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Relationship Maintenance - Maintaining Stability

theory history negative gottman partners positive

For many people, relational longevity equals success. Certainly, silver and golden wedding anniversaries symbolize success. They also reflect years of interaction patterns that have somehow led to stability. Perhaps the most widely cited research with regard to predicting stability comes from the work of John Gottman (1994). Gottman emphasizes behaviors that determine whether or not a couple gets divorced.

Gottman's (1994) theory of marital success versus failure reflects a causal process model that specifies alternative paths that satisfied versus dissatisfied married partners take. Specifically, Gottman argues that marital partners' negative message behavior causes a shift in perceptions of each other that lead to unfavorable beliefs about the partner. In particular, negative message behavior (e.g., sarcasm, accusations) predicts relational instability; conversely, the ratio of positive-to-negative messages indicates stability. Whereas stable couples have a 5:1 positive-to-negative message ratio, unstable couples enact a 1:1 positive-tonegative message ratio. Unstable couples, however, exhibit an equal number of positive and negative messages. According to Gottman, negative conflict behaviors lead to negative emotional reactions. Called the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," these four behaviors are deadly and are believed to occur in a general sequence; initially, partners complain/criticize, which leads to contempt, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to stonewalling (Gottman 1994).

Differences between stable and unstable couples also are evident in the attributions made regarding partners' negative behavior (Gottman 1994). For example, stable partners rely on positive or benign attributions to explain negative behaviors (e.g., he is tired, she has been under a lot of pressure). Unstable partners, on the other hand, explain the causes of their problems using hostile attributions, or explanations that reflect internal, stable, global, and intentional features of the partner (e.g., he is self-centered, which also explains why he never calls when he is late). Once hostile attributions are in place, partners tend to distance themselves from one another, re-cast the history of the marriage, and, finally, separate.

The primary strategies for maintaining stability would be to use cooperative messages, avoid negative reciprocity, and attempt to explain the partner's negative behavior using benign attributions. If one cannot alter defensive beliefs about the partner, then the assistance of a marital counselor, therapist, or spiritual leader would appear to be in order.


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