Anatomy of a Marriage

A reader upon reading my post of 22nd Aug, “Beauty, a Love Poem” asked me when romantic relations start so beautifully why do they wither and die. I promised her that I will get back with some answers and this longish post is a consequence of her query. Thanks Veni.

John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at Washington University, has done extensive study of couples (more than 5000) at various stages of their relationships and claims to be able to predict an impending divorce with 91% accuracy. He has built models of marital and other long term relationships which help understand relationship dynamics. What follows, borrows liberally from his empirical findings.

Lets start by some Myth Bunking first. The biggest myth in any relationship is “existence of chemistry”. Second big myth is that relations can be repaired by “non judgmental hearing of other’s viewpoint”.

Both of these things do not work as most relations are not natural but ”constructs of adjustments” as also most couple differences cannot be resolved by listening. They are entrenched gender or value differences and have to be worked around.

In fact the single biggest factor in any martial fatality is how couples handle conflict. This skill determines if marriage will survive its first 6 years or will end in a divorce. For long term success though the determining factor is how couple create meaning and warmth in their relationship.

Talking of relationship death first, there are “4 Horsemen of Apocalypse” or conflict attributes, that destroy any marriage:

1) The single biggest factor which kills relations, is Contempt. When you display moral superiority ( lack of respect for your spouses being) by sneering, rolling of eyes, mocking or expressing disgust divorce bells are sounding within audible range.
2) Next is criticism of partner’s personality. Complaint is fine where you articulate your need gap however when that turns to trashing of partners behavior ( you are no good…!!) you tread into a no fly zone.
3) Being Defensive or attributing all problems to other and not acknowledging your role in conflict, is the third conflict catalyst. This cognitive blindness makes you the self confessed victim of a relation assault.
4) Stonewalling or “tuning out” of constant barrage of criticism and contempt is emotional disengagement and a loneliness invite.

These four factors is isolation or in conjunction when not addressed, lead to frequent flooding of stress and negative emotions. The conflict escalation leads to positivity getting eclipsed and couples getting gridlocked into their adversarial positions. This lose-lose dynamic in turn leads to disengagement, leading of parallel lives under same roof. venturing out to seek physical comfort, emotional intimacy or shutting down totally. Affairs then do not kill marriages but highlight dying ones.

Now lets turn to happy marriages or relations which are nurturing for both partners and examine their features. Without surprise, the biggest factor contributing to a marriage’s health, is friendship. It is enjoyment of each other’s company, respecting each other’s opinion and sharing of power to make life decisions. Five concrete strategies that happy couples routinely employ and which one can copy are:

1) “Enhancing love maps” is the technique where you increase familiarity with your partner’s world. You understand more of their concerns, view points, worries, feelings and goals.
2) “Nurturing fondness and admiration”, involves contemplating on one’s partner and what makes one cherish him or her. Happy thoughts foster happy feelings which leads to enhanced nurture.
3) “Turning towards your partner” means responding favorably towards their bids for your attention, affection or support. This leads to better connection and if done daily obviates the need for the ritual of monthly candle light dinner or maybe not
4) “Sharing Influence” is allowing yourself to be influenced by other’s opinion, feeling and viewpoint. This is essential sharing of power and confluence in decision making.
5) “Creating Meaning” is sharing of an inner life wherein the cultural symbols and rituals acquire a shared meaning and it helps in creating a joint family pool of emotional and physical resources.

Remember, handling conflict with negotiation is a skill as creating meaning in a marriage is an art. This ultimately is the secret sauce of all happy marriages.

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