Some of the most popular beliefs about relationships don't hold up when subjected to scientific scrutiny.
To see what we're getting wrong when it comes to making our relationships work, I sat down with two relationship experts: Drs. John and Julie Gottman. They've been studying the science of love, sex, and relationships for decades and they have written a number of influential papers and books, with their latest being Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love .
Source: Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash
I interviewed the Gottmans about their new book, what couples can do to improve sexual communication, and some of the key insights they've learned over the years. You can listen to our complete conversation in this podcast, but in this post, I will share what the Gottmans see as the biggest myths about relationships. Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller : What are some of the big things you see that people tend to get wrong about relationships—some of the big myths and misconceptions?
Julie Gottman : I put those into two categories: what people do wrong and what people think wrong. One in terms of what people think wrong is that people should have a lot of stuff in common in order to make their relationships work. And, of course, all of the couple's meet-up sites are based on that myth. The reality is that people typically are drawn to partners very different from them. And that's a healthy thing for our genetics. It's good for our evolution. It's how we've strengthened our species over time biologically. So we're typically attracted to people who are very different from us—and it enriches the relationship.
So that's one myth. The other—in terms of what people do wrong—is that people think they ought to bring up a problem in the relationship by describing what's wrong with the partner. People really respond better when the individual who's bringing up the issue describes themselves—describes their own feelings, their own positive needs, how the partner can shine for them—and describes neutrally the situation that they're upset about. So the formula we've seen to be successful is: “I feel ____ about _____ and here's what my positive need is.” That's really what works and it's very different from the criticism a lot of people begin with.
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Justin Lehmiller : I love that—that's great information. Is there anything else that you wanted to add there, John?
John Gottman : Well, one thing I'd like to add is that people think that if you love someone, everything should be easy. It should come naturally and smoothly. It shouldn't require any work if you're in love—being in love is enough. And what we found is really that there are some basic skills that are necessary to make love work.
One of the most important ones is really downregulating your own defensiveness. I know that's a problem for me all the time when Julie utters the four terrifying words, “we need to talk.” The first thing I’ve got to do is really get out my notebook and work on myself so I'm not defensive, so I'm really communicating to her. She's upset and wants to talk to me about something.
I've got to get over myself. I've got to stop thinking, “Oh, I've messed up again. Why is she so negative?” I've got to listen to her. So that's the work in relationships—working on yourself so you're not defensive, so you can actually take in information in an open way. The myth is that you shouldn't have to work. If you're in love, that should be enough—and it's just not enough.
Listen to my full conversation with the Gottmans here to learn more about the science of relationships.