It is a great joy and honor for me to carry this real conversation, here, in the #EpicTalk interview series. As a family and couple psychotherapist, I follow you closely, and the books you have written have always helped me to better understand both the complexity of the couple relationship, and the way in which I can support the path that a couple has to travel from despair to happiness and fulfillment.
Gáspár: In 2017, Pagina de Psihologie’s Publishing House printed the book And Baby Makes Three– a book for partners who are aware of the importance of a couple’s relationship and who do not want to give each other up, not even after the child’s appearance. Why is it so important not to neglect the life of the couple, even if we already have a family? Why is it vital for parents to change their mentality about couple life?
John Gottman: If the relationship itself is neglected, it will deteriorate. Much like a car that is not maintained. The relationship is a „dissipative system“. It requires energy continually put into it, or it will deteriorate. The best example of this is the UCLA study funded by the Sloan Foundation, „Of Dual Career Couples in Los Angeles“. These people spent less than 10% of their evening in the same room, and talked with one another about 35 minutes a week – mostly talked about errands. Their lives had devolved into a nearly infinite to-do list.
Gáspár: One of the most important discoveries and contributions that come from the Love Lab – and that has been a great help to me, both personally and professionally – is the description of the four toxic behaviors that destroy any relationship and which are generally known as the Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are the behaviors we are best advised to give up as quickly as possible to preserve our physical and relational health. But it is impossible for me not to wonder if you have discovered other equally toxic behaviors in the meantime? If in the researches you have continued to make, you have discovered any other relevant horsemen of apocalypse?
John Gottman: Yes, we have also discovered another pattern of relationship that leads also to divorces, but later, on an average of 16.2 years after the wedding (not 5.6 – for couples with the four horsemen). It has been called the „de-vitalized relationship“. These couples did not have the four horsemen at „time-1“, when we first studied them. Instead, they have not much affect at all, and a total lack of interest in one another. It’s kind of a dead, indifferent relationship.
Gáspár: One of the biggest problems that Romanians face when it comes to couple relationships is their lack of trust and the involvement in love affairs and infidelity. What would be – in short – the steps that can lead to the revival of a relationship in which the partners felt the bitter taste of infidelity? Some international studies suggest that 70% of couples can save their relationship even after infidelity – What does your clinical observations and psychotherapeutic experience show you?
John Gottman: Yes, infidelity is complex, but it’s also almost entirely predictable. To understand it we did some additional research, published in two books: The Science of Trust and What Makes Love Last. This work concerned two metrics I developed, the trust metric and the betrayal metric. To better understand this, one needs to also understand the work of Caryl Rusbult on commitment. Loyalty involves two things, she discovered. First, it requires giving voice to one’s complaints with one’s partner, instead of complaining about one’s partner to someone else. Second, it involves cherishing what one has with one’s partner, and nurturing gratitude, instead of nurturing resentment for what is missing in one’s partner. There are two cascades of events that result from either a pathway to loyalty and a high trust metric, or a pathway toward betrayal that results eventually in high loneliness and an actual affair.
We are currently engaged in a national randomized clinical trial testing our intervention for treating affairs. That intervention is a 3-stage process we call (1) atone, (2) attune, and (3) attach. Atonement requires remorse and transparency, hearing the pain of the hurt partner and a commitment to change behavior. Attunement requires reflective listening and giving voice to disagreements (instead of conflict avoidance) and examining why the affair happened. Attachment is a renewal of love and commitment.
Gáspár: Since we have opened Pandora’s box, another difficulty present in the life of Romanian couples is jealousy – that emotion that is natural and perhaps beneficial to a point, but which, after a certain threshold, transforms both our relationship and our personality, due to the negative behaviors we enact. How could couples better manage the situations in which jealousy is present and which would be some of your recommendations for extinguishing jealousy, or at least for keeping its passion down?
John Gottman: Jealousy is not the culprit. As the work of David Buss shows, jealousy is a natural mammalian response to attachment. It is not pathological, except in the extremes of anxious attachment histories (like borderline personality disorder). Insecurity is common in the early stages of all relationships, the major question underlying all conflicts being: „Will you be there for me? Can I trust you?“ The answer must be an unequivocal yes or the relationship will end. The next question is the commitment question, „Am I the love of your life? Am I enough for you?“ Again, the answer must be an unequivocal yes.
Gáspár: One of the most recent book published at Pagina de Psihologie’s Publishing House is The Heart of Parenting – for me, this book is in the top 5 best parenting books that have been written so far, and I especially appreciate the clarity of ideas and the humanity it brings to parenting. Thinking of the parent-child relationship, I would like to ask you, which are the most important needs of a child and how much should an adult intervene in the child’s life?
John Gottman: I have answered this question in the book you mentioned. Fundamentally, a child needs to know that someone really appreciates him or her as they are. That someone is in his or her corner. That understanding and acceptance occurs in the everyday moments that the child is emotional. These moments are windows into the child’s soul. I think a parent should try to be involved and connected, but, as children grow into adolescence, peers become more important and the parent needs to be okay with the child withdrawing and him becoming more like an ally, a consultant rather than an emotion coach.
Gáspár: A concept that has enjoyed a real international success and still has great popularity is „emotional intelligence“. In the parenting book I have mentioned above, you give parents a series of steps that they can apply when interacting with their children, so that they can cultivate this form of intelligence. And these steps are: (1) Be aware of the child’s emotions; (2) Recognize an emotion as a chance to learn and become closer; (3) Listen empathically and then validate the emotions of the child; (4) Help the child verbally label his emotions; (5) Set limits as you help the child solve their problems. My question is how often should these steps be applied and up to what age? Does parenting end when the child leaves home or is it a process that lasts as long as parents and children are alive?
Yes, it lasts forever. And these are the steps. Over time, however, the parent and child are partners in understanding. Parents aren’t doing most of the work anymore.
Gáspár: And my last question: I know you are in the habit of talking about personal difficulties, and that helps us all normalize most of those difficulties. What was the biggest challenge for your couple during the pandemic and how you coped with it?
John Gottman: For Julie and I the pandemic has been a blessing. We’ve traveled less and worked less, and had more time for each other, and for our individual interests. For me, that has involved getting into more math and physics, and playing the banjo. We have been able to enjoy nature together here on our island.
For some couples we work with, the pandemic has fixed them closer to one another in the context of great outside stress and fear. For other, without the relationship skills to deal with conflict and maintain intimacy, it has driven them much farther apart.