Mind Matters — Couples Coping

Couples researcher John Gottman presented at a conference recently on The Science of Trust. Although his book of the same name focused mainly on couples in relationships, Gottman in the meeting extrapolated his science of trust from individuals and couples to the societal level. There he considered how there has been a whittling away of trust in society the way the disparity between the wages of CEO’s and of their lowest paid employees has grown exponentially in the past twenty-five years. (CEO’s make 400 times more than their employees.) Gottman’s notion is that this disparity produces a heavy burden upon the average family and that the resultant economic stress can only have a negative effect upon the already anxious everyman’s family.

While we may not effect change in the economic-societal arena, we can actively transform our personal relationships. Here are a few tips from John Gottman and his relationship researchers.

Gottman’s group focuses on repair because couples in daily living are going to mess up communication. Rather than consider perfect communication as the goal, Gottman searches for patterns of repair in couples. When there is a breakdown in communication, how well do couples repair? Do couples have more negative or positive affect? Relationships, to be real, will have some “negativity.” More important is how pervasive is the negativity. Gottman and his group note that relationships must have at least a five to one ratio of positivity to negativity during conflict. In other words, even in disagreements, the “healthy” couple manages more positive than negative interaction.

If the couple escalates negative affect through criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stone-walling (Gottman’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse”), trouble is brewing. If one partner ignores the other partner’s bid for emotional connection by turning away, that also portends problems. This is where one partner tries to get the other’s attention with interest, humor, affection, or support and is rebuffed. A corollary to this is the “turning against” stance, where one partner withdraws, emotionally disengages, or distances with irritability.

What Gottman and his researchers discovered is that in couples’ (and families for that matter) interactions, physiological arousal occurs. That is, our biochemical stressors get activated when we are in conflict. Heart rates rise, adrenaline is secreted, and our ability to process information shuts down. We lose our sense of humor and creativity as well. And a pattern of fight or flight ensues. Hence, what is most important in couples interaction is learning how to self-soothe, learning how to calm down rather than escalate our own physiological response to the stressors at hand.

Gottman notes that every relationship has perpetual issues or themes. It is not that happy couples don’t have conflict so much as they learn to cope with conflict. One way to cope is to learn how to remain physiologically calm during arguments. Other signs of a healthy relationship include the ability to accept influence from the partner. (Most importantly, Gottman and his researchers found that “men’s acceptance of influence from their female partner was critical for well functioning heterosexual relationships.”) Also key is the active and continual development of friendship, intimacy, and positive regard. That is, keeping the fun and playfulness going even in the midst of tough times.