The Scientific Basis for The Orcas Island Couples' Retreat
Some of the Basic Research Findings
Conflict | Friendship and Positivity | Shared Meaning
Research Findings about Conflict
The question of how the masters are different from the disasters of relationship has guided our research. Contrary to Bach's idea that airing resentments solves everything, we discovered that gentleness is the key to dealing with conflicts. Equally important, we learned that trying to solve every conflict is misguided. Our research revealed that most conflict (69%) in relationships is perpetual. It has no resolution, because it is based on lasting differences in personalities and needs. Couples can either have gentle dialogues about these perpetual issues, or they can live in a state of "gridlock," that is, a state of painful impasse. For the 31% of conflicts that are solvable, certain specific skills smooth the process. So we discovered that what couples need are conflict management and dialogue skills rather than help with solving every problem.
We also identified in our research which relationship skills are the right ones to build. The skills based in gentleness work best to produce happy and lasting relationships. For example, we found that partners who are "masters" soften the way they bring up an issue; they accept influence from one another; they maintain about a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions during conflict regardless of the type of marriage they have (from volatile to conflict avoiding); they consistently communicate acceptance of one another; they keep their level of physiological arousal low; they pre-empt negativity in the interaction; they repair the interaction and de-escalate if it does become negative; and they move gently toward compromise. In contrast, partners who are "disasters" in their relationships either escalate their negative expressions during conflict and voice very little that is positive, or they maintain a state of icy, emotional disengagement. [Want to read more? See John Gottman's book, What Predicts Divorce?] We teach the conflict skills the "masters" practice on Day Two of our retreat.
Furthermore, it turned out that, hidden in each partner's position on their perpetual issue, there is a "hidden agenda," a nugget of deep and personal meaning for that partner. Partners have the same argument over and over again precisely because each person's position is embedded with deep personal beliefs, values, or a dream, in other words, an existential foundation, so that compromise seems completely unthinkable. For example, partners may be talking about the budget, but instead, in order to make progress, they need to discuss what money means to each of them, like freedom, power, love, or justice. This finding led to our "Dreams Within Conflict" approach, which is taught and practiced on Day Two of our retreat.
In our research we also developed an understanding of the role of psychophysiology in couples' relationships. Studies by John and his colleague, Robert Levenson, demonstrated the importance of autonomic variables (like heart rate and blood velocity) in predicting the long term course of relationship happiness. They discovered that once people become autonomically aroused into a state of alarm and defense which we call "diffuse physiological arousal," there are severe limits on their ability to process information, to listen, to laugh, to be affectionate, to be empathetic, and do creative problem solving. Thus, moderating physiological arousal is an extremely important skill in conflict management – this, too, is discussed on Day Two of our retreat.
Research Findings about Friendship and Positivity
Although down-regulating negativity and maintaining calm are important in a relationship, especially in a discussion of conflict, we have learned that it is not enough. Building a positive atmosphere of appreciation, respect and affection, both during conflict and in general in the relationship (in everyday interaction), turns out to be essential to ensure lasting change. And it needs to be focused on directly. Good friendship and intimacy between partners doesn't spontaneously arise just because conflicts are smoother. In the research, we isolated the factors that the "masters of relationship" practice to sustain their positive connection. These include
turning toward bids for emotional connection, creating emotional intimacy by knowing each other's internal worlds, and building other positive systems such as courtship, romance, good sex, playfulness, fun, and adventure. [Want to read more? See Gottman & DeClaire's book, The Relationship Cure.] These friendship- and intimacy-building skills are the focus during Day One of our retreat.
Research Findings about Shared Meaning
Through our studies, we also found that good friendship, intimacy, and constructive conflict need to be supplemented by helping couples to build a shared meaning system. Partners need to identify and communicate their sense of life's purpose and the meaning they assign to their daily moments. They need to reveal to one another their priorities and values, their goals and missions, their ethics and morality, their overall philosophy of life, and their views on religion and spirituality. They also need to describe the legacy they've inherited from their families and cultures, so that, combining all of these together, they can build an existential basis for their lives.
In summary, the theory that we have developed in our laboratory represents a systematic approach to these goals for strengthening relationships: building overall positivity during non-conflict times, reducing negativity and increasing positivity during conflict discussions, and creating a shared sense of meaning. When these goals are worked on, relationships improve – both those that are conflict-ridden or emotionally disengaged. Our theory is called the "Sound Relationship House."