Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Making Love Last: The Ins and Outs of Keeping It Together

The big challenge explained

Imagine a pop album: Psychology’s Greatest Hits: Insights Gone Viral! One of the cuts, at least from an album celebrating recent hits, would have to be John Gottman’s “Positive to negative ratio of .8.”

In case you haven’t bene exposed to that virus, it’s that marriages survive when 80%, or four out of five interactions, are positive—only one negative interaction for every four positive ones.

Gottman identifies four causes of negative interactions, his “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” In the Gottman Institute’s words:

Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: “You’re an idiot.”

Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”

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Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.

Gottman’s is a love song but I think it can be re-spun as a work song, a children’s song, a teaching song, a song of friendship--really a song about all kinds of fragile yet potentially sustainable relationships that matter to us. Here I’ll flesh out a few of the theory’s implications and end with one application to illustrate ways to extend it to other kinds of relationships:

Why so high?

Cost-benefit analysis is another greatest hit in psychology, a cross-genre number lifted from economics’ greatest hits:  We tend to do things when benefits outweigh the costs, which implies that anything more than 50% positive is sustainable. Played back-to-back, Gottman and cost-benefit sound discordant.  Why do you need 80% positives when cost-benefit analysis suggests that you’d only need 51%?  It seems especially odd that marriage would need that high a ratio, since marriage is our most complete commitment to sustainable relationship, other than perhaps childrearing (you can become an ex-spouse but never and ex-parent), and devout religious faith (a pledge of eternal commitment to God). 

The answer, I’m guessing is that marriage is a peculiarly severe game of “mutual assured deconstruction” played at very intimate range, deconstruction here meaning the dismantling of your overall sense of being an A-OK grand person doing just fine.

Past the honeymoon period, you can’t hide facets of yourself.  You can’t sustain your on-stage performance at home. You partner sees you backstage, naked, drunk, bored, restless, dull, cranky, and foolish, going to the bathroom, even in some cases farting.  You can’t be together for any length of time without your partner seeing you make really dumb mistakes. You just can’t hide. They’ve got the goods on you and at close range can deconstruct you handily.

And, as positive psychologists note, most of us have at least a latent tendency toward self-deconstruction, generalizing from particular flaws to fatal flaws, from “I did this one thing bad” to “I’m bad.”

This tendency to generalize hangs over intimacy like Damocles’ sword, especially because of the high expectations that romantic love cultivates.  We enter partnership hoping for a haven of exceptionality, a partner who believes we are a cut above the rest of humankind’s rabble.In partnership we create a mutual admiration society and hope that our partner will always see us admiringly. So when we sense our partner’s first twitch of disappointment in us we can’t help but wonder whether the show is over, and that they’ll soon see us as unexceptional after all. We notice how vulnerable we’ve allowed ourselves to become. 

All relationships have the potential for mutual assured deconstruction to some degree or another.  One sharp criticism can be enough to end a friendship or make one guarded with a boss or child.  But marriage is an extreme case both for the intimacy and the equality of it.  A boss may chide you but that’s her prerogative. A parent can scold a child and get away with it since the child is a subordinate.  At close range in an equal relationship both parties have less incentive to put up with the horsemen. That’s what makes the mutual assured deconstruction so mutual. 

The mutuality is an incentive to bite your tongue in egalitarian relationships, but it also means that once a partner has unleashed his or her tongue, there will be blood. You can’t afford to sit there being criticized without criticizing back, whether explicitly or implicitly.  Fights between equals often fall into what I call “Infallibility contests,” two parties generalizing the other’s flaws, as though they were always right and their partner always wrong. 

Ambiguity and inevitability:

It would be nice if criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling were as easily and objectively measured as height. Gottman has made great strides in operationalizing them, but since his big question is whether a relationship will stay together he doesn’t have to wonder as much about what spurred the horsemen or who started it.

In practice, the horsemen are rarely so easy to call, and how the horsemen trotted into the relationship is often open and very live question.  Humans are inventive communicators. We find all sorts of ingenious ways to get our messages across, but no more so than with the horsemen.  We have way more ways to express contempt than Eskimos have words for snow, mostly invented to get our contempt across under the radar, so it’s felt but not attackable.

And anyway egalitarian relationship is give and take. Negotiating the give and take always entails setting and pushing boundaries, saying “I’ll give here but not there,” and “Aw come on, you really ought to give there also.” Gottman is ultimately measuring how strident the negotiation has gotten, the horsemen just symptoms of escalated unresolved negotiation. Of course, failure to reach agreement in give and take negotiation makes a relationship unstable, but who’s at fault remains an open question.

Many of us are hypersensitive, reading slights where none was intended. Some of us expect more give than we can get, our frustration unabated, our expectations maladjusted to reality.  The silent spouse may be stonewalling or may just have found that the only way to survive his or her spouse’s persistently unrealistic demands is to weather them silently.

God only knows whether it’s stonewalling or weathering, and since He doesn’t exist or despite claims to the contrary none of us have privileged access to His absolute adjudication, we’re left to guess who dragged the horsemen into the negotiation. From childhood bickering to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, to World War I—it’s often hard to figure out who cast the first stone from which glass house.

Only three ways to keep the ratio high

There are only three ways to reduce friction in relationships:

  1. Compatibility
  2. Negotiated incompatibility
  3. Distance (physical or psychic space)

Compatibilities are the most fundamental lubricant.  When partners want the same thing it’s easy. There’s no give or take, because you both want to give and take the same things.

Negotiation is nonetheless inevitable. There will be points of disagreement about what to do together.  Gottman focuses here and well he should.  Couples do best when they have compatibility in how they negotiate the incompatibilities.

And where negotiations appear fruitless, there’s often an alternative. Let the gears slip.  Give each other space to do your thing independently.

Perceived stonewalling is often just a partner’s proposal that negotiation end and distance begins, a way of saying “Let’s agree to disagree, since neither of us seem willing to give more or take less on this issue.”

These three friction-reducers translate into three ways to keep your positives-to-negatives ratio up above 80%:

  1. Compatibility: Make sure there are lots and lots of positive interactions.
  2. Negotiation: Agree more, give more, bite your tongue more to make sure there are very few negative interactions.
  3. Distance:  Be more oblivious. Overlook ignore or otherwise miss any negatives flying your way.  Let them fly but under your radar, so you don’t even notice them.

All of these can work, but come at a cost.  When they don’t come naturally, producing high numbers of positive interactions, or biting your tongue can take exhausting time and effort. And obliviousness can ultimately mean ignoring your partner in ways that in the long run are dangerous. Many exes regret how much they overlooked. Many exes are disappointed that they weren’t really seen or heard by their exes, not just the negatives overlooked but the positives too.

Still what else have you got? These are the three options available to you, your attention largely focused on the crossover from the second to the third option, from persisting in negotiation, even though it can breed negativity or taking at least psychic space with all the risks that it entails.

The teacher’s paradox

I’m interested in Gottman applied to other relationships beyond romantic partnership. This article is already too long so I won’t illustrate all the possible applications, but just one I know well.

I’ve been a teacher for the past 10 years.  A teacher’s role is ambiguous. In a way he’s the student’s boss, the final arbiter on such things as grades.  In a way though he’s also the student’s employee. They pay his salary and if they’re displeased they can get you fired. 

It’s one reason teachers are given tenure, added stability in an otherwise tenuously ambiguous position.  But as more colleges suffer “adjuncitvitis” swelling their ranks with dime-a-dozen temp-worker adjunct professors easily replaced should they become the least bit inconvenient, the tenuousness is at an all-time high.

Given this live ambiguity, teacher/student relationships are almost as egalitarian as partnerships, but with less loyalty to maintain than a marriage. Generally teacher/student relationships last for just one course and then it’s over, which means there’s more room to take space (I only have to put up with this for a while), but also more room for the horsemen (I don’t have to put up with this crap).

There are the compatible student/teacher relationships, the students’ goals and performance well in line with their teachers’ expectations.  And there are the incompatible student/teacher relationships, students, for example who expect more, for less effort than the teacher is willing to give. 

As in partnership the action is at the cross from negotiation to distance, here played out in a student’s or teacher’s transition from collaborative negotiation to pulling rank, the student as employer; the teacher as boss. Either can read the transition as a horseman’s entrance, a student showing contempt by accusing a teacher falsely to the administration; a teacher stonewalling a student by giving a bad grade or accusing him falsely to the administration. The threat of mutual assured deconstruction hangs over pedagogy’s ambiguously egalitarian relationship too.

I don’t mean to resolve this tension here, but merely to describe, explain and understand it.  I mean what else have you got? I see the three options playing out in all sorts of relationships. It’s the stuff on which game theory was built.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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