Last modified on Friday, 26 December 2008 15:37
Another feature of satisfied couples is that they accept each other and display what Gottman calls "positive sentiment override," referring to the overall positive regard they have for each other. This well of positive feeling shapes the way they approach potentially difficult marital issues and tends to immunize them against automatic patterns of blame and counterblame. Following the implications of this notion, several recent approaches, such as Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, developed by the late Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen, now emphasize mutual acceptance more than behavior change. In this model, couples are taught to distinguish between problems that can be changed and those that can't, or aren't worth the effort. Partners are helped to find ways to live with the unchangeable issues by engaging in self-talk that emphasizes the other's positive intent and the feeling of love that overrides the annoyance of the problem--that he or she can never learn to be less messy, for example.
Satisfied couples have secure attachments with each other that still allow room for the other to be him- or herself. Research indicates that those with secure attachments earlier in life are more likely to be able to create such attachments in marriage. Susan Johnson has found in more than 20 years of couples research and therapy that good marriages are based on deep, mutually dependable, responsive, accessible connections between partners--reflecting the secure attachment bonds of a mother and infant. Such bonds, she argues, give couples (and very young children, for that matter) a safe emotional base from which they can freely and without anxiety explore their own individual personalities and pursuits.
Satisfied couples share expectations, but only to a "good enough" extent. What matters for marital happiness is that the two partners share some overlap in their expectations of what a successful marriage "should" be and of what each owes to the other. But beyond that basic agreement, happy couples can be close or relatively distant from each other--passionately involved in each other's lives or living almost separately. Individual partners may be high powered and success oriented or low key and laid back--oriented to material rewards or spiritually inclined.
By contrast, the most distressed couples display high levels of defensiveness, criticism, contempt, belligerence, and stonewalling with each other. In the longitudinal research of Gottman and his colleague Robert Levinson, these characteristics during interactions between spouses, often displayed nonverbally in expressions and gestures of one partner toward the other--rolling eyes, disdainful sneer, arms folded across the chest, sarcastic tone, tight lips, narrowed eyes, etc.--emerged as the best predictors of divorce and of intractable marital distress.