Marriage 102

For Valentine's Day, 2014, I wrote "Marriage 101." This is the sequel. In "Marriage 101" I recommended books by John Gottman and coauthors:

John Gottman and his research team are famous for using observations in their "Love Lab" to predict long in advance which marriages are more likely to succeed and which are more likely to fail.

Recently, I read another book by John Gottman and coauthors with an embarrassing pop-psychology title, but excellent content:

Upon reading, I kicked myself for things I had been stupidly doing or not doing, even after almost a third of a century of marriage to my wife Gail. And for many of the insights, I had to remind myself of my standing resolution to face the truth, even if to get myself to face the truth I have to promise myself I don't have to do anything about it. But it was worth it, despite those feelings of distress.

Except where I note otherwise, all quotations below are from this book by John, Julie, Doug and Rachel. There is some good advice in the book that I don't feel comfortable talking about here. But below are some insights and bits of advice I do feel comfortable writing about.


The first insight is about attunement. Here is the lead-in: 

In our Love Lab, we found that women have two major complaints about men. The first complaint is: “He is never there for me.” The second complaint is: “There isn’t enough intimacy and connection.” These women feel alone even when they are in a relationship. In many ways, these are related complaints. These women cannot trust their men to be there for them when they need them. Most of the time, this is about being there for them emotionally: listening to them, caring for them, and safeguarding their hearts.

In contrast, men have two major complaints about women: “There’s too much fighting, and there’s not enough sex.” Sound familiar? These men are also lonely even when they are in a relationship. We found that men actually want intimacy just as much as women, but they feel that intimacy when there’s less fighting and more sex.

These separate complaints from men and women are, in fact, causally related and can be addressed through a simple skill we like to call attunement. When men “attune” to their women, there is less fighting, more frequent (and better) sex, and both men and women no longer feel so alone. It is also the skill that leads to genuine emotional connection, which in turn leads to trust, which in turn leads to you giving women the number one thing they need and want. In other words, this is a big deal.

How does one attune?

ATTEND. Give your undivided attention when it’s needed. ...

TURN TOWARD. This is not a metaphor or a new age expression. Physically. Turn. Toward. Your. Partner. ...

UNDERSTAND. No matter what she is saying, the goal is understanding. And how you get to understanding is by asking questions. If the woman in your life is complaining about her best friend, don’t offer a solution, don’t try to distract her, don’t think of how you can “fix” the problem, don’t make jokes, and don’t minimize the problem. Ask questions about what she is feeling and what it all means to her. This part of attuning is not about saying “I understand”; it’s about showing genuine interest and attempting to understand why this is important to her. Whether she is complaining about her mother, frustrated with her boss, or pissed off at you—let understanding be your goal.

NONDEFENSIVELY LISTEN. If you are paying attention, turning toward her, and seeking understanding, you are well on your way down the path of nondefensive listening. This is especially important if what a woman is talking about or is upset about is you. Don’t react. No one likes to be criticized or feel like they are under attack. But the tricky thing is, if you counterattack, make excuses, justify, or argue, you are only going to be criticized more. Don’t interrupt and don’t forget that any feeling is fact to the person feeling it. Whether or not you agree with her reactions or how she sees reality, her feelings are real to her in that moment. You only need to listen to her express them. ... The men who were able to “downregulate” their anger (in other words, calm themselves down and not overreact), were the men with great relationships.

EMPATHIZE. For you Trekkies out there, think of empathy as a Vulcan mind meld. For those of you thinking you’ve already covered this with the whole “understanding” thing, think again. Understanding is an intellectual pursuit, while empathy is an emotional pursuit. ... Clue in to the emotions she’s expressing. How do you do this? You can ask her how she feels (genius). You can also read her body language. ...

If some part of you is screaming, “If I do this, she will roll right over me—she’ll win!” remember that attuning with how she feels doesn’t mean that you agree with everything that she says, just that you hear her—that you “get it.”


The second insight is how real physical fear is for most women. Here is the story from the book illustrating that:

Both Lynn and Mike were frustrated by a marriage that seemed to have turned more into a weird form of competitive living than a partnership. In desperation, Lynn grabbed Mike and brought him to a workshop about understanding women. ...

The woman who was leading the workshop began by asking one question: “This is for the men, first. How many of you have ever feared for your life or your physical well-being?” After a long pause, a few of the 50 men in the room raised a hand. “When was the last time you feared for your life or your physical well-being?” There was an awkward silence for a bit, but eventually the men started raising their hands to answer.

“Well, there was this one time way back in high school when I got into a fist fight,” one man explained.

Another said, “Once, about 10 years ago, when I had too much to drink and ended up in a really bad neighborhood in Los Angeles. It was just for a moment.”

“In Vietnam,” said a third, who was a veteran.

As each of the men answered, it became clear that the awkward silence wasn’t about feeling uncomfortable answering the question, it was because they were struggling to remember a time when they felt fear for their safety. All of the examples the men gave were from 10, 20, 30, or more years in the past.

Next she asked the women. “How many of you have ever been afraid for your life?” Every female hand in the room went into the air. “How many of you have been afraid in the last 6 months?” Again, every hand went in the air. “How about in the last month?” “The last week?” Every hand was raised. Finally she asked the question, “How many of you were nervous or fearful walking through the hotel parking garage to come to this workshop?” Again, every hand was raised, including Lynn’s.

One day recently, I forgot to close the garage door and it was open all night. Because I think of us as living in a relatively safe neighborhood, this didn't seem like a big deal to me. But reading the passage above helped me understand how it was a bigger deal to my wife. 

It's Hard to Like One's Own Body

In a good relationship, the two partners are attracted to one another's bodies. So it can be hard to understand how they don't always feel this way about their own bodies. Here was an interesting story to back up the authors' claim that "most women have a painful relationship with the image they see in the mirror," and not just women: 

When John was a young assistant professor at Indiana University, he wanted to take a summer workshop offered by the Kinsey Institute. They agreed to let him in for free if he would run one group session consisting of six men and six women. Most of them were sex therapists. The group discussion was to be stimulated by an initial exercise the Kinsey Institute designed. Each person had to describe how he or she felt about his or her body overall, and then they each had to choose a specific body part and tell the group how they felt about it.

Now John thought this would be a pretty easy group to run, but as he looked at the 12 participants it struck him that this was an unusually attractive group of people. The women were quite beautiful and the men all very handsome. Apparently sex therapists are an attractive bunch. John thought the exercise would end up being a dud, since he imagined each of these attractive people would say, “Look at me, look at how sexy I am, how great I look. I need to pick some part of my body? Well, I love every part of my body. What’s not to love?”

It turned out John was wrong—really, really wrong. Every one of these men and women hated their bodies. A woman would say, “I don’t like my body. I’m too fat. These are my breasts. I hate them the most. They’re too small and they droop too much.” The men were just as bad. It seems men are not immune to having painful relationships with their bodies, too.

I have always been grateful that economics is a discipline in which it is OK to be ugly. Indeed, to my eye, many Nobel prize winners in economics are well below the population average in good looks. This is as one would predict as talented people who are also good looking are preferentially drawn into other fields where the payoff for good looks is greater, leaving an enriched group of talented but ugly people within economics. But while basking in the relative lack of need for good looks in economics, empathy requires remembering that there are many other contexts where good looks matter more, and people can reasonably get anxious about their looks. 

Differences in Approaching Sex

Although men and women are alike in many ways, their attitudes towards when to have sex are on average quite different. One of the clearest evidences of this is the much higher frequency of sex among gay men than among lesbian women. I appreciated the careful way the authors described this difference:

The difference between men and women is often expressed this way: Women need to feel emotionally connected to have sex, and men need to have sex to feel emotionally connected. But we think the statement that men have fewer prerequisites than women fits the data better. ...

The prerequisites women have aren’t always about emotional closeness. Sometimes they are about being exhausted, or distracted, or not feeling well, or a host of other considerations. The evidence is pretty clear that despite all of these confounding factors, men are usually willing to overlook them and have sex anyway. Sexual desire for women is a barometer. If she’s not happy, or rested, or healthy, or feeling supported and loved, she’s not going to feel a whole lot of sexual desire.

Assuming the prerequisites are in order, the authors give an important secret for more frequent sex if that is what you desire:

Interestingly, women agree to sex at the same rate that men do. Psychologists Sandra Byers, PhD, and Larry Heinlein, PhD, conducted a study in which 22 men and 55 women were asked to keep records of their sexual encounters. The research found that males initiated and considered initiating sex more often than women, with cohabiting men initiating more than married. However, there were no differences between men and women in their responses to initiations. Both men and women responded positively to initiations or bids for sex about 75 percent of the time. Mostly these initiations were nonverbal. They started with emotional connection, romance, then affection, kissing, caressing, and, if the signals were right, moved on to erotic touch. The bottom line of this research is, ask her for sex. You have a 75 percent chance that she’ll say yes, assuming all else is going well—she is rested, connected, unstressed, and feeling safe.

Most importantly, don’t take it personally if she says no. 

Of course, this success rate of 75 percent is in an endogenous equilibrium; asking more often may cause the success rate to decline somewhat. But even a little bit lower success rate can make an attempt well worth it. 

Handling Arguments

Every couple will have arguments; or at least any couple that doesn't is so abnormal, I would worry about them. In my post "Marriage 101," I made this point: 

In an argument, if each partner comes back with 101% of the irate heat the other just gave, things will explode. But if each partner ratchets down the intensity to 99% of the intensity of the last remark, things will eventually calm down.* So a small difference in reaction pattern can be the difference between an explosion and something that simmers down.

Let's pursue the details of how to damp down one's reaction. First, what kinds of anger is one likely to face?

Sandra Thomas from the University of Tennessee led the Women’s Anger Study, the first “large-scale, comprehensive, empirical study of the everyday anger of ordinary women.” Her research found that the causes of women’s anger could be rooted in one or more of three categories: powerlessness, injustice, and the irresponsibility of other people.

Second, what are the ways of responding most likely to cause trouble, and where does the temptation to respond that way come from?

We’re going to let you in on two secrets we discovered in the Love Lab. First, men get more emotionally flooded and overwhelmed than women do in a conflict situation. And second, once flooded, only men who are able to reduce their heart rates are able to decrease the amount of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling they contribute to the conflict. These four things are what we call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a relationship. ...

Does any of this sound familiar? These are all ways of escalating conflict. If your goal is to have less conflict with the woman [or man] in your life, avoid responding to her with stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, or contempt. It’s self-defeating and a recipe for disaster. Yet this is what men do naturally when they get emotionally flooded.

Third, the origins and nature of the physiological state of being "flooded" follow a recognizable pattern: 

Flooding is the real enemy of constructive dialogue and productive conflict. While flooding has been described before, we now understand it much better because of recent research from the Love Lab. Flooding has three major components: (1) the shock of attack and the need to defend, (2) emotional shutdown, and (3) the inability to self-soothe. We also now know that flooding is the key variable in low-level domestic violence (fights that get out of control and turn into physical aggression). ...

Fourth, there are three tools to counteract flooding: 

... three simple strategies ... have been scientifically proven to reduce their heart rate. The first is to breathe and the second is to count to 10. Breathing and counting to 10 are ways of downregulating or self-soothing. When you take a deep breath you stimulate the vagus nerve, which in turn reduces your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. If you still feel no noticeable decrease in your desire to attack your woman verbally (or even physically), then the third strategy is to take a break. There is a difference, however, between taking a break and taking flight. You can’t just abandon your [partner] in the middle of a heated conversation. You have to say something to the effect of, “You know what, I’m having a hard time listening to you right now, and I will come back in 30 minutes so we can continue to talk.” ...

The third strategy of taking a break only works if it’s a break where you are not thinking about getting even or thinking about being an innocent victim of the alleged spear throwing. If you take a break but spend it thinking about either of these things, you are going to stay physically aroused and emotionally flooded. You need to totally distract yourself. The break needs to be at least 20 minutes long because it takes that long to diffuse the flooding hormones. If after 20 minutes you are still not calm, then come back to your partner and tell her you need a little more time before responding. In our research, we showed that after conflict a man’s heart rate did not lower when he thought about his wife’s negative qualities. Surprisingly, it also didn’t lower when he spent 20 minutes thinking about his wife’s positive qualities. Guess what lowered the heart rate of our participants: reading a magazine. What you need when you’re emotionally flooded is a distraction.

Finally, a productive approach to an attack is to always treat the action as being over there in the desires of your partner, instead of feeling it as a wound where you are. So information-gathering about one's partner's desires is what is called for:

It may feel like a personal attack, but the men who are great at being in relationships will try and find out what is going on underneath the complaint, or the issue, or the criticism. A Hero tries to find out where it hurts, and he does so by asking one or more of the following three important questions:

1. What do you need?

2. What are you concerned about?

3. What are you feeling?

Final Advice

Good authors make the final words of a book pack a punch. The authors give this warning:

What makes a relationship most vulnerable to betrayal is avoiding conflict and hiding parts of yourself so you don’t “rock the boat.” You may think it’s just easier to not say anything when either one of you is upset, but research shows that when there is a gradual pattern of conflict avoidance, there is increased emotional distance in the relationship.

And here are some of the final recommendations:

  • The 6-second kiss
  • Keep making time for dates
  • Keep getting to know your partner
  • Appreciate your partner
  • Honor your partner's dreams

It Matters

I have no doubt that as our measurement tools improve that the value for social welfare of strong, happy marriages and other romantic relationships will be shown to be immense. Valued by how much money it would take to compensate someone for a bad marriage, say—or even how much money one would have to lose to be as painful as a bad marriage—the cost of bad relationships around the world would be equal to many trillions of dollars every year.  As I wrote in "Economics Needs to Tackle All of the Big Questions in the Social Sciences," 

... economics should encompass every important social science question that those with training in economics are well suited to study. If economists have a comparative advantage in investigating an issue, that issue should be part of economics.

I wouldn't be surprised if there are some aspects of the question of improving marriages and other romantic relationships that economists are well-suited to address with the tools they are used to using in research. If so, that is well worth doing. And in the meanwhile, for both economists and non-economists, it is well worth applying in one's own life what sound scientific knowledge is available about making relationships better.