Licensed Counselor and Clinical Supervisor
Couples and Individual Counselor
After watching so many marriages around them dissolve, many couples are anxious to know whether theirs will succeed. Relationship therapist and researcher Dr. John Gottman thinks he may be able to tell them. After decades of studying couples, their interactions, and the course of their relationships, he can watch a husband and wife interact for an hour and predict with 95 percent accuracy whether they will still be together in 15 years. If he cuts the observation time down to 15 minutes, his success is still an impressive 90 percent. (Gladwell)
This is not because of some supernatural psychic ability, but because of relationship patterns. During a Q&A with CNN in 2001, Gottman detailed a few universal qualities of successful and dysfunctional relationships.
• “People really work hard to build the friendship in the marriage.”
• “The basis is really affection and respect for one another. So, ask yourself whether you feel respected in this relationship and whether you feel like your partner is really fond of you.”
• “I believe the courtship should last the entire life of the marriage.”
• “Sex is quite important. What people don’t realize is that a good sexual relationship emerges from affection and respect and humor toward one another in very small moments of every day interaction.”
• “They manage the amount of conflict between them.”
• “People neglect their friendship and intimacy.”
• “(They) allow conflict to escalate and become contemptuous and insulting.”
But what do these qualities look like? What does it mean to respect one another? How do you manage conflict? Observing how couples deal with their problems is a significant part of Gottman’s research. One method he uses involves bringing them to his research facility, then observing them during a neutral 15-minute conversation (sharing about their day), and then running through a problem they often disagree about for 15 minutes. He can tell a lot about the level of respect in the relationship by how they handle a disagreement.
In the first chapter of his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell visits Gottman’s research facility. He describes a disagreement between a young couple observed by Gottman’s research staff. On the surface the argument seemed minor, however the researchers then pointed out subtle body language and interaction cues that indicated a worrisome lack of respect and willingness to consider the other partner’s position.
As Gladwell watched the video of the couple with Gottman’s researchers, they told him it is not necessarily big blow-ups that cause the most harm. They pointed out how one spouse would roll their eyes at the other’s complaints. The other responded to everything with “yes, but” statements– “Yes, you may feel that way, but this is why I disagree.” Their argument was characterized by defensiveness, contempt, and a refusal to admit the other might be right.
These digs were so subtle the researchers did not catch many of them until they reviewed the video later. The spouses even thought their exchange was funny. However, the frequency, not the visibility, is what is important. Gottman says healthy couples have five positive interactions for every one negative. Troubled couples have 0.8 positive interactions for every one negative.
Gottman’s staff did not give Gladwell a definitive prediction of how long they thought the couple might stay together, but it is clear they have neglected two of Gottman’s major tenets of a healthy relationship: respect for one another and handling conflict well.
Gottman’s advice for a successful marriage is the same as what we see reiterated throughout the New Testament, “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (Titus 3:2) As Paul reminds Titus here, no relationship can survive if the partners resist and patronize one another.
During the CNN chat, someone asked Gottman whether couples that did not demonstrate the healthy qualities he listed should give up. “Let me say that the characteristics are not in the people. They’re really in the way that the people communicate with each other. That is very changeable. So my answer is don’t give up.” (CNN)
People can create a better marriage. In fact, Dr. David Schnarch, a marriage and sex therapist, says that is what marriage was designed to do– force people to grow. Couples continue these unhealthy patterns because 1) they might not know any better 2) it is easier than dealing with the discomfort of acknowledging what they are doing is unhealthy and trying to find a more productive way of relating. These couples eventually get to a place where they cannot stand the misery anymore, so they either grow or divorce.
If you think your marriage lacks the qualities listed by Gottman, don’t go hiring a divorce lawyer just yet. Remember what he said, these qualities can be learned. Like any life skill, some people are better at them than others, but it is imperative everyone try to develop them as best they can. Consider making an appointment with a professional Christian counselor. They can help you and your spouse identify the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship, and help you increase the likelihood of staying together.
Qualities-good-marriage Flickr user twfrench
Signs-of-healthy-marriage Flickr user bravenewtraveler