The Love Lab: Using Data Science to Predict the Likelihood of Divorce

The Love Lab

The Love Lab at the University of Washington Professor founded by Dr. John Gottman uses predictive analytics to assess the likelihood of newlyweds having a stable and happy marriage based on observations of the couple taken during a 15 minute conversation on a persistent marital conflict. Gottman’s team then extract information from each second of the video by evaluating emotions and expressions along with physiological data (e.g. changes in heart rate). Emotions are characterized using the SPAFF (Specific Affect Coding System ) code, developed from Ekman & Freisen’s Facial Affect Coding System,  which applies weighting to positive and negative emotions. The weighting scheme for SPAFF codes is provided below.


Weighting Scheme for the SPAFF Codes (Source)

Researchers compile the second by second SPAFF data into a time series and use complex algorithms to project the likelihood of marital success. Dr. Gottman & his team have found that they can predict a couple’s marriage will last longer than 15 years with 90% accuracy after analyzing only a 15 minute conversation. Even more astounding, Love Lab researchers have found that they can be nearly as accurate with their projections of marital success  after analyzing only 3 minutes of the conversation. To demonstrate the power of the Love Lab’s methodology, videos of 3 minute clips were provided to professional marital counselors (~200) whose projections on whether the couple’s marriage would end in divorce was no better than chance.

Key Lessons from the Love Lab

  1. Positive vs. Negative Emotions: Gottman’s team have identified that for a marriage to survive the ratio of Positive to Negative is around 5 to 1
  2. The Four Horsemen: Dr. Gottman’s research has found that the four key drivers, what he refers to as the Four Horsemen: Defensiveness, Stonewalling, Criticism, and Contempt are major variables in marital demise. Furthermore, of the Four Horsemen Gottman has found the most damaging emotion is contempt which Gottman defines as any statement made from a higher level. Contempt is such a strong emotion, the level of contempt a spouse experiences can even be used to predict the number of colds the individual will experience as the stress impacts their immune system.


  1. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell, 2005
  2. The Gottman Institute
  3. Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First 3 Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion, Sybil Carrere & John Gottman, 1999

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