September 1, 2010 by Thriving Now Support

Positive and Negative Emotions in Marriage

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink! is a fascinating book on many levels. It digs into the thin slices (instant judgments) we make and how incredibly accurate they prove to be.

In Chapter 1 is the story of The Love Lab where John Gottman records on videotape interactions between married couples. He then breaks them down, second by second, into categories of emotion in 20 different categories as expressed by facial expressions. For example, the coding “7,7,14,10,11,11” means that in one six-second stretch, one member of the couple was briefly angry, then neutral, had a moment of defensiveness, and then began whining. They also factor in data from electrodes and sensors. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95% accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches for 15 minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent. With only three minutes of observation, Gottman and his team can still predict with fairly impressive accuracy who is going to get divorced and who is going to make it… even if on the surface the couple is joking and seems relatively “in love.” He’s been doing this with over 3000 couples since the 1980’s.

One of Gottman’s findings is that for marriage to survive, the ratio of positive to negative emotion in a given encounter has to be at least five to one. Gottman says:

“People are in one of two states in a relationship. The first is what I call positive sentiment override, where positive emotion overrides irritability. It’s like a buffer. Their spouse will do something bad, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s just in a crummy mood.’ Or they can be in negative sentiment override, so that even a relatively neutral thing that a partner says gets perceived as a negative. In the negative sentiment override state, people draw lasting conclusions about each other. If their spouse does something positive, it’s a selfish person doing a positive thing. It’s really hard to change those states, and those states determine whether when one party tries to repair things, the other party sees that as a repair or a hostile manipulation.”

Gottman notes that in any relationship, even when viewed for only 3 minutes as they tell a mutual story, there are ups and downs. But it doesn’t take very long to note whether the trend is toward positive regard or negative disdain. And as he notes, it is so hard for us to change those states that “once they start going down, toward negative emotions, 94% will continue going down.”

Could it be that we see this negative trend play out in divorce and broken relationships because we do not, as a culture, teach and encourage emotional self-management? Sure, we’re told from childhood to Be Nice and Show Respect. But sometimes we DON’T FEEL NICE and we don’t feel a person deserves respect (especially if the person was present when we felt hurt in the past). Here is where EFT can be a tremendous help. If it is our desire to experience positive regard towards our spouse, then as we become aware of negative emotions, we use EFT to help redirect the energy in a more empowered and positive way—by CHOICE!

Here are some possible EFT set-ups, tapping on the karate chop point, say:

“Even though I am experiencing these negative emotions towards my spouse, I’m open to feeling a little better.”
“Even though I really just want to get away from my spouse, there is so much hurt here, I deeply and completely accept my role in our relationship.”
“Even though I am having trouble seeing ANYTHING positive about my spouse right now, I choose to focus on what will make me feel better about me and about us.”

Top of head: These negative emotions towards my spouse.
Eyebrow: This seeing my spouse as a negative presence.
Side of eye: I’m feeling so negative.
Under eye: It’s not fair to me.
Under nose: It’s not fair to my spouse.
Chin: We want something more.
Collarbone: I choose to relax.
Under arm: I choose to feel a brighter future.
Top of head: I love feeling good about me and about us.

The Four Emotional Horsemen Who Damage Relationships

In Gottman’s studies, he found that of all the different emotions that play a role in marital success and failure, there are just four that are the most predictive. They are:

– Defensiveness
– Stonewalling
– Criticism
– Contempt

Even within the Four Horsemen, in fact, there is one emotion that he considers the most important of all: Contempt!

Gottman says:

“You would think that criticism would be the worst, because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism. With criticism I might say to my wife, ‘You never listen, you are really selfish and insensitive.’ Well, she’s going to respond defensively to that. That is not very good for our problem solving and interaction. But if I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of time it’s an insult: ‘You are a bitch. You’re scum.’ It’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It’s hierarchial.”

Having someone you love express contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect the functioning of your immune system. Contempt is about completely rejecting someone from the community. It triggers our base survival instincts. And while there are gender differences in negative emotions according to Gottman, with women being more critical and men being more stonewalling, there is no gender difference when it comes to contempt.

So, if you want to head towards a miserable and contentious divorce, you now have the formula: roll your eyes, denigrate and put down your spouse with contemptuous comments, assume a patronizing and lecturing voice. Keep that up and, guaranteed, in 15 years or less you won’t be together!!

Now, if your desire is for a healthy, happy relationship, you also have the formula. You need to invest energy in fives times as much positive regard as negative reactions. But even if you are in a relationship with an incredibly wonderful person, there are aspects to your energy system regarding relationships that will likely put you into negative reactions! Your mate can say something in the kindest spirit, and you can take it wrong. She can say something from a place of overwhelm and frustration, and you can take it with patience and compassion. So is it your mate, or is it you? Is it about how the other person behaves—which we’d love to have control over but don’t? Or, is it about the one thing you can control in a relationship: your personal emotional reaction?

Do you know that you have that control? Or would you just like to believe it, but have yet to have the personal experience? Wherever you are, I promise you that you can learn ways to have choice in how you react internally to life events. For me, the road to greater emotional freedom has included daily meditation for 20 minutes or more, journalling, prayer, physical movement, massage therapy, and tapping into the power of my energy system with EFT, emotional freedom techniques. Pick even one of these as a starting point, and allow yourself to reach for an emotion that feels even a little bit better to you. In that conscious action, you will find that you can move up the emotional scale, and in doing so affect in a positive way yourself and everyone you come in contact with. For those with whom we have intimate contact, the difference can truly be profound.

  • Am a student of College of Marital success. Please what are negative emotions in marriage. How do i handle them. please help me. Am a NIGERIAN.

  • Sven Hedin says:

    My good friend and Pastor Rob McWilliams has been preaching this to me for decades. Maybe I will open my eyes and walk the walk.

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