Posted by: faithful | May 30, 2011

marital therapy research

John Gottman has been conducting marital therapy research for 25 years, and is a well-respected leader in the field. He has developed his own understanding of why some marriages last and some do not, as well as an effective model for marital therapy. Gottman has studied what he calls “masters” and “disasters” of marriage, and offers that there are a number of myths about why marriages actually fail that need to be cleared up. 

Myths and Truths of Marital Dysfunction

(Thanks to

Myth 1 Affairs cause divorces – 20-25% of mediation groups say an affair was a reason, but thereason given by 80% is deterioration of intimacy. Further, 70% of men and 40% of women had affairs in the 1970’s but the numbers are now about equal, largely due to women moving into the work force and having greater access to partners.

Myth 2 Gender differences cause divorce – if this were so, the divorce rate would be 100% for heterosexual couples, and 0% for gay and lesbian couples

Myth 3 Communication problems cause marital conflict – actually, distressed people communicate quiteclearly what they feel and mean

Myth 4 No quid pro quo makes for an unsuccessful marriage – the idea is that doing good things for your partner is contractual on getting good things back; research shows this is not the case for ailing couples, but neither is it the case for happy couples either 

So what IS true?

Truth 1 Positivity in interactions in happy couples is 20 to 1, in conflicted couples is 5 to 1, and in soon-to-divorce couples is .8 to 1. Watching a couple interact when they are notin conflict is the best way to predict their risk for divorce

Truth 2 Marriages tend to end at one of two times:
5-7 years due to high conflict

10-12 years due to the loss of intimacy and connection

(there is some disagreement with Gottman on this issue, as marriages certainly end before 5-7 years, as well as between 7 and 10 years, but Gottman argues these are critical or high risk times for marriages)

Truth 3 When it comes to arguments, the type of person one partners with (attacker, soother, avoider) is not so important as the mismatchbetween the couple:

    • soothers overwhelm avoiders, and you get the distancer-pursuer dynamic
    • soothers and attackers have little ability to influence each other, little positive sentiment, and a great deal of emotional tension
    • avoiders and attackers are the worst pairing, with severe distancer-pursuer dynamic

Truth 4 Most problematic issues (69% in fact) don’t get solved, they get managed

States of Relationships

Basically, Gottman offers that there are two kinds of states that marriage can exit in – Positive Sentiment Override and Negative Sentiment Override:

Positive Sentiment Override – PSO

Positive comments and behaviors outweigh negative ones about 20:1. This means that there is a positive filter that alters how couples remember past events and view new issues. Have you ever heard the saying, “If you dislike someone, the way they hold their fork will make you furious. But if you like them, they can turn their plate over in your lap and you won’t even mind.” That’s because of PSO. PSO is built on a few basic processes:

  • An intact Fondness and Admiration System, in which the couple is affectionate and clear about the things they value and admire in the other. Remember Oprah’s idea of a “thankfulness log,” or a daily list of things you appreciate and are thankful for? This is how it helps marriages.
  • Love Maps or a good knowledge of the partner’s world (work, family, self) and showing an interest in it during non-conflict times. Have you ever seen those marriage quizzes that ask things like, “True or False: I know what my partner wants to be doing in five years” or, “True or False: I know my partner’s most painful childhood memory”? These are the kinds of things that people know about their partners when they have well-defined Love Maps.
  • An absence of serious conflict, marked by Softened Startups, or tactful ways to bring up a problem
  • Soothed Physiology during the argument so no one gets “emotionally overheated”
  • Acceptance of Influence, so partners (typically men) can accept the desires and wishes of their partners (typically women)
  • Repair Attempts or efforts to make up by using humor or conceding a point (there’s about one effort every three minutes for most couples)
  • De-escalation of hot emotions and efforts to compromise
  • Bids for Affection or efforts to connect through a shared joke, a quick kiss, or a quiet smile that is returned
  • lack of Gridlock on problem issues by finding the underlying reason for the conflict and finding a way to meet both partner’s needs

Negative Sentiment Override – NSO

Negative comments and behaviors just about equal positive ones, with five or fewer positive comments for every negative one. However, couples showing about one positive for one negative comment are on the path to divorce. This means that there is a negative filter that screens out the few positive events that exist, and may cause the couple to “rewrite” their history together. Ask them what drew them together in the first place, and listen for a negative emotional tone to see this.

The 4 Horsemen are soooo bad, Gottman will cut-off couples immediatelywhen they do one of them, and confront them with how harmful this behavior is. While everyone engages in these negative communication patterns some of the time, distressed couples do them more, and couples who do them a lot are on the fast track to divorce:

  • Criticism– “What kind of person are you?”
  • Contempt – “I would never be so low as to do something like that!”
  • Defensiveness – “Yeah? Well what about what youdid?”
  • Stonewalling – (shutting down, associated with high physiological arousal and efforts to self-soothe with thoughts like “I can’t believe she’s saying this!”)

Basic Model

Gottman follows a clear but flexible model of what to do:

  • Move Gridlock to Dialogue – sure, you want to solve some problems, and so teaching the couple to use basic compromising skills, avoiding crazy buttons that instantly escalate the argument (“You are just like your mother!”), and using video review of the couples’ arguments in the office are all important. However, since over 60% of marital problems are not solved, but managed, you want to start them talking about ways to manage these issues in the future, just like you managea chronic illness like diabetes. The conflict is not about the topic they are discussing; rather, the real problem is some underlying or symbolic meaning, tied to a dream or fantasy of their future, that they feel they simply can not compromise on without invalidating their dreams. 
  • Teach recovery after a fight – sure, you would prefer they avoid nasty fights, but Gottman has found in his research that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. In fact, couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced. You may not be able to teach them to avoid fighting anyway, and reflective listening skills (“What I hear you saying is…”) likely won’t help since no one uses them in a fight. Instead, the best bet is to teach them how to recover after a fight
  • Teach six basic social skills recognizing (and avoiding) the 4 Horsemen.
  • softening startups
  • accepting influence (especially for men)
  • soothing physiological arousal (relaxation techniques can help partners calm down during heated arguments, but once they are upset, it may take over 20 minutes for the body to slow itself down to calm levels)
  • recognizing (and responding to) repair attempts
  • compromise
  • Effective repair is easier to accomplish when there are Rituals of Connection, or standard and every-day ways the couple connects and feels bonded to each other. This means decreasing negativity during and after fights, as negativity is the best predictor of divorce over six years (85% accuracy), and effective repair skills increases prediction accuracy (97% accuracy), as among even highly negative newlyweds, 85% of those who effectively repair stay happily married.
  • See
  • Read the Relationship Tips
  • Take the How’s Your Relationship?quizzes
  • Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293-301.
  • Gottman, J.M. (1999). Rebound from Marital Conflict and Divorce Prediction. Family Process, 38, 287-292
  • Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41 (1), 83-96.
  • Carrere, S., Buehlman, K. T., Gottman, J. M., Coan, J. A., & Ruhkstuhl, L (2000). Predicting marital stability and divorce in newlywed couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 42-58.

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