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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Raffi Bilek

The Overlap of John Gottman’s Research on Marriage with Torah ideas

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

John Gottman is an interesting fellow. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, he is an American psychologist who could be said to be the top dog in marriage counseling these days (at least in the English-speaking world). This is in large part due to the decades of research he has collected on what makes marriage work. His claim to fame is that he can predict with 90% accuracy whether a couple will divorce by watching a short video clip of them speaking to each other. It’s not a bad claim to fame.

Gottman, who wears a kippa in his day-today business although he identifies as Conservative, has a lot of wisdom to offer, including some drawn from traditional Jewish sources. In a lecture he gave that I recently listened to, I picked up a handful of very interesting points that I thought were fascinating insofar as they seem to nod to and support some fundamental Jewish ideas about men, women, and relationships. Below are some brief summaries of these points and the ideas connected to them. You can watch the full lecture here.

  • According to Gottman’s research, "estrogen is the hormone of receptivity." It is certainly a foundational Torah idea that the very definition of “female” is that which is mekabel, that which receives.

  • The cycle of the hormone PEA in women fluctuates with the menstrual cycle. In the first two weeks of their cycle, women tend to be more attracted to the “bad boy” type of fellow. In the latter two weeks they tend to be more attracted to type of men who would make for a good, reliable father. This naturally dovetails with the idea of the niddah cycle - when a woman is halachically permitted to engage in marital intimacy, she is is biologically more inclined toward the good father and not to the guy on the Harley.

  • Cohabiting (as opposed to marriage) tends not to work. Essentially, when intimate partners live together without getting married, they aren't committing to each other and so the relationship is never fully solid. (It is worth remembering that this is not his personal philosophy, this is actually his conclusion from his very well-regarded research.) You can in fact predict who will be a cohabiter by looking at their high school records – cohabiters statistically tend to be more impulsive and do more high-risk things.

  • Oxytocin is "the hormone of bonding." It is released, among other times, after sexual climax.  Oxytocin, in Gottman’s words, is also "the hormone of bad decision making" - both are actually true because oxytocin calms the fear center of the brain, allowing people to feel close and trusting, and damping the natural apprehension that keeps people from taking foolish risks. What this amounts to is an empirical (not a moral) incentive to avoid premarital sex. The biological reality means that if you get sexually involved with someone outside of marriage, you are invariably going to bond with that person and simultaneously be in a position where your decision-making abilities are compromised. So the outcome of premarital sex is a significant risk of developing an attachment to someone who is a very bad prospective mate and not being able to see it.  YIKES!!! Objectively speaking, getting sexually involved with people you are dating and/or don’t know very well is fraught with risk. It is regrettable that people seem to think any opposition to premarital sex is purely moralistic!

Gottman’s work is very well-respected in the psychological world. I don’t agree with everything he says, but there is much I appreciate in his approach; and certainly there is a lot of value in his research, both in terms of his psychological approaches and its modern-day corroboration of our own ancient teachings. May we continue to see those teachings come to light!

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