Research Findings on Relationships:
What is “dysfunctional” when a relationship is ailing?
The following are eight predictors of divorce and/or continued couple misery that are characteristic of relationships when the partners are attempting to resolve conflict, and hence these factors can be considered “dysfunctional.”
- More negativity than positivity. During conflict discussions, the ratio of positive to negative interactions in relationships headed for divorce is 0.8:1, not 5:1, as it is in stable and happy couples. The presence of positive affect itself during conflict resolution (and in everyday interaction) is, in fact, crucial. However, for a relationship to be healthy, both positivity and negativity are necessary. This balance theory implies the unusual point of view that negativity is important in healthy relationships. Negativity plays many prosocial functions – for example, culling out interaction patterns that don’t work, renewing courtship over time, etc. Thus, couple therapy should not declare war on negativity. On the contrary, we submit the idea that a relationship without negative affect would be lifeless and boring.
- Escalation of negative affect: The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling and gender differences in these (female criticism and male stonewalling are most prevalent) are dysfunctional in relationship conflict. These are part of a pattern of escalation of negativity, which indicates dysfunctional interaction. In the 1970s many behavioral marital therapists thought that what was dysfunctional in a marriage was the reciprocation of negativity in kind, particularly anger. We discovered in sequential analyses of marital interaction, however, that the reciprocation of anger was as characteristic of stable, happy couples as it was of unstable or unhappy couples. It was the escalation of negativity that predicted divorce. Subsequent research discovered that this pattern, in turn, was related to a pattern we called “turning away” from bids for emotional connection.
- Emotional disengagement and withdrawal. Another negative, dysfunctional pattern that emerged from our longitudinal research was both the absence of escalated negative affect during conflict, and also the absence of any positive affect during conflict. There was a marked lack of affection, shared humor, question-asking, active interest, excitement, joy, support, and empathy. Subsequent research discovered that this particular pattern was related to a negative style in everyday interaction that we called “turning against” bids for emotional connection.
- The failure of repair attempts. Healthy couples don’t avoid fights, even ones that are painful and alienating. Nor do they always avoid hurting one another’s feelings, or avoid times when they do not respond to one another’s needs for emotional connection. But, in contrast to unhealthy couples, they process these inevitable fights and moments of miscommunication or hurt feelings in order to repair the relationship. Unhealthy couples do not make repairs. Regrettable incidents in interaction are inevitable, just par for the course, but they need to be repaired.
- Negative sentiment override (NSO). In our theory, we utilize the concepts of “positive and negative sentiment override.” In negative sentiment override there is a discrepancy between insider and outsider perceptions of the interaction. An actually neutral or positive communication sent by one partner is interpreted by the other partner as negative. Hence, negative sentiments or feelings override positive interaction. In negative sentiment override, negative perception is “the subtext” that accompanies interactions. In positive sentiment override, negative messages are not seen as particularly negative, or at least they are not taken personally. Negative sentiment override is related to the development of negative attributions about one another and the relationship.Robinson & Price (1980) placed observers in couples’ homes to observe only positive behavior; they also trained partners to observe their own interactions with the same observational system. When couples were happy, the strangers and the partners were veridical with one another, that is, their observations matched each other. But when couples were unhappy, the partners only observed 50% of their partner’s positive interactions (as measured by the outside observers). Fritz Heider’s “fundamental attribution error” is related to these findings. He described a tendency in people to minimize their own errors and attribute them to temporary, fleeting circumstances, but to maximize the errors of others and attribute them to lasting, negative personality traits or character flaws. In our own work negative attributions made by one partner about the other partner were also related to negatively recasting the history of the relationship.
- Maintaining vigilance and physiological arousal. Physiological arousal often accompanies feelings of being overwhelmed by the way one’s partner raises issues, but it can be triggered in other ways, too. It leads people to want to flee or aggress. Men are more likely than women to rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts that may prolong physiological arousal and vigilance. Flooding accompanies this arousal, and often leads to what we call The Distance and Isolation Cascade, or the movement through time towards relationship dissolution.
- Chronic diffuse physiological arousal. General activation of many physiological systems in the body creates the “general alarm response” that spells danger. Physiological arousal may cause increased heart rate, increased myocardial contractility, increased vasoconstriction, increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic activation, increased rennin-angiotensin activity, reduced oxygen concentration in the blood, decreased blood supply to non-essential functions like the gut and kidney, catecholamine and cortisol secretion, increased amygdala activation, decreased frontal lobe activation, immunosuppression, and so on. When physiological arousal accompanies relationship conflict, it may lead to:
- A decrease in one’s ability to take in information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture)
- An increase in defensiveness and what we call the “summarizing yourself syndrome”
- A reduction in the ability to be creative in problem-solving
- A reduction in the ability to listen and empathize
- The failure of men to accept influence from their women. This may show up as either:
- Male emotional disengagement (this eventually becomes mutual emotional disengagement)
- Male escalation (belligerence, contempt, defensiveness) in response to the partner’s low intensity negative emotion (complaining).
What is “functional” when a relationship is going well?
For many decades, clinical writers have had to rely on their fantasies of what a good relationship is like. Often these fantasies did not match reality. One of the contributions of the Gottman and Levenson research is that well-functioning relationships have been studied over long periods of time (up to 20 years) so that we no longer have to rely on what we imagine a good relationship to be. There is new information in studying good relationships. It’s not just reversing the grammar in the dysfunctional list.
What is going well when a relationship is stable and satisfying to both partners? Tolstoy said that all unhappy families were different in their distinct miseries, but that all happy families were the same. It turns out from research that the exact opposite is true. In happiness there is the possibility for much greater diversity. Unhappiness creates more constraints upon interaction patterns. The following has been found to be true by research:
Good relationships are matched in preferred conflict style.
In 1974 an important book was published by Harold Raush. It was the first observational longitudinal study of the transition to parenthood, and the first to use sequential analysis of interaction. Raush divided his couples into three groups: harmonious, conflict avoiding, and bickering. He suggested that the two extreme styles of conflict (avoiding and bickering) were dysfunctional.
However, in our own research we found that all three styles (which we called Avoiders, Validators, and Volatiles) were all functional (stable and happy), if and only if the ratio of positive to negative interaction during conflict was greater than or equal to 5:1. Also, mismatches between preferred conflict styles in married couples did predict divorce. These mismatches were at the root of demand-withdraw (or pursuer-distancer) patterns. A conflict avoider paired with a validator was the most common mismatch. We speculated that a partner with an avoider conflict style paired with a partner with a volatile conflict style would not progress toward relationship commitment.
Relationships that are mismatched have particular perpetual issues to deal with. They are not automatically doomed, but without intervention this mismatch in preferred conflict style is a risk factor that predicts dissolution. [Want to read more? See Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.]
Good relationships are characterized by “dialogue” rather than “gridlock” with perpetual issues.
Only 31% of couples’ major areas of continuing disagreement were about resolvable issues. 69% of the time they were about unresolvable perpetual problems. Functional problem solving about resolvable issues had the following characteristics:
- The masters of relationships used softened startup versus harsh startup when raising an issue. The woman’s role was critical since women bring up issues in heterosexual relationships 80% of the time.
- The choice of using harsh or softened startup was predictable by how positively responsive or rejecting men were during an events-of-the-day conversation that preceded the conflict discussion. Responsive men had wives who softened their startup during conflict.
- Masters of relationships accepted influence rather than “batting it back (escalation).” The man’s role was critical here because most women tended to accept influence at high rates. (Note: an important negative finding was that negative reciprocity in kind was generally unrelated to anything bad in couple outcomes).
- Masters of relationships had repair attempts that were effective, and they repaired at a lower threshold of negativity than the disasters of relationships. They also did pre-emptive repair (see below).
- The masters of relationships de-escalated negativity, and it was usually the male’s role, but it was only low-conflict negativity that got de-escalated. Very few relationships were successful at de-escalating high intensity conflict. Ninety-six percent of conflict discussions that began negatively never got turned around.
Later longitudinal research (14-year follow up) found that escalation of negativity was a pattern that predicted early divorcing, while a second pattern we called “emotional disengagement” predicted later divorcing. Emotional disengagement was not characterized by the escalation of negativity, but by the absence of positive affect during conflict.
The most important finding was that for couples more positive affect during conflict was the only variable that predicted both couple stability and happiness. The positive affect was contingent rather than uniformly distributed throughout the interaction. It served the purpose of conflict de-escalation. Only positive affect and de-escalation that served the purpose of physiological soothing of the male predicted positive outcomes in the newlywed relationship.
Sixty-nine percent of the time, couples conflicted about perpetual issues in the relationship that never get resolved. What mattered was not solving these problems but the affect around which they were discussed. The goal seemed to be to establish a dialogue with the perpetual problem that communicated acceptance of the partner, humor, affection, even amusement, and active coping with the unresolvable problem rather than the condition of “gridlock. ” Gridlocked discussion only led to painful exchanges or icy silence, and usually involved the Four Horsemen.
Good relationships employ pre-emptive repair.
Janice Driver and Amber Tabares in our laboratory studied how couples repair negativity. They designed a repair coding system for this task. Their papers are still being written. They discovered that couples whose relationships are happy are doing a great deal to avoid having the conflict discussion become negative in the first place. They referred to this as “pre-emptive repair.” Unhappy couples do not do these things. An example of one of their codes is “tooting our own horn,” by which they meant that early in the conflict discussion among happy couples one partner will congratulate the couple on how well they have coped with issues in the past.
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