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One of the most disturbing symptoms of a distressed relationship is the escalation of negative behaviors and emotions; these painful and harmful interactions can flare up rather quickly. For example, negative behaviors such as criticisms or withdrawal can be quickly reciprocated by the other partner resulting in a mutual escalation of negative interactions.

One of my roles in couples therapy Bethesda is to protect the couple during couples counseling sessions from these adverse interactions. This protective role and the learning of effective relationship skills are important functions that need to be internalized by the couple in marital therapy Washington DC.

Distressed couples are more reactive to their partner’s negative expressions than non-distressed couples. Distressed marriages are also characterized by inadequate relationship skills which manifest as dysfunctional expressions of emotions, emotionally invalidating behaviors, and behaviors which inhibit problem solving. Distressed marriages also exhibit a low rate of positive behavior, and a high rate of negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

A common characteristic pattern in distressed relationships shows two predominant themes: (1) while attempting to maintain engagement in a discussion, wives overreact emotionally and press to discuss relationships problems, a situation which then can lead to greater conflict; (2) husbands withdraw and disengage from disagreements and conflicts, thus escalating the wives’ attempt to maintain engagement.

Research by John Gottman (1993) suggests that men show a large autonomic nervous system (ANS) response to stress and recover more slowly than females. Males are much more unpleasantly aroused in a fight than are wives; they are more inclined to avoid repeated situations associated with high ANS states of arousal.This ANS reactivity may have evolutionary survival value. Historically, men as the protectors had to be more responsive to external dangers (fight or flight).

In intimate relationships, women seem more willing to engage in conflict, and men are more inclined to avoid conflict and stonewall. Wives increase the intensity of expression (raise the volume) to get their husbands to talk, and the withdrawal of the husbands may increase the chances of conflict. A cycle of demand /withdrawal, withdrawal/demand is created.

Non-distressed wives, on the other hand, in a problem solving discussion, provide a high degree of non-negative replies (e.g., positive ways of looking at things). When they perceive their partner’s messages to be negative, distressed wives display more put-downs, commands and complaints than do non-distressed wives in problem-solving interactions. Distressed wives seem unwilling or unable to provide positive replies to their partner’s negative messages.

Thus, when wives show over-engagement and when husbands withdraw, these reactions represent barometers of distress in marital relationships. Marital success may be a function of the number of negative and positive interactions. Gottman’s (1993) research suggests that marital satisfaction may be measured by a ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative interaction.

Despite the differences and similarities that exist between partners, it is how the differences are handled that predicts future marital distress and divorce. It is the goal of successful marital therapy to help individuals learn how to manage differences. Negative escalation cycles of communication are problems in emotion regulation. Non-distressed couples break the cycles much quicker by responding to negative expression with neutral or positive behavior. Non-distressed wives play an important role in exiting out of these negative cycles, thereby regulating emotion. It appears that the expression of negative emotion in conflict at low or moderate levels is predictive of long-term increases in marital satisfaction. The expression of tolerable levels of negative emotion may facilitate problem solving and can have positive reinforcing consequences. Rather, it is high and chronic levels of conflict that are distressful. The level of conflict that couples can endure at any one time may be a function of their ability to withstand negative emotion. This tolerance may be influenced by historical factors, individual physiological differences in arousal mechanisms and learned responses.

In satisfied marriages, wives often take responsibility for solving and managing difficult conflicts. In egalitarian relationships, husbands seem to also play this role. In satisfying marriages, gender differences diminish with increased expression of emotional intimacy. In such marriages, men are just as likely as women to share hurts, aspirations and problems.

To reduce negative arousal and escalation, men must learn behaviors other than withdrawal. In the past, women were given more responsibility for the climate of communication in marriage. Today, more is expected of men; men must also learn to carry more of the responsibility for the quality of communication and the maintenance and development of intimacy.

Couples counseling, relationship therapy, and marital therapy is offered by Carlos Durana Ph.D., M.Ac. in Reston, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Bethesda, Maryland.