HOW FIRST MARRIAGES CAN AFFECT SECOND MARRIAGE
By Kay Pasley, Ed.D.*
Having recently returned from SAA's annual conference, I've thought about Elizabeth Einstein's address where she demonstrated the way "baggage" from the first marriage carries over to a second marriage. This also has been of interest to scholars, many of whom have tried to shed light on the effects of prior experience by trying to figure out why second marriages have about the same chances of ending in divorce as first marriages. One explanation has been to suggest that remarriers are more willing to end a marriage. What these studies fail to do is to help us understand what it is about the way people interact in marriage that may prompt them to consider divorce as an option. I believe some of the recent work by John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, offers additional insight into the processes that lead to divorce, whether it's in a first or second marriage. And it is his body of work that will be described here in a ‘reader's digest version." His work spans two decades and includes information from over 2,000 couples.
Gottman has identified two patterns of interaction that occur over time in a relationship and move a couple toward terminating the marriage. He has found that couples whose communication is characterized by negativity are more likely to divorce. But he cautions that not all negativity is equally destructive. He talks about four behaviors that form the negativity pattern. This pattern begins with criticism and complaining (a more common starting place for wives) and leads to defensiveness. The partner who receives these defensive reactions likely responds with contempt (e.g., righteous indignation), and contempt leads to stonewalling (a more common behavior in husbands) that includes withdrawal behaviors, such as leaving the situation.
However, the negativity pattern alone doesn't tell the whole story. Gottman says that the negativity cascade leads to an isolation pattern consisting of flooding, cognitive distortions, and recasting of the marital history. Flooding is where a spouse or both spouses are overwhelmed by the intensity of their partner's responses, and they can't seem to accurately anticipate what the response may be. They see their relationship problems as severe and believe that together they can't work them out. They begin to live more parallel lives. As this continues, the beliefs partners hold about one another begin to change. Commonly, behaviors that were once "excused," laughed about, or understood as stemming from the situation, are now believed to be part of the individual him/herself.
For example, burping after a certain meal may have been OK initially; the couple may have even joked or laughed about it. Over time, however, it becomes less OK and more a sign of inconsiderate behavior, since the offended spouse has mentioned how much it bothers him/her. As a result, partners become hypervigilant to these behaviors and increasingly resentful when they show up. Once such behaviors are believed to be part of the individual and his/her personality, they are perceived as more difficult to change, as if "that's the way he/she is." These cognitive distortions lead to looking at the marriage through a more negative lens. Many of the good things about the shared past are forgotten and replaced with negative images and feeling about those images.
Gottman also has examined the physiological changes that occur when couples are distressed, and distress is part of both patterns of negativity and isolation. These studies show that cognitive distortion is more common when physiological stress is induced. A friend of mine who is a certified biofeedback specialist explained this to me. She said that the body responds to stressful situations by physiological change such as increased heart rate and decreased circulation (cold hands). Typically with these changes less oxygen goes to the brain which inhibits normal cognitive processes. So when we're distressed, we're less likely to hear things accurately or to think clearly and logically.
You're probably wondering what all this has to do with divorce among remarrieds. My thoughts are this. If these are behaviors we learned in a first marriage and failed to identify them then (or now) and worked to change them or our response to them, then we are more likely to take them into a new relationship. Because of our past marital interaction and the thinking/beliefs we developed, we are likely to be more hypervigilant to similar behaviors in new partners that reflect or remind us of our prior experiences. When new spouses show any signs of these behaviors, our hyper-vigilance may translate into questioning the new relationship and increase our willingness to get out of a situation we see as unchangeable. After all, we tried to change this unsuccessfully the first time. Children can complicate this because they also have memories and may reinforce our perceptions whether they are accurate or not.
What I like about Gottman, however, is his hopefulness about couples' being able to inhibit the patterns of negativity by learning and relearning three behaviors. (By the way, he argues that most interventions with individuals and couples try to teach them too many skills, in too short a time. Then in distressed situations, they are unable to call up the new skills, but revert to what they would typically do). What he recommends is learning three skills:
1. Couple or individual soothing behavior. .. will decrease the chances of cognitive distortion and increase the chances that what is said and done will be perceived more accurately. He calls this couple biofeedback, and it includes learning ways to calm oneself and one's partner.
2. Nondefensive listening ... emphasizes that effective listeners paraphrase both the content of what was said and the feelings they heard underlying what was said.
3. Validation ... refers to the giving of consistent and meaningful positive feedback to one's partner, so he or she feels valued and cared about. While these may not be easy skills to learn initially, there certainly are fewer to remember and practice than we commonly see in prevention/intervention experiences. If the insights derived from Gottman's work prove to apply to all marriages, not just first marriages he's studied, then we have greater understanding of the marital interaction that occurs in more complicated families as well.
* Kay Pasley, Ed.D. is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and currently serves as the Chair of the Research Committee for SAA. This article was published in the quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Fall 1995.
- Gottman, J.M. (1993). Toward a theory of marital dissolution. Journal of Family Psychology, 7.
- Gottman, J.M. (1994a). Why marriages succeed or fall. . . and how you can make yours last. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Gottman, J.M. (1994b). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erhlbaum.