For every minus, think of 5 positives

July 28, 2011 

Frank and Debra went out to dinner with a charming couple who had everything -- a loving family, a beautiful home, leisure, luxury.

"Why can't we be more like them?" she thought. Sure we aren't wealthy, but at least we could have intimacy.

Debra told Frank what she was feeling. He didn't want to hear it and went to bed, pulling a pillow over his head. She continued to talk.

Frank heard Debra's talk as a criticism of him. She was saying they weren't in tune with each other, but that was just code for "You're not in tune with me."

Frank and Debra had started a spiral of self-justification. They had turned into assassins, murdering their own marriage.

Let's rewrite the story of this evening, suggest psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in their book, "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me.)"

Suppose Frank had said on the drive home, "You know I realized tonight that even though we don't live in the luxury they do, I am awfully lucky to have you."

Suppose Debra had said, "Honey you didn't seem like yourself tonight. Are you feeling OK? Was there something about that couple that you didn't like?"

But they dug in -- they blamed each other's personality flaws. "It's only natural to want to talk when you're angry," Debra said. "I need to talk. I can't change."

Now of course she could change. If she had been stopped by a policeman or criticized by her boss, Tavris and Aronson point out, she wouldn't raise her voice.

Debra and Frank have begun the vicious cycle of blaming and shaming.

Contempt, not anger, is the emotion most destructive to a marriage, finds psychologist John Gottman in a study of 700 couples he followed a number of years to understand the causes of divorce.

What murders a marriage is not the quarrels and accusations. Quarreling happens in all marriages. My Uncle David told me what he most enjoyed about his marriage to my Aunt Dorothy is that she was feisty. She would fight with him.

But there is a tipping point. The partners must maintain the "magic ratio" of 5 to1.

This means that each partner must make at least five positive comments, expressing love, passion, and humor, for every one negative comment, like annoyance and complaint.

Once the marriage starts spiraling downward, a "confirmation bias" is triggered. Whatever the person does is interpreted as confirming negative traits.

One woman even told her therapist that she had started a "hate book" where she wrote down every complaint.

Gottman was able to predict divorce early in a marriage. He conducted 47 interviews of couples and three years later predicted with 100 percent accuracy the seven couples who would divorce.

Gottman could tell in the first interview which couples were headed for divorce because they had already started rewriting their history as a couple. They told despondent stories of getting married not because they loved each other but because it seemed like the natural thing to do. In their first interview, they discussed letdowns and disappointments in their marriage.

The couples in strong marriages, like the one Debra and Frank envied, took the position that every marriage had ups and downs and they had learned how to deal with problems.

I especially liked the way Charlie, happily married for 40 years, discussed how they had learned to compromise.

"I like to eat dinner at five. She likes to eat dinner at eight. We compromise -- we eat dinner at five to eight."


Judith Kleinfeld, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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