Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Shannon Curry appeared on the Lex Fridman Podcast to discuss relationships, marriage, psychological testing tools, counseling, and advice. She has previously appeared in the highly publicized Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial, where she provided expert testimony as a forensic psychologist.
She was asked to discuss Amber Heard’s psychological testing results, which revealed multiple diagnoses and the belief that she did not have PTSD. Of particular interest to me were a few well-established psychological findings she discussed relating to the success of long-term relationships.
What Is the Gottman Method?
Dr. Curry performs various forms of therapy, such as couples, individual, and trauma-based therapy. One form of couples therapy developed by Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, the Gottman Method, involves interventions that are based on empirical research that promote intimacy, respect, and affection between couples while disarming verbal conflict. Most relationship and marriage therapy approaches are purely theoretical, so the Gottman Method is unique in that it is an evidence-based approach based on decades of research observing thousands of couples, some for over 20 years. Based on the Gottmans’ findings, they can predict whether a marriage or relationship will fail with over 93% accuracy.
The Four Horsemen of Your Relationship
After performing extensive studies, the Gottmans found that there were four main types of negative communication in relationships that were predictive of a breakup or divorce. They’re aptly named Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, and are sometimes referred to as the Four Horsemen, like the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While all of these will negatively impact your relationship if they happen consistently, some of these negative communication habits are more consequential than others.
The first horseman is criticism, which is uniquely different than a complaint. We all have complaints, and conflict is normal in a relationship. However, criticism is when you attack your spouse’s character, and this is very unhelpful. Dr. Curry contextualizes this by giving an example of a spouse exclaiming that the other is so lazy or that they never help out around the house. Notice that the blame or frustration isn’t being placed on the situation but on the person. It’s characterizing your spouse negatively rather than trying to understand their perspective. This is a way to invalidate your spouse by making statements about them in absolutes rather than expressing how you feel about a situation.
Criticism is when you attack your spouse’s character.
Next, we’ll dive into defensiveness because this is often a response to criticism from the other spouse. However, criticism doesn’t always have to be present for someone to respond with defensiveness. Instead of taking ownership of a problem, someone who is acting defensively will refuse to take accountability for their words or actions, making excuses or even externalizing blame by flipping it on their spouse. This might happen even when the spouse is not being accused of anything.
For example, one spouse may ask if the other has followed up on something that they previously agreed on, only for the other to respond as if they were being attacked. They might say something like, “You know I’ve been busy all day and haven’t had any time. You should have done it if you’re so worried about it.” In an abusive dynamic, this may take the form of gaslighting.
Stonewalling is when one spouse shuts down, typically in response to contempt. They may withdraw from the conversation in various ways, whether that’s to tune out what the other is saying, physically turn their body away, leave the room, give their spouse the silent treatment, or distract themselves. This behavior is most common in men and is typically a response to flooding. When someone feels flooded, or like they can’t win no matter what they do or say and continuing to talk is unfruitful, then they withdraw. A spouse can feel “flooded” or like they are being put into fight or flight mode when their heart rate reaches 100 BPM.
Finally, the horseman that carries the greatest risk of relationship breakdown and divorce is contempt. This is essentially an expression of superiority over your spouse. This can be expressed by mocking, name calling, eye rolling, ridiculing, imitation, and various other forms of disrespect. The goal is nasty: to make your spouse feel worthless. Dr. Curry adds that this can also become an abusive dynamic, but it isn’t always. Most couples engage in contempt in some form at some point. However, the more contempt is expressed in a relationship, the lower the relationship satisfaction and even weaker the immune systems! Spouses who are contemptuous of each other take a hit to their well-being, as they’re statistically more likely to get sick.
Keep in mind with the Four Horsemen, it’s not whether you or your spouse engage in these behaviors at all that predicts a split – it’s the accumulation of these negative behaviors and the frequency at which they occur. Gottman also poses antidotes to these negative habits – what you should do instead. Rather than criticizing your spouse, you should use “I” feeling statements to express positive needs. Instead of expressing contempt toward your spouse, build appreciation by reminding yourself of their positive attributes. Feel grateful for their presence and what they do for you. Don’t be defensive; instead, take responsibility. Finally, instead of stonewalling, self-soothe by taking a break from the conflict if you need to. Spend this time to self-soothe or distract yourself so you calm down and can return to the conversation more level-headed and engaged.
The 5 to 1 Golden Ratio
On the flip side, the Gottmans also found a great predictor of relationship satisfaction and success. As it turns out, couples who are happier, healthier, and more satisfied in their relationship have, on average, five positive interactions for every negative interaction during conflict (the 5:1 ratio). This number is commonly repeated, but what’s often left out is the “during conflict” part. That means when you and your spouse have differences, the positive should outweigh the negative. On a daily basis, outside of conflict, the positive to negative ratio should be 20 to 1.
What these “positive” and “negative” interactions mean can vary by couple, but they don’t have to be grand gestures. Instead, small-scale positive behaviors that build up throughout the day or week are good for your relationship. These include laughing at your spouse’s joke, physical touch, asking if they want something, or grabbing them a glass of water. Conversely, too much conflict will skew this positive and negative ratio in the wrong direction.
Too little conflict can also be a bad thing – no one wants a pushover.
In other words, for every negative interaction you have with your spouse during an argument, you should have five positive interactions for the relationship to remain stable. Intuitively, we know too much conflict is a problem because you have no peace and you’re always on edge. You shouldn’t experience extensive suffering at the hands of your spouse. On the other hand, though, there’s a reason the ratio is specifically 5 to 1 and not 100 to 1. Too little conflict can also be a bad thing. No one wants a pushover – hence the trope that women hate “nice guys.” It’s not “nice” guys they hate but hyper-agreeable men who come off as desperate. If you have any standards at all, you will butt heads sometimes, and this is for the better. You will push one another to be better, to realize your full potential, to grow, and become your best selves. The relationship golden ratio indicates that we should live in harmony most of the time (20 to 1 positive to negative interactions in daily life) but care enough about our spouse that we won’t tolerate just anything.
Post-Conflict: The Repair Stage
The next most important aspect of a relationship is about repairing after conflict. Thankfully, Dr. Curry clarifies it doesn’t matter so much how you repair after a fight but whether you make any attempt at all to bury the hatchet and move forward with positive affection. This is different for every couple. Some couples are more verbal and require a discussion about the problem in order to move past it – this is the case for most couples. However, not all couples need to talk things through. Dr. Curry mentions a couple she sees for therapy who explicitly do not talk about their previous conflict to move past it.
Repair attempts are crucial to the longevity of your relationship. Your relationship can even weather the storm of the Four Horsemen as long as you make a repair attempt afterward. A repair attempt is any gesture, whether verbal or nonverbal, that attempts to relieve negativity and prevent it from escalating. For this one couple, they may take some time apart to do their separate activities and then rejoin, and it can be as simple as the wife asking her husband if he wants her to cook him his favorite dinner, or he will say, “I recorded your favorite show, do you want to watch it tonight?” There is a gentleness being expressed toward one another that signals they’re still in this together.
The Gottman Method encompasses a wide range of tools and steps in building a strong, lasting relationship. There are many other components of this method I have not discussed. However, the 5 to 1 golden ratio and the Four Horsemen have been shown, according to psychological research, to be the most impactful on relationships.
While you shouldn’t take this information and start robotically calculating your positive and negative interactions, it’s useful information to keep in mind so you have the tools to nurture intimacy, trust, and satisfaction in your relationship.
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