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.”
In Predicting Divorce from the Oral History Interview (1992), John Gottman and his colleagues found that the Marital Disappointment/Disillusionment dimension was the most powerful single predictor of divorce. This dimension on the Oral History Interview attempts to capture how depressed, hopeless, or defeated a spouse may sound when talking about their marriage (or about marriage in general). In the interview, people who scored high in Disappointment/Disillusionment sometimes said that they didn’t know what makes a marriage work because all they’d seen or experienced were bad ones!
While other couples were less blunt about their disappointment with marriage, they instead sounded disappointed or sad about specific aspects of their relationship. Some couples mentioned that they had unrealistic expectations about what marriage would be like. A number of participants in the study actually attempted to advise the interviewer about marriage, revealing their regret and displeasure with their own union.
Additionally, both partner’s presence or lack of “we-ness” during an oral history interview is a strong indicator of whether a couple will split up or not. The partners who are low on this dimension may not feel connected or intimate with their partners. These couples are probably living parallel lives, in the same home, but never really deeply joining together any more. In extreme cases, partners may blame each other for problems in their relationship to escape responsibility or to avoid talking about the problem as a couple.
I recently saw a same sex couple who both complained that the other was never available. When I delved into their day to day functioning it became clear that they were both avoiding each other because they just had no skills in being able to raise and dialogue about sensitive issues like sex, affection, quality time. Helping them to develop a range of skills and processes to raise issues and dialogue (as opposed to argue or feel blamed), assisted both of them in moving back into a “we-ness” perspective
Many of those couples who score low in the “we-ness” dimension also admit to not being able to communicate with their partner about their problems because they have such different viewpoints or perceptions. Many of these partners will appear lonely or isolated because they are not able to receive support from their partners or from others (or feel that way). Sometimes one member of the couple being interviewed will score higher on “we-ness,” while the other emphasizes differences and separation – a state of affairs implying lack of communication and mutual understanding, which is dangerous to the future of the relationship.
Understanding the importance of these dimensions, and being prepared to explore each partner’s experience of these dimensions in their relationship provides the therapist with incredibly valuable information about what kind of conversations will need to occur to help the couple get their relationship back on track.
These are just a few of the strengths of the Oral History Interview. If you persevere with this interview you may be surprised at how much quicker you will help your couples get to the core of their unhappiness.
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