The nation's top marriage expert explains why trust is essential to couples and communities--and how we can build it. This month, we feature videos of a Greater Good presentation by John Gottman, the country’s foremost couples researcher.
To answer this, I looked at focus groups we did around the United States, involving couples at every social class level and from every ethnic and racial group in the country.
What I found was that the number one most important issue that came up to these couples was trust and betrayal. On PsychInfo, the database that psychologists use to do a literature review, there were 96,000 references to “trust.” And it turns out that when social psychologists ask people in relationships, “What is the most desirable quality you’re looking for in a partner when you’re dating?”, trustworthiness is number one. Through my research, I’ve found that trust is essential to healthy relationships and healthy communities—and I’ve started to learn how we can build trust. And low-trust areas have greater economic disparities between the very rich and the very poor—and the greater the discrepancy between the very rich and the very poor in a country, the more it predicts economic decline in that country. Clearly, there are vast implications of low trust for states, for neighborhoods, for countries. Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam wrote the classic book on social capital, Bowling Alone, which documents the dramatic decline of trust and community in the United States over the last 50 years. We usually think of betrayal as a big terrible event, like discovering that your partner is having a sexual affair. This is what’s called in game theory a “zero-sum game.” You’ve probably all heard of the concept. On the other hand, by trust we really mean, mathematically, that our partner’s behavior is acting to increase our rating dial. When we scientifically tested these so-called trust and betrayal metrics, we found that a high trust metric is correlated with very positive outcomes, such as greater stability in the relationship. In a 20-year longitudinal study of couples in the San Francisco Bay Area that I recently completed with UC Berkeley psychologist Bob Levenson, we found that about 11 percent of couples had a zero-sum game pattern, like in that graph. Fifty-eight percent of zero-sum game couples’ husbands died over this 20-year period, whereas among “cooperative-gain” couples, who didn’t have that pattern, only 20 percent of husbands died in that 20-year period. Now this is an outcome that’s pretty reliably measured: You can really tell if somebody’s dead or alive. It turns out that trust is related to the secretion of oxytocin, which is the “cuddle hormone,” the hormone of bonding. Interestingly enough, men don’t just secrete oxytocin after an orgasm; they secrete vasopressin as well. So there is evidence that the bonding experience of having an orgasm with somebody—secreting oxytocin, that trust hormone—is very powerful, it suspends fear.

As I passed the mirror, I saw my wife’s face in the reflection, and she looked sad, brushing her hair. One such moment is not that important, but if you’re always choosing to turn away, then trust erodes in a relationship—very gradually, very slowly. My graduate student Dan Yoshimoto has discovered that the basis for building trust is really the idea of attunement. What that means is I not only turn away from her sadness, but I think to myself, “I can do better. I believe that by understanding the dynamics of trust and betrayal, we can work to make relationships more trusting. Research sometimes suggests that movies and other media are a negative influence to rein in. Diana Divecha describes how your mind, body, and life will change with the arrival of a baby. Finds that feeling gratitude produces kind and helpful behavior, even when that behavior is costly to the individual actor.
Become a member of the Greater Good Science Center to enjoy exclusive articles, videos, discounts, and other special benefits. I’ve observed thousands of couples, and many of them—the masters—can skillfully solve their problems.
Even couples who attend one of my institute’s workshops or therapy sessions have a hard time putting what they learn into practice. I looked at work we did that was funded by the federal Administration of Children and Families, looking in particular at couples about to have a baby.
I started to see their conflicts like a fan opening up, and every region of the fan was a different area of trust.
Isn’t it amazing that it’s in the best interests for us to care economically about the people who are disenfranchised in this country?
To find out, I went back to relationships and asked: Can we create a metric of trust and betrayal?
In my research, we filmed an interaction between a couple and had each partner turn a rating dial as they watched their tape afterward. The blue dots represent the wife’s ratings over 15 minutes of conversation; the red dots represent the husband’s ratings.
Every six years, we would re-contact all of the couples in the study, and they would come back to Bob’s lab at Berkeley.
And we discovered that if a wife trusts her husband, both of their blood consistently flows slower—not only during their conflict discussion but at other times as well.

It’s also a hormone we secrete when we have an orgasm; the stronger the orgasm, the more oxytocin we secrete. What I’ve found through research is that trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, “I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight, I want to read my novel.” But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. A professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, he is also the co-founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute and the executive director of the affiliated Relationship Research Institute. ZakA look at the hormone oxytocin's role in trust and how that may be the basis of a well-functioning economic system.
Gottman discusses his trailblazing work on the science of trust, exploring its importance for couples and communities alike. There’s less philanthropy in low-trust regions, greater crime of all kinds, lower longevity, worse health, lower academic achievement in schools. When we measure something objectively and precisely, we automatically get a recipe for how to fix it. When you add them together, these ratings are a constant, which means that in this interaction, her gain is his loss and his gain is her loss. And by looking at ratings like this, I came to define a “betrayal metric”: It’s the extent to which an interaction is a zero-sum game, where your partner’s gain is your loss. After a male rat has had an orgasm with a female rat, he not only is enjoying the experience, he’s also trying to ward off rivals.
In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.
I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad. I looked at work we did with the families of soldiers who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Gottman is the author or co-author of 40 books, including the best-selling Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and the recent Science of Trust.

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