Psychology

A Thin Slice of Love…

The videotape of Bill and Sue’s discussion seems, at least at first, to be a random sample of a very ordinary kind of conversation that couples have all the time. No one gets angry. There are no scenes, no breakdowns, no epiphanies. “I’m just not a dog person” is how Bill starts things off, in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice. He complains a little bit – about the dog, not about Susan. She complains, too, but there are also moments when they simply forget that they are supposed to be arguing. When the subject of whether the dog smells comes up, for example, Bill and Sue banter back and forth happily, both with a half smile on their lips.

Sue: Sweetie! She’s not smelly….

Bill: Did you smell her today?

Sue: I smelled her. She smelled good. I petted her, and my hands didn’t stink or feel oily. Your hands have never smelled oily.

Bill: Yes, sir.

Sue: I’ve never let my dog get oily.

Bill: Yes, sir. She’s a dog.

Sue: My dog has never gotten oily. You’d better be careful.

Bill: No, you’d better be careful.

Sue: No, you’d better be careful….Don’t call my dog oily, boy.

How much do you think can be learned about Sue and Bill’s marriage by watching that fifteen minute videotape? Can we tell if their relationship is healthy or unhealthy? I suppose that most us would say that Bill and Sue’s dog talk doesn’t tell us much. It’s much too short. Marriages are buffeted by more important things, like money and sex and children and job and in-laws, in constantly changing combinations. Sometimes couples are very happy together. Some days they fight. Sometimes they feel as though they could almost kill each other, but then they go on vacation and come back sounding like newlyweds.

In order to “know” a couple, we feel as though we have to observe them over many weeks and months and see them in every state – happy, tired, angry, irritated, delighted, having a nervous breakdown, and so on  – and not just in the relaxed and chatty mode that Bill and Sue seemed to be in. To make an accurate prediction about something as serious as the future of marriage – indeed, to make a prediction of any sort – it seems that we would have to gather a lot of information and in as many different contexts as possible.

But John Gottman has proven that we don’t have to do that at all. Since the 1908s, Gottman has brought more than three thousand married couples – just like Bill and Sue – into that small room in his “love lab” near the University of Washington campus. Each couple has been videotaped, and the results have been analyzed according to something Gottman dubbed SPAFF (for specific affect) , a coding system that has twenty separate categories corresponding to every second of the couple’s interaction, so that a fifteen minute conflict discussion ends up being translated into a row of eighteen hundred numbers – nine hundred for the husband and nine hundred for the wife…On the basis of those calculations, Gottman has proven something remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later.

*All text referenced is taken from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell*