When knowing isn't enough

I have been reading John Gottman's latest book "The Science of Trust."  It is an interesting read on the subject with some great little tangents into history of science which I really appreciate.  Gottman became famous after he was featured in "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell because Gottman is able to predict with great accuracy if a couple will divorce based on very short interactions. 

I love Gottman's approach to relationship questions.  He is a social scientist perhaps first and foremost.  He has spent years having couples come into his lab and seeing what they do that works and what doesn't.  He has discovered that much of what therapists thought was true about relationships wasn't.  In some ways, thanks to Gottman, now is the best time in recent history to seek help for your relationship.  Gottman has identified what he calls "the four horseman of the apocalypse" for relationships; contempt, criticism, stonewalling and defensiveness.  Couples where these are regular features of conflict are likely to set off a cascade of negative feelings that can be very hard to recuperate from.

My biggest dissatisfaction with the book -- and with other things that he has written -- is that it seems to say that people should "Just stop it."

Sometimes I feel like Gottman's prescription is; Read the book, understand the pain you are causing yourself and your partner and don't do it anymore.  (John Gottman is a couple and family therapist as well as a researcher and I would love to know what his therapy is like and in what ways, if any, he goes beyond a psycho-educational model).

This approach is useful for couples who are feeling some rockiness and want some tips to help them address it.  But I find it limited for the couples who go into a therapist's office or the therapist who treats them.  These couples usually say something like 'I know I probably shouldn't ____________ (fill in the blank: criticize, stonewall, put my partner down, insult my partner) but when s/he does ______________ (fill in the blank) I can't help it.'

There is a limit to the power of our intellects to think our way out of emotional entanglements.  There are a few times in my career where I have instructed people to stop some really destructive behaviour and they have listened to what I said and then complied.  I can count those moments on one hand.  Usually, by the time I see people, they know that what they are doing is hurting them and/or the people around them and they continue to do it.   So far as I have gotten in the book, Gottman describes these "absorbing" states in which the interactions are "nasty-nasty" very well and documents the destructive consequences of them for a relationship.  He says that they are not subject to the same game-theory model he proposes for the other elements of relationships in which people in a couple act rationally by maximizing their payoffs.  He determined 'payoff' by having people rate the payoff for the interaction after the fact while watching video of themselves interacting.  They rate these very miserable moments as very low on payoff.  Why then do they get into these states?  Why not "Just stop it?"  Gottman's answer, as far as I understand it, seems to be a sort of black box; it is an absorbing state, not subject to rationality.  Deal with other states, foster more neutral or positive states when couples are in them and try to keep the couple away from the powerful gravitational pull of these interactions. 

Assessing payoff for these highly negative states in the way Gottman describes might be subject to an important methodological flaw that has implications for therapy; the payoff is clear at the time but hard to access afterwards.  My experience both personally and professionally is that when someone is very angry and in conflict with another person, especially a loved one, the assessment of 'payoff' changes dramatically.  After people really stop being angry, they will often say that they don't understand what happened when they were angry, why they acted the way they did.  They may even have trouble recalling the details of what happened.  There is a sense of dissonance or discontinuity with the angry state.  While a person who is very angry may make decisions that are incomprehensible to him/her later, those decisions make good sense to the angry person who is feeling extremely negatively stimulated; s/he wants to eliminate the negative stimulation.  This poses a problem for a person who is angry about the relationship because his or her partner is both the cause and the cure for the negative stimulation.  That's why we do things that both hurt our partners and simultaneously try to keep them under our control by either keeping them near or at a safe distance. 

Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, has a different take on this from Gottman that I think makes a good counter-point here.  She sees couples in therapy as needing to work on what I think of as the operating system level rather than the software level.  Those absorbing negative states need to be addressed precisely because they are not subject to intellectual scrutiny in the cold, hard light of day.  When I am calm and able to reflect, I do not have access to my operating system, to all the things that are going on in a primal emotional state.  I have to go to that state.  My partner comes along with me and if I experience my partner as a supportive figure (a positive attachment figure; Johnson's EFT is very attachment-based), then when I re-enter that state I will turn towards my partner rather than seeking to hurt and control.