The following Frequently Asked Questions are drawn from common inquiries about Dr. Gottman’s research on couples. The Gottman Institute welcomes the opportunity to share the insight that science can provide the field of relationship study, and we hope these brief responses provide a greater level of detail and depth of understanding.
Frequently Asked Questions
Statements about the 94% accuracy rate of divorce prediction have become a source of confusion. What Dr. Gottman is able to 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.