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The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples


John Gottman is well known and respected for his knowledge of what makes couples successful – and what will ultimately lead them towards divorce. His research uncovered ways to identify who would remain married and those who would not. When you pair my interest in how relationships work with my curiosity about how important trust is, it’s little wonder why I picked up Gottman’s book The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. However, what was surprising to me is how much mathematics played into the book.

Rose Colored Glasses

There’s some level of naivety that comes with being an optimist. Despite the psychological and physiological benefits of being optimistic, there are some practical benefits as well. (See Emotional IntelligenceThinking, Fast and Slow; and The Happiness Hypothesis.) The world is – to us – how we perceive it. So if you want the world to be a better place, simply view it that way.

Of course, this won’t change your actual situation, but it can change how you feel about it and that can change how you view the world and how you react to it. How Children Succeed would call it grit. Gottman focuses on what Robert Weiss formerly a professor at the University of Oregon called positive and negative “sentiment override.” In other words, the bias that someone has to interpret events based on their preconceived expectations of it. Sentiment override comes in both positive and negative form – so it’s possible to see things with rose colored glasses where the glass is half full, or negatively, as in the glass is half empty. (The scientists in the group sometimes quip that the glass is full – half of water and half of air.)

When someone has a pessimistic perspective – or negative sentiment override – it’s extremely difficult to have anyone appear to be positive around them. We’ve all heard folks retort back when we’ve said “Good Morning” with something like “Well, what’s so good about it?” They seem to find the dark cloud around every silver lining. In relationships this is life-draining, because relationships live on the ratio of positive to negative comments. Gottman’s research says that happy couples have a positive to negative ratio of greater than 5:1 – and couples headed for divorce have a ratio of 0.8:1.

On the other hand, positive sentiment override, reinforces the very lifeblood of a relationship. It creates more opportunities to be positive because there are more positive interactions that are seen. A person with a positive sentiment override might look at a traffic jam while traveling with their partner as an opportunity to finish a conversation rather than an unnecessary delay.

We All Have Problems

Gottman notes that all relationships have their problems – whether the couples are happy or unhappy. We all argue about essentially the same stuff. The difference with happy couples is that the arguments aren’t as all-consuming or as damaging. Happy couples are more apt to begin a discussion softly. They’re more likely to convey an issue in terms of what they need and what they feel – rather than by pointing out a fundamental character flaw of the other person. They’re also more likely to attempt to repair problems in the relationship – or in a disagreement – more quickly.

One concern of pre-marital counselors is how couples are fighting. They expect that even the healthiest couples are fighting at least a little. If a couple literally never fights or disagrees, it’s a sign that one or the other of the parties in the relationship aren’t expressing their needs and beliefs. However, happy couples may have trouble even deciphering that they are “fighting.” The disagreements are filled with so much respect (rather than contempt) that they just literally don’t see the “fight” as a fight. They simply see that they’re disagreeing – and reaching an agreement. It isn’t a fight because neither is getting hurt – at least not hurt in a lasting way.

Thus the distinction between an unhealthy couple – where one is capitulating – and a healthy couple – where both parties are actively building and repairing the relationship in the middle of the disagreements – is in the ability to discover that there are disagreements, but those disagreements never escalate to the point of a fight.

Gottman noted that happy couples moved to repair the relationship much sooner, and showed a much lower level of diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). In other words, happy couples were much less stressed about their interactions than unhappy couples – in part because they felt safe.

Unresolved Issues

Our brains are curious places. One curious thing is that unresolved issues – things that we don’t fully process – are given more attention and have more magnitude of thought than our resolved issues. This is called the “Zeigarnik effect”. The problem is that this can sometimes draw couples into a stream of negative conversations because all relationships have issues that cannot be resolved. Instead issues must be managed and dialogued to prevent the accidental development of gridlock.

Gridlock is that state much like a Chinese finger trap where both fingers are stuck and it’s very hard to get free. The more that you pull the fingers back – or the more entrenched you become in your position – the more challenging it becomes to break free. Couples, in gridlock, vilify one another. Instead of accepting that we’re both good people with different perspectives, fundamental attribution error creeps in and we believe the worst of our partner. (See also The AdvantageThe Me I Want to Be, and Switch.)

Gottman believes that the key behind these unsolvable issues are “hidden agendas.” He believes that there is a part of the conversation that isn’t being had. I remember reading a story of a man and wife where they were shopping for a new refrigerator and objectively the best offering wasn’t a Frigidaire. However, one of the options that they had evaluated was a Frigidaire model. The wife was insisting on it. The man was confused and frustrated because it didn’t make sense. In the end, the true reason was exposed. The wife had grown up with a father who was in appliance sales. He had his own business for a while and Frigidaire loaned him inventory so that he could sell it. Somewhere the wife had picked up on this and had built a sentimental attachment with Frigidaire because of how the company had supported her father when he needed it. Ultimately the story goes that they bought the Frigidaire – however, the point is not about where they landed – it’s about how an undiscovered motivating factor (hidden agenda) could create a stressful situation and once identified the problem fades.

We can’t get rid of all of our hidden agendas because we don’t know that they’re there. There are all sorts of crazy things that all of us do and feel without any rational reason. For me, for instance, I have to have at least $20 on me all the time. Not that we use cash that often any more – but I have to have at least $20 on me or I feel anxious. I also feel a bit of stress every time I go on a trip that I might have forgotten something important. The reality is that buying a tube of toothpaste on the road or picking up a new comb won’t break the bank – however, these stresses from my early adult life are still with me – even if they aren’t rational.

Acceptance and Shame

In a gridlocked situation – and in many less immobilized circumstances – the conversation can degenerate into a conversation about the differences of opinion. However, in many cases the undercurrent of a discussion is the need for everyone to be accepted. We all have a need to be accepted for the person that we are. It’s during the hard discussions where there’s very little common ground that the masters of relationships indicate their acceptance of their partner – in the midst of problem.

You may remember from my discussion of Daring GreatlyChanges that Heal, and Compelled to Control that shame is a powerful – and negative – force in people’s lives. Shame is separate and distinct from guilt in that shame is “I am bad” whereas guilt is “I have done bad.” Shame is battled with acceptance. David Richo discusses how important acceptance is in How to Be an Adult in Relationships. When we fail to recognize the importance of the person, we shame them and make them believe that they must not be good enough to be in a relationship with us.

Bidding for Attention

Gottman talked a great deal about what he calls “Sliding Door” moments (based on the movie Sliding Doors). The idea is that during certain moments of time you have two choices to make. Each choice leads to a different outcome. In the context of Gottman’s research, the sliding door moments are bids for attention. It’s where one member of a relationship is seeking out the other. One choice, to turn away from the partner will damage the relationship. Depending upon the bid for attention the damage may be small and insignificant – or something with a long lasting impact. The other choice, to turn into the partner’s bid for attention will build the relationship. It is these moments that Gottman surmises have significant long term impact on the relationship.

The Grass Must Not Be Greener

Every relationship has its good points and its bad points. It’s got things that go well and things that don’t always go so well. That’s what happens when you take two imperfect people and bring them together. The result is an imperfect relationship. However, from a long term stability point of view, Gottman believes that the way that you see the relationship can ultimately illustrate the relationship’s longevity.

The measurement is how we view the alternative relationship prospects. That is, whether we believe that our current relationship is better – or worse – than the alternatives. If we fundamentally believe that our relationship is the best possible answer for us then we won’t seek alternatives. Conversely, if we believe that the alternative relationships are better opportunities, we’re more likely to pursue – directly or indirectly – those other relationships.

It seems quite morally absent to discu¡ss the idea of a relationship being a comparison about what is best for us – however, that’s the way many people view their relationships – not that they are a commitment, but only that they are useful for the moment.


Learning to recognize and manage our emotions is a skill that few people have. (See Emotional Intelligence for more on managing our emotions.) Learning to manage emotions isn’t something that can be made into explicit knowledge – it’s hard to write down. (For more on different kinds of knowledge see Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge Management.) Because of this, emotional intelligence is best learned through coaching. Parents that have coached their children about how to manage their feelings are rewarded with higher math, reading, and IQ scores.

However, sometimes it’s the children who need to coach their parents in better managing their emotions, and in that context, the word coaching becomes more challenging. To combat the stigma of having a child teach a parent how to better manage their emotions, Gottman uses the word attunement. He suggests that anyone can help attune you to an emotional situation – irrespective of the power differential between the parties.

Teaching emotional intelligence – or attunement in Gottman’s language is key. Couples will be happier if they can recognize the feeling in their partner and seek to connect with them. That just doesn’t happen over time, it’s a skill that has to be learned – largely from those who are closest to us.

Authentic Trust and Love

What can happen over time as couples have spent their lives together is that their love becomes intertwined with the trust that they share. Over time partners can learn to trust that their partner will be there to nurture them and share in the moral responsibility of leading a life together. That isn’t to say that every time there was a bid for attention that the other partner understood it and turned in, however, it happens with enough regularity that it can be relied upon – it can be trusted.

As I mentioned in my review of Building Trust, there’s an authentic trust that doesn’t blindly believe in something that has no basis in fact, nor is it basic trust which is implicit and without confirmation of fact. Authentic trust understands that there are no absolutes in life and that a partner will mostly be there.

The interesting dynamic is how love and trust are related to one another and strengthen each other. There’s a special kinship that comes with having a large number of experiences together. There’s even some schools of thought that believe that experiential is a type of trust.

The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse

Ultimately, in his research and through his experience, Gottman discovered that there were four activities which signaled the demise of the relationship. These “four horsemen” were the signals of serious problems. Here are the four horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.


Most all of us have been critical at some point in our lives. A key distinction is that criticism here is criticizing the other partner – not criticizing the situation or the environment – it’s a direct attack on the other person. Globalization – using the words always and never – is a good indicator that criticism may be following.

An example of criticisms are rhetorical questions that are really accusations. When your partner asks “Why don’t you care about me?” they’re really making an accusation that you don’t care about them.


Defensiveness is either denying that what the partner says is true – or more commonly responding with a counter attack instead of acknowledging that we all have limitations. Chris Argyris (mentioned in The Fifth Discipline, for which the review is coming soon) talks about “defensive routines” that we all have which protect us from threat or embarrassment.

Defensiveness prevents us from really understanding what the other person is saying. The antidote to defensiveness, I believe, is an integrated self-image which I covered in my review of Changes that Heal and Beyond Boundaries.


Contempt – which is the single biggest predictor of divorce – is placing yourself on a higher moral plane than your spouse. Often contempt is about how one person doesn’t have some challenge that the partner has and therefore they are better than the partner. Weird correlations exist including a husband’s contempt predicting the wife’s infectious illness. As crazy as it seems, a husband showing contempt for his wife will increase her risk for infectious illness.


Stonewalling is building a wall around you so that your partner can’t get in. It’s withdrawing from the conversation – and the relationship – because the partner doesn’t want to or isn’t able to participate. It can be subtle in terms of body language or more overt like leaving the room.

Science, Math, and Relationships

While I didn’t cover some of the mathematical principles that Gottman discussed to arrive at some of his conclusions, I think I may have been doing you a service. While I was interested in the background on the Nash Equilibrium and the von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium I felt like they were an academic detail compared to the practical help for couples struggling to make their marriage work and those interested in a deeper understanding of what is going on in their relationship.

It may seem like math and science have little place in relationships – however, as I found out, there’s a lot of math needed to be able to do the right science in order to be able to predict which relationships will endure the test of time – and which ones won’t. If you are looking for a rigorous look at relationships instead of the “touchy-feely” stuff, The Science of Trust may be your answer.