The Kiss by Auguste Rodin

by Fonya Lord Helm, PhD, ABPP

What would you think if I told you that it’s possible to tell—with pretty good accuracy—which couples will stay together and which ones will get divorced– just by watching a video for a few minutes?

John Gottman is a psychologist who received an award for the research that he developed into a form of couple therapy. He had an apartment set up at the University of Washington that he was able to use as a laboratory to videotape couples. They could stay overnight, and they were told to act the way they would be on a normal Sunday. The apartment had a living room, dining area, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, and had a view of the water. The cameras were on from 9 AM to 9 PM—but not in the bedroom or the bathroom.

John Gottman found one way to help create a good marriage.   It is positive communications.  In order to have a good relationship, we need to have many more positive then negative communications.

How many positive communications do you think we would need for every negative communication?   One? Two positive to one negative?

No. A couple needs five positive communications for every negative communication.   That’s a lot. Five positive for every negative?  And these five positive communications also need to continue to take place for all the years of the relationship.

What kinds of positive communication? Quiet and thoughtful listening would be one. Humor is a good one.   One woman—in the middle of a serious argument–put her hands on her hips, made a face like a child, and stuck out her tongue.  Her husband burst out laughing.  The laughter took away the tension.

A neutral communication can function as a positive communication, if the issue is an ongoing source of disagreement.  About two-thirds of disagreements that couples are in this category, never get resolved and are still there after twenty-five years.  People learn to be respectful and live with their differences.

So, let’s go back to the video. When we look at a video of a happy couple that will stay together, what will we see?

Five positive statements for every negative statement.