What Do the Marriage Experts Tell Us?

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couple in bedDuring a chat at a social event with a geology professor at an eminent university we discussed whether the neurochemistry of mating is behind the fragility of intimate relationships. He thought not, and sent me to two books on marriage, which he said supported his views.

The Mathematics of Marriage

The Mathematics of Marriage[1] is a recent team project, published by MIT, inspired by a mathematician. I had read about the related study suggesting that one can predict divorce from the ratio of positive to negative behaviors in the discussions of newlyweds, but not about the theoretical basis of the study. I was not surprised to discover that the real indicator of compatibility is a mate's basic perception of his/her partner. Mates who perceive their partners as basically good people, tend to see negative behaviors as temporary and explained by external factors, while people who perceive their partners as basically flawed, tend to see the positive behaviors as temporary and explained by external factors.

In short, the issue is one of fundamental perception, which somehow shifts soon after the honeymoon. (More on this below.)

'Mathematics of Marriage' coverIt was sobering to read the authors' summary of all the various (and sometimes diametrically opposed) academic theories of what makes a good marriage, as well as the author's assertion that, statistically, research had not supported the validity of any approach (including the popular model of "conscious" marriage, discussed below). In one case, actual research proved a popular theory dead wrong, although the theory meanwhile had a huge impact upon the marriage-counseling field. I refer to the "quid pro quo" approach of urging couples to negotiate everything. That behavior, it turns out, is more often found in failing marriages than successful ones - which is, of course, consistent with the theory that the neurochemistry of mating is causing deterioration. It creates a sense of depletion, making mates defensive and less likely to give selflessly.

For the marriage counseling buffs out there, here is the authors’ list of popular hypotheses that have been proposed, and stated as if they were truth, without much empirical backing:

  • Conflict avoidance and bickering about trivial issues are dysfunctional. (Raush et al., 1974)
  • A dominance structure is dysfunctional. (Gottman, 1979)
  • The lack of a dominance structure is dysfunctional. (Kolb and Straus, 1974)
  • A "demand-withdraw" pattern or a "pursuer-distancer" pattern is dysfunctional. (Heavey, Christensen, and Malamuth, 1995)
  • Not being able to change one another’s behavior is dysfunctional. (Jacobson and Margolin, 1979)
  • A good marriage is characterized by acceptance in which spouses accept one another as they are and do not try to get behavior change. (Jacobson and Christensen, 1998)
  • Poor problem solving is dysfunctional. (Jacobson, 1989)
  • Mind-reading," or attributing motives or behaviors to one’s spouse is dysfunctional. (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967)
  • Not meta-communicating is dysfunctional. (Bateson et al., 1956)
  • Need complimentarity is functional. (Winch, 1958)
  • Healthy marriage is not possible unless neuroses in one’s primary family are resolved. (Scharff and Scharff, 1991)
  • Most marital conflict is projection (Meissner, 1978), but first the marriage needs to become "conscious." (Hendrix, 1988)
  • Marriages start off happy, but over time "reinforcement erosion" occurs and that is the source of marital dysfunction. (Jacobson and Margolin, 1979)
  • Only equalitarian marriage is functional. (Schwartz, 1994)

Overall, the authors of Mathematics conclude that marriage therapy theories are at an impasse, as few couples obtained lasting relief from any of the models.

bickering coupleAnother meaty feature of the book was that it summarized research that shows how likely divorce is (up to 67% of all marriages now occurring are predicted to end in divorce according to one study), and how high the costs are in terms of the poorer health/survival of ex-spouses and their children.

Based on their work, the authors assert that training couples to be more positive than negative in their discussions is the most effective solution. Indeed, it may help some marriages to stay together. However, one can't deny that their research also clearly points to the main factor in marital disharmony as being a fundamental perceptual shift. I think that scientists will one day have to consider whether the neurochemistry of intimacy is part of that primary problem...despite their disinclination to believe that it is (due to its possible implications about our ideal behavior in the bedroom).

I would also add that I don't think the correct goal is just "holding marriages together," noble as that goal may be. I think the true goal is to correct, or prevent, the perceptual shift so that the relationship a is perceived as a haven of emotional security and source of trusted companionship. (In the book discussed below, Hendrix describes this ideal state as seeing one's partner as "the wellspring of life, rather than as the bringer of death." The Taoists would say this difference in perception can be profoundly influenced by how we make love.)

Marriage Firstaid KitPerhaps partner perception can be improved, without endless emotional processing, by addressing lovers’ neurochemistry and choosing behaviors that promote balance and a sensation of abundant energy. In my experience, the more balanced my neurochemistry, the more manageable my emotional issues. Similar observations are made by those who meditate regularly and others who employ mind-calming disciplines. However, using sex as a calming practice is more economical, because it rids us of a major up/down cycle at a neurochemical level, while gaining us the many health benefits of intimacy. In short, maybe we need to stop fighting ourselves at a neurochemical level if we wish to see more universal improvement.

Getting the Love You Want

Author Harville Hendrix is insightful, humble and sincere. His conclusions in (Getting the Love You Want[2]) Getting the Love You Want' cover align with our recommendations on some key points. For example, he insists that selfless acts are vital to healing the perception problem between spouses. He even makes the point that gifts to one's spouse are gifts to oneself, and I'm sure the oxytocin concept (of choosing nurturing behaviors in order to encourage the production of more oxytocin) would make perfect sense to him. He also mentions, more than once, the spiritual element of this process of healing another to heal one’s own childhood wounds.

One anecdote that stood out was his own description of the second day of his honeymoon after his first marriage. He said he saw his wife standing on the beach and suddenly realized that she had insufficient energy to give him, just like his own mother (who had 9 kids and a dead husband by the time Harville was 4). Here's the passage:

At that instant I felt a jolt of anxiety. This was immediately followed by the sick, sinking realization that I had married the wrong person. It was a strong feeling--I had to check an impulse to run back to the car and drive away....It was as if a veil had lifted for a moment, and then dropped back down.

Notice how he still assumes that his anxious perception was the true one...with the clear (?) hindsight gained from his failed marriage. Given that he was born in 1935, I suspect he probably had sex with his wife for the first time the night before this "insight." It's interesting to me that the next day is when he had this gut-wrenching experience that his wife could not fulfill his needs (projection of a sense of depletion?). One has to ask whether a neurochemical change brought on by sex might not have played a key role in his intense desire to bolt.

He assigns the incident to childhood trauma from having an exhausted mother. I'm sure that was an issue for him. However, the timing and visceral nature of his response suggest that some combination of androgen receptor shutdown, dopamine drop, and prolactin rise might also have accounted for his panic and projection that his new wife would have insufficient energy for him. Certainly, if he were feeling depleted at a subconscious level, such a projection would be a natural one.

He also notes that with his "reromanticization" technique (doing things for each other as gifts) for estranged couples, the relationship tends to go flat again within a couple of months. Isn’t it possible that their resumption of conventional sexual relations, which typically accompanies "reromanticization," might not be contributing to that flattening? He attributes the decline in effectiveness to the mates’ seeking the unconditional nurturing of a parent in each other (again) and being disappointed. Despite any validity of his observations, there may be neurochemistry highs and lows at work as well.

In my view, neither his work, nor the work of the Mathematics team negates the need to understand how the neurochemical shifts that accompany mating behavior may be altering our perception of our intimate partners for the worse - even as nature intended in order to achieve her objective of greater genetic diversity in our offspring. One day this insight may help to bickering coupleexplain why we so often feel that our needs are not being met in our intimate relationships, why we're always looking for more from our partners, and how such a recurring sensation can artificially weight our perception of our partner in that critical balance between "basically good" and "basically a jerk." It may turn out that some partners - at least 67%...not counting the "invisible divorce" candidates who are technically still married, but totally estranged - are simply more sensitive to the neurochemical fallout from sexual satiation.

Consider, for example, this tragic couple. I am not engaging in sensationalism by mentioning this story. I believe that it is merely an extreme case of the same category of feelings that Harville Hendrix himself had on his first honeymoon, that I've had, and that I have seen in the eyes of some of my partners over the years.

Some of us react to this natural hangover by wanting to run, others with aggression. Maybe if we assumed our fundamental innocence and emotional romantic couplehealth, we would be quicker to see that the biggest problem is a natural hangover, which can be avoided by learning to make love differently. It could be that the most reliable way to preserve happy unions is less complex (though perhaps not easier) to repair than we have assumed to date. For now, at least the experts are rapidly ruling out all other possible explanations.

  1. The Mathematics of Marriage, by Gottman, Murray, Swanson, Tyson, and Swanson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, 2002).
  2. Getting the Love You Want, by Harville Hendrix, HarperPerennial (New York, 1990).