Subject: Marital Conflict and Post-Mormonism
Date: Jun 02, 2006
Author: bob mccue

This is a topic that comes up here all the time, and for good reason. One of my friends did a masters degree thesis in anthropology in the 1980s that looked at nearly 1000 returned missionaries, and found that in cases where one spouse left Mormonism and the other remained faithful the divorce rate was 80%. It is extremely rare in my experience for both spouses to react on the same time line to the issues that cause post-Mormonism, and so even in those cases where both eventually leave there tends to be a lot of conflict for a period of time around religion.

I am not aware of any researchers who have directly addressed the issue of marital conflict in a change-of-religious-faith setting head on, though surely someone has. If anyone can refer me to helpful literature, I would be grateful. In the meantime, here are a few ideas from John Gottman (see His ideas about how marriage and other intimate relationships work are among the best I have found. I recommend the interview at and the article at'happycouples'.htm for starters.

As persuasion to read this stuff, I note that Gottman and his colleagues are able to predict with 95% accuracy which couples will divorce within a few years on the basis of a 30 minute video taped session of the couple interacting over everyday issues. The science behind this is as compelling as this result is startling. And I think it has tremendous potential application to those who are transitioning into post-Mormonism and wish to do so with marriage and family not only intact, but thriving instead of limping along.

While I don’t have time today to do this justice, I have the following comments that may help to reframe Gottman’s comments in a post-Mormon context. I have lifted a few of his paragraphs (see “G”) and then added my comments (“bob”).

G: Science comes into the study of families and relationships because a scientist always admits to profound ignorance, doesn't presume to know about these things, takes this ignorance and goes to the people and observes them in situations that are vitally important — when people are having dinner, when they meet at the end of the day, when they are in the bedrooms cuddling, when they're having sex, when they're interacting with their babies — in these very important moments, a scientist without preconceptions observes and tries to understand — interviews people, measures their physiology, and tries to get at their inner experience. And then creates mathematical models that provide theoretical understanding of all these processes.

By putting this information together, in a way that is unbiased, with proper controls, so the observers are double-blind and don't know the hypotheses and so on, then you can come up with information that is really useful and helpful to people. It may have to be done over and over again when we do this research with French Creole, black people, married to a Cuban black. Or when we go to Arizona and study Pima Indians or Navahos. It may be different there. And when we do this work across cultures, we will discover, through doing this over and over again, without bias, what the universality is in relationships.

bob: I can’t imagine a better basic explanation of why social science is a good idea, and how it works.

G: I believe we're going to find that respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. It may differ from culture to culture how to communicate respect, and how to communicate affection, and how not to do it, but I think we'll find that those are universal things. …

bob: Gottman has a number of ways to spot "contempt" in marriage relationships. I note that "contempt" is technical term that covers things of which we are often not even conscious. Disrespect, including subconscious disrespect, is perhaps a way to think of what Gottman has in mind when he uses the term contempt. Gottman's measuring tools include physiological statistics (like heart rate, adrenalin release, etc.), and tracking subtle racial expressions and voice tones that most of us don’t consciously pick up but that register in our subconscious. When we are consciously trying to make a marriage work our subconscious screens a lot of information that would make success in this regard less likely. Gottman picks this stuff up and puts it on the table in full view, with the message that if the issues that underlie certain unhealthy forms of interaction are not dealt with, the marriage is likely toast. This information helps people to become more realistic about their prospects, and make decisions that will help them to either change their relationship so that it will meet their basic needs, or leave it behind before more damage of various types is done.

Gottman’s basic advice is that we avoid criticism, and train ourselves to focus on the positive aspects of our relationships. As long as we are focussed on the negative, the seeds of contempt are likely sprouting at the subconscious level at least, and polluting our interactions. We should aim for a 5 to 1 ratio of complimentary to critical communications.

The fascinating part of Gottman’s program is that he can bring our subconscious a long way toward the conscious by showing us how our facial expressions, psyiological stats, tone of voice and other subconscious indicators correlate with long term behavioural patterns, like who tend to get divorced, remain unhappily married, or change their relationships for the better.

G: It seemed that people either started in a mean-spirited way, a critical way, started talking about a disagreement, started talking about a problem as just a symptom of their partner's inadequate character, which made their partner defensive and escalated the conflict, and people started getting mean and insulting to one another. That predicted the relationship was going to fall apart. 96% of the time the way the conflict discussion started in the first 3 minutes determined how it would go for the rest of the discussion. And four years later it was like no time had passed, their interaction style was almost identical. Also 69% of the time they were talking about the same issues, which we realized then were "perpetual issues" that they would never solve. These were basic personality differences that never went away. She was more extroverted or she was more of an explorer or he was more punctual or frugal.

Some couples were caught by the web of these perpetual issues and made each other miserable, they were "grid locked" like bumper-to-bumper traffic with these issues, while other couples had similar issues but coped with them and had a "dialogue" that even contained laughter and affection. It seemed that relationships last to the extent that you select someone whose annoying personality traits don't send you into emotional orbit.

bob: This is a real problem for people whose religious beliefs and hence values have fundamentally changed. New issues are often created that send one party or the other into emotional orbit, or more commonly, create new bases for contempt.

G: Once again conventional wisdom was wrong. The big issue wasn't helping couples resolve their conflicts, but moving them from gridlock to dialogue. And the secret of how to do that turned out to be having each person talk about their dream within the conflict and bringing Viktor Frankl's existential logotherapy into the marital boxing ring. Once people talked about what they wished for and hoped for in this gridlock conflict and the narrative of why this was so important to them, in 86% of the cases they would move from gridlock to dialogue. Again a new door opened.

bob: I saw this happen in my marriage. As long as I hammered away at DW to "wake up" about Mormonism, we seemed to go nowhere. However, I think that this hammering did let her know how serious the issue was. We both felt that divorce was imminent if we did not find a way past this impasse. But, she did not do anything positive (as far as I could tell) in terms of investigating the reality of Mormonism until I backed off. Gottman’s explanation below of the difference between male and female physiology in conflict laden situations explains nicely what I observed in this regard. See below.

G: Not all marital conflicts are the same. You can't teach people a set of skills and just apply them to every issue. Some issues are deeper, they have more meaning. And then it turned out that the very issues that cause the most pain and alienation can also be the greatest sources of intimacy and connection.

bob: Again, think about this in the post-Mormon context. Surely a change in religious belief is going to require special attention. This is one of the basic building blocks of life. But, the upside in cases where you can move from gridlock to dialogue to resolution is huge.

G: Another surprise: we followed couples for as long as 20 years, and we found that there was another kind of couple that didn't really show up on the radar; they looked fine, they weren't mean, they didn't escalate the conflict — but about 16 to 22 years after the wedding they started divorcing. They were often the pillars of their community. They seemed very calm and in control of their lives, and then suddenly they break up. Everyone is shocked and horrified. But we could look back at our early tapes and see the warning signs we had never seen before. Those people were people who just didn't have very much positive connection. There wasn't very much affection — and also especially humor — between them.

These are the people you see in restaurants who've been married a long time and they're sitting there not talking to each other throughout the whole dinner and they don't look very happy about the vast chasm between them. Those are the couples where you say to your partner "Let's never become like them, okay?" These sorts of emotionally disconnected relationships were another important dimension of failed relationships. We learned through them that the quality of the friendship and intimacy affects the nature of conflict in a very big way.

bob: I think Mormonism helps to created this kind of marriage, and keep it together. See for my analysis of why Mormon marriages resemble those of traditional cultures in the sense that individual happiness is less important that is the case for most North American marriages. For this reason, Mormons tend to tough it out in relatively arid marriages more than most North Americans. When entering post-Mormon life, many marriages tend to falter for this reason - a relationship that was acceptable to a Mormon is often not acceptable to a post-Mormon. Issues that were suppressed as a result of the Mormon emphasis on keeping the marriage together at almost all cost come to the fore. This causes new feelings of contempt. Hence, Gottman’s suggestions for how to get over contempt becomes particular important to post-Mormons who are trying to re-form their relationships on a more healthy foundation.

G: It sounds as if we have a stake in relationships staying together — but we don't. My major stake is in understanding. We have a stake in people not staying together if they don't feel good about their relationship and it's not really going anywhere for them, it's not really helping them build one another's dreams, it's not a relationship that has dignity. But we like to help people understand why it is that it didn't work, so that the next relationship, or next set of relationships, can be better. One of the major things we found is that honoring your partner's dreams is absolutely critical. A lot of times people have incompatible dreams — or they don't want to honor their partner's dreams, or they don't want to yield power, they don't want to share power. So that explains a lot of times why they don't really belong together.

bob: Great way of putting it. And as we enter the post-Mormon world, we start to dream new dreams. Hence, this is a stage of relationship building that we need to do over.

G: Psycho-physiology is an important part of this research. … And men and women are somewhat different, not a lot, but enough, which is another fascinating puzzle, because we find that if the woman is driving the husband's heart rate, that predicts the dissolution of the relationship — and not the other way around. … Men have a lot of trouble when they reach a state of vigilance, when they think there's real danger, they have a lot of trouble calming down. and there's probably an evolutionary history to that. Because it functioned very well for our hominid ancestors, anthropologists think, for men to stay physiologically aroused and vigilant, in cooperative hunting and protecting the tribe, which was a role that males had very early in our evolutionary history. Whereas women had the opposite sort of role, in terms of survival of the species, those women reproduced more effectively who had the milk-let-down reflex, which only happens when oxytocin is secreted in the brain, it only happens when women — as any woman knows who's been breast-feeding, you have to be able to calm down and relax. But oxytocin is also the hormone of affiliation. So women have developed this sort of social order, caring for one another, helping one another, and affiliating, that also allows them to really calm down and have the milk let-down reflex. And so — it's one of nature's jokes. Women can calm down, men can't; they stay aroused and vigilant.

One is that if a man presents an issue, to either a man he's in love with or a woman he's in love with, the man is angrier presenting the issue. And we find that when a woman receives an issue, either from a woman she loves or a man she loves, she is much more sad than a man would be receiving that same issue. It's about anger and sadness. Why? Remember, Bowlby taught us that attachment and loss and grief are part of the same system. So women are finely tuned to attaching and connecting and to sadness and loss and grief, while men are attuned to defend, stay vigilant, attack, to anger. My friend Levenson did an acoustic startle study (that's where you shoot of a blank pistol behind someone's head when they least expect it). Men had a bigger heart rate reactivity and took longer to recover, which we would expect, but what even more interesting is that when you asked people what they were feeling, women were scared and men were angry.

So that's probably why those two differences have held up. Physiologically people find over and over again in heterosexual relationships — and this hasn't been studied yet in gay and Lesbian relationships — that men have a lower flash point for increasing heart-rate arousal, and it takes them longer to recover. And not only that, but when men are trying to recover, and calm down, they can't do it very well because they keep naturally rehearsing thoughts of righteous indignation and feeling like an innocent victim. They maintain their own vigilance and arousal with these thoughts, mostly of getting even, whereas women really can distract themselves and calm down physiologically from being angered or being upset about something. If women could affiliate and secrete Oxytocin when they felt afraid, they'd even calm down faster, probably.

bob: So, men tend to deal with issues like a change in belief by getting mad. And women tend to deal with the same sort of issue by becoming sad. And men stay in this aroused state longer than do women. And men are easier to ignite than are the women. While aroused in this way, both parties react more emotionally than rationally. As long as one spouse or the other hammers away, the state of arousal persists, as does largely irrational behavior. All of this fits perfectly with the way my wife and I dealt with Mormonism on the way out the door.

G: We've now gotten to the point where not only can we predict what's going to happen to the relationship, and not only can we intervene to prevent decay of relationships for people who really want to stay together, not only can we help people who really are continually unhappy with one another, to find out why their relationship isn't working, but we're really starting to understand the whole equation of this process, of having close relationships.

Yes, there's enormous predictability. But there's nothing random or hard to understand about it. The principles are very simple. And they're easy to learn, and it makes a difference if you have the right ways to think about this, compared to the wrong ways of thinking about it. There's a lot of stuff that makes sort of logical sense, that seems like it would be right, and turns out to be a complete myth about relationships. We're at the point where we're starting to understand how to have an impact on a societal level, not just on individual cases, but really to change families in our whole culture.

bob: This is where the Edge article ends. See'happycouples'.htm for a summary of some of Gottman’s ideas about how to avoid the pitfalls he has already told us tend to destroy marriages so predictably. It is easy to see how these can also be modified for application in the post-Mormon context.

Finally, see the sites listed below for other Gottman sources I found interesting.

- (video and audio - excellent summaries)
- (very entertaining NY Times article that tells the story of a couple’s experience in Gottman’s lab.)



Subject: Bob - I'm really glad you post this stuff
Date: Jun 02 15:17
Author: Grey Matter


This is another one of your fascinating posts. You do the research, study and writing, and the rest of us benefit :-)

The timing of this article is also perfect - it can be used in a practical way, as we go through the exit minefield, while our spouses are sad and grief-sticken.

Many thanks. I know [with every fibre of my being - with the inner soul of my inner soul - with every cell in my body, etc] that it will be useful. Sorry for lapsing into cult-expression mode. I haven't talked that way for years. It must be my longing for a good group-therapy session, eh, I mean a testimony meeting ;-)

Bob, are you visiting THE Conference in October? If so, are you speaking?


Grey Matter

Subject: I really needed this information, as well.
Date: Jun 02 15:37
Author: Doubting Thomasina

Thanks, Bob. I will read and study this. It certainly helps to go slowly and thoughtfully with this stuff -- as much as I'd love to just announce all to my family and drag them out of Utah and out of the LDS church, I know that's not the right way to do it.

And even once I do "come clean" with my family, I'm not sure they will leave with me. But hopefully, this advice will prevent broken hearts--or a broken family.

I cannot tell you all how much I regret joining the Church now and coming out to Utah and marrying into it as well. I'm 46 now though and am in the thick of it. Now I have to deal with it.

Subject: I think that was a great application of Gottman's research.
Date: Jun 02 17:29
Author: Punky's Dilemma

Dh and I had the opportunity to participate in some research that borrowed it's design heavily from Gottman's work. Cool stuff and very useful, IMO.

I'm not sure if biological stuff can so pattly explain why men to react to big change and loss with more anger, and women with more sadness. There are huge social factors that influence this difference as well. However, regardless of the etiology, men do have a tendency to express negative emotions as anger, and women as sadness. Ironically, I was just giving a lecture about this and other gender differences today, and we talked a lot about this particular difference.

As for the startle response, knowing how susceptible a person is to startling predicts all kinds of stuff, like risk for anxiety d/os, especially PTSD, or history of abuse/victimization. I don't know if I would make it a strongly weighted factor in a model predicting marital relationship outcomes, but knowing how easily a person startles can be very useful information.

Gottman and Bowlby are classics. Wish I had more time for digging on this one.


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