Famed marriage researcher John Gottman can predict the future of a relationship within three minutes of interacting with the couple. His ability to accurately forecast marital success or failure is close to 90 percent. His track record is confirmed by peer-reviewed publications. He may very well hold the future of the American education and business sectors in his hands.
How is he so successful? After years of careful observation, Gottman isolated specific marital behaviors—both positive and negative—that hold most of the predictive power. But this research was ultimately unsatisfying to a man like Gottman, akin to telling someone they have a life-threatening illness but not being able to cure them. And so the next step in his research was to try to harness some of that predictive knowledge to give a couple a better future. Gottman devised a marriage intervention strategy based on his decades of research. It focuses on improving the behaviors proven to predict marital success and eliminating the ones proven to predict failure. Even in its most modest forms, his intervention drops divorce rates by nearly 50 percent.
What do his interventions actually do? They drop both the frequency and severity of hostile interactions between husband and wife. This return to civility has many positive side effects besides marital reconstruction, especially if the couple has kids. The link is direct. These days, Gottman says, he can predict the quality of a relationship not only by examining the stress responses of the parents but also by taking a urine sample of their children.
That last statement deserves some unpacking. Gottman’s marriage research invariably put him in touch with couples who were starting families. When these marriages started their transition to parenthood, Gottman noticed that the couple’s hostile interactions skyrocketed. There were many causes, ranging from chronic sleep deprivation to the increased demands of a helpless new family member (little ones typically require that an adult satisfy some demand of theirs about 3 times a minute). By the time the baby was 1 year old, marital satisfaction had plummeted 70 percent. At that same point, the risk for maternal depression went from 25 percent to a whopping 62 percent. The couples’ risk for divorce increased, which meant American babies often were born into a turbulent emotional world.
That single observation gave Gottman and fellow researcher Alyson Shapiro an idea. What if he deployed his proven marital intervention strategies to married couples while the wife was pregnant? Before the hostility floodgates opened up? Before the depression rates went through the roof? Statistically, he already knew the marriage would significantly improve. The big question concerned the kids. What would an emotionally stabilized environment do to the baby’s developing nervous system? He decided to find out.
The research investigation, deployed over several years, was called Bringing Baby Home. It consisted of exposing expectant couples to the marital interventions whether their marriages were in trouble or not, and then assessing the development of the child. Gottman and Shapiro uncovered a gold mine of information. They found that babies raised in the intervention households didn’t look anything like the babies raised in the controls. Their nervous systems didn’t develop the same way. Their behaviors weren’t in the same emotional universe. Children in the intervention groups didn’t cry as much. They had stronger attention-shifting behaviors and they responded to external stressors in remarkably stable ways. Physiologically, the intervention babies showed all the cardinal signs of healthy emotional regulation, while the controls showed all the signs of unhealthy, disorganized nervous systems. The differences were remarkable and revealed something hopeful and filled with common sense. By stabilizing the parents, Gottman and Shapiro were able to change not only the marriage; they also were able to change the child.
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