Ramblings & ephemera

Gottman on relationships

From THE MATHEMATICS OF LOVE: A Talk with John Gottman (Edge: 14 April 2004):

So far, his surmise is that “respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we’ll find that those are universal things”.

Another puzzle I’m working on is just what happens when a baby enters a relationship. Our study shows that the majority (67%) of couples have a precipitous drop in relationship happiness in the first 3 years of their first baby’s life. That’s tragic in terms of the climate of inter-parental hostility and depression that the baby grows up in. That affective climate between parents is the real cradle that holds the baby. And for the majority of families that cradle is unsafe for babies.

So far I believe we’re going to find that respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we’ll find that those are universal things.

Bob Levenson and I were very surprised when, in 1983, we found that we could actually predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, what was going to happen to a relationship over a three-year period just by examining their physiology and behavior during a conflict discussion, and later just from an interview about how the couple viewed their past. 90% accuracy!

That was surprising to us. It seemed that people either started in a mean-spirited way, a critical way, started talking about a disagreement, started talking about a problem as just a symptom of their partner’s inadequate character, which made their partner defensive and escalated the conflict, and people started getting mean and insulting to one another. That predicted the relationship was going to fall apart. 96% of the time the way the conflict discussion started in the first 3 minutes determined how it would go for the rest of the discussion. And four years later it was like no time had passed, their interaction style was almost identical. Also 69% of the time they were talking about the same issues, which we realized then were “perpetual issues” that they would never solve. These were basic personality differences that never went away. She was more extroverted or she was more of an explorer or he was more punctual or frugal.

Some couples were caught by the web of these perpetual issues and made each other miserable, they were “grid locked” like bumper-to-bumper traffic with these issues, while other couples had similar issues but coped with them and had a “dialogue” that even contained laughter and affection. It seemed that relationships last to the extent that you select someone whose annoying personality traits don’t send you into emotional orbit. Once again conventional wisdom was wrong. The big issue wasn’t helping couples resolve their conflicts, but moving them from gridlock to dialogue. And the secret of how to do that turned out to be having each person talk about their dream within the conflict and bringing Viktor Frankl’s existential logotherapy into the marital boxing ring. Once people talked about what they wished for and hoped for in this gridlock conflict and the narrative of why this was so important to them, in 86% of the cases they would move from gridlock to dialogue. Again a new door opened. Not all marital conflicts are the same. You can’t teach people a set of skills and just apply them to every issue. Some issues are deeper, they have more meaning. And then it turned out that the very issues that cause the most pain and alienation can also be the greatest sources of intimacy and connection.

Another surprise: we followed couples for as long as 20 years, and we found that there was another kind of couple that didn’t really show up on the radar; they looked fine, they weren’t mean, they didn’t escalate the conflict — but about 16 to 22 years after the wedding they started divorcing. They were often the pillars of their community. They seemed very calm and in control of their lives, and then suddenly they break up. Everyone is shocked and horrified. But we could look back at our early tapes and see the warning signs we had never seen before. Those people were people who just didn’t have very much positive connection. There wasn’t very much affection — and also especially humor — between them.

…These sorts of emotionally disconnected relationships were another important dimension of failed relationships. We learned through them that the quality of the friendship and intimacy affects the nature of conflict in a very big way.

One of the major things we found is that honoring your partner’s dreams is absolutely critical. A lot of times people have incompatible dreams — or they don’t want to honor their partner’s dreams, or they don’t want to yield power, they don’t want to share power. So that explains a lot of times why they don’t really belong together.

Psycho-physiology is an important part of this research. It’s something that Bob Levenson brought to the search initially, and then I got trained in psycho-physiology as well. And the reason we’re interested in what was happening in the body is that there’s an intimate connection between what’s happening to the autonomic nervous system and what happening in the brain, and how well people can take in information — how well they can just process information — for example, just being able to listen to your partner — that is much harder when your heart rate is above the intrinsic rate of the heart, which is around a hundred to a hundred and five beats a minute for most people with a healthy heart.

At that point we know, from Loren Rowling’s work, that people start secreting adrenalin, and then they get into a state of diffuse physiological arousal (or DPA) , so their heart is beating faster, it’s contracting harder, the arteries start getting constricted, blood is drawn away from the periphery into the trunk, the blood supply shuts down to the gut and the kidney, and all kinds of other things are happening — people are sweating, and things are happening in the brain that create a tunnel vision, one in which they perceive everything as a threat and they react as if they have been put in great danger by this conversation.

Because men are different. Men have a lot of trouble when they reach a state of vigilance, when they think there’s real danger, they have a lot of trouble calming down. and there’s probably an evolutionary history to that. Because it functioned very well for our hominid ancestors, anthropologists think, for men to stay physiologically aroused and vigilant, in cooperative hunting and protecting the tribe, which was a role that males had very early in our evolutionary history. Whereas women had the opposite sort of role, in terms of survival of the species, those women reproduced more effectively who had the milk-let-down reflex, which only happens when oxytocin is secreted in the brain, it only happens when women — as any woman knows who’s been breast-feeding, you have to be able to calm down and relax. But oxytocin is also the hormone of affiliation. So women have developed this sort of social order, caring for one another, helping one another, and affiliating, that also allows them to really calm down and have the milk let-down reflex. And so — it’s one of nature’s jokes. Women can calm down, men can’t; they stay aroused and vigilant.

Physiology becomes really critical in this whole thing. A provocative finding from Alyson Shapiro’s recent dissertation is that if we take a look at how a couple argues when the woman is in the sixth month of pregnancy, we can predict over half the variation in the baby, the three-month-old baby’s vagal tone, which is the ability of the vagus nerve, the major nerve of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for establishing calm and focusing attention. That vagus nerve in the baby is eventually going to be working well if the parents, during pregnancy, are fighting with each other constructively. That takes us into fetal development, a whole new realm of inquiry.

You have to study gay and Lesbian couples who are committed to each other as well as heterosexual couples who are committed to each other, and try and match things as much as you can, like how long they’ve been together, and the quality of their relationship. And we’ve done that, and we find that there are two gender differences that really hold up.

One is that if a man presents an issue, to either a man he’s in love with or a woman he’s in love with, the man is angrier presenting the issue. And we find that when a woman receives an issue, either from a woman she loves or a man she loves, she is much more sad than a man would be receiving that same issue. It’s about anger and sadness. Why? Remember, Bowlby taught us that attachment and loss and grief are part of the same system. So women are finely tuned to attaching and connecting and to sadness and loss and grief, while men are attuned to defend, stay vigilant, attack, to anger. My friend Levenson did an acoustic startle study (that’s where you shoot of a blank pistol behind someone’s head when they least expect it). Men had a bigger heart rate reactivity and took longer to recover, which we would expect, but what even more interesting is that when you asked people what they were feeling, women were scared and men were angry.

So that’s probably why those two differences have held up. Physiologically people find over and over again in heterosexual relationships — and this hasn’t been studied yet in gay and Lesbian relationships — that men have a lower flash point for increasing heart-rate arousal, and it takes them longer to recover. And not only that, but when men are trying to recover, and calm down, they can’t do it very well because they keep naturally rehearsing thoughts of righteous indignation and feeling like an innocent victim. They maintain their own vigilance and arousal with these thoughts, mostly of getting even, whereas women really can distract themselves and calm down physiologically from being angered or being upset about something. If women could affiliate and secrete oxytocin when they felt afraid, they’s even calm down faster, probably.

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