PRINCIPLES FOR A POSITIVE MARRIAGE
By Joyce Parker, Ph.D.
When Steve and Susan decided to marry, all their friends and family thought they were a perfect match. But, now, two years after the wedding, they are on the brink of divorce. What happened to this relationship that looked so promising? New research is helping therapists understand the elements of a successful marriage and those factors that spell disaster for the relationship. John Gottman, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle has been studying what makes marriages last for over 20 years. He can now predict which couples will divorce with 91% accuracy. Dr. Gottman has written an excellent self-help book for couples, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail; And How You Can Make Yours Last.
He has discovered that there are some myths about functional marriages that haven't held up under scrutiny from his team of researchers. First, in successful marriages individuals are no more understanding when their partner becomes negative and angry than in unsuccessful marriages. Second, negativity exists in all marriages. Finally, 69% of marital conflicts are never resolved. It appears that when you marry someone, you marry a particular set of problems that don't go away.
What Dr. Gottman has found is that in successful marriages there are two factors that can predict marital longevity. In functional marriages there are five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions. This ratio of five to one can predict whether the couple has a stable marriage or is headed for divorce. Dr. Gottman brought couples into an apartment laboratory and observed them interacting with each other over a period of time. What he found was that couples regularly engage in a series of bids and turnings. These are playful bids for attention that the partner responds to by turning toward, turning away or turning against. Bids and turnings are the fundamental units of intimacy. They can be as simple as making eye contact and smiling at each other, an example of a bid and a turning toward. An example of a bid and a turning away would involve one person reaching out to touch the other and the partner ignoring the gesture. A turning against would involve one person making a bid and the other one rejecting it in a hostile or negative way. These bids and turnings regulate the marital process and the outcome of that process. They control the ability of the couple to repair conflict. The five to one ratio of positive to negative interactions builds a reserve of positive feelings, trust and respect, an emotional bank account that serves the couple well when conflict arises.
The second factor that predicts marital longevity is how effectively conflict is handled. The intensity of affect around problem solving is the key difference between functional and dysfunctional couples. Couples who are able to regulate affect so that the intensity of the argument does not lead to flooding of feelings in one or both partners are more able to repair the hurt or upset and resume positive interactions. Complaining can be an effective way of handling difficulties and differences between partners. But when the complaining deteriorates into what Dr. Gottman calls the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" communication goes into gridlock.
The First Horseman is criticism. Criticism is different than complaining because it involves attacking someone's personality or character rather than stating a specific behavior or problem to be addressed. It also includes blame. Complaints are a specific statement of anger, displeasure or negativity. For example: "I really didn't like it when you were late for dinner and didn't give me a phone call." Criticism is less specific, more global and blaming. For example: "You never think to call me when you are going to be late, you really don't care about my time or my feelings." When complaints go unheeded or unexpressed, it becomes more and more likely that criticism will seep into the communication.
The Second Horseman is contempt. Contempt is even more damaging to relationships than criticism. Contempt involves the intention to insult or psychologically abuse the partner. With body language and words, the individual attempts to undermine the partner's sense of self. As issues continue to be unresolved and anger escalates, contempt leads to more and more negativity, hurt and blame. Common signs of contempt include insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery and body language such as sneering, rolling eyes, and curling the lip. An example of a contemptuous statement would be: "You really are a self-centered asshole. You just do whatever you want without regard for anyone else."
The Third Horseman is defensiveness. When one partner acts contemptuously the other usually responds defensively. When an individual is being bombarded by insults, the natural inclination is to defend oneself. If a person's character and personality are being attacked, a reflex response is to deny responsibility, make excuses, disagree angrily, cross complain, whine or yes-but the partner. An example of a defensive statement is: "It wasn't my fault that I didn't call you, I wasn't near a phone." These responses only lead to further obstruction of communication and less likelihood that a solution to the problem will be found.
The Fourth Horseman is stonewalling. When a partner becomes exhausted or overwhelmed by continuous accusations and attacks, he or she may just stop responding. Once a partner stops listening and responding, the confrontation degenerates into hostile withdrawal and silence or angry accusations that one partner is shutting out the other. Stonewalling often occurs during an argument. One person just stops reacting to what the other person is saying and replaces reactivity with stony silence. When stonewalling occurs habitually, the relationship is nearing rock bottom. At this point the relationship is becoming overwhelmed by negativity. Dr. Gottman says, "Once the fourth horseman becomes a regular resident, it takes a good deal of hard work and soul searching to save the marriage."
Dr. Gottman offers four keys to improving marriage in which communication has deteriorated into criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. The key is how to argue more effectively; how to de-escalate tension and find a resolution. The real problem is a lack of strategy for using the skills most people already have to resolve disagreements. The major goal is to break the cycle of negativity and employ with spouses the skills used everyday with other people.
Strategy #1: Calm Down
Strategy #2: Speak Nondefensively
Strategy #3: Validation
Strategy #4: Overlearning
Lasting marriages have two important ingredients, a style of resolving conflict that avoids the four horseman of the apocalypse and a large dose of positive interactions that overrides negative interactions by five to one. Research has provided a valuable understanding of why marriages succeed and fail. Dr. Gottman's book can help couples use these new insights to improve their marriage. However, sometimes self-help advice is not enough to keep a marriage from sliding down the slippery slope toward divorce. Marriage counseling would be the next alternative and, thanks to Dr. Gottman's research, marriage counselors now have new tools to help couples regain their footing.
Dr. Parker is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network and the editor of the therapyinla.com web site.
The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.
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