Dr John Gottman started his couples research back in the 1970s, and created his couples lab at Washington University in 1990. As he says, ‘Many psychologists at the time agreed with theorist Sydney Jourard that the key to good relationships was self-disclosure – a person’s willingness to reveal his or her most guarded, personal thoughts and experiences to another person.'[i]

Gottman thought that his video-monitored apartment ‘couples lab’ would provide proof for this hypothesis, but it did not. It appears that the ability to reconcile is what keeps couples together, rather than self-disclosure.

Among Gottman’s insights is the differentiation of complaint from criticism. Healthy couples make specific complaints rather than generalised criticisms. A complaint would be, ‘You left the cap off the toothpaste this morning’, where a criticism would be, ‘How many times do I have to tell you! You are totally disorganised and you leave a mess wherever you go!’

Any generalisation, or indeed any added insult, is unnecessary, unless the intention is to humiliate and overpower. This simple notion is fundamental to all good relationships and it exemplifies the danger of an imbalance of power: totalists shame and diminish their followers with criticism. In a healthy relationship, complaints are specific and voiced with the intention of improving circumstances, rather than maintaining authority.

To find out more about Dr John Gottman’s work, visit his website.

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[i] Gottman and DeClair, The Relationship Cure, 2001.