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Study's Advice to Husbands: Accept Wife's Influence

Marriage: Data showing compliance is best cast doubt on 'active listening,' a common counseling approach.

February 21, 1998|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

Husbands, forget all that psychobabble about "active listening" and "validation."

If you want your marriage to last a long time, the newest advice from psychologists is quite simple: Be willing to do what your wife says.

A widely recommended form of marital relationship advice has been active listening, in which one partner paraphrases the other partner's concerns--"So what I hear you saying is . . ." But that is unnatural and requires too much of people who are in the midst of emotional conflict, said psychologist John Gottman of the University of Washington. "Asking that of couples is like requiring emotional gymnastics," he said.

Gottman and his colleagues studied 130 newlywed couples for six years in an effort to find ways to predict marital success and failure.

Couples who used techniques such as active listening were no more likely to stay together than couples who did not, they report today in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations.

"We need to convey how shocked and surprised we were by these results for the active listening model," the team admitted in the article. In fact, Gottman and his colleagues have long recommended active listening to couples seeking counseling and had expected that its use would be a predictor of success in marriages.

That it was not, he said, suggests that its widespread use in marital counseling--a field already beset by sharp philosophical divisions--should be abandoned.

The marriages that did work well all had one thing in common--the husband was willing to give in to the wife.

"We found that only those newlywed men who are accepting of influence from their wives are ending up in happy, stable marriages," Gottman said. The autocrats who failed to listen to their wives' complaints, greeting them with stonewalling, contempt and belligerence, were doomed from the beginning, they found.

In the researchers' observations of couples, they found little evidence of women failing to listen to their husbands. But the study did not let wives completely off the hook. Women who couched their complaints in a gentle, soothing, perhaps even humorous approach to the husband were more likely to have happy marriages than those who were more belligerent. "That type of [belligerent] response is even more exaggerated in violent marriages," Gottman added.

The fact that happily married couples do not normally use active listening is not a surprise, according to psychologist Howard Markman of the University of Denver. "We've found that in our own studies," he said.

In fact, he argues that Gottman is setting up a "straw man" in the study of active listening and validation, which is another form of recognizing the legitimacy of a spouse's opinions. "When active listening is taught, it is not because happy couples use it," Markman said. "We use it to help couples disrupt the negative patterns that predict divorce."

Gottman is "very sympathetic" to that idea. "If you can genuinely listen and be empathetic when you are the target of the complaint, that can be very powerful," he said. But for the average person, "it is just too hard. The average person meets anger with anger."

The differences between Gottman and Markman are typical of the turmoil in the field of marital counseling. A 1993 report argued that marital therapy has a relapse rate so high "that the entire enterprise may be in a state of crisis." A recent Consumer Reports study found that people who underwent such therapy were the least satisfied among those who had received any form of psychotherapy.

Gottman argues that marital therapy has gone astray by trying to adapt the techniques normally used for therapy with individuals.

His study was designed to identify the factors that naturally contribute to a successful marriage so those might be used in therapy.

"If you want to change marriages," he said, "you have to talk about the 'emotionally intelligent' husband. Some men are really good at accepting a wife's influence, at finding something reasonable in a partner's complaint to agree with." That group represents perhaps a third of all men, he added.

"Another group just rejects all attempts at influence. That's very characteristic of violent men," he said, but a majority of men do it to some extent. "They feel, 'If I give in on this, I'm going to lose everything. I'm going to be totally manipulated and controlled.' "

That is not to say men are the source of all problems in a marriage, he added. But changing their attitudes "is a very powerful lever" in altering the course of a marriage.

"The only way to change marriage for the better is to improve the quality of friendship between a husband and wife and to help them deal with disagreements differently," Gottman said. "There has to be a kind of gentleness in the way conflict is managed. Men have to be more accepting of a woman's position, and women have to be more gentle in starting up discussions."

Markman agrees. "It is important for couples to have a way they can agree on to talk without fighting," he said. "But I think active listening can help do that."

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