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Submitted by dennishunter on Sun, 6/15/2014, 12:01pm
Dr. John Gottman has spent nearly three decades studying and helping married couples, trying to understand what their interactions reveal about the couple’s chances of staying together or getting divorced. He gradually developed a sophisticated method of analyzing a typical conversation between spouses and looking for certain cues and trends that reveal the underlying emotional dynamics and habits of thinking. Gottman’s method allows him to listen to an hour of conversation and predict, with 95% accuracy, whether the couple will still be married in 15 years. This research is discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which is where I first encountered the work of Dr. Gottman.
What Damns a Marriage
Gottman discovered that for a marriage to endure, there must be at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotion in the couple’s interactions. He also discovered that the presence of certain key emotional indicators is a sure sign that a marriage is in trouble and unlikely to survive. The most damning of these indicators is contempt: if either partner in the marriage expresses contempt towards the other, the couple’s chances are extremely slim.
In other words, there is an underlying pattern in any marriage that can be very quickly identified and analyzed — “thin-sliced” to use Gladwell’s term — and by correctly discerning that pattern one can foresee with tremendous accuracy the future outcome of that marriage.
The patterns Gottman looks for in a couple’s interactions consist of the emotional dynamics and the habits of thinking that define the two individuals’ ways of relating to each other. The couples that aren’t likely to make it are the ones who’ve become trapped in unhealthy patterns, where the amount of negative emotion in the couple's interactions crosses the magic threshold and hardens into something that carries them inexorably towards increasing conflict and eventual divorce. Once that river is flowing, it becomes almost impossible to resist being swept along by its current; it is difficult for the couple to see their own patterns in operation or to step back and correct the course of their marriage by steering it in a more positive direction. As you think, so you are.
The Downward Spiral of Negative Thinking
Gottman’s findings have implications that reach far beyond marriage counseling. Patterns of negative thinking and negative emotional habits can adversely impact every area of our lives. Negative thinking can destroy not only marriages but also careers, families, friendships, and one’s own mental health. It can even corrupt and pervert the spiritual path.
I lived for two years as a temporary monastic in a Buddhist monastery in Canada. During my first six months, there was a fellow monk (I’ll call him Chodzin) who experienced many difficulties in relating to other residents of the monastery. Chodzin was a very clever person, with the kind of sharp, critical intelligence that allowed him, among other things, to identify and describe problems he saw in the social structures around him. Often he would point out issues with the way the monastery was managed or the way various people or groups interacted. Usually his criticisms were very on-point and perceptive; it was difficult to disagree with the content of what he was saying. But he exuded a great deal of negativity and had a pattern of expressing himself with a tone of anger, verbal aggression, and, occasionally, outright contempt. This pattern led others at the monastery — myself included — to withdraw from Chodzin, since our own emotional resistance and underlying issues were often triggered by his displays of anger, aggression and contempt. This group dynamic repeated itself many times, and escalated to the point where Chodzin clearly felt isolated and withdrawn. Other people hardened in their mistrustful reactions toward him and developed dysfunctional patterns of avoiding contact with him as much as possible. The situation gradually built toward a series of increasingly hostile confrontations that culminated in Chodzin being asked to leave the community quite abruptly — an outcome that was all the more tragic since Chodzin had expressed a desire, early in his stay, to remain at the monastery for life.
Gottman’s work with married couples helped me understand some of the reasons for what had happened with Chodzin, and why I had intuitively — from my very first encounters with him — doubted that he would last very long at the monastery. It seemed that the ratio of positive to negative emotion observable in Chodzin’s interactions with others was far into the red zone, well past the threshold that signaled trouble ahead. But even more ominous was his occasional way of speaking with a tone of contempt, which is Gottman’s strongest indicator of a doomed marriage. Early on, I had sensed these things, but I lacked the vocabulary to articulate them; yet I knew, without knowing how I knew, that Chodzin’s marriage to the monastery would be short-lived. The storm of negativity under which Chodzin finally departed — the bitter communal divorce that it represented — left many people in the community feeling raw and wounded. Despite whatever resistance they had felt towards him, they were also saddened by his departure and by what was clearly a lost opportunity to transform a pattern of negativity (on both sides) into something more positive.
In The Myth of Freedom, Chögyam Trungpa wrote that negativity by itself is not particularly a problem. In its basic energy, it can be a sharp, discerning faculty that sees the flaws in things and wants to find remedies. The problem, rather, is what Trungpa called “negative negativity,” which is (among other things) our tendency to spin out our negative thoughts and feed them so that they snowball into neurotic patterns that take control of our lives in subtle or gross ways.
Each of us has the same potential as Chodzin to cloud our own experience and poison our lives and relationships with habits of negative thinking and expression. Sometimes at the monastery, when we got together in groups, we had a tendency to complain and harp on the little things that bothered us about monastic life — in much the same way as co-workers at most companies get together in the break room and complain about their bosses or their clients. Living in such a small container, like a submarine, and rubbing elbows all the time, we were bound to find many situations that challenged our egos. Sometimes even monks and nuns slip into a pattern of complaining about such things. When this happened one could almost see the neurotic snowball effect rolling through the group as we sank deeper into a mindset of complaining and criticism and identifying with the problem. Sometimes a threshold was crossed and a toxic, hardened sense of negativity, what Trungpa would call negative negativity, began to emerge.
Sometimes a gentle and friendly slap in the face is precisely what we need to snap us out of the trance of negativity and allow us to see our situation and our world with sudden clarity.
Once, I was at a meeting where one of the other monks saw this happening and suddenly cut through it with a sharply worded rebuke. He reminded us, in no uncertain terms, how fortunate we were to be living in the monastery, what a rich opportunity it was, and how positive and beneficial the circumstances there actually were for our spiritual paths. We were all taken aback by the sharpness of this reminder. The bubble of negativity that had begun to swell in the group was popped. Fresh air could flow into our minds, and we were able to see how our own stinking thinking had been coloring and clouding our experience in that very moment. We’d backed ourselves into a corner, and suddenly someone came along and informed us, bluntly, that it was an ugly corner — dark, smelly, and full of trash — and there was absolutely no reason why we should stay there. Sometimes a gentle and friendly slap in the face is precisely what we need to snap us out of the trance of negativity and allow us to see our situation and our world with sudden clarity.
As the Buddha said in the opening verses of the Dhammapada, our thoughts and our attitudes determine our destiny:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
— Excerpted from the new book You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are. From Chapter 2, "Stinking Thinking."
Related Article on IDP: The Trance of Negative Thinking
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