February 13, 2023

Q&A with Dr. Stephanie Taylor: How To Identify and Manage Conflict in Relationships [PART 1 of 3]

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We sat down with one of UCEBT's couples specialists, Dr. Stephanie Taylor, to ask about conflict in relationships. What's it all about? Why is it important? How can it be managed? Read along in part 1 of this three part series to see what Dr. Taylor says about the role of conflict in relationships.

Dr. Taylor: I would like to get started with a couple of disclaimers about this. I'll just be going over a couple of things based on the Gottman method. But this is not a substitute for couples therapy. And nothing that I talk about today is meant to be used in relationships where there are severe cases of infidelity or affairs happening, substance abuse, domestic violence. And in fact, most of the Gottman method isn't really used for these types of issues. 

So why the Gottman method? 

I like the fact that there is a lot of evidence that supports this approach. And I think the most interesting thing to me about this is it comes from John Gottman himself.

He's pulling through lots of different modalities, a lot of different research studies. But he also did his own research and then together with his wife, formed it into an actual therapy. 

I think my first introduction to the Gottman method was a long time ago reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell. It was called Blink. It introduced some crazy information about the research that John Gottman was doing. And I remember I had very little exposure to the field of psychology or even research and just being completely blown away by some of those stats.

So as I've gotten into things more professionally and wanting to work with couples, it was the Gottman method, 100%. I've always been fascinated with it. 

Gottman really did some crazy research. He did longitudinal research where he studied couples for decades. And then he did some pretty intense observational studies as well. His research lab was actually made to resemble a bed and breakfast. So he'd invite these couples to come in. There are cameras all over. Lots of different things were being measured, including physiologically looking at things in the camera like microexpressions, body language, even tonality of voice was being analyzed. And they were looking at not just how couples respond in everyday interactions, but also what it's like when there is conflict, when they are having these fights. And what they found and what they were really trying to understand is what creates a successful relationship as opposed to an unsuccessful relationship.

What are some the stats from Gottman’s research?

They actually found they were able to predict which couples would stay together and which couples would get a divorce with over 90% accuracy. That's enormous accuracy. And then even just after 15 minutes of observing a couple interacting typically over an area of continued disagreement, they could predict if that relationship would last with 85% accuracy. And then, of course, with the longitudinal piece following these couples around for more than a decade, they could not only predict if, but when a couple would get divorced. So obviously, someone who's interested in evidence-based treatments and the research behind everything that I do, I was just blown away by these numbers. 

What are the predictors that go into successful versus unsuccessful relationships?

They found two key components of what they shifted their research towards. The first one is “positivity ratio”, and then the second one is the “Four Horsemen”. I'm going to break these down. The positivity ratio is the amount of positivity versus negativity that goes into these.

So positivity could be asking about interest, asking questions, being empathetic, showing affection. Negativity would be criticism, hostility, anger, the amount of hurt feelings happening and interactions. 

What they found was that in successful relationships when there was a conflict, there was a 5 to 1 positive to negative ratio. And so basically, if you do something that hurts your partner's feelings, then you have to make up for it with five positive things. And I think you can see that equation is not at all balanced. So the negativity carries a lot more weight; it has a lot more ability to inflict damage and pain, and the positive things have to sort of heal or bring a couple closer together. 

What about the couples whose relationships ended so unsuccessfully? Those couples had a 0.8 to 1 positive to negative. So we've got slightly more negativity with couples who were headed towards divorce or breakup. This is with couples who are in conflict. They were curious about what that looks like just in everyday interaction. 

Remember, John Gottman had this elaborate lab, you know, bed and breakfast couples are just doing couple of things. And they noticed that in those successful relationships, there was a 20 to 1 positive to negative ratio just in everyday interaction. They were able to create this enormously rich climate of warmth and humor, affection, attention, intimacy, empathy, fun. I mean, there were some very clear differences in how these couples are interacting, not engaged in conflict. 

Read on for Part 2 of 3 on the role of conflict in relationships.