It was not too long ago where a popular couples counseling technique involved telling your spouse what you resented about them and then hitting them with a foam bat. Indeed, there is a popular cultural narrative that the main focus of couples counseling is about teaching couples how to fight with a lot of attention focused on areas of contention.
It reminds me of a boxing or MMA match. In the Red Corner, standing 5’7’’ and weighing 135 lbs. and carrying a red bat is Stephanie. She wants her husband to vacuum and mop the floors more. In the Blue Corner, standing 5’11’’ and weighting 185 lbs. and carrying a blue bat is Juan. He wants his wife to join him more often for outdoor walks and runs in the morning. Ding, ding, ding, round 1… Who will win??
While, there is definitely a place for couples to learn skills related to effective conflict management in relationships this preoccupation with conflict often neglects what may be just as important if not more important aspect of marriage. That is having a friendship with lots of small positive interactions that leads to a large positive sentiment towards your spouse is the foundation for a happy committed relationship.
When Dr. Gottman, the creator of the curriculum we use in our 7 Principles workshop, began his research related to what makes marriages succeed and fail over 40 years ago, one of his claims to fame was being able to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy. This was quite an extraordinary feat. Was he somehow gifted with precognition that allowed him to see the future? Was he able to identify the couples who most deftly or skillfully implemented conflict management skills? Nothing so complicated. He mainly noticed how many positive to negative interactions couples had during ordinary life and during conflict. The couples that divorced had 0.8 positive interactions to 1.0 negative interaction during ordinary life and during conflicts. The couples that remained happily married had 20 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction during ordinary life and 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction during conflicts.
To better understand the implications of these ratios it is important to appreciate how small interactions are the building blocks for relationships and positive vs. negative sentiment towards others. You can almost think of it as a tennis match. Only the rules for winning has to do with how many positive interactions can be generated. First comes the emotional bid, which in this metaphor is the serve. We can understand an emotional bid as a gesture for connection between two people. It can be as simple as saying good morning or commenting about the weather. It is a gesture that says to the other person – I acknowledge you and I am making an effort to connect with you. These gestures can be of a practical nature – “please pass the salt.” Or can be what we say to our spouse when we appreciate them – “I am so lucky to have have such a kind wife like you.”
After the emotional bid comes three different potential responses: 1) turning away; 2) turning against, and 3) turning towards. Turning away is basically ignoring or not responding to the emotional bid. For example, my wife comments on what a beautiful day it is outside and I keep reading my emails and do not respond. Turning against is responding negatively to the emotional bid with criticism, contempt, sarcasm, or other hostile response. Again my wife comments on what a beautiful day it is outside and I angrily say, “You always interrupt me when I am trying to read my email.” Lastly, turning towards would involve a positive response to our partner’s emotional bid. When my wife comments what a beautiful day it is outside, I say something like, “Sure is. Maybe we can go for a walk together?” For the purpose of our tennis match metaphor turning away and turning against would decrease our score and turning towards would increase our score. Specifically, to win we would try to have as many as 20 positive interactions or “turning towards” response to every one negative interaction: “turning away” or “turning against” response. Every time we have a negative response that would represent a miss when it comes to hitting the ball and we would have to start the count again. Unlike regular tennis we only win when we both hit and return the ball to each other with lots of emotional bids and positive “turning towards” responses. Returning to our example above, my wife may respond to my comment about going for a walk with a statement like, “I would love to go for a walk with you. Let me finish my coffee and I will start getting ready.” So far that would give us a score of 3 positive interactions. Now imagine 17 more of these types of positive “turning towards” responses before one of us would miss the ball by turning away or against the other person.
Perhaps what is even more amazing about couples who are happily married is that even during times of conflict, they still have 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction. One important point of clarification is that it is possible to have positive interaction while still complaining. Let’s say my wife says something in jest about my weight that hurts my feelings. I can turn away from my wife and give her the cold shoulder – negative response. I can turn against my wife and say an insulting disparaging remark – “you are a witch” – also a negative response. Or I can turn towards my wife and say something like, “I know you are just kidding, but I am feeling a bit sensitive and self-conscious about my weight. It hurts my feeling when you joke about it.” If her response is also positive it would be something like, “I apologize I did not mean to hurt your feelings. I will not do it again. You know I find you really attractive.”
Rather than beating each other with foam bats, what may be more effective is learning how to be kind to each other by becoming experts at “turning towards” each other – even during conflict. In this imaginary game of tennis, the points we accumulate are paid off by positive sentiments towards each other and a happier relationship. Sounds a lot better than having my wife beat me with a foam bat.
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