next relationship meeting. A lot of my patients have said this really helps them, have continued the meetings long after the immediate crisis passes, and probably expect the technique was invented by some clever person like John Gottman. I will never tell them that actually I picked it up from a different ex-girlfriend, not even the one who writes relationship advice columns.
In conclusion, I have no idea what makes marriages work, and I am not convinced John Gottman does either. Sometimes marriages are horrible in ways I never could have imagined, and other times they are amazing and I am infinitely jealous of them. Also, the very existence of a next generation of the human race is dependent on people having them and making them work for nonzero periods of time, which is a pretty terrifying prospect. Honestly I’m surprised we’ve lasted this long.