Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively


Avoiding Couple Karate

Lessons in the Marital Arts

By Anthony Brandt

Psychology Today, 10/82


The Web address of this reprint is http://sfhelp.org/cx/karate.htm

Updated  April 11, 2015

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      This timeless article hilights research which identifies traits of successful marital communication. The article and research don't examine why more couples don't have these traits or seek to develop them. The article and quoted research were published well before the concept of multi-part personalities began to emerge into lay and clinical awareness.

      I believe partners' combined psychological wounds and ignorance of the communication basics and skills outlined in Lesson 2 here explain why most couples fight, argue, avoid, blame, defend, or withdraw, vs. doing effective win-win problem solving together as partners. The article seems to equate (effective) arguing and negotiating with problem-solving. - Peter Gerlach, MSW.

       Avoiding Couple Karate

      All happy couples are alike in one respect: They know how to settle disputes without leaving scars. A psychologist’s studies of almost 500 couples suggest the skills to learn and the traps to avoid.

      Happily married couples argue in ways that are consistently different from those of unhappily married couples. Given a foundation of mutual affection and shared Interests, the couple who possess or can acquire – good arguing skills have a much better chance of staying together.

      This is one conclusion that can be drawn from the investigations of psychologist John M. Gottman of the University of Illinois, author of Marital Interaction: Experimental Investigations (Academic Press, 1979). In a nine-year research program Involving 487 couples,

      Gottman and his associates have focused on marital conflict. Using electronic aids such as video-tape to record couples’ disagreements, and devices for measuring physiological reactions to these disputes, the researchers have been able’ to come up with a remarkably detailed topography of such conflicts and to pinpoint constructive ways of getting through them.

       Until recently, many social scientists claimed that the factors that best determined happiness or unhappiness in marriage were demographic: Richer people, according to their findings, tended to have more satisfactory marriages than poorer people; better-educated people were more happily married than less-educated people, and so on.

       In his classic study of high-IQ subjects, psychologist Lewis M. Terman found little correlation between how often couples had sexual intercourse and how happily married they were. Instead of sex, what the couples who participated In his study of marital satisfaction seemed to want most was to avoid arguments. “From these data.” Terman and his colleagues wrote in 1938. “it appears that among the 545 items, the greatest single danger to marital happiness is for one spouse to like and the other to dislike to argue.” (Note - Terman apparently didn't include the option of problem-solving as a preferable alternative to arguing. pkg)

       Terman and those who did previous demographic research depended on questionnaires and other subjective reports of marital satisfaction. Today psychologists like Gottman are looking closely at how married couples actually behave with each other. By studying styles of communication in the lab, they are beginning to discover how good and bad marriages differ.

      One of their major findings is that success in marriage has much more to do with skill in relating to one’s partner than with demographic factors. In other words, marriages do not fail because couples married too young or are in financial difficulty, but because couples are unable or unwilling to find ways of relating to each other that would help them bear the pressure of being Inexperienced or not having enough money.

       According to Gottman, there are productive and destructive ways to argue, and unhappily married couples tend to take the destructive path. For example: a couple has taken a cottage near the beach for the summer. The wife stays at the cottage all week while the husband comes out by bus on weekends. One Friday night the bus shows up late, about 9:00. The wife meets the bus.

      The husband gets in the car, she leans toward him, he kisses her perfunctorily, and an argument begins. The husband, whom we’ll call Robert, says, “I’m really tired, Brenda. Let’s just go down the street and get a hamburger.” Brenda, hurt by the lack of affection, replies, ”Oh, Robert, you always want ham-burgers. I saved on food all week so we could have steaks at the hotel.”

       “I’m not in the mood for all that elaborate stuff at the hotel. Look at me, I’m disheveled and sweaty. Why can’t we just have a hamburger?” Robert’s irritation is increasing. His wife’s face has that look that she gets when she’s feeling hurt; Robert recognizes the look but ignores it.

      “You never want to go anyplace, Robert,” says Brenda, sitting stiffly on her side of the front seat and staring out the window. “You just want to go to the beach and go to bed. It’s the same every weekend. I’m getting tired of it.”

      “You’re getting tired?” he says, his voice rising. “You sit out here all week doing your artwork while I’m busting my chops in the city. The least you could do is give me a chance to rest when I come out here.” Robert says ‘artwork’ with a distinct sneer in his voice, and gestures violently when he comes to the word ‘rest.’

      “You can sneer at my artwork all you want, Robert, but it’s just as important to me as your career is to you,” says Brenda icily, “and a hell of a lot more interesting.”

      “More interesting, huh?” Robert is furious now. “You think nailing a lot of odd pieces of wood into funny shapes is more interesting than running a business? You never did give a damn about my work, but it pays the bills, Brenda,” he shouts. “It pays the bills.”

      “I don’t want to have dinner with you at all, Robert,” Brenda says, her voice turning flat and hard.

      “That’s fine with me,” says Robert, starting the car, and the two drive off toward their summer retreat in seething silence.

      This is fairly typical of the way unhappily married couples handle a dispute. A great deal of what Gottman calls “cross-complaining” takes place, a chain of negative responses develops that neither party Is willing to break, the husband refuses to respond to his wife’s nonverbal signals asking for affection, and both come out of the argument feeling, as Gottman puts it, “that they haven’t been understood.”

      According to Gottman, what creates a situation like this is defensiveness: each person is concerned only with defending his or her point of view. Brenda complains that Robert never wants to do anything and Robert complains because Brenda is indifferent to his need for rest. Cross-complaining belongs to the first of three stages that Gottman has identified as being present In most fights: agenda-building, arguing, and negotiating.

      Happily married couples also complain during the agenda-building stage, but they’re not so locked into defensive attitudes that they cannot listen and acknowledge the other’s complaints. Whereas Robert and Brenda can only complain to each other, a more satisfied couple would say things like “Yes, I can see you’re tired” or ‘I know you like the hotel”; or they would nod agreement every once in a while or say “uh-huh” or “yeah” in response to the other’s complaints.

      Gottman calls these verbal and non-verbal acknowledgments “validation sequences.” The uh-huhs don’t mean that Brenda might not still want to go to the hotel, or that Robert wouldn’t still insist on his hamburger. But they let the other know that they are listening – with some sympathy.

      Couples who are happily married, Gottman observes, argue no less vigorously for their own positions than those who are not, and that can mean stomping around, raising their voices, and doing all the other things that people in conflict do. (Gottman excludes physical violence: “I can’t see that that would ever be functional,” he says.)

      But there are basic stylistic differences. In the arguing stage, both happily and unhappily married couples use what Gottman refers to as “mind-reading strategies,” in which one partner attributes feelings (or opinions or motives) to the other. When a marriage is in difficulty, says Gottman, mind reading carries overtones of hostility and is rightly taken as criticism.

      “You certainly seem to be taking this calmly” is delivered in such a way that it sounds like, “How can you be so relaxed about something that mean so much to me?” Happily married couples, on the other hand, use mind-reading statements to find out how their partner is reacting. In their case, “You certainly seem to be taking this calmly” translates as “Are you really this calm, or are you just putting a lid on your feelings?” The tone of voice and the facial expression of the person making the statement are totally different.

      Also common to the arguing stage are “metacommunication sequences,” which are comments not related to the issue under discussion: “You’re shouting at me; you don’t need to do that” is an example. Dissatisfied couples tend to get stuck in these sequences: “I’m not shouting; you’re being much too sensitive.”

    “Too sensitive, huh? What would you know about being sensitive?” And so on.

      Partners who are happier with each other get out of these sequences quickly: “You’re right, I was shouting. I’m sorry.” That breaks the chain right away, and they are free to go back to the matter at hand.

      Happily and unhappily married couples participate in the third stage of an argument – negotiating - in ways that are just as distinct. The happily married couples come to an agreement fairly readily, either through one part­ner giving in to the other without resentment, or through compromise :

          ‘We spent all of Christmas at your mother’s last year. This time let’s spend It at my mother’s.”

          “Yeah, you’re right, that’s not fair. How about 50-50 this year?”

          The unhappily married couples tend to get caught in a situation similar to cross-complaining In the first stage; one partner proposes a solution and the other proposes a different solution.

          “We spent all of Christmas at your mothers’ last year. This time let’s spend it at my mother’s.”

      “Let’s spend It at my mother’s again this year. It’s too late to change it. We can discuss next year’s plans now.”

      Establishing this kind of proposal and counterproposal pattern is as likely, says Gottman, “to take disputing couples back to the arguing phase of the discussion as... to move them forward to a negotiated agreement. ”Neither can come halfway; each must continue to have his own way.

      Gottman says that women tend to be the ones to take the first step toward negotiating a settlement. It’s the result of the difference in the way boys and girls are socialized, he says. Girls are conditioned to say and show what they are feeling. They are taught to attend more closely to family relationships. Through this socialization process they eventually come to believe that relationships are their responsibility.

      When women approach conflict, their first impulse is to express a feeling about it: “I’m very upset at you have to go to Washington on our anniversary. You didn’t remember it at all, did you?” A man approaches a conflict as a problem that has to be solved. “But you know very well that I couldn’t go any other day. I didn’t have a choice. Why are you getting so upset?”

      Men’s confusion and consequent lack of responsiveness to their wives’ emotional needs is both a cause and an effect of unhappiness in many marriages. In a study of blue-collar marriages, sociologist Lillian Rubin found that lack of emotional responsiveness “was a critical factor in creating marital stress."

      Husbands and wives, she says, “talk at each other, past each other, through each other - rarely with or to each other. He blames her: ‘She’s too emotional.’ She blames him: ‘He’s always so rational.’ This equating of emotional with no rational, this inability to apprehend the logic of emotions lies at the root of much discontent between the sexes.”

      Gottman agrees. His studies show that a distressed marriage is an asymmetrical marriage and it is usually the husband who Is deficient. In these marriages, husbands are not good receivers of their wives’ nonverbal messages: the fleeting facial expressions, the stiff or relaxed postures, and all the other indicators of feeling.

      In one experiment, Gottman and his colleagues paired happily and unhappily married men and showed them videotapes of their own and one another’s wives sending verbal messages pregnant with nonverbal content, such as pleading or playfulness.

      The happily married men had little difficulty interpreting the Intended nonverbal messages, whether sent by their own wives or by others’ wives. The unhappily married men could often interpret the messages of other men’s wives, but when It came to their own, they often drew a blank. It’s not that these men are inexpressive emotionally,” says Gottman. “What’s happened is that in a relationship that’s unhappy, they have withdrawn.”

      This failure on the part of unhappily married men to respond their wives emotional signals, of course, eventually makes the wives less willing to do the work that appears to be necessary to keep marriages satisfactory for both partners - to reach over and touch their husbands, to say “Yes, of course you’re tired. Why don’t we have hamburger and I’ll take you home and put you to bed?”

      “A woman who is not understood has a lot of trouble doing that,” Gottman says. She grows bitter and withdrawn, and the marriage collapses.

      To prevent that from happening, Gottman believes married partners must somehow become more mutually accepting, less dependent but more intimate. Gottman is writing a book about friendship and its development. Children, he has discovered, go through a stage from the ages of 3 to 5 during which they establish close, very emotional friendships across sexes.

      “It’s a lot like marriage,” he says. “These kids fight a lot, there’s a lot of negative emotion, lots of self-disclosure, and a lot of real love.” They attend to each other a great deal, and this permits closeness. Later, around the age of eight, when they gravitate to same-sex best friends, children start to gossip and have long conversations like those of roommates; this also fosters closeness.

      With married couples, Gottman found, 15 or 20 minutes of this type of gossipy conversation at the end of the day sharing the day’s events with each other in a relaxed way reduces defensiveness and enhances intimacy. But in order for such techniques to work, there has to be some underlying mutual respect and appreciation.

      Partners who are not friends, who receive each other’s statements as if they were from an enemy, undergo a good deal of physical stress during every exchange. In a study that Gottman designed with psychotherapist Robert Levenson of Indiana University, couples who had been apart for eight hours were videotaped having conversations about how their days had gone, and, subsequently, about major unresolved issues in their marriages.

      While they were being taped, and later when they were viewing the tape, their heartbeat intervals, blood velocity, levels of skin conductance, and muscle movements were monitored.

      Those couples who were unhappily married proved to be more strongly affected by each other’s provocative statements than were happily married couples. Their distress responses throughout the testing were not only more severe, no matter what the topic of conversation, but seemed to mirror each other’s.

      Gottman does not believe that a marriage that has reached the bitterness stage can be easily saved, if indeed it can be saved at all. “Americans have this idea that you can fix anything,” he says. This isn’t necessarily so. “The patterns of interaction are very repetitive, very stereotyped in unhappy relationships. Once anger  has turned to bitterness, it’s very hard to change it.

      Some psychologists are training couples in relationship skills before they marry. Howard Markman of the Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver has been working for three years with 150 engaged couples in a program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

      In his follow-up studies after one year, he found that the 35 couples who were trained to express feelings, argue constructively, and improve communication skills tended to remain happy about their relationships. Control couples, who received no training, became significantly less satisfied.

      Relationship-skills programs are becoming more popular all over the country (see ‘Now You Can Learn to Be Likable...,” Psychology Today, August 1982), and It may be that they will eventually have an impact on the state of marriage in America. Or maybe not.

      “I can teach couples how to resolve conflict,” Gottman says, but friendship is another matter. No one has - as yet - been able to teach closeness Gottman claims. “I don’t know how to teach people how to be friends” he admits “But that’s my goal.”

      This YouTube video outlines the skill of win-win problem solving - the best alternative to "couple karate". The video mentions eight lessons in this educational Web site - I've simplified that to seven.


      I share Dr. Gottman's interest in effective communication. After 40+ years' study and clinical work with hundreds of couples, I agree with most of what he proposes, but feel he was unaware of several key factors at the time of this research

  • the unseen lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle that causes most relationship and social problems, including divorce;

  • how unawareness of inherited psychological wounds can prevent people from using good advice like his;

  • how normal personalities are formed of a dynamic array of talented "subselves"; including a true Self; and...

  • the seven specific skills that anyone can learn to use to raise their communication effectiveness .

- Peter Gerlach, MSW

       See this example of couple communication.

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