How John Gottman Could Have Saved Mia and Sebastian in La La Land

Mia- Did you just call yourself “a serious musician”?

Seb- I don’t think so.

Mia- Can I borrow what you’re wearing?

Seb- Why?

Mia- Because I have an audition next week. I’m playing a serious fire-fighter.

La La Land was released December 2016 and rapidly became a success with 265 award nominations and 112 awards won. This enchanting romantic comedy featuring Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia) showcases the longing to chase dreams, and the vulnerability of trying. Mia meets the dazzling Sebastian or Seb, and the two hit it off until stumbling stones get in their way. As the synopsis states, “As success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.”

Though the movie was one of the top 20 most profitable releases of 2016, I left the theater unsatisfied. Generally a good musical rom-com is right up my ally. Throw in two of my favorite actors and you have a sure recipe for a Veronika-guilty-pleasure. Yet, there I was. Let down.

In the film, Mia is yearning to become an actress while Seb is traveling nation-wide with his band in hopes to save money to start a jazz club. Their different desires start to erode their relationship, and they ultimately live separate lives. Every time I watch, I think of how their love could have been saved by following John Gottman’s research.

John Gottman’s Magic

Gottman has been studying what makes marriages work or fail for decades. This man knows his stuff. You may know him as the guy who “can predict divorce with 90% accuracy.”  He uses interviews, physiological measures, video recordings, and interacting behavior among couples to understand relationships. After collecting more data than most researchers can even imagine, he has discovered 7 principles for a thriving relationship described in the graphic below (taken from here).

He also describes what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse, or signs that the end of the relationship is near:

1. Criticism.

This is an attack on your partner’s character such as, “You never text me back. You’re always too wrapped up in yourself to think of me. You’re so selfish.” Try to state complaints without criticism such as, “You forgot to text me back this morning. Were you able to read my message?”

2. Contempt.

This is the attitude of superiority which is the most destructive quality for a relationship. It may look like mocking, sarcasm, a “whatever,” or even an eye roll. In Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, he writes, “When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you’re feeling upset. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act. This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason why contempt ought to be banned from marital interactions.”

3. Defensiveness

This is as it sounds, not accepting part of the blame. It may look like playing the innocent victim or reversing the blame on the other person. For example, “Yes, I do spend time with the kids! You’re the one who is always on your phone, neglecting the kids!” Refusing to acknowledge fault escalates the conflict.

4. Stonewalling

This is when someone shuts down and becomes unresponsive, usually in reaction to contempt. The person may feel emotionally flooded and doesn’t want to make things worse, so he stops interacting. Then his partner gets more worked up and the issue is left unresolved. Instead, communicate with your partner that you need a 20-minute break, and resume when you’re both calm.

The Application

Let’s look at one scene from La La Land and see where things went right and then very wrong. I like this argument scene because I believe it. Some romantic comedies showcase some small misunderstanding that gets blown out of proportion for drama (think Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes from White Christmas), but this scene felt real. Here we have two people trying to reach their own dreams while also supporting the dream of their partner. A believable and common conflict. Though Gottman’s research focuses on married couples, Mia and Sebastian were living together at the time of this scene, so Gottman’s research can still apply. Let’s break down their conversation a bit.

Seb started out with a great example of map making when he asks, “How’s the play going?” Indicating he knew what was going on in her life.

Mia then demonstrated turning toward her partner in saying, “I’m nervous. What if people show up? I’m nervous to be up on a stage and perform in front of people. I’m terrified.” She has now disclosed vulnerable feelings and confided in Seb.

He nurtured fondness and admiration by saying, “They should be so lucky to see it. It’s going to be incredible. I can’t wait.” This shows his confidence in her abilities and offers support for her feelings of inadequacy.

Later Seb asked Mia to go to Boise where his band will be playing. She laughs and says, “Wish I could.” This could have been an opportunity for Mia to let her partner influence her. That doesn’t necessarily mean automatically agreeing with Seb, but her first reaction was to shut down the request without discussion. When Seb asked why not, she talked about needing to rehearse without asking why Seb wanted her to come, or his ideas on how she might be able to both come and rehearse.

Seb ended the idea to visit with, “Right… I just—we’re going to have to do things so we can see each other. We never see each other.” This could be interpreted as a sign he wanted to create shared meaning by spending more time together.

As the scene continues, we see the start of some gridlock and the four horsemen come into play.

When Mia looked surprised that Seb planned on being in the band for a number of years, Seb responded with, “You didn’t think we’d be successful.” He assumed she thought the band would fail without asking her for thoughts.

When Mia continued to ask why he wasn’t starting his jazz club and tried to explain that despite Seb’s assumptions, she likes jazz, Seb got defensive and said, “What am I supposed to do? Go back to playing ‘Jingle Bells’? Scraping pennies for some club no one wants to go to?”

After some back and forth of criticism and defensiveness, the erosive contempt entered. Mia asked, “Why do you care so much about being liked?”

“You’re an actress,” said Seb with disgust. “What are you talking about? Maybe you liked me more when I was on my ass because it made you feel better about yourself.”

Seb has now shown a sense of superiority and meanness. The scene ended with stonewalling silence and Mia leaving the house.

This conversation turned from figuring out a problem as a team, to Seb purposefully trying to hurt Mia to win the argument. Gottman has emphasized the importance of communicating in a way that’s like kicking around a soccer ball together. You need to see a problem as something to be solved together, not as a battle to be won.

In this case, Mia and Seb wanted to see each other while still supporting the dream of the other but weren’t able to overcome the barriers that come with having fundamental differences. Yet, as Gottman stated, perpetual problems do not inevitably end a relationship. In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman writes, “Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.” If Mia and Sebastian had learned to avoid the four horsemen and overcome gridlock, we could have seen the ending imagined scene come to life.

All couples have conflict. All couples have differences. What makes a relationship last is not agreeing on every decision but communicating with Gottman’s principles in mind.  Relationships take work. There is more to a successful relationship than simply marrying the “right” person or having things in common. As Gottman says:

. . . if you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time. To maintain a balanced emotional ecology you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.

Mia, Sebastian, readers, it’s time to act.