Last modified on Friday, 26 December 2008 15:37
Research on Interactive Processes
What do we know from research about interactions between spouses that either promote or undermine good marital relationships? One fact that's been established is the not entirely surprising finding that satisfied couples manifest in their exchanges much higher rates of positive behaviors than of negative ones. Researcher John Gottman, now of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington, one of the leading authorities on couples' behavior, who's meticulously documented the interactions of couples for more than 30 years, has been famously quoted saying that the ratio of positive to negative behaviors is at least 5 to 1 in satisfied couples. The types of behavior to which he's referring vary--remarks to each other, body language, helpful vs. challenging acts, and so forth. But this finding from his research with Julian Cook and several other colleagues in 1995 has been widely replicated in studies since then by him and others.
Gottman reports that if this ratio falls below the 5-to-1 level, couples are likely to be dissatisfied with their marriages. In those likely to divorce, the ratio hovers around 0.8 positive acts for every negative one. Gottman adds that really happy couples typically have ratios of positive to negative behaviors even higher than the 5-to-1 level.
This research has made therapists more aware of the importance of helping couples understand the long-term impact of their everyday, moment-to-moment interactions. They can then be taught to monitor their own remarks and behaviors and find ways of increasing the ratio of positive to negative exchanges with their mates. In fact, teaching this skill has become an essential ingredient of a variety of couples therapies, such as Douglas Snyder's Affective Reconstruction Treatment and Mona Fishbane's dialogical approach.
Satisfied couples communicate well and approach problems in a spirit of collaboration rather than antagonism; unhappy couples just continue being angry about the same old problems, while new ones accumulate. Numerous studies have pointed to the relationship advantages of direct communication and developing successful methods of problem-solving. Most couples therapies therefore build in a didactic-experiential set of interventions to help couples learn or regain their abilities to communicate and tackle problems. For example, couples are taught to clearly state their desires and complaints, to listen even when emotionally aroused, to brainstorm potential solutions that bridge differences, and to be sure to follow through on decisions.