The Scientific Basis for The Orcas Island Couples Retreat


We’ll start with a story. In 1965 George Bach published a book called The Intimate Enemy which detailed a new approach to couples therapy. Bach believed that the problem in relationships was that people suppressed their anger; instead, they should openly express it. If they aired their resentments instead of letting them accumulate, that would clear the air between them. So Bach had partners take turns voicing their resentments. He even encouraged them to hit one another with soft foam-rubber bats. He believed that this process would be like erasing the blackboard; then, the couple could start anew.

We now know that Bach was totally wrong. Voicing anger mindlessly doesn’t improve things. In fact, it can worsen things. We now know that, from the very beginning, anger needs to be regulated and channeled constructively. Imagine, if we planned a retreat based on Bach’s work, how destructive that could be. We believe that solid science is needed in order to create effective intervention.

Our couples retreat is based on 36 years of consistent programmatic research on relationships. We have studied couples at every point in the life cycle, from newlyweds to octogenarians. We have also followed the same couples for very long time periods, including two groups of couples for 20 years. Our samples have represented every major ethnic and racial group found in the U.S. locales where we have conducted the studies: rural areas, urban centers, and suburbs. We have also spent 12 years studying gay and lesbian relationships, and the relationships that are the most distressed – those troubled by domestic violence.

Our Methods

We brought couples into a lab and videotaped them having either a conflict discussion or a talk about the events of their day or a positive event. While being videotaped, they were also hooked up to instruments that collected physiological data. Then we synchronized the video time code to the physiological data, and the partners watched their tape, rating how they were feeling during each moment. Later, we also analyzed the videotapes, a hundredth of a second by a hundredth of a second, for the emotions the partners expressed non-verbally as well as the content of what they said, and we combined this data with the physiological data. This entire process was repeated annually or in some cases, every few years, along with having the couples fill out written questionnaires. Over the years, changes were analyzed in the quality of relationship, the relationship status, and a number of other factors.

In a further study in a lab we fashioned to look like an apartment, couples stayed for 12 hrs and simply hung out together. It was just like a bed and breakfast holiday, except there were four cameras bolted to the walls, urine and blood samples were taken, and the partners wore physiological monitoring devices. Other than that – just like a simple vacation! Data was gathered while the couples ate, watched TV, listened to music, read the newspaper, and so on. These couples were also followed longitudinally.

For many years we only observed these couples as well as their infants and children without any intervention. Then 15 years ago, we began to work on designing interventions to help couples and families. These were studied, too. We also investigated how to smooth the transition to parenthood, which had proven to be rocky for most couples, and how partner relationships could enhance babies and children’s emotional and cognitive development.

In all of that research we repeatedly asked the basic question, “How were the masters of relationship different from the disasters of relationship?” By “masters” we meant people who stayed together and reported being reasonably satisfied with their relationships. By “disasters” we meant people who broke up, or who stayed together but were unhappy with one another. After years of careful study, we identified which precise factors predicted whether a couple would stay together happily, remain together unhappily, or separate and divorce, and we found we could make such predictions based on 15 minutes of observation for five years down the road with, in some cases, 94% accuracy. The result was that we didn’t get asked over for dinner much.

The Sound Relationship House theory

There are seven parts of the Sound Relationship House theory. Each of these levels involves the need to build a fundamental process. The first three levels of the house describe the essential components of the couple’s friendship.

  1. Build Love Maps. The foundation of the house, The Love Map, is a road map of one’s partner’s inner psychological world. The fundamental process is asking open-ended questions. It involves the couple knowing one another and periodically updating this knowledge.
  2. Share Fondness & Admiration. The second story of the house is The Fondness & Admiration System, which is the antidote for contempt. The fundamental process is changing a habit of mind from scanning the environment for people’s mistakes and then correcting them to scanning the environment for what one’s partner is doing right and building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect.
  3. Turn Towards. Bids for Emotional Connection. The third story is Turning Toward versus Turning Away in everyday moments, or what we call building the “Emotional Bank Account.” The fundamental process is building awareness of how one’s partner asks for connection and expresses emotional needs, and deciding to turn toward these bids (rather than turning away or against them). The movie “Sliding Doors” is about how small choices can hugely affect the course of a couple’s life. Life is full of these “sliding door” moments, which are opportunities to turn toward one’s partner.
  4. The Positive Perspective. These three stories build the fourth story, that we claim one gets as a free add-on: Bob Weiss’s idea of Positive Sentiment Override (PSO). This determines a lot of things, including the presence of positive affect in problem solving discussions, and the success of repair attempts during conflict resolution. If the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House are not working, then people are in Negative Sentiment Override (NSO), in which even neutral or positive messages are perceived as negative and the person is hypervigilant for negativity. There is a “chip on the shoulder.” We claim that it is not possible to change NSO to PSO, except by changing the quality of the couple’s friendship. People are in negative sentiment override for good reason: they see their partner as an adversary, not a friend. To change that state, we need to build the couple’s friendship, using the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House.
  5. Manage Conflict. The next story of the house consists of two parts of conflict regulation. Couples need to identify the core issues and the anatomy of repeating negative cycles in their relationship. By “anatomy” we mean that couples need help to understand what triggers escalation (e.g., defensiveness, criticism, contempt, belligerence), and what the story is of these triggers in each person’s past history (either within the relationship or not). Conflicts are one of two types.
    • Type 1: For couple problems that are resolvable, there are Four Parts of Effective Problem Solving. These are Softened Startup, Accepting Influence, Repair and De-escalation (including physiological soothing), and Compromise. The use of positive affect in the service of de-escalation is a part of this, too, but it is not programmable–it just happens by itself when Positive Sentiment Override is in place.
    • Type 2: For couple problems that are not perpetual and probably not resolvable, in order to avoid couple “gridlock,” it is necessary that the couple establish what we call a “dialogue” with the perpetual problem. This involves a great deal of positive affect (e.g., neutral affect – which is positive during conflict discussions, and interest, affection, humor, empathy, excitement, softening) even when discussing a disagreement. Again, physiological soothing is a critical part of this process. There needs to be a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative affect.
  6. Make Life Dreams and Aspirations Come True. What is the basis of a continued positive emotional connection even during conflict? Therapists once believed that if conflicts were resolved, positive affects or feelings of all types would rush into the couple’s world by themselves, like air rushes into a vacuum. Not true. Positive affect systems need to be built intentionally. This includes play, fun, and exploration/adventure. This level of the Sound Relationship House is also about helping one’s partner realize important life dreams and making the relationship, in general, effective at Making Dreams and Aspirations Come True. This aspect of relationship is the basis of unlocking conflict gridlock, in which the couple’s values within a position in the gridlocked conflict are explored and understood.
  7. Create Shared Meaning. Finally, we have “the attic” of the house, where people either intentionally create, or do not create, a sense of shared meaning in their life together. A relationship involves building a life together, and that life is full of meaning. In the way the couple moves through time together, in how they prioritize their time, and their resources, in the stories they tell one another about their lives, their ancestors, their culture, their beliefs, and their legacy, in the way they decide to have things and events in their lives have meaning, they create this shared meaning system.Here is where the symbolic meanings live of many of our ideas about emotion (our idea of “meta-emotion”) and the relationship. In the “attic” our important Dreams, Narrative, Myths, and Metaphors about our Relationship and Family find a home. Here lie the narratives about what life means. Here are the informal and formal rituals of connection in a relationship and a family. This is what people tell themselves about emotion and their internal thoughts, metaphors, myths, and stories about the relationship. Here is where the photo albums and the memorabilia live.The creation of a relationship and a family involve the active creation of a new culture that has never existed before. Even if the two people come from the same racial, ethnic, and geographic background, the two families they grew up in will be very different and so their union will always involve the creation of a new world of meaning. Every relationship is a cross-cultural experience.In our lab there were three interviews that investigated the shared meaning system. The first was our Oral History Interview, in which we asked about the couple’s history and their philosophy of relationships, and their family history. The second interview was our Meta-emotion interview. In this interview, we asked about the history of each person’s and the couple’s philosophy about the basic emotions, sadness, anger, fear, love, affection, pride, embarrassment, guilt, and shame, and the expression of emotion in general.The third interview was the Meanings Interview. This was an interview about Rituals, Roles, Goals, and Symbolic Meanings. In this interview we asked each person about the meaning of everyday rituals, the holiday cycle, rites of passage, and the meaning of fundamental roles in their families of origin and in their own relationship and family.The interview explores the meanings and history of rituals like family dinner-times, reunions at the end of the day, the mornings, play times, weekends, time with friends, time with kin, birthdays, holidays, religious festivals and holidays. It involves not only rituals within the family but rituals involving the family with the larger community, the church, charity, others in need, the children’s school, political parties and political events, and so on. The interview explores the meanings and history of the basic roles of each person: son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, worker, provider, protector, nurturer, educator, mentor, friend, religious and philosophical person. Here resides the family’s culture. In this interview we ask about their goals, their life missions, the legacy they wish to leave the world with, their cultures, their religion, their spirituality. Here we searched for common ground and discrepancies between spouses, and for discrepancies between their values and the way they actually move through time, that is, their priorities. Healthy couples had established and continued to refine their sense of shared meaning, while unhealthy couples did not.

During our two day retreat, these seven levels of the “Sound Relationship House” are our guide. We are deeply grateful to the thousands of couples who, through their participation in our research, gave us the secrets for how to build strong and lasting relationships. It is these skills and strengths that we wish to impart to you.