Drawing from over four decades of research data John Gottman has been able categorise couples into five types:
In his book Principe Amoris: The New Science of Love, Gottman uses love equations to explain his discoveries.
The three happy couple types (Conflict-Avoiding, Validating, and Volatile) come from Harold Raush’s landmark book Communication, Conflict, and Marriage, in which Raush analyses interactions between partners to discriminate happily from unhappily married couples. Each type is very different from the others, and each type of couple has its benefits and risks.
Of the two unhappy couple types Gottman has been able to identify in his Love Lab, Hostile couples stayed unhappily married, while Hostile-Detached couples eventually divorced.
Do you know what type you are?
1. Conflict Avoiders
Conflict avoiders minimise persuasion attempts and instead emphasise their areas of common ground. They avoid conflict, avoid expressing what they need from one another, and congratulate their relationship for being generally happy. An important aspect about conflict-avoiding couples is in the balance between independence and interdependence. They have clear boundaries, and are separate people with separate interests.
This is not to denigrate the quality of the areas where they meet and depend on one another. They can be quite connected and caring in those areas of overlap where they are interdependent. While they are minimally emotionally expressive, they maintain a ratio of positive-to-negative affect around five to one. Their SPAFF (Specific Affect Coding System) weighting is not overly positive, but not bad at all. Their interaction is good enough for them.
2. Volatile Couples
Almost the exact opposite of conflict avoiders, volatile couples are intensely emotional. During a conflict discussion, they begin persuasion immediately and they stick to it throughout the discussion. Their debating is characterised by a lot of laughter, shared amusement, and humour. They seem to love to debate and argue, but they are not disrespectful and insulting. Their positive-to-negative ratio? Five to one.
There is a lot of negative affect expressed, including anger and feelings of insecurity, but no contempt. They have no clear boundaries around their individual worlds, and there is enormous overlap. While they have to argue a great deal about their roles, they emphasise connection and honesty in their communication.
3. Validating Couples
The interaction of these couples is characterised by ease and calm. They are somewhat expressive, but mostly neutral. In many ways they seem to be intermediate between avoiders and the volatile couples. They put a lot of emphasis on supporting and understanding their partner’s point of view, and are often empathetic about their partner’s feelings.
They will confront their differences, but only on some topics and not on others. They can become highly competitive on some issues, which can turn into a power struggle. Then they usually calm down and compromise. During conflict, validators are only mildly emotionally expressive. Once again, the ratio of positive-to-negative affect for validators averaged around five to one.
4. Hostile Couples
Hostile couples are like validators, except there are high levels of defensiveness on the part of both partners. In Gottman’s Love Lab, the husband was usually the validator and the wife was the avoider. That was based on influence function shapes.
There was also a lot of criticism, “you always” and “you never” statements, and whining. During conflict, each partner reiterated his or her own perspective. No support or understanding was offered for either person’s point of view. There was lots of contempt. All Four Horsemen were present.
5. Hostile-Detached Couples
These couples are like two armies engaged in a mutually frustrating and lonely standoff. They snipe at one another during conflict, although the air is one of emotional detachment and resignation.
In his Love Lab, usually there was a validator husband with a volatile wife. Escalating conflict will occur between two validators, but then one of them will back down. But will the volatile let the validator withdraw? Absolutely not.
So, why does the hostile-detached couple eventually divorce? Why doesn’t the hostile couple? Could it be that the answer has to do with the second phase of love, the establishment of trust phase? The love equations have an explanation: Hostile couples (validator-avoider) regulate their negativity, while hostile-detached (validator-volatile) couples do not.