Miserable Couples Get More Miserable by Wallowing in Their Misery

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However, it is possible, with the right kind of assistance, to break the cycle of misery

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Online dating has done plenty to disrupt today's dating patterns, but there is an older technological innovation that has greatly improved the potential for happy marriages: videotape.

"It transformed our understanding of couples," recalled Howard Markman, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Self-reporting, which asked couples to describe their own behavior, was notoriously unreliable, but viewing taped interactions between couples proved illuminating

As it turns out, couples are not credible experts on their own relationships.

Markman, along with co-author Frank J. Floyd of the University of Hawai'i, published their findings in what is now considered a classic paper from 1983. "Observational Biases in Spouse Observation: Toward a Cognitive/Behavioral Model of Marriage" looked at the way couples' (insiders) perspectives on marital interaction differed from observers' (outsiders) assessments. Two groups consisting of 10 married couples served as insiders. Distressed partners—those who were experiencing such high levels of marital strife that they had already sought out professional help—made up one group, and the second, non-distressed group was comprised of pairs who responded to a newspaper advertisement for happily married couples. Ten psychology majors with training in behavior assessments served as observers, and a second set of observers were later employed. Neither set of outsiders knew whether they were viewing distressed or non-distressed couples.

During the sessions, couples engaged in two 15-minute conflict-resolution tasks. During the first timed discussion, the couples considered two vignettes from the Inventory of Marital Conflicts, a diagnostic tool used by therapists to illuminate decision —making processes and conflict resolution. During the second round, the couples discussed to the dominant issue in their marriage. The couples were asked to rate each other's statements on a five-point scale from very negative (one) to very positive (five). The videotaped interactions were then evaluated by outsiders who used the same rating system. The results showed differences between insider and outsider data that were "neither simple nor easily understandable within the behavioral model of marriage."

When a couple was distressed, they viewed nearly everything their partner did and said as negative, even if no slight or malice was intended. Once they were on this destructive cycle, it seemed to only grow stronger. Conversely, non-distressed couples displayed far more patient and compassionate towards each other, even if they were in total disagreement. This is known as "Negative Sentiment Override," a term coined by University of Oregon emeritus professor Robert Weiss. Couples who suffer from NSO fail to recognize their partner's positive gestures 50 percent of the time.

One of pop culture's great examples of NSO in action is Louis CK's material about his wife. Consider the following stand-up routine about the comedian's marriage, which would later end in divorce:

I'm very happy. I'm married, and I love my wife. I love her very much. My wife hates me. She fucking hates me. She hates me so much, like that's what she does. If you asked her what'd you do today, she'd say, I fucking hate that guy, that's what I did today. I hate Louie. She's so mad at me all the time.

Louis CK has established that he thinks his wife spends the majority of their marriage hating him—even though he, by comparison, loves her. Throughout the routine, he jokes about interactions charged with negativity, including this bit, "the Dishwasher:"

The other day, she got really mad at me. She said to me, you know what you did? You filled the dishwasher with dishes, you put the soap in, but you didn't turn it on. And I'm like, aw, shit, what are we gonna do now?

But here's the part where she blows my mind. This is amazing, when she gets to this level. She says, well, why didn't you turn it on? Like I have a reason for not turning it on. I'm like, can't I just be stupid? Can't it just be that I'm a fuckin' idiot? That I filled the dishwasher and went bllllllll and then walked away?

I can live with that. I'm cool with that, but she says, no, why did you do that, which means I decided not to do it. Do you know how much more of an asshole that makes me? That means I filled the dishwasher and I went, you know what? Fuck her, I ain't turning it on....I'll fill it, but I don't fucking press on, not in my own house.

Why would I do that?

As Louis CK shows, if couples remain mired in conflict, it will all but ensure that most of the time they spend together will be utterly miserable, or they'll eventually find themselves in divorce court. Luckily, there is a much better option: break the cycle. Just as happy marriages aren't impervious to conflict, distressed marriages can greatly improve. (Even if that doesn't mean your partner will remember to run the dishwasher every single time.)

"About 70 percent of the marital problems we see don't need to be solved," Markman said. "It is a matter of understanding the other person's perspective, but most of it has to do with how to handle conflict."

Most couples, past and present, are vexed by similar issues. While the study on observational biases is nearly thirty years old, Markman notes these very same issues are still pervasive in 2010's Fighting for Your Marriage, a book he co-authored with colleagues Scott M. Stanley and Susan L. Blumberg.

Barring extenuating circumstances, such as abuse, most marriages can get back on track—but the road to success is rife with perilous detours. Because couples have imperfect conceptions of their own marriage, as well as their partner's behavior, they cannot seek help from just any outsider. Friends and family members are often the first people couples speak to, but they are hardly impartial, and this predisposition will only amplify their own biases.

Seeking professional helphas proven to be more effective than no treatment at all, but can also be tricky. Before a couple considers marriage counseling, it is not unusual for one partner—likely the woman, as men are notoriously resistant to therapy—to seek individual treatment, but that therapist may not be trained in marriage and family counseling. If one partner is inadvertently offering a distorted version of events, the process may do more harm than good.

While couple's therapy is ideal, individual therapy is not verboten, as long as the counselor is a trained marriage therapist. In addition to individual and couple's therapy, Markman and his team have developed a third option that is anonymous, easier to procure, and far less expensive than face-to-face sessions: relationship coaching over the phone.

"I may charge $225 for 50 minutes," Markman explained, "but relationship coaching over the phone is $80 for 55 minutes." Phone sessions eliminate wasted time spent commuting to and from appointments, allowing more time for whatever else the couple is missing out on, whether it be work or leisure.

Discovering that you aren't a credible expert on your own relationship may be a very good thing. It means that no matter how ugly an individual day or year in your marriage may seem to be, you can't declare it to be doomed. It has far more potential for happiness than you realize.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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