Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Mathematics of Love

Update: This post has been edited for brevity. Read the whole article if you want the parts that I edited out. Here are a few excerpts from the THE MATHEMATICS OF LOVE [4.14.04] A Talk with John Gottman HT John Hobbins,

    I am sure that universality is there. We are no less social than bees, and Von Frisch discovered the language of bees by going right to the hive and watching them dance. So we will discover the human dance. What's an example of what we may find? So far I believe we're going to find that respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we'll find that those are universal things.

    For the past eight years I've been really involved, working with my amazingly talented wife, trying to put these ideas together and use our theory so that it that helps couples and babies. And we now know that these interventions really make a big difference. We can turn around 75 percent of distressed couples with a two-day workshop and nine sessions of marital therapy. These are couples that have waited as long as six years to get any kind of help. So it's a considerably deteriorated situation. ...

    It sounds as if we have a stake in relationships staying together — but we don't. My major stake is in understanding. We have a stake in people not staying together if they don't feel good about their relationship and it's not really going anywhere for them, it's not really helping them build one another's dreams, it's not a relationship that has dignity. But we like to help people understand why it is that it didn't work, so that the next relationship, or next set of relationships, can be better.

    One of the major things we found is that honoring your partner's dreams is absolutely critical. A lot of times people have incompatible dreams — or they don't want to honor their partner's dreams, or they don't want to yield power, they don't want to share power. So that explains a lot of times why they don't really belong together.
It's a pretty fantastic article overall. It really resonated with something I mentioned recently in compegal blog, that "love and respect" should not be divided, as they appear to be in Eggerichs' book, but should be offered to one another as a matched couplet. I got the notion that love and respect were something that each partner wanted from Paul Tournier's To Understand Each Other, and from I Married You by Walter Trobisch.

I have some reflections on two parts of the article. First, he divides violence into two kinds.

    We've reconstructed it from what we have learned by talking to people about it, and it does seem that there are two very distinct forms of violence. One form is where the conflict escalates, and people somehow lose control. They get to a point where the trigger seems to be feeling disrespected and there's a loss to their dignity. They feel driven to defend that dignity, and start doing things like posturing and threatening while in a state of high and diffuse physiological arousal, and they increasingly have a loss of control. The violence tends to be symmetrical, and there is not a clear victim and perpetrator.

    Another kind of violence, which is very different, is where one person in the relationship is using violence to control and intimidate the other person and is very much not physiologically aroused, very much in control and trying to do something to the other person that alters their idea of reality. There is a perpetrator and a victim here, The late Neil Jacobsen and I have called this kind of mind control "gaslighting," after the movie with Ingrid Bergman.

    I'd like to understand those two kinds of violence. I think the first one is treatable, particularly early, by looking at the couple relationship and changing the relationship. It may be even treatable later on, by slowing things down enough and physiological arousal has a place in it. The second type of violence is more elusive at the moment, although some initial experiments that I and Julia Babcock and her students have designed show promising proximal, that is, short term effects with these perpetrators.
After this, the author does not discuss violence in this article. But he does later say,

    Because men are different. Men have a lot of trouble when they reach a state of vigilance, when they think there's real danger, they have a lot of trouble calming down. and there's probably an evolutionary history to that. Because it functioned very well for our hominid ancestors, anthropologists think, for men to stay physiologically aroused and vigilant, in cooperative hunting and protecting the tribe, which was a role that males had very early in our evolutionary history.

    Whereas women had the opposite sort of role, in terms of survival of the species, those women reproduced more effectively who had the milk-let-down reflex, which only happens when oxytocin is secreted in the brain, it only happens when women — as any woman knows who's been breast-feeding, you have to be able to calm down and relax. But oxytocin is also the hormone of affiliation. So women have developed this sort of social order, caring for one another, helping one another, and affiliating, that also allows them to really calm down and have the milk let-down reflex. And so — it's one of nature's jokes. Women can calm down, men can't; they stay aroused and vigilant.
What the article does not discuss is that in a violent relationship of the second kind, if the vicitm is a woman, she is prevented from all affiliation. And she develops a noticable startle reflex. So, in fact, I reacted to this particular aspect of the article. I have never noticed men with a pronounced startle reflex. But, when others noticed this in me, in social settings, I began to realize that violence had a price, it was a harsh paymaster. While I have never noticed a startle reflex in another adult, I have noticed it in children every once in a while.

This aspect of things was not really discussed in the article. Women who are mistreated are prevented from affiliation and develop hypervigilance and all the negatives aspects of this. They travel from sadness to anger fairly quickly too.

The second reaction was about honouring your spouse's dreams. If your dreams are incompatible then you must part ways. Actually maybe I do agree with this. I don't know. I have a friend whose husband wanted to work in the north for a few years. I don't think he even asked her to go with him. He wanted a guy sort of experience in the far north. They are still married and they do keep in touch, but these kinds of things puzzle me. No answers here. Perhaps women leave too, this seems unmanageable. The scriptures say to just let someone go.

The really powerful part of the article was about the determining role of affection and humour, mutual respect and honour. In concluding my post on egalitarianism the other day, I wrote,

    Likewise in marriage we demonstrate Christ’s love if we love one another and honour each other with kindness and affection, bearing each other’s burdens.
Sounds a little preachy perhaps. However, I am trying to practice this. When I dropped my daughter off this morning, after near shipwrecks on matters of cleaning the kitchen, her telling me which route I should take to drive her to school and other petty stuff which really ticked me off, I waved good-bye with "I love you, sweetheart." And I meant it. I am not going to spend the rest of my life arguing with those I love. Not that I am not capable of it.

Right now, I am not really relating to this as a marriage issue, but I think all enduring relationships must communicate affection and respect. As Gottman said, these are universal things.


Anonymous said...

I have that "startle reflex" too.

Thanks for this post.

Gem said...

Hi Sue,

I love his insights! Makes me curious about his marriage recovery program?

You said:
QUOTE:I have a friend whose husband wanted to work in the north for a few years. I don't think he even asked her to go with him. He wanted a guy sort of experience in the far north. They are still married and they do keep in touch, but these kinds of things puzzle me. No answers here. Perhaps women leave too, this seems unmanageable.ENDQUOTE

Biblically, there was a law that the husband should hang around for a year. After that, he could go off to war and business:

Deuteronomy 24:5
“When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken."

My husband is gone a lot for business, the majority of the time in fact. At first it bothered me. We have 5 children at home and I function as the "single parent" but lately, I am questioning the evangelical "focus on the family", and on marriage (ala "Fireproof", etc) whether it is really very biblical after all? Are marriage and family modern day idols? God's priority is relationship with HIM. Perhaps sometimes a husband gets in the way of that? Perhaps his hard pursuit of his "divine consequence" of Genesis 3 works for her good as she struggles to with her divine consequence of "desire for her husband"? Perhaps his absence works together for her good because she has space to re-direct that desire toward the divine Bridegroom?

Love, Charis

PS. I too have a startle reflex, not necessarily associated with social settings, but when some present day event triggers a traumatic memory.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

This is what puzzled me. I think women have a higher startle reflex physiologically.

But in terms of leaving to find your dreams, I think women can do this just as much as men. I have seen it both ways.

And sometimes it may be a goog thing to be on your own for a bit. Who knows? I think it is a good thing to be able to live on one's own. Being overdependent isn't the best thing. But being alone isn't good either.

Anyway, interesting article, but I don't have advice in this domain.

Gem said...

I've long thought that the high divorce rate among professing Christians reflects serious doctrinal flaws wrt marriage.

SOW bad doctrine about marriage-->
REAP high divorce rate

Some of the marriage gurus out there unencumbered by evangelical "baggage" (such as Gottman) seem to have more effective and useful marriage advice than the pop christian materials. Another example is Dr Harley of marriagebuilders. His Policy of Joint Agreement sounds like mutual submission, respect, and accountability to me- all things which have proved elusive in my own "evangelical christian marriage" which was built for two decades upon our indoctrination by churches, radio preachers, christian books, and seminary (all of which I now consider a foundation of sand, BTW)