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Keeping Lid On It, Among Other Things, Builds Marriage

Sun., June 1, 1997

Call it the toilet-seat theory of romance. Whether a man puts the toilet seat down holds a major clue to the success of a marriage: It is a sign that he understands and respects his wife’s needs and is open to the kind of giving and taking of influence that leads to long-term marital stability.

Contrary to popular belief, says Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, it is the mundane events of everyday life that build love in marriage. Connecting in the countless “mindless moments” that usually go by unnoticed establishes a positive emotional climate.

That protects partners, helping them to ignore the irritability that typically accompanies a spouse’s complaints. In short, it puts a natural cap on the fights that are virtually inevitable in relationships.

With the aid of videotape and sensors that monitor people’s bodily responses, Gottman has spent 25 years scrutinizing what actually goes on in marriages. He has followed 670 couples, from newlyweds to retirees, for up to 14 years. He recently reported his surprising findings at the first conference of the Coalition of Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a newly formed group of counselors and educators.

At the four-day meeting in Arlington, Va., dozens of pioneers in marriage education described new approaches to curtailing family breakdown, not by making divorce more difficult but by making marriage more satisfying.

Only 20 percent of divorces are caused by an affair, Gottman said; “Most marriages die with a whimper, as people turn away from one another, slowly growing apart.”

The meeting recognized a directional shift that has been building largely unnoticed for more than a decade: teaching people how to prevent distress long before it starts.

Marriage education not only immunizes couples against disappointment and despair, said Dr. Howard Markman, a psychologist at the University of Denver, it also prevents the development of problems that are costly to children and all of society. Mismanaged conflict, he said, predicts both marital distress and negative health effects on children.

Contradicting Tolstoy’s famous dictum (“Happy families are all alike”), he emphasized that “there are many ways to have a happy marriage, but only a few ways marriages go bad.”

Having a good relationship is a skill, and the heart of the skill involves ways of speaking, and especially ways of listening to a partner’s concerns without counterattacking or defending one’s own innocence.

Tags: research

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