As Phyllis Marganoff observes every day in her work as a family psychologist in private practice with offices in Millstone and Montgomery, most couples don’t seek help with their marriage until it is in trouble. And by the time the warning signs are there, it is often too late to salvage the relationship. “Public health is interested in early intervention for medical conditions. Things like mammograms and cholesterol testing are based on the idea that the earlier you diagnose something, the greater success you’ll have at treating it. Our program is based on that same idea.”
Relationship Bliss, offered by Marganoff and her colleague, Sharon Press, a Princeton-based family and adolescent psychologist, is an eight-hour training workshop designed to give couples the tools and insights to strengthen their relationship and keep the connection alive and growing. The upcoming four-part session takes place Thursdays, April 20 and 27, and May 4 and 11 at the University Medical Center at Princeton.
What with Dr. Phil on Oprah and literally dozens of books and workshops on relationships, Marganoff is very careful to explain what differentiates Relationship Bliss from other couples programs: the workshop is designed for people who are in healthy relationships. And its approach is educational and preventative rather than therapy- or problem-focused. “The idea is to learn ways to divorce-proof your marriage,” says Marganoff. “We want to teach couples who are not yet distressed to avoid becoming dysfunctional. People spend thousands and thousands of dollars on weddings but they are not required to have any training to hold a relationship together over the long haul. There is a skillset involved. A driver’s license comes after you take driver’s ed. And couples can benefit from having the kind of training to maintain a relationship over the long run.”
The sad truth is that most marriages today are doomed to failure. Research shows that there is a 67 percent chance that a couple will divorce within a 40-year marriage. There are two critical times: within the first seven years (generally recognized by society as the seven-year itch) and when the first child reaches the age of 14, a high stress time in the life of a family and a couple.
Who spends $750 on a relationship workshop when the relationship is healthy? You’d be surprised, says Margonoff. “Newly engaged couples; couples who have been married for up to 10 years, whose relationships may have hit some ‘communication problems’; couples who are making the transition to parenthood; committed couples in non-traditional relationships; and people who are interested in keeping their relationship as strong as it was when they first committed to one another — often when problems progress it is hard for people to even remember what they liked about one another.”
She gives an example of a couple who have attended the workshop, expressed as what she calls a “composite” to protect confidentiality but based on actual attendees: “Fred, a 35-year-old information systems manager who had never been married, and his fiancee, Mary, 32, director of human resources for a large pharmaceutical, whose previous marriage had ended in divorce, came because the clergyman who would be performing their wedding ceremony suggested it. They were both conflict avoiders and knew they wanted to learn how to discuss the ‘hot topics’ that they disagreed about without getting stuck in a repetitive cycle that never got them anywhere.”
Marganoff and Press have based their approach on the research of John Gottman, a psychologist and international leader in couple relationships, co-founder of the Gottman Institute, director of the Relationship Research Institute, and emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “In more than 30 years of research, Gottman has produced data that is able to predict with over 90 percent probability which couples will stay married and which will get divorced,” says Marganoff.
The early warning signs of a deteriorating relationship begin with more negative than positive interaction. “Marriage requires a rich climate of positive emotion even during times of conflict. That means when a couple is in an argument there still has to be a five to one ratio of good things to negative things exchanged. People who say their marriages are satisfying do that naturally. Marriages that are in trouble show a ratio of one positive to one negative or less.”
Marganoff explains that there are four key behaviors that are early warning signs of relationship meltdown: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. “Gottman calls these ‘the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ because they are so toxic to the life of relationships.”
Gottman’s research divided couples into two groups, which he called the “Masters of Relationship” and the “Disasters of Relationship.” Both Masters and Disasters showed the Four Horsemen but in different ratios. A Master, instead of criticizing, complains with specificity, says Marganoff. “A complaint would be ‘the other night at dinner you didn’t ask me about my day, you didn’t seem to care about me.’ A Disaster would add ‘what’s wrong with you’ to that complaint. The remark implies a character defect in the partner and triggers a defensive reaction — another of Gottman’s Four Horsemen.
“Everybody gets defensive,” says Marganoff. “But the Masters correct that by taking some responsibility for the problem. Defensiveness would be saying ‘I did not, what are you talking about, you’re always talking about yourself.’ A Master would say ‘You’re right, I was preoccupied, I had a hard day and I couldn’t listen.’ It’s taking responsibility for at least a part of the problem and saying, ‘You’re right, you’ve got a point.’ It’s recognizing your own defensiveness, articulating it, and perhaps even explaining why you’re feeling that way.”
Marganoff says there there is a universal, cross-cultural sign of contempt. “There’s a muscle on the left side of the mouth called the buccinator that goes up, sending the lip up in a curl that everyone can recognize, no matter what language they speak. Other ways contempt is shown is by calling names, or anything that implies that you are superior to your partner. Another example is correcting your partner’s grammar in the middle of an argument.”
She says the antidote to contempt is an ongoing climate of positive feeling that’s developed by daily expressions of appreciation, admiration, and love. “It’s very small things. Saying something like thank you for picking up my clothes at the drycleaners. Thanks for taking the kids out and playing. You’re such a great father/mother. I appreciate what you do. These kinds of small but important comments create an emotional bank account of positive feeling for people to draw upon when they’re in conflict.
“In 80 percent of couples who divorce, both men and women say it was growing apart and a lack of a sense of connection more than anything else,” says Marganoff. “You have to keep building that emotional bank account of goodwill and keep deepening that connection.”
Stonewalling is walking away, turning your back, giving the silent treatment. Marganoff says that physiological research shows that when people are upset, they are flooded with emotion. And the heart rate goes up. They sweat more. Stress hormones are secreted in their bodies. They stop thinking clearly. “All of this happens in a flash. The antidote to that is taking a 20-minute break. Instead of continuing the argument or saying ‘I refuse to say anything more about this,’ you can say ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed right now so let’s come back to this when we both have a clear head.’ Gottman’s research shows that Masters do these things routinely.”
Marganoff has attended training twice as a Gottman therapist at the Gottman Institute in Seattle. A couples therapist for 25 years, she is currently two-thirds of the way through the Gottman certification process.
A Millstone resident, she was born in Windsor, Vermont, the oldest of five children. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a builder with his own construction company. She graduated in 1964 from the University of Vermont with a degree in history and political science. She was a social worker for three years, then earned a masters degree in counseling and higher education from Syracuse in 1972. She then moved to New Jersey for a job as a student counselor in the Douglass College psychological services office. She received her doctorate in counseling psychology from Rutgers University in 1978 and did postgraduate training in family therapy at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. From 1982 to 1986, she worked at Trinity Counseling Service in Princeton. She has one daughter, a junior at Cornell University.
“When people ask me how I started in history and got into psychology, I tell them I like to hear people’s stories. Couples and relationships have history. I’ve gone from studying the history of world events and countries’ relationships to the history and relationships of individuals and the couples. And just as with world events and phenomena, relationships can be understood from a systemic perspective. One thing impacts another. Developments in one area have repercussions in ways people don’t think about, just as industrial development in India and China influences the melting of the polar ice caps.”
Margonoff’s first marriage ended after 25 years, 12 years ago. She is currently engaged to be married but has not yet set a date. In hindsight does she think her workshop could have helped her first marriage? “Absolutely yes,” says Margonoff. “As soon as I started to learn about the Gottman principles I felt regret that I had not known about them years ago, as I am sure it would have helped us. My former husband is retired from the New Jersey Department of Education. He lives a half-mile from me, and we have co-parented our daughter since our marriage ended. We are going to parents weekend at Cornell this weekend.”
Marganoff says people typically wait six years from the time they notice there’s a problem in their relationship to when they seek help for it. By then a lot of damage has been done. “We want to accentuate the positive while the going is still good and help you keep your relationship blissful in spite of life’s stresses. It’s just like house insurance. Most people don’t think of disasters when they buy it but you wouldn’t think of not having it to cover you for a rainy day. Relationship Bliss is like buying insurance for your relationship.”
Relationship Bliss Workshop, presented by Phyllis Marganoff and Sharon Press, Thursdays, April 20, 27, May 4 and 11, 6:30 to 9 p.m. (light supper provided), University Medical Center at Princeton, Executive Conference Room, 253 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. $750. To register call Marganoff at 609-577-2202 or Press at 609-430-0330. Workshops are offered on an ongoing basis.