Studying Marriage: Gottman’s Love Lab and the Four Horsemen of Divorce

Travis DixonHuman Relationships, Love and Marriage

Studying relationships and why some work and others don't is a fascinating field of study because it's so relevant for all of us.

John Gottman’s decades of research has uncovered four “poisonous” factors in a marriage: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling. Based on this same research, Gottman has devised 7 principles that can help maintain or restore a healthy marriage. 


Why do so many marriages end in divorce? In the United States, the % of marriages that end is around 50%, and the rate is similar in other Western countries. Why does this happen? How do couples go from their (presumably) happiest day of their life on their wedding day when they vow they will spend their lives together, to some point later arguing in a divorce lawyer’s office or even in court over who gets custody of the dog/child/TV? Since the 1970s, John Gottman and his colleagues have been investigating this question.

“The Love Lab”

Much of the research on the couples involved in Gottman’s research has been made through observations in what Gottman calls “The Love Lab”. This is an apartment in Seattle overlooking the ocean that is designed to be as realistic as possible, and just like a normal apartment. Couples are invited to spend a weekend in the “lab” and there are cameras situated throughout the apartment that record the couples discussions, body language and general behaviour. They also measure things like their blood pressure and heart rate, to see the physiological effects of their interactions. (For obvious reasons they don’t, however, film them in the bathroom!) At the time of the publication of his book he was studying 700 couples over 7 different studies.

living-room with the modern furniture. 3d render.

The Love Lab just looks like a regular apartment (and is a regular apartment in Seattle overlooking the ocean), except it’s been equipped with cameras and other monitoring equipment.

When one such research study began in 1983, Gottman asked 85 American couples to participate in his research study where they would be observed in his specially designed “Love Lab”. They recruited by using newspaper advertisements and from 200 couples who responded to these advertisements, a smaller group of 85 couples were invited to participate. The couples were narrowed down to obtain a distribution of marital satisfaction (i.e. low – high) to get an even representation of couples.

During each observation, the couples arrived to the lab after having not seen each other for eight hours. They were asked to converse for 15 minutes on three topics: the events of their day, something good in the relationship and a current idea that was a point of conflict between the couple. While they were conversing they were being recorded by partially hidden cameras to measure physiological reactions, such as facial expressions during conversations.

After the observations were complete, researchers transcribed the data from the video tapes and observers coded the data. Most of the couples were studied again in 1987 and then observed once a year until 1997, and then there was a final observation in 2002. By the time of the final observation, 21 of the 85 had divorced (25%).

The aim of the longitudinal study was to find correlations between the couples staying together or divorcing, and the data from the observations and their physiological responses (e.g. facial expressions). One interesting result that came out of the research was what I like to call, the five-one rule. This means that the happy couples made five positive pieces of communication for everyone negative one. Interestingly, Gottman also claims that based on studies like these he can predict divorce with 91% accuracy after just observing and listening to a couple for as little as five minutes.* Gottman has a background in mathematics and statistics and so much of his research is really focused on careful quantifying and measuring of relationship interactions. 

The way he predicts divorce is for looking for signs of the presence of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, which is an allusion to the biblical story of the end of the world. In this context, the four horsemen are four negative styles of communication that were more prevalent in the unhappy couples’ relationships than the happy ones.

Gottmans’ Four Horsemen

Criticism: Whereas a complaint is about something you’ve done, criticism is when one partner makes a negative comment about the other’s personality or character. These negative comments are often based on “always” or “never” type comments, like “you never help around the house,” or “you always think you’re right.”

Contempt: This basically means looking down on someone, feeling like you’re better than them in some way. It often takes the shape of name-calling, sneering, eye-rolling or sarcastic jokes at your partner’s expense.


Contempt. Gottman believes he can predict divorce by looking for micro-expressions of contempt and other markers of the four horsemen.

Defensiveness: Not surprisingly, when one partner is being criticized, they may resort to being defensive, which means not taking the blame and actually shifting it to someone or somewhere else. Defensiveness escalates a conflict, which is why it’s dangerous in a relationship.

Stonewalling: putting up a barrier and withdrawing from conversation; refusing to deal with problems. In unhappy couples it’s a way of actually reducing stress, but the problem is that it doesn’t aid in improving the communication between couples.

To counter these negative communication habits in unhappy marriages, Gottman devised his seven principles for making marriage work.

Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Read more here)

  1. Enhance your love maps
  2. Nurture your fondness and admiration
  3. Turn toward each other instead of away
  4. Let your partner influence you
  5. Solve your solvable problems
  6. Overcome gridlock
  7. Create shared meaning

Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman. (If ever there was a marriage that was under pressure to last, it’s this one!) (Image: wikicommons)

After reading Gottman’s book I concluded that basically the key to having a healthy marriage is to consciously and conscientiously work on maintaining a strong friendship with your partner, and healthy communication habits are at the core of building and maintaining that strong friendship. I fear that some people just expect marriages to work and when they don’t they throw in the towel. Positive communication styles may come naturally for some, but for others they will take practice and effort; in order to help people develop positive communication styles and strategies, Gottman devised his principles.

You can purchase Gottman’s book here.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What does this research study demonstrate in regards to communication in maintaining relationships?
  • According to Gottman, how and/or why may some relationships change or end?
  • What are the ethical considerations involved in this research?
  • What are the methodological strengths and limitations of this research methodology (longitudinal studies and correlational methods)?


Gottman, John Mordechai., and Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Crown, 1999. Print.

*However, I have heard him claim in lectures that it’s 97% accuracy, so either his initial report was wrong or he’s getting better.