In relationships that are working well, the couple’s interaction style is constructive, affirming, and enjoyable. In unhappy relationships, the interaction style may be destructive, defeating, and dismal. Over time, a couple develops a set of expectations about the prospect of interacting, grounded in their past experience. In happy relationships, there is an expectation of pleasure and a sense of optimism that becomes associated with the anticipation of interaction, whether it is sharing the events of the day after a period of separation or working on a problem that needs to be solved. In unstable relationships, an expectation of displeasure, dread, and pessimism may evolve, because past interactions, whether they be over mundane or profound issues, have been experienced as highly punishing.
Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Levenson believed that it was these pleasurable or unpleasurable expectations that accounted for the differences in physiological arousal they observed during the periods of their study they used to measure “baseline:” when couples sat facing each other for five minutes in silence, knowing that they would soon be engaged in interaction. Couples’ expectations were then carried over into the interactions themselves, which the subjects had consistently indicated were prototypical of the kind of interactions they’d had in the past.
This perspective led the researchers to hypothesize about several distinguishing characteristics of the couples observed in 1980 whose marital satisfaction declined most over the 3-year study. These couples had the most punishing interactions in the past and the least hope of improving these interactions in the future.
For them, the interaction required by the study’s experimental procedures was troublesome, then unsettling, and ultimately, highly physiologically arousing. These couples experienced the negative effects of fear, anger, and sadness— fear of the impending interaction, anger toward each other, and sadness about the bleak prospects for their marriage.
The physiological measures used in the study confirmed this hypothesis. A broadly based pattern of physiological arousal in both spouses in 1980 predicted a decline in marital satisfaction. The more physiologically aroused the couple was during the 1980 interactions, the more their marital satisfaction declined over the following 3 years.
As research shows, when one partner experiences hypervigilance (an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats), it is because they developed this response to an interaction with their spouse through repeated experience. When time passes and this response is triggered over and over again, their physiological arousal may throw them into fight-or-flight mode. When completely overwhelmed, it may cause them to shut down the system completely and stonewall.
Men are more likely to rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts than women. This may prologue their physiological arousal and hypervigilance. Also, it causes their partners to flare up in response, until one by one, each partner is brought to a point of emotional detachment and avoidance.
When physiological arousal accompanies relationship conflict, it may lead to (a) a decrease in one’s ability to take in information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture), (b) an increase in defensiveness, (c) a reduction in the ability for creative problem solving, and (d) a reduction in the ability to listen and empathize.