Gary Cooper   in the May/June   Family Therapy Networker

   It's not often that a longitudinal study on marital interactions
gets the kind of national media attention that University of Washington
researcher John Gottman received when his article appeared when the
Journal of Marriage and the Family ran his most recent article in
its February issue. The Washington Post announced that Gottman's
6-year study of the ups and downs of 130 newlyweds had resulted
in a "counseling theory that may rock the marriage therapists'
boat." In a front page story, the LA Times said that Gottman's
study suggests that "the widespread use ofactive listening in
marital counseling--a field already beset by sharp philosophical
division--should be abandoned." Even beyond the popular media,
the study set off alarm bells and debates among therapists that
are still reverberating.

Gottman's study was the latest installment in his 20-yearground-
breaking investigation of the connections between the ways
couples handle conflicts and their level of marital satisfaction.
Widely regarded as one of the most respected researchers of
couples' interactions, Gottman's work on predicting divorce
and marital satisfaction through behavioral, verbal and physio-
logical interactional patterns, and his procedures for coding
those patterns, have contributed a staggering amount of data to
the field. "I've said before that I'd nominate him for a Nobel
Prize if they offered one in studying marital relationships,"
says Bernard Guerney, director of the National Institute of
relationship Enhancement.

Gottman's latest study was part of his ongoing attempt to
describe relational patterns shared by successfully married
couples. Suggesting that marital therapy's high relapse rate is
due to therapists working with models derived from insufficiently
empirical data and from assumptions transplanted from individual
psychotherapy, Gottman set out to examine a variety of therapeutic
theories concerning marriage: that anger is necessarily destructive
and that successful marriages depend upon the ability of both
partners to recognize their childhood wounds. He also wondered
whether active listening, "the model which forms the basis of most
complex multi-component marital treatments," really leads to
better marriages.

Directly observing couples, whom he calls "the masters and
disasters of marriage," Gottman's team videotaped the verbal
and behavioral patterns and monitored the physiological stress
responses of 130 couples as they discussed conflictual issues.
In addition to testing the hypothesis,developed through his earlier
studies, that marital outcomes can be predicted by measuring the
male's physiological stress reaction when the female initiates criticism
or begins an argument, Gottman also tested the predictive accuracy
of other patterns that therapists have assumed lead to either divorce
or satisfaction-- whether the corrosiveness of anger predicts
divorce, for instance, or whether active listening predicts marital
satisfaction or success. After following the couples' marriages for
six years, Gottman found that the only accurate predictions of both
positive andnegative marital outcome resulted from measuring the
male's level of distress in the face of the female's perceived
criticism or argumentativeness. Thus, a harmonious, lasting marriage
is one in which, when the female initiates negativity, the male reacts
with reduced physiological stress. Based upon this finding, Gottman
suggested marital therapists should help couples focus on a model of
the woman "softening her nagative start-up" and the male reacting
with humor, affection or compromise--a pattern designed to reduce
his stress levels.

Gottman was "astonished" to find that active listening was barely
present in successful relationships and wondered whether therapists
ought to spend much time teaching it. But psychologist Howard Markman,
developer of PREP, another marital psychoeducational model, says
that Gottman's analysis of active listening sets up a "straw man."
Insisting it's irrelevant whether happy couples use it, Markman
says, "We use it to help couples disrupt the negative patterns that
predict divorce." Guerney, saying that Gottman defines active listening
as a kind of mechanistic paraphrasing, objects to being identified as
a proponent of this type of communication, pointing out that his
empathic- response model involves genuine emotional connection
within the communication. Gottman himself insists that he's no enemy
of active listening, pointing out that he will continue to use it in his m
arital workshops. "Of course active listening can have an impact," he
says. "I'm just saying it doesn't predict anything longitudinally and
that couples who have successful relationships don't
use it all that much."

The reason Gottman's findings have generated such debate may have
more to do with his media relations than his science. The popular media
like nothing better than to turn a study mentioning mediocre marital therapy
success into a controversial pronouncement about the efficacy of traditional
therapy methods. Even a press release from his own University of Washington
announced, "Gottman may have turned traditional marriage counseling
protocol on its head." When he talks with the press, says Diane Sollee,
director of the Coalition for Marriages, Families and Couples Education,
"John might sometimes forget he's not talking to other therapists," and
doesn't sufficiently highlight the nuances of his data and the shading of
his conclusions. Then therapists react to what they see as a negative
start-up, and the stress level starts spiraling.

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