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 that is 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. 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 5 min 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 would have 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 would have been troublesome, then unsettling, and ultimately, highly physiologically arousing. These couples were experiencing the negative affects 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. As we mentioned on Monday, a broadly based pattern of physiological arousal (in both spouses) in 1980 was found to predict 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 our 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 have 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, or, when completely overwhelmed, to shut down the system completely – to stonewall.

Men are more likely to rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts than women, which may prologue their physiological arousal and hypervigilance, often causing 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.

If you take a moment to think about it, you can probably remember instances in which you’ve experienced or observed this kind of thing – being handicapped in all of these ways does not exactly make for healthy or productive interactions. We all know how it feels to be overwhelmed, but don’t all have the tools to fight this feeling. As promised, we will end this week on the practical application of our research findings. This Friday, we will share some of the tools Dr. Gottman’s years of research have uncovered for avoiding this problem entirely!


More in The Research
The Research: Physiological and Affective Predictors of Change in Relationship Satisfaction Part II

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.