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About the Gottman Private Couples' Retreats on Orcas Island

The Scientific Basis for The Orcas Island Couples' Retreat:

What is "functional" when a relationship is going well?

For many decades, clinical writers have had to rely on their fantasies of what a good relationship is like. Often these fantasies did not match reality. One of the contributions of the Gottman and Levenson research is that well-functioning relationships have been studied over long periods of time (up to 20 years) so that we no longer have to rely on what we imagine a good relationship to be. There is new information in studying good relationships. It's not just reversing the grammar in the dysfunctional list.

What is going well when a relationship is stable and satisfying to both partners? Tolstoy said that all unhappy families were different in their distinct miseries, but that all happy families were the same. It turns out from research that the exact opposite is true. In happiness there is the possibility for much greater diversity. Unhappiness creates more constraints upon interaction patterns. The following has been found to be true by research:

Good relationships are matched in preferred conflict style.

In 1974 an important book was published by Harold Raush. It was the first observational longitudinal study of the transition to parenthood, and the first to use sequential analysis of interaction. Raush divided his couples into three groups: harmonious, conflict avoiding, and bickering. He suggested that the two extreme styles of conflict (avoiding and bickering) were dysfunctional.

However, in our own research we found that all three styles (which we called Avoiders, Validators, and Volatiles) were all functional (stable and happy), if and only if the ratio of positive to negative interaction during conflict was greater than or equal to 5:1. Also, mismatches between preferred conflict styles in married couples did predict divorce. These mismatches were at the root of demand-withdraw (or pursuer-distancer) patterns. A conflict avoider paired with a validator was the most common mismatch. We speculated that a partner with an avoider conflict style paired with a partner with a volatile conflict style would not progress toward relationship commitment.

Relationships that are mismatched have particular perpetual issues to deal with. They are not automatically doomed, but without intervention this mismatch in preferred conflict style is a risk factor that predicts dissolution. [Want to read more? See Gottman's Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.]

Good relationships are characterized by "dialogue" rather than "gridlock" with perpetual issues.

Only 31% of couples' major areas of continuing disagreement were about resolvable issues. 69% of the time they were about unresolvable perpetual problems. Functional problem solving about resolvable issues had the following characteristics:

  • The masters of relationships used softened startup versus harsh startup when raising an issue. The woman's role was critical since women bring up issues in heterosexual relationships 80% of the time.  
  • The choice of using harsh or softened startup was predictable by how positively responsive or rejecting men were during an events-of-the-day conversation that preceded the conflict discussion. Responsive men had wives who softened their startup during conflict.
  • Masters of relationships accepted influence rather than "batting it back (escalation)." The man's role was critical here because most women tended to accept influence at high rates. (Note: an important negative finding was that negative reciprocity in kind was generally unrelated to anything bad in couple outcomes).
  • Masters of relationships had repair attempts that were effective, and they repaired at a lower threshold of negativity than the disasters of relationships. They also did pre-emptive repair (see below).
  • The masters of relationships de-escalated negativity, and it was usually the male's role, but it was only low-conflict negativity that got de-escalated. Very few relationships were successful at de-escalating high intensity conflict. Ninety-six percent of conflict discussions that began negatively never got turned around.

Later longitudinal research (14-year follow up) found that escalation of negativity was a pattern that predicted early divorcing, while a second pattern we called "emotional disengagement" predicted later divorcing. Emotional disengagement was not characterized by the escalation of negativity, but by the absence of positive affect during conflict.

The most important finding was that for couples more positive affect during conflict was the only variable that predicted both couple stability and happiness. The positive affect was contingent rather than uniformly distributed throughout the interaction. It served the purpose of conflict de-escalation. Only positive affect and de-escalation that served the purpose of physiological soothing of the male predicted positive outcomes in the newlywed relationship.

Sixty-nine percent of the time, couples conflicted about perpetual issues in the relationship that never get resolved. What mattered was not solving these problems but the affect around which they were discussed. The goal seemed to be to establish a dialogue with the perpetual problem that communicated acceptance of the partner, humor, affection, even amusement, and active coping with the unresolvable problem rather than the condition of "gridlock. " Gridlocked discussion only led to painful exchanges or icy silence, and usually involved the Four Horsemen.

Good relationships employ pre-emptive repair.

Janice Driver and Amber Tabares in our laboratory studied how couples repair negativity. They designed a repair coding system for this task. Their papers are still being written. They discovered that couples whose relationships are happy are doing a great deal to avoid having the conflict discussion become negative in the first place. They referred to this as "pre-emptive repair." Unhappy couples do not do these things. An example of one of their codes is "tooting our own horn," by which they meant that early in the conflict discussion among happy couples one partner will congratulate the couple on how well they have coped with issues in the past.