The following Frequently Asked Questions are drawn from common inquiries about Dr.Gottman’s research on couples. The Gottman Relationship Institute welcomes the opportunity to share the insight science can provide the field of relationship study, and we hope these brief responses with links to published research articles, abstracts and books provide a greater level of detail and depth of understanding.
Is Dr. Gottman really able to predict whether a couple will get divorced with 94% accuracy?
Statements about the 94% accuracy rate of divorce prediction have become a source of confusion. People hear Dr. Gottman’s prediction rate is 90 or 85 or 94 percent accurate (depending on the study) and find it amazing, unbelievable and downright scary. (He often tells his wife that this is why they don’t get invited to more dinner parties!) What Dr. Gottman is able say is that a particular couple is behaving like the couples that were in the group that got divorced in his 1992 study (Buehlman, K., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.), a study in which Dr. Gottman predicted with 93.6% accuracy which couples would divorce.
Altogether, Dr. Gottman has completed seven studies that explored what predicts divorce. These studies included three groups: 1) couples that divorced 2) couples that stayed together and were happy and 3) couples that stayed together and were unhappy. Dr. Gottman’s research helped him identify specific behavior patterns in couples that he later termed the “Masters” and “Disasters” of relationships.
Six of the seven studies have been predictive—each began with a hypothesis about factors leading to divorce. Based on these factors, Dr. Gottman predicted who would divorce, then followed the couples for a pre-determined length of time. Finally, he drew conclusions about the accuracy of his predictions. He has also consistently evaluated other theoretical models that might predict differently and reported the results of these analyses (e.g., Gottman & Levenson, 2002). This is true prediction. Prior to his six prediction studies, Dr. Gottman did an initial post-hoc analyses study back in 1980 to help him determine what factors were useful in predicting divorce.
Although the predictive studies have been touted in the media, Dr. Gottman believes that it’s much more important to understand why certain actions increase divorce risk rather than to predict it. This enables Drs. John and Julie Gottman to design successful interventions. Their very high prediction rate suggests that they’ve hit upon a type of interaction or pattern of behavior that can make a couple vulnerable to divorce – and this sheds light on how best to intervene.
Are other writers/authors using Dr. Gottman’s research to come upwith their own conclusions or programs?
Dr. John Gottman’s 35 years of research and experience are widely cited in books, papers and online outlets – some academic or scholarly in nature and others more consumer-focused. In 2007, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell included observations on Dr. Gottman’s early work in his book, Blink. More recently, two journalists released books on marriage that leverage Dr. Gottman’s work. Tara Parker-Pope’s For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage cites Dr. Gottman’s findings. Laurie Abraham’s The Husband and Wives Club raises some questions about Dr. Gottman’s research, many of which are addressed here.
Can you tell us more about Dr. Gottman’s post-hoc analysis, and how it’s different from prediction studies?
Post-hoc analysis is looking at statistics retroactively – that is, statistically analyzing what has happened after the event or situation being studied has passed. The first of Dr. Gottman’s seven relevant studies was a post-hoc analysis (data mining). At first, Dr. Gottman had no idea what might cause divorce, so he looked for patterns in the behavior of couples that later divorced. By contrast, prediction research starts with making a prediction, and then seeing if the prediction works. It allows one to reliably predict an event or situation in the future, based on the results of the research. The next six of Dr. Gottman’s research studies consistently gleaned results that allowed him to reliably predict divorce, and each subsequent study added variables and examined new couples populations.
How statistically significant is it that Dr. Gottman can predict divorce with such a high rate of accuracy?
Dr. Gottman’s ability to predict divorce among newlyweds is more clearly understood by imagining an urn that contains 130 white balls (representing couples that stayed married) and 17 red balls (representing couples that ended up divorcing) for a total of 147 balls. The chances that Dr. Gottman could blindly pick balls out of the urn and guess which were red and which were white with 90% accuracy could only happen by chance 1 x 10-19 times. That is the number point one (0.1) with 18 zeroes in front of the number one. This means it is practically impossible that Dr. Gottman could predict which couples would divorce with much accuracy by chance alone. The factors he used to make his predictions were indeed clearly related to why couples ended up divorced. By looking for those factors, he was able to predict divorce fairly accurately. For the Gottman, Katz and Hooven study, where Gottman et. al. picked out all seven divorced couples out of 56, the probability is approximately .000000000384 or 3.84×10-9.
I’ve heard that the U.S. divorce rate is currently at 43%; how does that figure into Dr. Gottman’s research?
The 43% divorce rate refers to the percentage of U.S. couples that will divorce in the course of 40 years. Dr. Gottman is not trying to predict what percentage of the country is likely to divorce. His research result of 94% reflects the accuracy rates of attempts to predict which couples in a representative volunteer sample will divorce in a much shorter time – for example, during six years.
To get more technical: the 43% U.S.A. base rate of divorce is founded on estimates of 40-year predictions by sociologists. They use archival data (such as the per capita divorce rate, per 100,000 people) to project the percentage of marriages in 40 years that end with divorce. That’s not what Dr. Gottman does. His studies follow a longitudinal sample. For example, in his 1998 newlywed study, 17 couples out of 130 divorced in six years (as opposed to 40 years). That’s a divorce rate of 13.08% in six years or 2.18% per year. In another paper (1992, with Buehlman and Katz), the divorce rate was 13.5% in three years or 4.5% per year. In short-term longitudinal studies such as these, the use of the 40-year rate would make no sense and be statistically invalid.
How many divorce prediction research studies and general relationship studies has Dr. Gottman conducted with couples?
Dr. Gottman’s research work with couples started in 1972 and continues today. So far, he has completed 12 studies with more than 3,000 couples. Dr. Gottman’s divorce prediction research specifically (seven of the 12 studies) included 677 couples. These studies were completed at Indiana University, University of Illinois and University of Washington.
Did Dr. Gottman (or any other researcher) replicate the findings in the research studies?
The divorce and happiness change predictions are probably among the most replicated studies in the family research field. For example, Rand Conger’s group (including Ron Simons) at Iowa State University replicated some of Gottman’s divorce prediction studies. Julia Babcock at the University of Houston also replicated some of Gottman and Jacobson’s work on domestic violence.
OK, so what is the point of all this research?
The great thing about research is that it enables us to see patterns in the “Masters” and the “Disasters” of relationships, and understanding these patterns has helped the Gottmans to develop a theory (in this case, “The Sound Relationship House Theory”), which, in turn, guides us to develop programs, products and services that really work to help couples restore and repair their relationships.
What are the negative behavior patterns that can predict divorce?
Dr. Gottman calls these destructive behaviors, “A Positive-to-Negative Ratio of 0.8 or Less,” and has named the most corrosive negative behavior patterns, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Specifically, these are:
- Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”
- Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: “You’re an idiot.”
- Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”
- Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.
These predict early divorcing – an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. Emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing – an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.
Can physiological data really predict changes in marital satisfaction?
Yes. The more “diffusely physiologically aroused” (in other words, in “fight or flight” mode,) someone is during a conflict conversation, the more his or her marital satisfaction is likely to decline during a period of three years.
Are there any gender differences between men and women when it comes to physiological arousal?
Our studies have found that men tend to react with more signs of physiological stress than do women during disagreements, and therefore, men are more likely to withdraw (stonewall). (It is interesting to note that we have also followed same-sex couples, and stonewalling occurs between them as well.)
What makes Dr. Gottman such an “expert” regarding marriage and divorce?
For the past 35 years, Dr. Gottman, now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, has studied more than 3,000 couples in research (including divorce prediction research) and 4,000 more couples in intervention and treatment research. In addition, he and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, have worked with approximately 8,000 couples in workshop and therapy settings. Fourteen-thousand clinicians worldwide have been trained in The Gottman Method, many of them training directly with Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
Dr. John Gottman was recently voted one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker publication. Further, his 35 years of breakthrough research on marriage and parenting have earned him numerous major awards, including:
- Four National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Awards
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Distinguished Research Scientist Award
- The American Family Therapy Academy Award for Most Distinguished Contributor to Family Systems Research
- The American Psychological Association Division of Family Psychology, Presidential Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Research Contribution
- The National Council of Family Relations, 1994 Burgess Award for Outstanding Career in Theory and Research.
Dr. Gottman is the author of 190 published academic articles and author or co-author of 40 books, including:
- New York Times bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown Publishers)
- The Relationship Cure, A 5-Step Guide for Building Better Connections with Family, Friends, and Lovers (Crown Publishers)
- Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…and How You Can Make Yours Last (Simon & Schuster)
- Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting (Simon and Schuster)
- The Marriage Clinic (Norton)
- What Predicts Divorce (Psychology Press)
For more information on Dr. Gottman’s experience and research studies, click here.
If you had to summarize Dr. Gottman’s 35 years of research into two key findings, what would they be?
- Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
- Happily married couples are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and they are able to process negative emotions fully.
What research methods does Dr. Gottman use to study couples?
Dr. Gottman and his colleagues brought a multi-method approach to the measurement of couple processes. Methods include:
- Interactive behavior (Coding partners’ behavior and emotions as couples interact in various contexts)
- Perception (Self assessment through questionnaires, video recall, attributional methods and interviews)
- Physiology (Measuring autonomic and endocrine systems)
- Interviews (Oral history, meta-emotion, attunement)
- New questionnaires.
Are you sure couples’ behavior when observed by researchers is the same as how they behave at home?
No. We know couples tend to be more polite to each other when they’re observed. (We know this because we have also studied audio and video tapes couples made at home without researchers present.) Because of this, we underestimate the real differences between happy and unhappy couples. Given our ability to estimate what will happen to a relationship longitudinally, this is not a problem. And, after about 45 minutes, couples tend to forget they’re being observed all together.
Is the “Love Lab” still open? Can my partner and I go there and be part of a study?
The Family Research Laboratory (a.k.a. the “Love Lab”) became The Relationship Research Institute, Dr. John Gottman’s non-profit organization for family research. After the apartment (love) lab, technology enabled researchers to take cameras, physiological recording equipment and the rating dial video recall method into couples’ homes, a more ecologically valid setting. Couples interested in evaluating and working on their relationship using the Gottman Method can find a Gottman Certified Therapist, or have your therapist sign you up to take the Relationship Checkup here.
If we could go to the “Love Lab,” and if we learned that we were in the category of having a high probability of divorce, does that mean there’s no hope? Should we break up now, even if our relationship seems good to us?
No! The most important discovery to come from our research is how we can predict divorce, and from that we know what couples need to do differently to strengthen their relationships. Changing those negative behaviors that predict divorce to more positive behaviors that predict success can significantly change the course of your relationship and make it better.
Which of Dr. Gottman’s published papers and books would you suggest I review to better understand more about his research on divorce prediction?
Dr. Gottman has conducted an abundance of academic research in this area. Click here for some of the primary research studies, articles, and books.
How do I contact Dr. Gottman with general research questions?
Dr. Gottman is enthusiastically involved in the exchange of ideas through reading and responding to academic papers and research proposals. Unfortunately, his time is very limited, and it is often not possible for him to respond to public queries. If you have a question about Dr. Gottman’s research, send it in writing to email@example.com and the team will do their best to be of assistance. If you are a graduate student please search PsycINFO or visit johngottman.net, or ask your campus librarian to find cited Gottman journal articles and publications.