After spending decades researching the intersections between behavioral economics and relationship psychology, Dr. John Gottman has made a number of incredible discoveries about relationships. One conclusion in particular stands out in the first few chapters of his new book What Makes Love Last: In relationships, two plus two does not always equal four. At least, not in the ways we think it does.

Unhappy couples defy game theory. 

Game theory, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is the study of strategic decision making. Dr. Gottman explains his conclusions to us by demystifying the math. He divides 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 and less likely to spend time peering over the sides of the Nice Box. Though this may all seem pretty intuitive at first, Dr. Gottman’s 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.

In terms of game theory, the concepts Dr. Gottman talks about come down to payoffs and losses. He relates his mathematical calculations of trust metrics and trustworthiness – yes, there is a difference – to the times when it is most effective to attempt overtures guiding your partner into the Nice Box.  But according to Dr. Gottman, the most surprising results he saw in his relationship studies on trust had little to do with the Nasty and Nice Boxes. While their impact upon our behavior is worth noting and their importance in increasing our faith in our loved ones is important, his “findings on neutrality are among the most exciting to come out of [his] research on trust!”

Dr. Gottman describes neutrality in relationships 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, Dr. Gottman has discovered something new. He has been able to prove that specific physiological signs, which he refers to as the Four Horsemen, provide a great deal of support for the powerful bi-directional feedback loops between our nervous system and our feelings about trust in our most intimate relationships.

More in What Makes Love Last
The Three Boxes

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.