A Talk with John Gottman
Bob Levenson and I were very surprised when, in 1983, we found that we could actually predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, what was going to happen to a relationship over a three-year period just by examining their physiology and behavior during a conflict discussion, and later just from an interview about how the couple viewed their past. 90% accuracy! Nobody was getting that kind of prediction in psychology. In fact, Walter Michel had just published a book challenging psychology with really terribly low rates of being able to predict human behavior. He said the Emperor has no clothes. But here we were with huge correlations, and getting enormous stability in couples interaction over time (with no intervention). We thought at first that it might be just chance, but we found after doing study after study that very simple patterns replicated in sample after sample. You could tell from just looking at how a couple talked about how their day went, or talked about an area of conflict, what was going to happen to the relationship with a lot of accuracy.
That was surprising to us. It seemed that people either started in a mean-spirited way, a critical way, started talking about a disagreement, started talking about a problem as just a symptom of their partner’s inadequate character, which made their partner defensive and escalated the conflict, and people started getting mean and insulting to one another. That predicted the relationship was going to fall apart. 96% of the time the way the conflict discussion started in the first 3 minutes determined how it would go for the rest of the discussion. And four years later it was like no time had passed, their interaction style was almost identical. Also 69% of the time they were talking about the same issues, which we realized then were “perpetual issues” that they would never solve. These were basic personality differences that never went away. She was more extroverted or she was more of an explorer or he was more punctual or frugal.
The cynic in me thinks Gottman and Seligman are overly optimistic about curing humanity’s woes. I’d love to be proved wrong, though.