Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

NETWORKER NEWS: A New Study of Marriage Catches the Attention of the National Media

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

NETWORKER NEWS: A New Study of Marriage Catches the Attention of the National Media

Article excerpt

It's not often that a longitudinal study on marital interactions gets the kind of national media attention that University of Washington researcher John Gottman received when the Journal of Marriage and the Family ran his most recent article in its February issue. The Washington Post announced that Gottman's six-year study of the ups and downs of 130 newlyweds had resulted in a "counseling theory that may rock the marriage therapists' boat." In a front-page story, the Los Angeles Times said that Gottman's study suggests that "the widespread use of active listening in marital counseling--a field already beset by sharp philosophical division--should be abandoned." Even beyond the popular media, the study set off alarm bells and debates among therapists that are still reverberating.

Gottman's study was the latest installment in his 20-year, groundbreaking investigation of the connections between the ways couples handle conflicts and their level of marital satisfaction. Widely regarded as one of the most respected researchers of couples' interactions, Gottman's work on predicting divorce and marital satisfaction through behavioral, verbal and physiological interactional patterns, and his procedures for coding those patterns, have contributed a staggering amount of data to the field. "I've said before that I'd nominate him for a Nobel Prize if they offered one in studying marital relationships," says Bernard Guerney, director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement. 

Gottman's latest study was part of his ongoing attempt to describe relational patterns shared by successfully married couples. Suggesting that marital therapy's high relapse rate is due to therapists' working with models derived from insufficiently empirical data and from assumptions transplanted from individual psychotherapy, Gottman set out to examine a variety of therapeutic theories concerning marriage: that anger is necessarily destructive and that successful marriages depend upon the ability of both partners to recognize their childhood wounds. He also wondered whether active listening, "the model which forms the basis of most complex multi-component marital treatments," really leads to better marriages.

Directly observing couples, whom he calls "the masters and disasters of marriage," Gottman's team videotaped the verbal and behavioral patterns and monitored the physiological stress responses of 130 couples as they discussed conflictual issues. In addition to testing the hypothesis developed through his earlier studies that marital outcomes can be predicted by measuring the male's physiological stress reaction when the female initiates criticism or begins an argument, Gottman also tested the predictive accuracy of other patterns that therapists have assumed lead to either divorce or satisfaction--whether the corrosiveness of anger predicts divorce, for instance, or whether active listening predicts marital satisfaction or success. After following the couples' marriages for six years, Gottman found that the only accurate predictions of both positive and negative marital outcome resulted from measuring the male's level of distress in the face of the female's perceived criticism or argumentativeness. Thus a harmonious, lasting marriage is one in which, when the female initiates negativity, the male reacts with reduced physiological stress. Based upon this finding, Gottman suggested marital therapists should help couples focus on a model of the woman "softening her negative start-up" and the male reacting with humor, affection or compromise--a pattern designed to reduce his stress levels.

Gottman was "astonished" to find that active listening was barely present in successful relationships and wondered whether therapists ought to spend much time teaching it. …

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