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How to Make Peace and Keep Love Alive When the Honeymoon's Over

September 25, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Discord is a staple of married life. Last week's column explored the research of psychologists and marriage experts John Gottman and Robert Levenson. (In a 14-year study, they found that two kinds of couples were more likely to divorce: those who fought fiercely and frequently in the first seven years of marriage and those in midlife who dodged conflict, ostensibly to keep peace during the child-rearing years, and whose relationships had, as a result, grown distant and icy.)

This week, some tips from Gottman, author of "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" (Three Rivers Press; 1999), on how to avoid these dysfunctional styles:

* Take a break when a fight gets too hot. People can't argue constructively when their pulse exceeds 95 beats per minute, and may want to fight or flee. "A person will feel emotionally overwhelmed and physically uncomfortable," said Julie Gottman, director of the Seattle-based Gottman Institute and the wife of John Gottman. "They can't think straight. Couples need to take a 30-minute break from each other to calm down."

Men are more likely to experience "fight or flight" (85% as compared to 15% of women) in a clash, said Julie Gottman. Once calm, the two parties can resume a conversation in which concerns are expressed as wishes and needs rather than criticism and contempt (which elicit defensiveness and counterattacks.)

* Discover what lies beneath the conflict. Most couples fight about the same things repeatedly. "These conflicts are lethal," said John Gottman, "but they also have the greatest potential for growth." The underlying philosophical meanings, which charge the issue, keep spouses from yielding to their partners. Talking about what an issue means to each person can wrest the conflict free of paralysis.

A couple John Gottman said he observed in his work fought contemptuously about money. The husband wanted to tithe 10% of his income to his church; the wife wanted to save for a house. "Justice and giving to the poor was very important because the man's mother had taken him as a child to soup kitchens and created meaningful connections to the poor," he said. Once they understood what "money" symbolized to the other person, contempt dissipated.

* Stay engaged. Emotionally disengaged couples not only lose the ability to address discord but they also stop connecting at all. Avoidance is an underlying secret agreement between spouses, said Julie Gottman, and a couple needs to change it without assigning blame. Partners can do this by discussing the distance, whether needs are being met outside the marriage (friends, affairs) and what each person is suppressing.

Once there is a renewed connection, John Gottman advises couples to welcome the small, daily "bids for connection" (a mate reaching out to straighten a collar, being playful, and engaging in celebratory reunions upon a spouse's arrival home). "People should be really enthusiastic about having a conversation with their partner," he said. "If one says, 'Hey, look at this "Dilbert," ' and the other says 'Yeah,' and they laugh, that kind of enthusiasm and sense of humor is a connection."

* Create shared meaning. "Parents raising teens often see their life as a long to-do list--until 16 years have passed, at which point they realize their marriage is meaningless," said John Gottman. But it isn't too late to find what he calls "a shared system of meaning."

He offers, as an example, his experience with a successful corporate executive who had loathed his job all his life. The man finally confessed to his wife his deferred desire to be a high school math teacher. "He said, 'I never wanted to do it because we have this lifestyle that you love,' " recalled Gottman. "She said, 'I don't love it, I love you.' " The couple waited until their youngest child was in college before making the change. "But they made the change together," he said, "and they became better friends for it."

*

John Gottman is scheduled to speak about marriage at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church at 7 p.m. Oct. 11. Cost: $15. Information: (310) 377-6771.

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