In his work, Gottman names skills that are useful for helping couples work though difficulties, like “accepting influence,” “softening your ‘start up,’” and “learning to exit the argument.” He breaks marriage down to non-obvious factors (The Friendship System; The Shared Meaning System) to predict the strength of marriages.
In part, his work evolved as a response to the marriage research that was being done from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. At that time, researchers ran up against a practical problem in marriage assessment, which is the fact that we’re all pretty bad at judging our partner’s particular strengths and weaknesses. Researchers were giving married couples questionnaires to ask about their partners’ behaviors and personalities, but they were running up against what’s called the “halo effect.” The halo effect is a bias that arises in emotionally charged relationships: When asked to rate different characteristics of a partner, you tend to skew all answers toward the positive or toward the negative. Rather than looking at each behavior as an individual thing, you tend to see your partner as “all good” or “all bad.” So it’s hard for a counselor to know what, particularly, needs work.
The halo effect exists because emotion skews our thinking—and this truth influences behavior in nasty ways. You know the halo effect from everyday life. Imagine having dinner with a couple that tends to bicker. One of them makes a seemingly innocent comment (“Did you see that T.V. show?”) and the other responds with negative feelings that seem to come out of nowhere (“Why do you always relate to the world through the g-ddammed TV?”). Emotion tends to magnetizes judgment toward some spot of the emotional register: We have a hard time hearing exactly what our partners are saying.
Most relationships live under the sway of the halo effect. Think of a teacher and her favorite student, who’s more likely to get an A every time simply because the teacher believes in her talent. Or think of a parent-child relationship that’s stuck in a cycle of negative criticism. Neither can ever say anything right!
One way Gottman helps married couples avoid the halo effect is by asking them to drop arguments particularly early without needing to win, and by encouraging them to stress the positive, even if doing so seems like doctoring the facts. If you’re interested in communicative styles, it’s worthwhile giving Gottman a look. He’s an insightful counselor.
Can you name ways in which the halo effect is at play in any of your relationships? In some cases, a positive halo might be a useful blindness.
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.