The Science of Love: John Gottman (Full Transcript)

Full text of world-renowned relationship expert John Gottman’s talk titled “The Science of Love” at TEDxVeniceBeach conference.

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John Gottman – Relationship expert

So this has been what I’ve dedicated my life to. There are 900,000 divorces in the United States of America every year. Fewer than 10% of them ever talked to anybody about their relationship.

So why would you need a science?

Well, we need a science to develop effective treatment and understanding of how to make love work. Why?

Why should we care about having great relationships?

Well, it turns out that in the past 50 years, a field called social epidemiology has emerged, and it shows that great friendships, great love relationships between lovers and parents and children lead to greater health – mental health as well as physical health – greater wealth, greater resilience, faster recovery from illness, greater longevity – if you want to live 10 to 15 years longer, work on your relationships, not just your exercise – and more successful children as well.

So love has a kind of magic; it’s able to do amazing things. And one of my favorite films is Sleepless in Seattle, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. And I just want to share with you a quote, where Tom Hanks is on the radio with the talk show host Marcia, and she says to him, “Sam, tell me what was so special about your wife?”

And Tom Hanks says, Sam says, “Well, how long is your program? Oh well, it was a million tiny little things. We were supposed to be together and I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home, only to no home I’d ever known. It was just taking her hand to help her out of the car, and, you know, it was like magic.”

And Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan say the word “magic” at the same time. So what about this magic?

Can science really help find the magic of love?

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Well, the first step is that we needed a lot of data. We needed to basically understand relationships better, and that’s not something I did alone. In fact, 45 years ago, we built a “love lab,” and this lab was built, in part, by a bromance. My best friend, Bob Levenson, and I created this lab.

And Bob and I became good friends. And we realized that our relationships with women were not going very well; it went from one disaster to another. So basically, two clueless guys got together to build this laboratory.

And then over 30 years ago, a romance with my wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman. And we decided to work together to see whether we could make a difference.

So basic research was followed by applied research. And we use validated questionnaires, online questionnaires that allow us to assess the strengths of the relationship in the areas that need improvement. And we validated these questionnaires to make sure that we knew what we were measuring and we could measure things reliably and accurately.

So we created this checkup — and over 40,000 couples have taken these questionnaires — and we get a green circle for a strength, a red box for an area that needs improvement.

But we get their story of their relationship. We ask them about how they met. We find out the quality of their friendship and intimacy from this interview. And we collect physiological measures from them as they’re talking to one another: we’re measuring heart rate, blood velocity, skin conductance, respiration, a variety of things like that.

And we score their emotion second by second in this kind of split-screen arrangement, where even though they’re facing each other, we can really code facial expressions, voice tone, nonverbal behavior, and verbal behavior very accurately and reliably.

We have them use a Video-Recall Rating Dial, which they just turned from extremely negative to extremely positive as they’re watching the videotapes, to get their perception of the interaction as well.

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And then we synchronize all of that: video, physiology, coded emotion, and perception.

And on the left, you see all the physiological measures we’re collecting, and, you know, a cursor that moves along. And this particular moment, you know, the wife has said something that just makes the husband dissolve in hilarity.

And shared humor turns out to be very powerful in a relationship at reducing physiological arousal.

So, what do we find from this laboratory?

We got over 90% success in predicting either divorce or stability, or the happiness of relationships that were stable. And the major impact of that finding was that Julie and I didn’t get invited out to dinner very often.

But the effects replicated six different times in six studies that Bob Levenson and I did over the whole life course, and that’s probably the most replicated effect in the study of relationships now.

And we’re no longer alone; other labs are getting very similar kinds of results. We followed these couples for as long as 20 years – straight couples, gay and lesbian couples, newlyweds, middle-aged couples, older couples into their late 80s and 90s.

So, what do we find – this over 90% prediction? What predicts?

And we kind of sit down in our lab and talk to a couple about their strengths and areas that need improvement based upon this research.

Well, one thing we do is we create kind of a “Dow Jones Industrial Average” of a conversation. And by doing that, very much like the Dow Jones, it’s really good if the cumulative positive minus negative emotions are going up.

In other words, on the left, we see a low-risk couple, where, you know, there really is much more positive than negative, in general, right? They go up and down.

And on the right, the high-risk couple, where basically, they go down all along their interaction. Well, turns out that one thing we discovered was that the way the conversation starts in the first three minutes of a conflict discussion will predict, 96% of the time, whether they are a low-risk couple or a high-risk couple.

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So startup – the way each person starts before they start influencing one another – is very critical in this prediction.

The other thing we learned is something we call the Roach Hotel Model of Relationships. Remember the Roach Hotel? The roaches check in, but they don’t check out. That’s a really good roach trap.

Well, negative emotions – anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, all of these emotions – the negative emotions for unhappy couples become like that roach hotel: once they check in, they don’t check out; it’s hard to exit and easy to enter this negative affect state.

And it turned out the balance of positive and negative emotions is our key index of this magic that Tom Hanks is talking about in Sleepless in Seattle — the balance of positive and negative emotions.

So this ratio of positivity to negativity during conflict in unhappy couples – that’s why this slide is in red – was 0.8:1, just a little bit more negativity than positivity.

And I was completely wrong; I thought that would be a great relationship. You know, in my relationships, you know, that had failed, we were much more negative than positive, so I thought if it was balanced, it would be great.

But no, it turned out that, actually, the balance of positive and negative emotions during conflict in relationships that were stable and happy was five to one. There was five times as much affection, humor, interest in one another, excitement, connection than there was hostility, disappointment, anger, negativity. So there really was a balance that was way balanced toward positive emotions in happy, stable relationships.

So this five-to-one positive to negative ratio has become pretty widely known. I left a Starbucks in Seattle recently, and a guy drove by in his pickup truck, and he rolled down the window and he said, “Hey, five to one, right?”

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