After spending decades researching the intersections between behavioral economics and relationship psychology, Drs. John and Julie Gottman made a number of incredible discoveries about relationships. One conclusion stands out in the first few chapters of his book “What Makes Love Last”. In relationships, 2 + 2 does not always equal 4. At least, not in the ways we think it does.
Unhappy couples defy game theory
Game theory is the study of strategic decision making. Drs. John and Julie divide the behaviors of conversing couples into three clear boxes: Nice, Neutral, and Nasty. Unhappy couples get stuck in what he calls The Nasty Box. They are rarely able to climb into the Neutral Box and are more hesitant to spend time peering over the sides of the Nice Box. Though this may all seem pretty intuitive at first, these discoveries about the underlying mechanisms determining the ultimate nature of the relationship are more complex. They signify motivations underlying behaviors and statements made during the interaction by each person: the emotions behind their words, the success or failure of their repair attempts, their attunement to each other, and very importantly, their timing.
Trust and the Nice Box
In terms of game theory, the concepts come down to payoffs and losses. The Gottmans relate the mathematical calculations of trust metrics and trustworthiness to the times when it is most effective to attempt overtures guiding your partner into the Nice Box. However, the most surprising results had little to do with the Nasty and Nice Boxes. While their impact upon our behavior is worth noting, it’s neutrality in relationships that acts as a kind of peace, a relief from conflict, an alternative to ending up in a “valley of darkness.”
Unlike scientists who have remained singularly drawn towards combating behaviors in the Nasty Box and attempting to reinforce behaviors in the Nice Box, Drs. John and Julie discovered something new. They proved that specific physiological signs, the Four Horsemen, provide a great deal of support for the powerful bi-directional feedback loops between the nervous system and feelings about trust in most intimate relationships.