The Best Scientific Relationship Advice I’ve Heard

I recently listened to episode 117 of the On Purpose podcast, which was a conversation between Jay Shetty, John Gottman, and Julie Gottman. I’ve been researching about relationships and happiness for the past couple years, and this conversation really stood out as perhaps the best scientific relationship advice I’ve ever heard, specifically on love, dating, and marriage.

For background, Jay Shetty is a former monk who’s dedicated his life to making wisdom go viral, and John and Julie Gottman are two of the most well-known figures in relationship and marriage research; they’ve done over 50 years of research on love and marriage.

Jay asked really intelligent questions that got right at the heart of people’s relationship struggles, and John and Julie answered with their data as opposed to just opinion.

In this blog post, I want to share my notes since there’s no transcript for the podcast.

The questions that Jay asked were

  1. What are common mistakes people making in dating? Especially given how much choice people have thanks to dating apps now. What does the research say?

Below, I’ll share John and Julie’s answers for each question.

Q1: What are common mistakes people making in dating? Especially given how much choice people have thanks to dating apps now. What does the research say?

First of all, the dating sites are bad at creating matches. They algorithms don’t really work. For example, the founder of OKCupid saw that they had to set up 50,000 encounters before a couple really liked each other. That tells you just how bad their system is!

Myth 1: The two people need to be compatible in as many ways as possible.

Truth 1: It helps to have shared values and maybe goals, but that’s about it. People can be very different and still have wonderful relationships.

Myth 2: The two people have to be equal in level of attractiveness.

Truth 2: Most of sexual attraction has to do with pheromones, which are chemicals that you smell almost unconsciously. There’s a famous pheromones T-shirt study where women smelled the T-shirts of men and rated how much they liked that smell. The women ended up liking the smell of men whose immune systems are most different from theirs. Furthermore, when these women later met all those men, they indeed liked the men who’s T-shirts smelled better to them compared to the men whose T-shirts they didn’t like the smell of.

Myth 3: You have to have the same interests to like each other.

Truth 3: It’s about how you RELATE to each other’s interests. Regardless of what interests each person has, it’s important to enjoy each other’s company, be open-minded, be playful when relating to each other’s interests.

Q2: Nowadays, people are taught by movies and songs about what to look for, which is just misleading. What signs SHOULD people look for when going on dates?

On a first date, you should ask these questions to yourself:

  1. Does that person listen to you?

As you get to know that person more and go on more dates, you should ask yourself,

  1. Is that person reliable? Do they show up when they say they’re going to show up?

John and Julie then give some warning signs about the type of person you DON’T want:

  • The playing-hard-to-get is not sincere and not cool.

John and Julie then give advice on what type of person you DO want:

  • The person should have substance and character. Look at how they treat a waiter, a server, a sales clerk who is delayed or can’t meet their needs. Are they understanding, courteous, patient, kind? Or are they acting all superior and cutting them down? That’s a great way to know the nature of someone’s inner being.

Comment from author: I think an implied message from John and Julie here is also that we need to be a good person of substance and character, and we need to not commit the offenses like playing hard-to-get or being unreliable.

Q3: Why do people get so attracted to someone who plays hard to get? Why do we keep chasing that kind of person?

To generalize, it’s because that’s what we’ve seen on TV and movies. They show us these hard-to-get characters and that makes for an exciting show, and so people learn their idea of love from that.

But on a deeper level, Julie said “I’ve never found somebody who was really well-loved in their early life who has sought somebody who seems to be unavailable.

When we’re not emotionally comforted from caretakers, that’s what we grow accustomed to. Even though we don’t want to repeat it, it’s familiar to us. Whereas someone who treats us really well feels like being on an alien planet, so we back away.

John then added another reason, which is that people are having sex very quickly these days, and orgasms cause the brain to secret a chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin makes you feel artificially safe. It makes you ignore red flags. It’s the hormone of bad judgment. So you don’t see all the red flags like how the person is not interested in you or is not trustworthy. That’s why you can’t replace a real relationship with only a physical relationship.

Q4: How is it that you can predict which couples will divorce with 90% accuracy?

We were just as surprised when we found out how accurate we are. Basically, we’ve done 40 years of research, where we asked couples to come in to our lab and discuss everyday days and problems. We tracked their physiological data like heart rate and sweat while they discussed.

We found that couples who ended up divorcing later tend to have a higher heart rate when talking to each other. They were in fight-or-flight mode! Why? Because they were very critical of each other.

Q5: If I’m one of those couples going down the disaster route, what can I do?

When discussing a problem with your partner, our research shows that successful couples have at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interaction. That shows that negativity weights a whole lot more than positivity.

By negative, we’re talking about the Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. By positive, we mean appreciation, giving compliments, showing interest, eye contact, nodding head, smiling.

When you’re discussing everyday matters, the ratio needs to be 20 to 1 positive to negative.

Q6: What was a hypothesis that you had that you were shocked to find out was wrong?

John answered that he had a hypothesis that couples being neutral about a problem is bad. The idea is that being neutral means the fire of passion is dead, and so the relationship is doomed.

But the data showed when couples are neutral when talking about a problem, that turns out to be good. It shows the people can stay calm and unemotional. Most people think it’s important to show fire and passion, or else it’s a dead relationship. That’s false. You want to be kind and gentle, even neutral.

Julie then added that they’re not saying you can’t express your frustrations. Expressing anger and passion is fine and important, but you have to do it the right way. We need to express our frustrations with an “I” statement, as in “I feel so upset.” Don’t point fingers and criticize them, as in “You are always so inconsiderate”. The Gottman blog has an article with more information on this.

Q7: Your research shows that 69% of conflicts in marriages are never solved. Why and how so? How can couples solve those problems?

In our research, couples are brought in every few years to discuss problems. And over 20 years, the only things that changed were their fashion and hairstyles. They kept talking about the same problems.

These problems are based on differences in lifestyle and personality. And beneath the surface, there’s often an underlying dream or yearning. These problems have deeply seated roots about their sense of meaning in life.

We discovered that you’re not going to solve those problems necessarily, but what you need to do is develop an understanding for the other person at a much deeper level. And out of that understanding, you can form compromises.

Q8: What is the role of compromise? Does it even exist? How do you do it effectively?

First off, compromise does NOT mean grudgingly yielding. That’s called surrender.

Effective compromise requires you to deeply understand each other. We use a method called the bagel method. Or you can call it the donut method if you like.

Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Take out a piece of paper. Draw a bagel. In the middle circle, you write down what aspect of this issue you absolutely cannot compromise on. You believe, It’s so true to my essence that if I gave it up, I would be bad to the bones.

Step 2: In the outer circle, write down what you’re flexible on. Typically, people are more flexible about when, where, how, what. Like how long it will last, when it will begin, etc.

Step 3: Come together with your partner and share your bagels. Look at the overlap, especially in the outer circles. Explain why those core needs in the inner circle are so important to you. Ask each other questions like

  • Are there any ethics or values involved in what you want?

Listen to each other. Affirm each other. Support each other.

Julie gave an example of a couple that reached effective compromise using the bagel method:

A couple was going to retire. The man’s dream was to take their retirement savings and sail around the world. The woman wanted to take their retirement savings live on a farm in Iowa as her ancestors had done. At first, they felt like it’s not possible to meet both dreams.

When they used the bagel method, they realized there’s a lot of flexibility about who’s dream went first, how long it would last, how much would they spend, where would they go, etc. They realized they can sail first for 1 year and go as far as they could. Then they would dock up on land and go to the farm and live in Iowa for 1 year and see how that felt. In those two years, they would’ve honored both of their dreams. And then they can decide what to do next with their leftover savings after having experienced those two years. THAT’S how compromise works.

Jay then gave an example of compromise from his own life:

Before getting married, Jay’s wife said she will never want to move more than 5 minutes away from her parents’ house. Jay agreed. A month after they got married, Jay got an incredible work opportunity that he couldn’t say no to; it was part of his core being to go do it. The problem was they were living in London and the work opportunity was in New York.

When he told his wife about this, his wife didn’t talk to him for 2 days. But then they got together and Jay said we will do whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable. We can fly you back every single week if that’s what it takes. Or you can stay in London and I’ll go to New York and we can try that for a while and see how it goes, and then decide from there.

In his example, there’s a strong commitment to each other and a willingness to give each partner’s dream a chance.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m very grateful to Jay, John, and Julie for sharing the science on what makes for a good relationship. Like Jay said, I grew up learning about relationships from movies and pop music. I learned to look for someone who’s physically attractive, who’s cool, who is similar to me. I also learned that it’s necessary to have really strong desire, almost painful desire to be with that person, or else it’s not true love. Looking back, it’s no wonder my relationships failed! I sure wish I had heard this advice earlier in my life.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.