According to Dr John Gottman, interactive behavior matters a great deal. He discovered that the “masters” of relationships (couples that stayed together happily) were much gentler with one another than the “disasters”of relationships. The ratio of the number of seconds of positive-to-negative emotions during conflict for the disasters averaged 0.8, and for the masters averaged 5.0. There was far more positive than negative affect even during a conflict discussion for the masters. That 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative emotions in a conflict discussion jumped out of the pages of his statistical analyses. Thus he saw what he called “the triumph of negative over positive affect,” which determined the influence functions in his math model of relationships.
I sometimes hear clinicians saying, “I’m not sure that the Oral History Interview is a useful way to begin couples therapy”; or “Couples don’t want to talk about their history, they want to get straight into resolving conflict”. This is certainly not my experience. The Oral History Interview generally helps the couple to put their current issues into a larger perspective. I often hear couples say, “You know as we talk about this I’m realising that we have had a pretty good relationship”; or “Things between us have generally been good”. Of course there are also those who say things like “I’m really not sure why we stayed together.”
According to research conducted by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, there are seven distinct “emotional command systems” believed to be present in each person’s brain. Each command system coordinates the emotional, behavioral, and physical responses needed for certain functions related to survival, including rest, procreation, and self-defense.
John Gottman has given these systems descriptive labels to help us understand how each one functions. As he explains in The Relationship Cure, acknowledging emotional similarities and differences in your relationships is an important part of bidding and responding to bids for emotional connection.
Tom and Evette presented for therapy 8 weeks after Tom had discovered that Evette had been involved with another man from her workplace. At the time of their presentation Evette has refused to discuss the affair with Tom, simply saying that “It’s over, stop going on about it.” Tom is understandably angry and hostile towards Evette. He is frustrated that Evette will not discuss the affair saying frequently, “I have a right to know!” Tom has hundreds of questions that he wants answers to while Evette is “scared” to talk about it because she is sure talking about it will make things worse.
As most couples begin to address the consequences of an affair their relationship does not feel safe and trust is completely destroyed. It is therefore critical that therapists working with these clients create a safe, trusting environment for them firstly in the therapy room and eventually in their own homes.
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