Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Therapy Session #3: The 5:1 Ratio

We had a good week. We're starting to figure out some important key issues that have helped us communicate better and break a few bad habits. For instance when I ask Jade if she knows where I might find clean socks, she hears, "You suck at doing the laundry and you are to blame for everything that doesn't work in our relationship." When she says, "When you ask me to give you intimacy it makes me feel pressured to perform." I hear, "I'm not attracted to you and I don't love you enough to want to kiss you, much less have sex." A simple exercise that is helping us communicate better without getting upset is to say, "What I heard was…" and then to repeat what we heard, giving each other the opportunity to make sure that we're phrasing our requests to each other in a manner that is polite and curious. Neither of us want to fight, especially over something as simple as socks, but when you get into these ruts, sometimes it is tough to stay positive. This exercise may take longer, but I helps us to really hear each other as the people we want to be to each other.
Last week she assigned us some reading to help us further our communication in positive ways. One of the authors, Dr. John Gottman, I'd already known about for years because his work in marital therapy is astoundingly scientific. What this guy did that separated him from all the other self-help marriage therapy gurus is that he actually proved his results with such closely monitored scientific measurements that he is capable of predicting the future outcome of a relationship with shocking accuracy. He and his team invited couples to spend a weekend in a bed and breakfast that was loaded with scientific monitoring devices. Cameras watched for facial microexpressions, respiratory and cardiovascular monitoring gear measured pulse rates and blood pressure, even the toilets were rigged to detect stress hormones in urine. Even though his statistics have been met with some scrutiny, I'm still more likely to give it the old college try than forms of therapy that have absolutely no science to back up the success of the given method.
For the sake of argument, let's call John's conclusions a "theory" and his theory states that there are four emotional reactions that predict the outcome of a marriage and they are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.  He calls these the "four horsemen," because they will destroy a happy household faster than a swarm of boils and a rash of locusts. Of course every relationship is going to encounter some moments where one or the other partner is excessively critical, or defensive, or emotionally withdrawn and of course if this happens too often, contempt for each other will eventually set in. John has found that there is actually a variable that determines the happiness of a marriage based on how frequently or infrequently a couple falls victim to one of the four horsemen. Like most other things in life it is easier to destroy than it is to heal and John's variable states that for every one negative and destructive interaction it requires five times as many positive interactions just to reach neutrality. Happy relationships balance this well, relationships where one or both partners report dissatisfaction experience a positive to negative ratio of less than 5:1. Marriages that end in divorce average a ratio of 8:1, negative to positive.
You may notice that when your ratio of positive to negative is 5:1 or higher, you may be capable of handling criticism, like "You never roll the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube!" in a healthy and productive way.  However, when you are suffering a positivity deficit, you're likely to bring on the three other horsemen and the battle begins. Knowing how this happens and the rapid degree of how negative promotes negative, it finally makes sense to me how couples can go from loving, caring partners in life to people who hate each other so much that the pain of separating is little more than the pin prick when compared to the idea of staying together.
According to the math, Jade Kaper and I were at about 120:1 in Desire, but the very day that we returned home, that ratio began falling as Jade's deceptions took effect. In spite of this, my reactions to her remained positive because our investment was greatly stacked in our favor. Unfortunately, with each following deception and decision she made that made me feel secondary to her NRE interest, the ratio plummeted until finally I snapped, roughly around a ratio of 1:1. I remained exceptionally forgiving of her first 23 mistakes, no matter how deceitful, deceptive, selfish or denying they were. Unfortunately, once we hit that 24th mistake I became critical of her behavior and that caused her to become defensive. Remember, each mistake costs you five positives to fix. It is a credit card with a terrible interest rate. I was no longer able to positively respond to her about much of anything and then my negative behavior inverted the ratio into something that feels exactly the opposite of where we were when we were in a tropical paradise. Once the ratio went negative, we spun off into a FUBAR I hope that we never see again. The interesting thing about the ratio is that above 5:1 you can deal with a lot of negative and hurtful behaviors without responding with criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, or contempt. Falling beneath that ratio makes it nearly impossible to encounter even the slightest form of criticism will cause a negative response. 
Now we have to learn how to fix our ratio. I hope to share this with you in the next session. 
Learn more about John Gottman by reading his many books.

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