KEEPING IT TOGETHER

By Shirley Barnes Special to the Tribune August 2, 1998 SEATTLE --

Most couples bent on beating the divorce odds have never heard of John Gottman.

His nine-page list of accomplishments, tracking his weighty impact on the growing marriage education field, tells some of the story.

So does an article in Psychology Today, which stacked Gottman's academic credentials up against those of John Gray, the oft-quoted author of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." Gottman has formally studied 760 couples, some for as long as 20 years, Gray none. Gottman has written 109 articles in marriage and family journals, Gray none.

A visit to Gottman's "love lab" on the University of Washington campus, where he's professor of psychology, sheds even more light on why he's worth knowing.

Forget the X rating. The love lab is a small, dark room with a pair of high-backed, upholstered chairs about eight feet apart, a video camera trained on each. Here volunteer couples, hooked up to a rack of sensors registering everything from their sweat output to how much their chairs jiggle, discuss a hot-button issue in their marriage. A jumble of computers across the hall collects the data.

The lab is Gottman's pride, the only one of its kind in the country, he claims.

Gottman and his graduate assistants massage the data, a painstaking process, and examine the videos for as many as 2,000 facial expressions, each sending a message. The love lab project is one of scores of scientific studies he has completed, tracking couples and families for more than two decades.

Other researchers, most notably Howard Markman and Scott Stanley of the University of Denver, deserve equal credit for identifying what makes good marriages work and bad marriages fail. Their research has exploded many of the myths. It's not sex, money or how many fights you have that make for a happy union. Marriage-wise couples aren't afraid to accept influence from each other. They connect on a daily basis in many small ways, think about their partner periodically when they're apart, take time-outs to soothe tempers, use humor as a coolant in arguments and have softer start-ups when fighting. Even in conflict, their ratio of positive to negative actions -- from a simple "mmmmh" or "yeah" to a pat on the arm -- are 5 to 1 as opposed to 0.8 to 1 for unstable marriages.

The best news is that couples -- from pre-marrieds to over 60s -- can learn to be happily married by practicing the skills that come naturally to stable couples.

The result is a whole new industry: skills-based marriage education courses. Advocates hope such courses will become as commonplace as birthing classes are for prospective parents. They're beginning to make a dent. The Florida state legislature passed a law in May mandating such courses for all 9th and 10th graders, the first state to do so.

Adult adaptations of the divorce prevention courses are designed to help couples at all stages -- stable or distressed -- including stepfamilies, newlyweds, new parents, retired or dual-career couples and pairs dealing with such issues as sexual dysfunction or substance abuse.

Traditional marital therapy is "the culture of nailing people," says Gottman, whose office blackboard tracks the seminars, clinics and media appearances he makes around the country.

"People go and get nailed by their therapist. It's a very adversarial experience. All that has to be turned around," he says, while emphasizing the need for continuing research to determine which marriage-education courses or marriage therapy work the best. He proposes a national $50 million study to do just that.

"What we have to develop is a culture where the Hell's Angel viper walks out of marital therapy feeling respected and honored and so does the accountant and the scientist and the bricklayer and reporter," he says.

"Marriage therapy should be as big an industry as exercise and dieting in this country, but it isn't," says Gottman, who started a skills-based "Marriage Survival Weekend" with his therapist wife, Julie, last year at the Seattle Marital and Family Institute. He'll have a book out next year with the same title.

"We want couples (at the end of the weekend) to walk out holding hands, talking about having the best lovemaking that night that they've had in 10 years," says Gottman, explaining that one of the purposes of the weekend is to help pairs realize that they have a lot of strengths in their relationship.

As to why traditional marriage therapy has failed to curb the divorce rate, Gottman says: "The psychological community has done a very bad job of marketing, especially to men. Men want to see options. They want a very clear statement of how much it's going to cost and how much time it's going to take, sort of like when you bring your car in to a good mechanic. He says right up front, `I can replace the transmission for $1,200 or rebuild it for $800.' That's what guys want to hear.

"Whereas right now marital therapy is kind of like going into a restaurant where the waiter brings you a menu that says FOOD and there's no price. You don't know how much it's going to cost, and you don't know what you're going to get," says Gottman.

"Most people going through a divorce won't go to a therapist because they say, `I'm not crazy. I don't need a therapist,' " says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, whose mission is to spur support among policy makers, educators, judges and the public for more skills-based marriage education courses.

Sollee explains that couples seeking help typically wait six years from the time storm clouds surface in their marriage before asking for any kind of professional advice. By then it's often too late. Even more likely, they don't seek help at all, not even from their clergy, according to studies that show from 5 to 25 percent of divorcing couples have never had counseling of any kind.

Marriage-education courses make exercises out of stable couples' typical behaviors. Even intangibles such as passion and commitment -- what to do if a good-looking secretary quickens your pulse -- have been broken down into "skills," says Sollee.

She calls Gottman's research "fundamental" in the field but laments the fact that too few people have heard about the many marriage education courses now available. Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, Relationship Enhancement and Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills and Couple Communications are among the most widely known.

Sollee, who has taken the most popular courses to find how they differ, is heartened that the skills taught "are pretty much the same."

Sollee hopes more people will take notice of research proving that such courses can save marriages. She and Gottman describe the high costs of divorve: heart attacks, depression, teen suicides, substance abuse, $9 billion in lost work time.

"Throw out everything about marriage therapy, marriage counseling, group therapy or premarital counseling you've ever thought of," says Sollee. "That's not what we're talking about. Marriage education is more like parenting education."

The skills-based courses are far more affordable than traditional therapy: from free for courses taught in a church basement to an average of $350 for the most populuar courses.

They're most frequently taught in a classroom, a less intimidating environment than a therapist's couch, says Sollee, who finds teaching the skills to individual couples doesn't work as well. "Every example I use, they assume I've sized them up. Their defenses get in the way. But in a classroom with 40 people with all the women laughing at the same point and all the men grunting at the same point, you don't take it personally. You learn better," says Sollee. Participants give only their first name, she says, and are not asked to reveal any relationship horror stories.

"If you're living with someone, sharing everything -- from the bathroom to the babies to the money to the bank account -- you're going to have disagreements," she says, pointing out that was one of the most important discoveries of long-term marriage research. All couples fight. In marriage-education courses, they're taught to welcome conflict as a healthy part of love.

"If someone stops disagreeing with you, check their pulse. Or check to see if they're having an affair. They're disagreeing with their mistress," warns Sollee. The core to marriage education is developing effective methods for resolving conflicts.

Sollee says she'll know her work is done when she can ask a seatmate on a plane going to her son or daughter's wedding, `Which marriage education course did they take?' and "She won't look at me as if I were nuts."

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For information about marriage-education courses in your community, contact Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education info@smartmarriages.com.
 

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