A lot of love in the lovemaking

Avoiding chaos, relationshipwise.

PROFESSOR John Gottman is the doctor of love, at least love of the conventional sort—he's an internationally known researcher on what makes marriage last and what makes it fall apart. In his work at the University of Washington, he has managed to apply strict scientific rigor to what seems like the most subjective of areas, and he's popularized his findings in a string of best-selling books (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is the most recent).

At his "love lab" near the UW, Dr. Gottman videotapes married couples as they go about a lazy day "at home" and monitors physiological signs like heart rate and blood pressure as they discuss areas of conflict. By toting up the "positive" and "negative" interactions, checking "repair attempts" during fights, watching for incidents of contemptuous behavior, etc., Gottman is able to predict the ultimate fate of the pair with over 90 percent accuracy, he says.

However, as a single guy, I wanted to know how I can keep from getting into a bad marriage in the first place. Wouldn't that save us all a lot of trouble? Warm and affable, the professor met me at the Grateful Bread bakery near his home to discuss the issue.

Seattle Weekly: You study a lot of couples that are on the rocks. And you talk about the four behaviors that foretell divorce—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. But I'm sure that, at one time, most of these couples were in love and gushing about each other. How can I know if my current relationship is going to end up like that?

Dr. Gottman: People used to think, "Well, you're in love, you're blissed out, you're not going to be doing a lot of real nasty shit, not going to be contemptuous toward your partner, not going to be disrespectful." Not true. If you keep going back and looking at relationships earlier and earlier, to the newlywed phase, the same variability [in behavior] exists for couples there as for later on. Even in the dating relationship—researchers have looked—the same signs are predictive. If you've been going together for six months, you can take a look at what's going on and decide if you want to be in that relationship or not.

So how do I make that decision? How can I know if a relationship is right or not?

First, what is the quality of the friendship? Are you guys really friends? In other words, is it easy to talk? Like, before you know it, four hours have gone by. It's really a lot like same-sex friendship. It's about being interested in one another, remembering stuff that's important to one another, being affectionate and respectful, and it's about noticing when your friend needs something from you.

Then there's the quality of sex, romance, and passion. Do you feel special to this person? Do you feel attractive? Are you really attracted and turned on by them? Is there a lot of love in the lovemaking? Does it feel passionate?

But everybody feels this stuff at first, don't they?

That's the surprising thing: People get married and they don't really like each other, and they're not having good sex together, and they don't feel like their partner's really that interested in them . . . they get married anyway! They're not taking a hard look at their relationship.

OK, but so what if it's really passionate at first—isn't that going to fade?

The common belief that passion and good sex start early and then fade is totally wrong—totally wrong. Passion can grow over time in a relationship if people pay attention to it. [In our studies of long-term couples] the thing that came out among those who had a great sex life was friendship—"We've remained really close friends, we're really buddies, we try to understand and help each other."

What about fighting? From what you've written, it seems like fighting in itself isn't bad, right?

Right. Conflict does exist in the very beginnings of romantic relationships; it comes out. [But] what's the balance in terms of destructive vs. constructive? Constructive conflict is about accepting influence from your partner, compromising. Destructive conflict is about insulting, being domineering, being defensive, denying any responsibility, withdrawing. Those predict a bad end to the relationship.

How do you get through a time when you're feeling distant, or you're not so sure about the relationship, or you're arguing a lot? Can you repair effectively? It's kind of a sense of confidence. You develop a feeling that you can weather any storm—not that you like the storms. Conflict is inevitable, but coping with it is a way of building the friendship.

Should I feel wildly in love, swept off my feet?

You'd be surprised what a small percentage of relationships have had that. Psychologists have called it "limerance," that stage. You're mostly just projecting on your partner what you wish would be there. And when we started interviewing newlyweds about it, couples who had experienced it didn't necessarily have better relationships. It didn't seem necessary or sufficient, except that it is so pleasant to go through. It's very good if you can build from there.

What else should I be on the watch for?

There's something called "negative sentiment override." You tend to be walking around with a chip on your shoulder, hypervigilant for put-downs, for ways your partner is saying, "I don't really love you, you're not that special to me." And if you're in that state, it's bad, particularly if you're a male, because that's something that is going to be very difficult to change. And it's really just a question of perception. Two women may be identical in how angry they get, but the one guy is saying, "Boy, she's really stressed right now, but it's OK; I get that way myself sometimes." The other guy's saying, "Nobody talks to me like that; fuck this, who needs this crap." What determines the perception, we've discovered, is friendship. If you feel like your partner respects you, is interested in you, turns toward you, then you're in positive sentiment override.

Why are we so bad at this? More than half of all marriages end in divorce. Are we just choosing badly? Are we just bad at being married like we're bad drivers?

There are lots of ways to destroy things, and usually only a few ways to really maintain things and keep them working. Things fall apart—this is the entropy idea. Chaos is the more likely event. It really takes a lot of energy to maintain a system that's working well.

mfefer@seattleweekly.com

Dr. Gottman also does couples counseling, should you already have gotten yourself into some negative sentiment override, you poor soul. He may be reached at the Gottman Institute, 523-9042.

 
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