2. Marriage and Morse Code
I watched the videotape of Bill and Sue with Amber Tabares, a graduate student in Gottmans lab who is a trained SPAFF coder. We sat in the same room that Bill and Sue used, watching their interaction on a monitor. The conversation began with Bill. He liked their old dog, he said. He just didnt like their new dog. He didnt speak angrily or with any hostility. It seemed like he genuinely just wanted to explain his feelings.
If we listened closely, Tabares pointed out, it was clear that Bill was being very defensive. In the language of SPAFF, he was cross-complaining and engaging in yes-but tacticsappearing to agree but then taking it back. Bill was coded as defensive, as it turned out, for forty of the first sixty-six seconds of their conversation. As for Sue, while Bill was talking, on more than one occasion she rolled her eyes very quickly, which is a classic sign of contempt. Bill then began to talk about his objection to the pen where the dog lives. Sue replied by closing her eyes and then assuming a patronizing lecturing voice. Bill went on to say that he didnt want a fence in the living room. Sue said, I dont want to argue about that, and rolled her eyesanother indication of contempt. Look at that, Tabares said. More contempt. Weve barely started and weve seen him be defensive for almost the whole time, and she has rolled her eyes several times.
At no time as the conversation continued did either of them show any overt signs of hostility. Only subtle things popped up for a second or two, prompting Tabares to stop the tape and point them out. Some couples, when they fight, fight. But these two were a lot less obvious. Bill complained that the dog cut into their social life, since they always had to come home early for fear of what the dog might do to their apartment. Sue responded that that wasnt true, arguing, If shes going to chew anything, shes going to do it in the first fifteen minutes that were gone. Bill seemed to agree with that. He nodded lightly and said, Yeah, I know, and then added, Im not saying its rational. I just dont want to have a dog.
Tabares pointed at the videotape. He started out with Yeah, I know. But its a yes-but. Even though he started to validate her, he went on to say that he didnt like the dog. Hes really being defensive. I kept thinking, Hes so nice. Hes doing all this validation. But then I realized he was doing the yes-but. Its easy to be fooled by them.
Bill went on: Im getting way better. Youve got to admit it. Im better this week than last week, and the week before and the week before.
Tabares jumped in again. In one study, we were watching newlyweds, and what often happened with the couples who ended up in divorce is that when one partner would ask for credit, the other spouse wouldnt give it. And with the happier couples, the spouse would hear it and say, Youre right. That stood out. When you nod and say uh-huh or yeah, you are doing that as a sign of support, and here she never does it, not once in the entire session, which none of us had realized until we did the coding.
Its weird, she went on. You dont get the sense that they are an unhappy couple when they come in. And when they were finished, they were instructed to watch their own discussion, and they thought the whole thing was hilarious. They seem fine, in a way. But I dont know. They havent been married that long. Theyre still in the glowy phase. But the fact is that shes completely inflexible. They are arguing about dogs, but its really about how whenever they have a disagreement, shes completely inflexible. Its one of those things that could cause a lot of long-term harm. I wonder if theyll hit the seven-year wall. Is there enough positive emotion there? Because what seems positive isnt actually positive at all.