Adonis Diaries

“I can pick up bits of a 3-minute conversation and feel confident which relationship is in serious trouble…”

Posted on: August 1, 2012

“I can pick up bits of a 3-minute conversation and feel confident which relationship is in serious trouble…”

There is this psychologist who conducted an experiment that lasted 20 years. This experimenter thinks that:

1. Stable relationship of couples is necessary for the equilibrium in a community

2. He spent the best part of his life to discovering a model that would predict relationships in serious difficulties

3. He invited over 3,000 couples to the second floor of a psychology department

4. Each couple was to discuss for 15 minutes any topic that they think is an issue of contention

5. He and his trained assistants videotaped the couple, one camera focused on one individual

6. The couple had the opportunity to watch the video after the session, and invariably were shocked on how they sounded and how they projected in the discussion. (Very few of us had an opportunity to watch our discussions live, not a single one…)

7. He sliced the videotapes into seconds and assigned each emotion and feeling and facial expression into 20 categories of emotions such as Anger, Defensiveness, Whining, Sadness, Contempt, Stonewalling, Neutral…

8. He used a computer to save, sort out the data, and come out with a model for the relationships

9. Based on these data, a huge file, he hoped to assign a weight to each emotion that predicted failure or success of a relationship

10. He invested plenty of time and fund money to train assistants to view and review the videotapes and slice them into seconds and assign the emotions into the categories

After 20 years of labor, the researcher managed to select four key emotions that could predict a failure of a relationship over 7 and 15 years of marriage.

It turned out that three of the emotions were one too many. Only one emotion could definitely point to a failure: One of the member in the couple is showing contempt, a systematic habit of over lording it on the partner.

John Gottman says: “I can pick up bits of a 3-minute conversation and feel confident which relationship is in serious trouble…”

Contempt situations and contempt conditions seep through slices and bits of any conversation.

From the start of the chapter in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell I kept thinking: “Why all this trouble! Anyone should know that contempt is the sure killing emotion in any relationship…”

Gottman has proven that if he watched the conversation of a couple for 15 minutes, his success rate of prediction of a failure in the relationship is about 90% of the time.

Sybil Carriere, an assistant to Gottman, managed to reduce the conversation to just 3 minutes with the same 90% hit rate

The most critical discovery is that the same Signature of emotions emerge at every conversation between the couple: It is not a matter of bad timing, low-energy level or a harassing day or…that a conversation takes the wrong turn every time…

You know “it is contempt” when you hear one or see one. But how to create an operational process that enables a researcher to capture data of emotions “objectively”?

For example, when you hear slices of a conversation that says:

1. “I don’t want to argue about this issue…”

2. One closes his eyes while you are talking

3. One rolls his eyes as you explain

4. One partner refuses to give you credits for your efforts

5. One of the partner keeps cutting you off…

Actually, Gottman learned to define an emotion from facial expressions: He didn’t need to listen to the videotape to identify specific emotions.

I still have problems with this research:

1. Implicitly, what is observed and counted as a hit is a divorce materializing with the couple. Divorce is the tip of the iceberg in the failure of a relationship. Far more relationships are dead in the first month and the couple never even separate. Divorcing is a harsh decision that not many can afford, financially or emotionally.  What if the extended family members refuse you visit them or talk to them if your relationship ends up in a divorce? What if the State social institutions have no facilities to rescue you for a few months after a divorce?…

2. Even in developed countries with many social facilities, divorce in not the norm. Married couples have great difficulties overcoming the inertia of years of living together…

3. If we can define “failure” in many other forms than divorce, it is obvious that success in relationships are very rare. If for every negative emotion we show we are to compensate with 7 positive emotions, I don-t see how any relationship can survive the turmoil of the living…We are asking for a tremendous effort of goodwill from one partner…

We really do not need to elaborate on all the negative emotions we let come across to know that relationships are meant to fail very shortly and in every society.

Note: John Gottman is a psychologist by training who studied mathematics at MIT. He published a 500-page treatise “The Mathematics of Divorce“.. Since 1980, more than 3,000 couples entered the “Love Lab” near the Univ. of Washington campus. The data of the research were analyzed and coded in the system SPAFF (Spedific Affect)

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August 2012

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