UW News

February 20, 1998

Husband’s willingness to be influenced by wife, share power are key predictors of newlywed happiness, stability, UW study shows

From the boardroom to the bedroom, we’ve all heard that pop counseling phrase: “So, what I hear you saying is…”

Well now hear this: According to a study published in this month’s Journal of Marriage and the Family. such Active Listening techniques may fall on deaf ears where the success of a marriage is concerned.

Marriage therapy guru and University of Washington Psychology Professor Dr. John Gottman may have turned traditional marriage counseling protocol on its head with the release of his recent study which says successful marriages have far more to do with husbands yielding to the influences of their wives, than with spouses trying to recite what they think they heard during an argument.

“This was the biggest revelation we’ve had about how conflicts are best resolved in successful marriages. Our analysis suggested that active listening occurred very infrequently in marital conflict resolution and its use didn’t predict marital success.

“We expected that active listening would predict positive outcomes in marriages-we have even recommended this type of conflict intervention with couples in the past,” said Gottman, who has studied marriages and families for more than 25 years.

The study, entitled “Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions,” followed 130 newlyweds for six years to explore the ways in which couples interact that may lead to divorce, and to build a model that describes not just what is “dysfunctional” when a marriage is ailing, but also what is “functional” when a marriage works well. James Coan, Sybil Carrere, and Catherine Swanson, also of the University of Washington, co-authored the study. At the only Marriage Laboratory in the country, Gottman and his staff use video cameras to track details of exchanges between couples as they interact during their daily routines.

To deal with the surprise findings about active listening, the investigators reanalyzed data from this study and another group of subjects that has been followed for the past 13 years. They examined in detail every video tape and transcript of every stable happy couple.

What they found was that these successfully married couples did not often use active listening techniques such as paraphrasing their spouses, or summarizing their partner’s feelings or content of their statements. They also almost never validated their spouse’s feelings.

“Active listening is unnatural for couples to do,” said Gottman. “People may do it at times, but as a means to resolve issues, active listening requires too much of people in the midst of conflict. Asking that of couples is like requiring emotional gymnastics.”

The effect of a husband’s willingness to accept influence from his spouse, however, was a significant predictor for a successful marriage, according to Gottman’s study.

“We found that only those newlywed men who are accepting of influence from their wives are winding up in happy, stable marriages,” said Gottman. “Getting husbands to share power with their wives, by accepting some of the demands she makes, is critical in helping to resolve conflict.”

Gottman said in the study that the wife usually brings marital issues up for discussion, and she usually also presents an analysis of the problem and suggested solutions. Men who are able to accept their spouses’ ideas are more likely to maintain a successful relationship.

Gottman said this study also confirmed results of two earlier studies (Gottman, 1994, 19xx) that found that anger itself is not a destructive emotion in marriages, but that four processes dubbed. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and “stonewalling,” during marital conflict reliably did predict divorce.

However, Gottman said the real drama of the research is the finding that showed that gentleness, compassion, and physiological soothing of partners are key ingredients that enable marriages to succeed.

“What this research teaches us is that marriage counselors need to abandon the Active Listening model. Instead, they must work with couples on changing the manner in which a conflict is started by softening the initial approach that most often is from women, and changing the balance of power in the relationship, so that men are more willing to accept influence from their wives,” Gottman explained.

The researchers feel these new approaches to conflict in marital therapy are psychologically less taxing than those now being taught to distressed couples, and that relapses after therapy will also be less likely.

“With this research, we’re learning from the experts,” Gottman said. “We’re building a new marital therapy by observing and studying the way people normally go about the process of staying happily married, rather than by extending traditional psychotherapy methods to marital interventions.”

The Journal of Marriage and the Family is the leading research journal on the family. Published quarterly by the National Council on Family Relations, the Journal features original research and theory, research interpretation and reviews, critical discussions concerning all aspects of marriage and the family, and timely book reviews. For more information on the Journal, toll free at 888-781-9331.