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A note from Dr. K

Lesson 6 Chapter 2 Module 1

In 1972, there were 2,000 published studies on divorce.  Only six actually followed couples over time.  These six focused on the personalities of the spouse's and on what people said about themselves and each other.

And using both the personality and what people say about themselves and their partners were lousy predictors of anything.  And the researchers asked dumb questions.

Gottman's research was different.

Gottman's research examined three aspects of a relationship:

  • The actual interactions; between partners and measured emotions using things like  universal facial expressions.
  • Perception; not only through questionnaires but also by showing videos of real interactions between them and exploring emotions.
  • Physiology; say what you like, but what is your heart rate saying when you talk about that?  What is your immune system doing?  How about your endocrine system?

Together, when measuring the moments of mixing autonomic arousal (upset) with the calmer moments, each couple creates "set points," or norms for their relationship.  Where does this needle point in your relationship?  Upset or calm?  How often does it hit and stay on each?

We are creatures of habit and our ways of relating to each other tend to repeat, again and again, especially when we are stressed out. 

Where do we learn how to act in intimate relationships? Yes, the families we come from...

Of course some people are naturally calmer or more easily upset than others, but this means that each couple needs to learn how to regulate the other's nerves so that, like Goldilocks, things don't get too "hot" or too "cold." 

Efforts to regulate nerves are called "repair attempts."  These are something that "masters of relationships" learn to do naturally.  They notice when their partners are starting to get upset in a disagreement and they learn to say soothing or pleasant words or do actions to keep things on track.

But it is tough to "repair" and regulate if we can't read our partner's reactions very well.  Very often, we're only tuning into our own feelings and thoughts. We lack any curiosity about what our partner is doing.

As a result, we'll end up being poor predictors of how our partner is feeling.  We get better at this when we can imagine how our partner must be reacting, and then respond to that imagination appropriately.  In other words, we need to be focused on THEM during a disagreement and not our own thoughts and feelings.

If we focus on ourselves, when listening to our partners, Gottman found two common negative patterns:

  • The "Innocent Victim" type, which is associated with whining and defensiveness; ("Why's everybody always picking on me?") and
  • The "Righteous indignation" type, which is associated with contempt.  ("I can't BELIEVE you think that. You are such an idiot!")

As any skilled couples therapist knows, there is a lot to learn when watching a couple interact. 

They have facial expressions, voice tones, gestures, body positions, and movements while they talk.  They have the space or distance they set between themselves and their partners, etc. It takes skill and experience to monitor all of this happening with one person.  It's even more difficult monitoring it with two.

Sometimes, when I interview potential hires for positions at Couples Therapy Inc, they tell me that they are "naturals" at working with couples.  This actually means they enjoy it and believe their perceptions about what is happening in their offices are accurate. 

But in reality, if this were so, it would not have taken Gottman over 40 years and working with 3,000 couples to learn what we've learned!

Warm regards,

Dr. K

Pen