Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month
July 2000
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
When marital conflict escalates, people become flooded with emotions that sustain distress maintaining thoughts and lead to defensiveness and stonewalling. Flooding is very destructive to a relationship so it is very important to begin to identify when you are feeling overwhelmed and make a deliberate effort to calm down. This may involve taking a deep breath, calling a time out, leaving the premises until you can think straight again and finding ways to self-soothe. Most people need about 20 minutes to calm down. So both partners should be aware that a couple of minutes are usually inadequate. If you resume the discussion while you are still in a state of arousal, you are more likely to reignite any negative feelings that still exist between you and your partner. Cognitive techniques can be helpful. Stopping the negative thoughts and replacing them with soothing and self-affirming thoughts can be very helpful. Relaxation methods and guided imagery can also help. One suggestion is to purchase progressive relaxation tapes and listen to them to calm yourself before resuming the discussion with your partner.

Strategy #2: Speak Nondefensively
Nondefensive listening can help to ease defensiveness. Speaking nondefensively will also lessen your partner's need to be defensive. In order to listen and speak nondefensively, it is necessary to change your attitude toward you partner. A positive mindset about your spouse may be difficult when you are feeling assaulted or you believe your needs are being ignored, but it is the single most important tactic for short-circuiting defensive communication. Reintroducing praise and admiration into the relationship is important. Remember your partner's positive qualities. Think about what attracted you to your spouse in the first place. What you originally loved and admired about this person. Replace negativity with positive thoughts. Look for the good things your spouse does every day and communicate your appreciation to him or her. Be a good listener. Try to understand your partner's point of view. Attempt to empathize with your spouse's feelings rather than filling your head with your next defensive response. Try to communicate in a way that allows your partner to know that you are listening and understanding what he or she is saying. Speaking nondefensively can reverse the downward spiral of your marriage.

Strategy #3: Validation
Validation is so reassuring to a partner. Instead of attacking or ignoring your partner's perspective, you try to understand the problem from his or her point of view and then express that you can see the validity in what your partner is saying and feeling. Even if you don't share the same feelings as your spouse, you can still consider his or her point of view valid. Once you can recognize the validity of the other's perspective, it is much easier to find a solution to a problem that will satisfy both you and your partner. Validation starts with empathy and understanding. Take responsibility for your part in the issue that is upsetting your partner. Apologize for whatever you might have done to upset your partner. This doesn't always mean that you were wrong. It may only mean that you can see your partner's way of thinking. Compliment your partner whenever possible for how they handled a situation or what they did that was positive. This can be a powerful way to de-escalate the emotional upset. If you can't do anything else, try to simply listen and acknowledge your partner's point of view even if you don't share it.

Strategy #4: Overlearning
Just one attempt at dealing with an argument effectively is not enough. It is important to use these new skills over and over again in order to break old patterns of responding. Developing a new way of dealing with conflict will be challenging and difficult. There will be times you are discouraged or disappointed by yours or you partner's behavior. But don't give up. It is important to practice these skills even when you don't feel like it. If you overlearn a communication skill, you'll have access to it when you need it most, in the middle of an argument that is dangerously close to escalating.

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 web site.

The author of this article, and founder of the website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.

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