Happy Couples Use Humor, Soft Approach

Marriage counselors often tell warring partners to engage in "active listening" to save their marriage, but a new report suggests that happy couples rarely relate to one another in this way. Active listening is the technique in which a spouse voices an opinion and their partner paraphrases and repeats the opinion and then "validates" their view -- saying "I can understand why this would make you upset," for example.

The results are from a new study in which researchers followed 130 newlyweds over six years and looked at the relationship factors that helped to produce a strong marriage. Despite being heavily promoted by marriage counselors as the path to a stable marriage, active listening was rarely used by couples that weren't having any problems. Instead, other types of conflict resolution appeared to be more important in predicting a successful marriage.

In most couples, a wife would raise an issue and suggest a solution and the husband would respond. In the more successful couples, the wife raised an issue in a non-negative manner -- a softened "start-up" -- and the husband was more willing to accept the influence of his mate. In happy, stable couples the man was more likely to de-escalate tension rather than responding in an increasingly negative manner, and the wife more likely to use humor to soothe her husband. Anger alone did not predict divorce, and destructive ways of resolving conflict included using contempt, belligerence, and defensiveness in an interaction with a spouse.

The researchers found that only those newlywed men who are accepting of influence from their wives are winding up in happy, stable marriages. Getting husbands to share power with their wives by accepting some of the demands she makes, is critical in helping to resolve conflict. Men who seemed to have difficulty accepting their spouse's influence included those who scored higher on tests of hostility, those who smoked or regularly used cocaine, those who tended to dominate their wife in discussions, those who were shorter, and those who were more active in one-on-one competitive sports.

But a relationship is a two-way street. Only those women who avoided a negative start-up had happy, stable marriages,. It's still not clear if the factors that make a successful marriage can be used to repair a damaged relationship. However, if this is found to be true, therapists may need to abandon the active listening model for more useful solutions.

The view recommends a model of marital therapy based on gentleness, on a softened start-up by the wife, on the male's acceptance of influence, of de-escalation of low-intensity negativity by the male, high ratios of positivity to negativity, and the use of positive affect by both partners to de-escalate conflict and to physiologically soothe the male.

Journal of Marriage and the Family 1998;60

Dr. Mercola's Comment:

Healthy marriages are one of the keys to physical and emotional wellness. Dr. Gottman is one of the best in the business. I would encourage anyone reading this article who is married or cares for someone who is married to read this article several times. It can have a huge impact on health. Another book that I STRONGLY recommend to couples is "Fighting for Your Marriage" by Markman, Stanley and Blumberg. The authors have worked with Dr. Gottman. The book provides some very practical communication strategies.

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