A Marriage Scientist Shares How He Predicts Relationship Success With 94% Accuracy

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happy couple on train tracks

Dr. Gottman studied over 3,000 married couples. What he learned can improve your relationship drastically.

Since 1970, he's debunked common relationship myths. For example, he disagrees that active listening is key to happy ones. Within 3 minutes, he can reveal if a couple gets divorced. By watching a one-hour-long discussion, he can even predict with 95% accuracy if they’ll still be married 15 years later.

Sounds insane? It is. Gottman says it takes him 28 hours to analyze one hour of videotape!

Here are Gottman's 8 key findings and how they will help you make better decisions in your romantic relationships.

1. Happy couples don't practice active listening.

Whilst therapists dwell on the power of active listening, Gottman’s research found different: Those who practiced active listening weren’t able to diminish their problems. Only a small group managed to practice with success but relapsed after a year.

Why? Active listening means constantly checking if one partner has truly understood the other, by paraphrasing and repeating what the speaker has said. For example:

Person A: I get angry when I cook dinner and you come home late from work.

Person B: Did I understand correctly that you get angry when you prepare dinner but I arrive home late from work?



In theory, this model sounds promising. What couple wouldn't want a relationship built on active listening? However, in reality, it often leads to awkwardly stilted and therapist-like conversations.

In his lab, Gottman found that happy couples don’t practice traditional active listening. Instead, they make use of a lot of “positive affect.” For example, when an issue arises, they show affection like gentle physical touch or holding the other person’s hand.

Other than just paraphrasing, they show genuine empathy by acknowledging the other’s feelings and truly apologizing if they felt they did wrong. This can bring couples closer together by fostering understanding and compassion.

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2. Happy couples fight.

“Happy couples don’t fight” is a belief you hear often. In fact, many articles and advice blogs may claim that couples who are truly happy are never at odds, never disagreeing, and never arguing with one another. But according to Gottman, that's not exactly true.

Gottman found that fighting is not a predictor of divorce. He even claims successful relationships incorporate fights just as much as unhappy ones.

In his book “Decoding Love,” Andrew Trees summarizes Gottman’s findings on this: “Arguing regularly is healthier than never fighting, so couples who fight less are also less satisfied over time. The problem for non-fighting couples is that, by never fighting, they let things build up too much — way too much.”

The average couple waits 6 years before seeking professional help. That’s a lot of time to build up unhappiness and anger if you never talk about what bothers you.

Photo: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

Don’t avoid conflict and disagreement, as they are part of every relationship. But if you’re unhappy, seek help sooner rather than later. The earlier you are in your problem, the easier it will be to resolve it.

For example, you can write a letter about what bothers you to your partner if speaking up is difficult for you or if you can't find the right words verbally. Also, couple counseling provides a safe space to be guided through your disagreements, and it helps to have a third party who can offer insight from the outside.

3. Happy couples start fights peacefully.

According to Gottman, there are 3 key factors at the start of any discussion that differentiate happy couples from unhappy ones: tone of voice, level of complaint, and a partner's first reaction.

Tone of voice: Is the conversation opener harsh or soft? Research shows that 80% of the time women bring up issues in heterosexual relationships. Thus, they carry a big responsibility for how the rest of the conversation goes. Happy couples start discussions in a calm way, not with a harsh tone of voice.

Level of complaint: Is the complaint specific or something that relates to the character of the person? Successful couples bring up a specific incident like: “Yesterday, when I came home from work, dirty dishes were left in the kitchen.” Unhappy couples insult the person, in general: “You are so lazy, you can’t even bother to wash the dishes.”

Partner’s first reaction: Once it’s the partner’s turn, it’s crucial how they react. Are they open to suggestions? Do they keep calm or do they get defensive? Do they actually hear what you are saying or do they steamroll the conversation with their own needs? Happy couples manage to stay calm. Those who get defensive have a higher chance of getting divorced.



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4. Happy couples disrupt their arguments.

Gottman slams another approach: in traditional couple’s therapy, the uncomfortable person is forced to endure this feeling during an argument. He found that happy couples don’t follow this method.

In fact, they interrupt their arguments in all sorts of ways: some tell jokes, others talk about something irrelevant for a while. What’s essential is that they don’t let their arguments escalate.

Gottman has a solid explanation for this: he measured couples’ heart rates during fights. Once an argument escalates, the person's heart rate goes above 100, and they can’t argue rationally anymore. In short: they completely lose it.

By disrupting their arguments, happy couples counteract this pitfall; they get a chance to breathe and keep their bodies from reaching this breaking point.

One technique is to make up a code word — something funny like “Hullaballoo” or “Bumfuzzle.” If one person says it, it’s time to go to different rooms/outside and take a few breaths. Only come back to the argument when you have recharged.



Another method is to buy a yellow and red soccer referee card. Put them where you most regularly fight. Once an argument gets heated, showing the yellow card means “we can go on but let’s lower our voices a bit.” Red means “Stop, let’s disrupt the argument and come back later.”

These two methods ensure that couples are on the same page when it comes to their arguments. Not everyone communicates the same way, so it's essential for partners to not push each other during arguments.

5. Happy couples don't resolve their problems.

Here’s some good news: Failure to resolve conflicts is not necessarily a sign of a bad relationship. Of the 3,000 examined couples, Gottman found a whopping 69% never resolve their conflicts. Yes, never.

Indeed, most of them fight about the same old things like money, division of labor, or children. So, if you also rediscuss the same issues with your partner, it’s normal and you’re not setting up for relationship failure.

What matters is not whether you find solutions to your issues, but how you talk about them. As mentioned above, happy couples disrupt their arguments and stay calm. Issues like “You never wash the dishes” never become “You’re a bad person.”

For couples to remain happy and healthy, they must refrain from rehashing the past, the old arguments that never went anywhere and led to resentment. Instead, couples should steer clear of trying to resolve their issues, and find some common ground in their partnership.

Photo: Alex Green / Pexels

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6. Happy couples have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments.

Gottman found that the most successful couples make 5 positive comments for every negative comment. Even when they fight. Contrarily, unhappy couples don’t even manage to say one positive thing for every negative.

You might ask yourself now: How do you maintain a 5:1 positive ratio during a discussion with your partner?

Andrew Trees summarizes Gottman’s answer to that:

“The key is that happy couples never go for broke in an argument. They never find themselves in that fatal position when each partner is simply trying to wound the other because of how angry he or she is. A woman in a happy couple will say, 'I appreciate how hard you work at the office, but I still think I deserve more help at home', rather than, 'You never help me at home, and you don’t even make enough money so that we can afford a cleaning lady.'”

Every relationship will at one point or another have one or both partners hurling negative comments. But it's all about how these couples work to neutralize that negativity with something positive.

7. Happy couples know that doing 'a favor for a favor' makes things worse.

Have you ever done something nice for someone without truly expecting anything in return? Remember that warm feeling you got? Well, unfortunately, that feeling gets lost if you practice the “if your partner does something nice for you, do something nice back” method.

According to Gottman’s research, this approach even harms relationships. Why? Couples no longer felt any pleasure in giving as it has become part of an explicit exchange. As a result, it didn’t feel like giving at all.



According to Andrew Trees, if you want that warm feeling back, don’t ask your partner what they can do for you, but what you can do for them. Take the initiative to do something meaningful, whether it's cooking dinner, taking out the garbage, or just lending a listening ear.

Because when doing favors becomes more like a chore, it may start to feel like the relationship is a competition.

8. Happy couples pay attention to their partner in daily life.

Every day, there are key moments when your partner asks for your interest in something. It’s nothing big: figuring out what to eat for dinner, a problem at work, or what to wear for the next conference.

Successful couples understand the importance of this; they respond positively to those moments and develop a pattern of showing regular interest. Unhappy couples ignore each other. That, in turn, becomes a fatal habit.

Photo: Gary Barnes / Pexels

If you want to improve your relationship, pay better attention to the small things your partner mentions. Answer their questions and engage in conversations with them instead of scrolling through your phone or ignoring their approach.

It doesn’t require much effort, but it’ll make a big change in the long term.

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Anja Vojta, MSc is a certified relationship coach and breakup expert. She's a frequent contributor to Medium, The Good Men Project, Better Humans, among many others.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.