Gottman’s Influenced Stable Steady State, Negative Affect Reciprocity, and Repair

John Gottman says, in his book The Marriage Clinic, that there are basically two things that make the difference between couples who stay together and those who do not. First is what he calls the partners’ “uninfluenced stable steady states,” which are a result of the temperament of each partner plus the history of the relationship.  The second is the partners’ “influenced stable steady state,” which is the emotional direction that each partner takes, once they are interacting.

If the way you feel and act worsens when interacting with your partner–that is, if your influenced steady state is more negative than your uninfluenced steady state–you may well be heading for a divorce. The crucial question is, how much negativity from your partner does it take to turn your mood negative? If you can respond in a positive way to your partner, regardless of their mood or complaint, that’s a real strength. If you respond in a negative way, this is trouble. Negativity will tend to escalate in each conversation and throughout your relationship. Gottman says that if you cannot maintain a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative interactions at worst (that is, during conflict) you are heading towards (or are in) an unhappy relationship. If you dip below a 1 to 1 ratio, you are heading toward divorce.

“Negative affect reciprocity” is a closely-related pattern that Gottman says is the best predictor of happy or unhappy couples. (“Affect,” remember, is just a science-y word for emotion.) The extent to which you are more likely than usual to be negative when your partner is negative (as opposed to when your partner is neutral or positive), you are showing negative affect reciprocity. This could look a lot of ways, like responding to anger with your own anger, responding to criticism with stonewalling or defensiveness, responding to sadness with irritation, and so on.

Gottman says that negative interactions are inevitable, so what he calls “successful repair attempts” are all-important. That is, emotional repairs such as humor, taking responsibility, compromise, and soothing, must be offered, recognized, and accepted. When couples can recognize and accept all of each other’s repair attempts, he says, they are finished with therapy.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, February 12, 2011.]

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Congruent & Incongruent Communication, Paradox & Double Bind

Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, June 12, 2010.]

Virginia Satir and Requests

I’m reading Virginia Satir’s Conjoint Family Therapy. She was this amazing, giant, super-loving woman, one of the founders of the field of family therapy–kind of the Julia Child of family therapy. I’m learning her style of therapy, possibly in part because I was introduced to her work very young, maybe 11 or 12. My mom bought me Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was my first introduction to going meta on communication–thinking and talking about communication, a very useful skill, possibly the central skill of a therapist.

I’m really enjoying reading the original Satir. One of her (many) assertions is that pretty much any time you say anything you are making a request. It could be a request for any number of behaviors, but ultimately they are all requests for some kind of validation. The difference between functional and dysfunctional communication is how overt your requests are. Here’s one of her examples (p. 86):

Functional:

“Let’s see a movie,” or even better, “I would like to see a movie with you.”

Dysfunctional:

“You would like to see a movie, wouldn’t you.”

“It would do you good to see a movie.”

“If you want to see a movie, we’ll see one.”

“We might as well see a movie. It’s Saturday night.”

“There’s a new movie house down the street.”

“My voices are ordering me to see a movie.”

Dysfunctional requests require decoding. If both the sender and receiver of the communication are clear about the codes they use, this is fine, but in general, the more decoding required, the more trouble you get into.

The problem is, if you make a clear request, you can be clearly denied your request. You make yourself vulnerable by saying “Let’s see a movie,” or “Do you like me?” because the answer could be “No.” Unless your self-esteem is quite high, a “No” hurts.

If you send a code, say, “There’s a new movie house down the street,” you can pretend that you’re not putting yourself out there. If your receiver says, “I don’t want to see a movie,” you can say, “What do you mean? I was just commenting on the new building.” Or your receiver can say “No” in code, maybe, “Yeah, that place looks like a dump.” Then things are really fuzzy. You don’t know if they decoded your message accurately, and they don’t know if your message was coded in the first place. It might feel like protection–it might even be protection–but it’s confusing and it lacks intimacy.

Why do we code our requests? We learn to. Maybe we’ve learned not to trust our receiver with a vulnerable request–the way they responded to such requests in the past have been painful. Or maybe it’s just habit, left over from accumulated painful experiences from our younger years. It could be part of your family’s culture, and uncoded requests seem harsh or demanding.

Try watching your communication. How coded is it? How do you feel when you imagine speaking in less coded requests? And try being vulnerable. Try to do even better than Satir’s, “I would like to see a movie with you.” Unpack it more. If you can say with honesty, “Hey, I really like you and I’d like to spend time with you tonight, watching a movie. What do you say?” then do it!

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, April 24, 2010.]