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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the April 12, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Relationship Rx: Let’s Talk

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


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


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


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


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


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.

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