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About the Gottman Private Couples' Retreats on Orcas Island

The Scientific Basis for The Orcas Island Couples' Retreat


We'll start with a story. In 1965 George Bach published a book called The Intimate Enemy which detailed a new approach to couples' therapy. Bach believed that the problem in relationships was that people suppressed their anger; instead, they should openly express it. If they aired their resentments instead of letting them accumulate, that would clear the air between them. So Bach had partners take turns voicing their resentments. He even encouraged them to hit one another with soft foam-rubber bats. He believed that this process would be like erasing the blackboard; then, the couple could start anew.

We now know that Bach was totally wrong. Voicing anger mindlessly doesn't improve things. In fact, it can worsen things. We now know that, from the very beginning, anger needs to be regulated and channeled constructively. Imagine, if we planned a retreat based on Bach's work, how destructive that could be. We believe that solid science is needed in order to create effective intervention.

Our couples' retreat is based on 36 years of consistent programmatic research on relationships. We have studied couples at every point in the life cycle, from newlyweds to octogenarians. We have also followed the same couples for very long time periods, including two groups of couples for 20 years. Our samples have represented every major ethnic and racial group found in the U.S. locales where we have conducted the studies: rural areas, urban centers, and suburbs. We have also spent 12 years studying gay and lesbian relationships, and the relationships that are the most distressed – those troubled by domestic violence.

Our Methods

We brought couples into a lab and videotaped them having either a conflict discussion or a talk about the events of their day or a positive event. While being videotaped, they were also hooked up to instruments that collected physiological data. Then we synchronized the video time code to the physiological data, and the partners watched their tape, rating how they were feeling during each moment. Later, we also analyzed the videotapes, a hundredth of a second by a hundredth of a second, for the emotions the partners expressed non-verbally as well as the content of what they said, and we combined this data with the physiological data. This entire process was repeated annually or in some cases, every few years, along with having the couples fill out written questionnaires. Over the years, changes were analyzed in the quality of relationship, the relationship status, and a number of other factors.

In a further study in a lab we fashioned to look like an apartment, couples stayed for 12 hrs and simply hung out together. It was just like a bed and breakfast holiday, except there were four cameras bolted to the walls, urine and blood samples were taken, and the partners wore physiological monitoring devices. Other than that – just like a simple vacation! Data was gathered while the couples ate, watched TV, listened to music, read the newspaper, and so on. These couples were also followed longitudinally.

For many years we only observed these couples as well as their infants and children without any intervention. Then 15 years ago, we began to work on designing interventions to help couples and families. These were studied, too. We also investigated how to smooth the transition to parenthood, which had proven to be rocky for most couples, and how partner relationships could enhance babies and children's emotional and cognitive development.

In all of that research we repeatedly asked the basic question, "How were the masters of relationship different from the disasters of relationship?" By "masters" we meant people who stayed together and reported being reasonably satisfied with their relationships. By "disasters" we meant people who broke up, or who stayed together but were unhappy with one another. After years of careful study, we identified which precise factors predicted whether a couple would stay together happily, remain together unhappily, or separate and divorce, and we found we could make such predictions based on 15 minutes of observation for five years down the road with, in some cases, 94% accuracy. The result was that we didn't get asked over for dinner much.