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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.
wounds and ignorance of the communication
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
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,
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
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.
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 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
“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
Happily married couples also complain during the agenda-building stage, but
they’re not so locked into defensive attitudes that they cannot
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?”
tone of voice and the facial expression of the person making the statement
are totally different.
Also common to the arguing stage are
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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]
that causes most relationship and social problems, including
how unawareness of inherited
can prevent people from using good advice like his;