If the above diagram makes no sense to you, you are not alone. 

The dynamics of flowcharts, mathematical models, and interpretations for detailed experimental results on trust – a subject that has barely been touched by scientists – are foreign to most of us. In fact, little to no research has been conducted on trust in committed relationships. Dr. Gottman’s work is ground-breaking.

The above diagram, taken from Dr. Gottman’s The Science of Trust, displays his findings on the dynamics of loyalty and betrayal and their deep role in predicting the success or failure of our most intimate relationships.Acclaimed by professors and scientists as an “encyclopedic volume” with “authoritative and profound insights into the inner workings of relationships,” the book was nonetheless meant for “the academic, the researcher, the clinician… the game theorist and the mathematician.” The amount of complex “science” it contains may be inaccessible to those of us lacking a background in psychology. 

Luckily, Dr. Gottman is not your usual researcher!

In his , he goes beyond an exposition of the mathematics of trust. In a stunningly accessible style, and with a greater focus on theory and exercise of his conceptual understanding, Dr. Gottman opens his innovative research to the public. He offers us explanations of his studies and reveals his findings of complex effects and phenomena in hope that his research inspire all of us (now radically informed!) to proactively approach problems of trust in our own relationships.

One of the most significant phenomena Dr. Gottman focuses on in the world of trust is called the Ziegarnik Effect, and on the creation of what he amusingly calls “A Theory Of Building Trust When SH#!T Happens.” In explaining the failure of relationships, the age-old field of study bursting with myriad theories, each more upsetting than the next, Dr. Gottman has found something strange, indisputable, and utterly un-amusing. He has found that a theory discovered in 1922 by a bright young psychology student named Bluma Zeigarnik has enormous capacity to destroy human relationships. Here is Bluma, below.

Watching waiters in a café in Vienna, Bluma realized something very strange  in their behavior: they only seemed to remember the orders that they were in the process of serving. As soon as they had completed their task, the orders disappeared from their memory. What Bluma didn’t realize were the implications of her findings.

The Ziegarnik Effect, in simple terms, is the propensity of human beings to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In the world of trust, Dr. Gottman has found that it translates as follows: unprocessed negative events between partners have an enormously destructive power – through an ongoing erosion of trust, they gradually screw-up and ultimately destroy our most intimate relationships.

It works like this: We humans have a deeply frustrating and totally maladaptive tendency towards rumination. According to Dr. Gottman, “If a couple’s negative events are not fully processed (by attunement to each other), then they are remembered and rehearsed repeatedly, turned over and over in each person’s mind. Trust begins of erode… eventually, one is staying in a relationship, but that relationship is a veritable fountain of negativity (and that) cognitive dissonance is like a stone in one’s shoe.” As this process progresses slowly but surely, we begin to think of our partners with a universally critical eye, with suspicion and mistrust – we begin, even unconsciously, to vilify them.

“It’s no surprise she hasn’t called yet, I bet she isn’t even at the office! She never thinks of me…” or, “Oh, of course… he’s out drinking again. Leaving me with the kids, again. He knows how stressed out I am! What a selfish jerk!”

In this powerful spiral, our irritation mounts, our feelings of hurt surge upwards, and our relationships flare up violently. Fearing that we will be left guarding a mound of embers, we often stay in the mutual volatility of this closed circuit. Dr. Gottman’s years of research offer hope for a way out!

To take advantage of his wisdom on trust, in the form of detailed explanations, interactive exercises, and research-based tools for couples, we invite you to read What Makes Love Last?, and of course, to keep reading The Gottman Relationship Blog! 

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The Zeigarnik Effect

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.