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For better or worse: marriage by the numbers

May 01, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

Marriage researchers have long known that emotional mismatches can spell doom for a marriage. It's not that an explosive, emotionally intense wife cannot make herself understood to a reserved, distant husband; usually she can. It's that she misjudges the impact of her fits on him -- just as he misreads the effect of his silences on her. The result is that when discussing difficult topics neither person has a good sense of where the conversation is going or how to steer it emotionally. Gottman and Murray's calculations help quantify just how devastating this mismatch is, and for whom.

"This is a real contribution to the field, to identify these styles and show why the mismatch isn't working," said Bernard Guerney, director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda, Md., and a leading voice in marriage research. Guerney said the new research supports some of the latest thinking on how to repair flagging marriages.

In the predominant view of psychologists who study long-term pairings, couples can improve their relations one conversation at a time precisely by making an effort to watch how their outbreaks and silences directly alter their partner's mood and behavior. When styles are mismatched, improvement usually means that one person must learn to adapt in part to the timing, tone and style of the other -- that is, to the one whose personality is more positive by nature.

Though this sounds more like good common sense than black hole mathematics, the equations show that tipping the balance only slightly toward a more positive style can save a marriage, Gottman said.

Longtime married couples by necessity have had to learn how to do this. Barry Weisband, 48, has been giving his own communications skills a workout lately. About a year ago, Weisband left a salaried job to start his own business. Household income is tighter, and his wife, Suzie, is now the alpha wage earner. The couple has three children and, suddenly, many financial decisions to make. "I'm very much a planner; I'd prefer to sit down for an hour and talk through all this, but she has no patience for that. She does things on the move," Barry said. In 19 years of marriage he has learned exactly when these important conversations must take place -- and where. "I know now that these things are going to be resolved at the kitchen sink; that's where we talk about them."

Lynn Rasmussen, a business consultant living in Maui, Hawaii, and her husband, Richard, have made it through 28 years in part by reserving their difficult conversations for times when they're both feeling pretty good about themselves. When stressed, Rasmussen is the more volatile figure and her husband becomes cool and more avoiding. "When my husband's in a low mood, I don't talk about the problem child or the budget.... When I'm in a low mood, I bite my tongue, eat, take a hot bath, do the laundry -- anything but 'communicate.' "

True to stereotype, researchers find, women tend to be more sensitive to moods and the ebb and flow of intimacy. In one study, psychologists had a group of graduate students living with a partner tape their conversations at the end of each day. Almost always, the woman tried to prompt conversation, by asking things like, "Anything interesting happen to you today?" or "Who'd you talk to?" or "Tell me what you're thinking." The men tended to go monosyllabic, parrying these attempts with a variety of grunts, "yups" and "nopes." In the work of Gottman and others, moreover, it's clear that very often a little effort on the part of the man can go a long way in improving a marriage.

Which is why, if not exactly bestseller material, "The Mathematics of Marriage" might by its very existence do a service to marriage, namely by showing men that relationships aren't solely the domain of Oprah and Dr. Laura.

"I think it's wonderful they're bringing math into it; it's such a male thing," said Diane Sollee, founder of Smartmarriages.com, a clearinghouse for marriage information and research. "I mean, they might as well have named it, 'Missiles and Marriage.' "

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