What communities can learn from marriage therapy

by Gil (from Cambia)

There are very few disciplines in psychology that could claim much success.  The obvious one would be advertising and other forms of brainwashing. The next one, surprisingly, is a marriage therapy.

In an awkwardly mathematical and computerized manner, a psychologist and a mathematician at the University of Washington have studied newlyweds for many decades and essentially “cracked the code” on what predicts divorce. Their “formula” can predict with 95% accuracy whether newlyweds would stay together or break up in a span of the following seven years. The following article is mostly a repetition of their main findings loosely translated to communal living situation.


Communities, like marriage, can fall apart for many different reasons, but there is one thing that can serve as immunization against most of those reasons, and that is love. And I don’t simply mean the feeling of love, I mean the practice of it. Couples and communities can have a lot of love between them, but if there is no effective way or circumstances of expressing and acting in a loving affectionate way, the relationship will be doomed. The question is, “What stands in the way of expressing and acting from love?”

     1. Stay committed

              a. This is an important but tricky one to translate: uncommitted relationships gradually drift apart once the honeymoon phase is gone.

              b. While people are community members, provide and expect full commitment. This is commitment to their well-being, to being respected and understood, to participating fully. Avoid thinking: “We don’t need to deal with her issues.  She’s probably going to leave soon anyway.”  Even if not for her sake, other people will hear this attitude and will reduce their commitment to each other.

Couples 1

      2. The four horsemen of the apocalypse/ Four ways of relating that were found to be particularly corrosive to relationships:

                  a. Contempt: Displays of disdain, hatred, ridicule, disrespect, or eye-rolling are found to be the most destructive expressions in relationships.

                  b. Defensiveness: The unwillingness to accept critique, to be curious about the other person’s perspective, and instead aggressively deflecting blame or reacting with counter-blame.

                   c. Stonewalling: Ignoring, or otherwise checking out in a conversation.

                  d. Criticism: Criticizing people’s personalities, traits, preferences, looks or anything else that they can’t really change. Focusing on critique of actions or consequences is probably more accurate and effective.

      3. The 5 to 1 ratio of positivity to negativity: Every negative expression needs at least 5 positive expressions to balance it out. Otherwise, people enter an emotional debt and recession. Here are some ways of expressing positivity. These are to be applied to any members of the community and, the less you know them, the better to do these.

                a. Show interest: Be curious, try to get to know members in your community, ask questions aimed at simply knowing other people more. They might be surprised but will be flattered. Listen attentively, and say things like: “I was thinking about what you said the other day and wanted to understand it more…”

               b. Be affectionate: Touch, smile, say: “Yay! You’re back!” when someone returns, make something for someone.   You get the point…

                  c. Show you care: Ask ,“Did you feel resolved after the meeting?” and “I was wondering how you felt when…”

               d. Gratitude: Show appreciation to other people as well as pointing to anything that you all share, like, “I love that we have a garden now” and “There is an angel that keeps taking out the compost.  Whoever you are, I love you.”

                e. Be accepting: Accept peoples quirks, preferences, idiosyncrasies, or even bad habits. It’s okay to despise video games but love it that some people get to bond around them. Even when you have an endless list of everything that’s wrong with the meat or tobacco industries, don’t transfer that judgement to the individuals who are consuming them. You can say: “I think its absolutely wrong to keep consuming them, but I don’t love you any less for doing that.” This does not mean that you have to accept people’s mean behavior.   That’s different.

     4. Recognize irreconcilable differences and stop trying to fix them. Learn to live with them instead. That’s right. Some differences are irreconcilable.  People will not and should not change some beliefs, habits, attitudes, etc. It’s important to realize when things cannot or should not change, and stop wasting energy and generating hostility around them. For example, one member can be very forgetful, and actually forget that they are forgetful. After 3 times of forgetting to close up the chicken coop at night, you might want to ask them: “What’s wrong with you??? Why are you so inconsiderate?” Alternately, you accept that they’re forgetful and leave a special loving note with a special drawing just for them. Or something cute rather than passive aggressive.

      5. Implement repair mechanisms. Have you ever noticed how nobody asks you for “I statements” when you give them a compliment? It’s fine to stay to say, “You’re fantastic” rather than “I feel like I’m in a fantasy when I’m around you.”  It is important to implement NVC and other peaceful languages when there’s a conflict, but is rather cumbersome and even creepy otherwise. I could be wrong, but that’s how I feel. If person A hurt person B, the least that could happen is that person A could
acknowledge person B’s pain, express feeling bad about it to person C if they can’t do it to person A, and have person C reflecting feeling compassion to A’s predicament. Even if the whole thing was A’s fault to begin with, it’s important to try to remain curious and open, even in conflict. Ask something like, “I see you’re upset at what I did, could you say more about what upset you?” You get much more “street cred” for a compassionate apology than for proving you were right.

      6. Change “I” statements into “we” statements. There might not be very many appropriate opportunities for this, and it might be particularly difficult to do given the hyper-individualistic tendency of our subculture but, when possible, use the terms “we” and “us” when talking about the future, about hopes, about gratitude, etc. For example: say, “I’m grateful that WE have a garden” rather than “I’m grateful to have a garden”. Or “We could have close to zero waste some day” rather than “I want to live in a place that doesn’t generate trash”. “We are doing much better than the mainstream” rather than “Nobody here is worse than the mainstream”. Also,
make a flag, make up songs about your community. But as in item 6, its best to abandon this generalizing language when the content is negative.

Couples 2

        7. Have fun with everyone, no matter what you do: research on millions of cases of divorce demonstrates quite clearly that it is not the economic necessity of staying together that protects against divorce. Rather, it is the abundance of quality fun shared time that predicts success. In other words, the efficiency of living together cannot compensate for the lack of love-building quality time together. Budget for fun, both with time, labor, and money. Every minute you spend on building trust and love, saves you 10 minutes of conflict resolution later.

What communities can learn from marriage therapy

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