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

What factors can impact relationship satisfaction? The Gottman Relationship Blog explores the research and what you can do.

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From 1980 to 1983, Dr. John Gottman and his close friend and colleague Dr. Robert Levenson worked together to study the physiological and affective predictors of change in relationship satisfaction. Physiological predictors (like heart rate, pulse transmission, and skin conductivity) were observed and measured as levels of physical arousal in subjects, while affective predictors were observed in behaviors indicating the presence of various emotions and mood states. In this study, Drs. Gottman and Levenson sought to discover which physiological and affective cues could be used to predict the change in a couple’s relationship satisfaction over a span of 3 years.

In 1980, 30 married couples were recruited by newspaper advertisement and were scheduled for three laboratory sessions. The first session was scheduled for a time when the couple would not have spoken to each other for at least 8 hours. This session consisted of two 15-min conversations, each preceded by a five-minute pre-interactional baseline during which they sat in silence. In the first conversation, the couple was asked to discuss the “events of the day” as if they were home alone at the day’s end. 

In the second conversation, they discussed a conflictive problem area in their marriage. In the second and third sessions, each spouse returned separately to view the videotape of the first session’s interaction. A continuous rating of effect was obtained by having the spouse manipulate a rating dial that traversed a 9-point scale (anchored by very negative and very positive on the extremes and by neutral at the center). Spouses were instructed to adjust the dial as often as necessary so that it always reflected the way they felt during the interaction. A laboratory computer monitored the position of the dial continuously and calculated an average every 10 seconds.

Four physiological measures were obtained from each spouse during the first session’s baselines and interactions: (a) heart rate, measured by the interbeat interval (IBI); (b) pulse transmission time (PTT) to the finger; (c) skin conductance level (SCL); and (d) general somatic activity (ACT), a global measure of bodily movement. The laboratory computer monitored these physiological variables continuously, averaging them every 10 seconds.

In 1983, the researchers were able to make contact with 19 of these couples to determine the change in their relationship satisfaction over the preceding 3 years. 

Their Findings

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.

Several effective variables also predicted decline in marital satisfaction, including a pronounced gender difference in negative affect reciprocity: Marital satisfaction declined most when husbands did not reciprocate their wives’ negative affect, and when wives did reciprocate their husbands’ negative affect.

In other words, couples grew less satisfied in marriage if wives responded to their husbands being upset, and their husbands DID NOT respond to their wives being upset.

Wait, what?

Drs. Gottman and Levenson discuss these surprising findings at length in their study, which you can read for yourself here.

Here is a summary. The evidence points to the following reasons for such results:

  • In dissatisfied marriages, husbands tend to withdraw emotionally (stonewall) in negative interactions while wives remain emotionally engaged. Men also show less affection while women continue to demonstrate affection.
  • The experimental data indicate that a husband’s emotional withdrawal in dissatisfied marriages is pervasive. As the husband begins to become withdrawn from his wife, she shows more negative affect. One might consider this dichotomy to be a sign of his wife’s initial attempts to coax her husband back into the relationship.
  • The wives in the study appeared to be more attuned to the quality of emotional interchange. As marital satisfaction declined, the interaction between the couple appeared to reinforce the behaviors specific to each partner. The husband’s stonewalling made the wife more dissatisfied, her negative affect increased, in turn making her husband feel less satisfied with the relationship. 

Once this vicious cycle has begun, it is difficult to stop, but there’s no cause to fret. Fortunately, Dr. Gottman’s decades of research following this study allow him to develop methods that you can use to avoid this cycle entirely. Whether you feel free or trapped in a downward spiral, this cycle can be vanquished for good through the practical skills of Gottman Method Therapy. Check out Dr. Gottman’s bestselling book, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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