Dr. John Gottman has been studying love for four decades. His revolutionary work at “The Love Lab” with Robert Levenson at the University of Washington, starting in 1986, developed a scientific approach for determining the long-term viability of relationships. In the 1990s, he began to collaborate with his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, a clinical psychologist and researcher, to build outreach and counseling materials based on Love Lab research. Together, they have published books such as Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage and The Man’s Guide to Women. They formed the Gottman Institute, in Belltown, which researches relationships, trains therapists, and serves as a counseling and relationship workshop center.
This winter, the Gottmans will release their newest book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, which steers couples through eight themed dates. True to their research roots, the Gottmans tested the dates with 300 couples — new and long-term, LGBT, traditional and untraditional — over the course of a year. Eight Dates was intended to be a path for new relationships, but with 60 percent of the test couples in established relationships, the method also came to serve as a checkpoint to ensure partners are heading down the right path.
Jewish in Seattle: Why did you write Eight Dates?
Dr. John Gottman: Science is the weakest in the beginning of relationships. Part of what we wanted to do with the eight dates is see if we could make a difference. Personality variables, preferences and desires, and any combination of these variables account for less than one percent of variation in whether they like someone when they meet them. The thing to do is design dates with open-ended questions to help people along the way to think about what feels good when they meet somebody. What we found is that people love these dates even if they’ve been together for years and years.
Of the eight dates, which theme was the most impactful to your own relationship?
Trust and commitment. It was a very powerful date. It comes down to cherishing one another. One thing I love about the Shabbat service on Friday night is that the husband gets to say “Eshet Chayil” to his wife — to tell her, in those ancient terms, how much he values her and how much she is really the center of his joy, his pride, and his security. There’s a lot of joy in getting away from the infinite to-do list that we all have and connecting with one another.
How can couples address conflict and perpetual problems in a long-term relationship?
We’re not attracted to people who are just like us, so you have this inherent asymmetry in love relationships. You wind up pairing with someone who is very different from you, and those differences really enhance the relationship. They add a diversity that potentially keeps the relationship alive. You have to act as a unit, play, and travel together.
How do you create symmetry out of asymmetry? A dysfunctional way of doing it is to try to turn your partner into you, to have an agenda to change the relationship so that they’re more like you in every topic that you disagree on. That creates arguing and makes people feel unaccepted and unloved. One way of creating symmetry is listening, balancing power, telling one another that you care about what they need, even if those needs are very different from your own needs.
Each date concludes with “words of affirmation.” What is the symbolism of this activity?
It seemed to us that if we help people end a date with some kind of affirmation, it would be a long story with continuity. Every story needs a good ending.