Corrections or additions?
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
"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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