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Using a Complex Dynamical Systems View of Marital Stability and Satisfaction to Assist Doctoral Students in Understanding and Protecting Their Marriage Relationships During the Doctoral Journey Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw, Lucinda S. Spaulding & Anita Knight.

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Using a Complex Dynamical Systems View of Marital Stability and Satisfaction to Assist Doctoral Students in Understanding and Protecting Their Marriage Relationships During the Doctoral Journey

Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw, Lucinda S. Spaulding & Anita Knight

Principles for Understanding Marital Satisfaction, Quality, and Stability as a Complex Dynamical System

Gottman’s Sound Marital House

Background & Purpose

  • Gottman (1999), in his theory of the Sound Marital House, purports that a satisfying and stable marriage is determined by:
  • Marital Friendship - The foundation to a strong marriage needs to be marital friendship as friendship is usually characterized by behaviors that promote positive affect. Cognitive room, fondness and admiration, and actions of turning toward one’s spouse are the three components that make up friendship.
  • Positive Sentiment Override - Positive sentiment override refers to each spouse’s ability to accept feedback as constructive rather than negative and critical. When the doctoral student exhibits a negative affect in the form of yelling, his or her spouse is able to interpret the negativity as the spouse being upset about a grade received on a paper rather than a personal attack.
  • Conflict Regulation - Conflict regulation allows the couple to navigate the terrain of irresolvable problems and to physiologically sooth one another to avoid escalation in conflict.
  • Symbolic Meaning - By creating shared symbolic meaning, couples support each other’s life dreams and establish rituals, roles, goals, and symbols for the purpose of connecting.

Researchers have consistently reported that only 40% to 60% of doctoral students persist through their doctoral programs (Berelson, 1960; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Council of Graduate Schools Ph.D. Completion Project, 2007). This phenomenon of doctoral persistence is defined as “the continuance of a student’s progress toward the completion of a doctoral degree” (Bair, 1999, p. 8). To date, researchers have identified factors, both on a student and institutional level, that contribute to students’ doctoral attrition and persistence (Golde, 2005; Lovitts, 2001).

A strong marital relationship is one factor central to persistence in a doctoral program (Lott Gardner, & Powers, 2009; Price, 2006). Researchers have identified that a supportive spouse significantly contributes to the emotional stability of the doctoral student, and ultimately his or her ability to complete the program (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012). In conducting semi-structured interviews of female counseling doctoral students, Hyun (2009) found that a solid marriage and spouse support assisted students in balancing their personal lives and school in a successful manner. This is consistent with the literature that has been devoted to understanding marital satisfaction and quality. These constructs have been correlated with positive outcomes for individuals and families. A meta analysis of 93 studies demonstrated a strong, positive relationship between individual well-being and marital quality (Proulx et al., 2007). Other researchers have reported that marital satisfaction and quality are related to stress prevention, emotional functioning, physical health, and productivity (Coyne et al, 2001; Emery, 1982; Forthofer, Markman, Cox, Stanley, & Kessler, 1996; Gottman & Katz, 1989; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001; Laub, Nagin, & Simpson, 1998; Riehl et al., 2003; Voss, Markiewicz, & Doyle, 1999).

Alternatively, poor familial relationships can contribute to a doctoral student’s decision to leave a doctoral program (Lovitts, 2001), and often entrance of one spouse into a doctoral program results in marital distress and negatively influences the marital relationship as areas of concern such as financial difficulties, lack of time, poor communication, and change in roles and lifestyle arise (Bergen & Bergen, 1978; Cao, 2001; Giles, 1983; Middleton, 2001; Norton, Thomas, Morgan, Tilley, & Dickins, 1998; Williams, 1977). Thus, understanding how to maintain marital satisfaction, quality, and ultimately, stability, through the stress of a doctoral program may be essential to doctoral persistence.

In the past, research has defined marital quality and satisfaction as a static, one dimensional prescribed phenomenon. Current research is illuminating the fact that these views are archaic, and the constructs of marital quality and satisfaction are fluid and multidimensional. Complex dynamical systems theory is at the forefront of this new conceptualization and is germane to understanding marital satisfaction, quality, and ultimately, stability today (Weiss, 2005). Although a call for more research and theory development has been made, Gottman and his colleagues (2002) have completed extensive work on the marital relationship using this paradigm and made contributions that are applicable for those discussing marriage relationships of doctoral students.

Thus, the purpose of this poster is to provide an overview of the literature on marital satisfaction, quality, and ultimately stability, and to discuss how the complex dynamical systems theory informs a more comprehensive conceptualization of these constructs that can be used for application. Gottman’s (1999) work is then reviewed and its application, specifically his framework of the Sound Marital House, for doctoral students and their spouses is discussed.

Weiss (2005) explains that complex dynamical system theory “deals with complexities of nonlinear change in processes among interdependent elements (i.e., dynamic systems)” (p. 36) and change results in a “more expansive organization” (p. 37) rather than homeostasis. Satisfaction, quality, and stability emerge out of a network of nonlinear, interactions rather than an aggregate of static elements that are individually identified, defined, and analyzed.

Table 1. Key Principles of the Complex Dynamical System Theory

(Kelos, 1995; Thelen & Smith, 1994)

  • The Effects of Entrance into a Doctoral Program on the Sound Marital House
  • Entrance of one spouse into a doctoral program can undermine the Sound Marital House as the four factors may become difficult to maintain. When time is limited, communication is sporadic, and stress levels are increased (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012):
  • Friendship can be harder to maintain.
  • Positive sentiment override is difficult to create,
  • Conflicts can get ignored and escalate, and
  • Rituals, roles, goals, and symbols can get put on hold.
  • Thus, if doctoral students and their spouses can understand and be intentional about implementing strategies related to increasing these four factors, they can ensure that they maintain a satisfied, quality, stable relationship through the sometimes difficult doctoral journey. And, as a result of a stronger marriage relationship, the doctoral student may be more likely to persist in this program.

Literature on Marital Satisfaction, Quality, and Stability

  • Gottman (1999) states that marital satisfaction is important to understanding marriage quality (happiness) and stability (i.e. years in marriage).
  • Much attention has been given to these construct and the relationship among the three constructs. For example, over a period of 30 years, Whisman (1997) found over 2,500 references to marital and marriage satisfaction alone.

Strategies for Creating and Maintaining a Sound Marital House During a Doctoral Program

  • A variety of strategies have been linked to building a satisfying, quality, stable marriage that may be helpful to doctoral students and their spouses attempting to maintain a sound marital house through a doctoral program. Doctoral students and their spouses can:
  • Increase fondness and admiration by making a list of things that they value about each other, placing the list in a visible location, and making an effort to express these things to one another on a daily basis.
  • Create a Love Map, that is, increase knowledge about each other’s space (work, family, school, and self). Schedule a time, once a week or once a month, to talk about stresses, worries, and hopes. Ask each other open ended questions.
  • Recognize that it’s ok to fight, but recovery after fighting is needed. To recover, Gottman (1999) suggests implanting basic skills:
    • Practice soft startups to bring up problem areas.
    • Use and recognize attempts to repair the relationship such as humor, nonverbal, or physical touch. These gestures may include a light kiss, a smile, or a joke and work to de-escalate conflict and restore affection toward one another.
    • Compromise.
    • Implement relaxation techniques to sooth physiological arousal during a conflict.
    • Accept influence.
    • Recognize and avoid:
        • Criticism – Statements that imply something is globally wrong with the spouse (e.g. “You are always so lazy!”)
        • Contempt – Statements that imply superiority. (e.g. “You are not capable of amounting to anything!”)
        • Defensiveness – Statements that claim innocence. (e.g. “I am innocent.”)
        • Stonewalling – Withdrawing
  • Schedule and implement every-day, weekly, or monthly rituals to connect with one another to feel connected and bonded. For example, some couples plan monthly weekend getaways or some plan a 30 minute breakfast time every morning.

A Complex Dynamical Systems Model and Gottman’s Work

  • Gottman et al. (2005) has used the process of mathematically modeling marital interactions (perceptual, behavioral, and physiological) to predict happiness (a construct related to satisfaction and quality) stability.
  • He suggests that couples need a balance of positive and negative interaction for satisfaction and stability. See example.
  • Couples all have interaction styles or attractors that make up their behavioral repertoire, or state space. They can move between them; however, behaviors within relationships are always “pulled” toward the deepest attractors. The older and “deeper” the attractor, the more likely the spouses are to use it and the more resistant it is to change.
  • If the negative attractors are deeper, then the couple is likely to be more drawn toward a primary negative state. When spouses continually reciprocate negativity with negativity (what Gottman has termed negative affect reciprocity); they can get stuck using negative attractors.
  • Gottman’s el al. (2005) non-linear equations of marital interaction demonstrates that the most consistent discriminator between stable and unstable, satisfied and unsatisfied marriage is negative affect reciprocity.
  • Conversely, positive affect increases the couple’s stability. In fact, in longitudinal study of newlyweds, positive affect was the most significant predictor of marital stability and satisfaction (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).
  • To promote positive affect couples must seek to integrate more positive attractors (Gottman et al. 2005).
  • Despite the magnitude of research on marital satisfaction and quality, the term remains elusive and the understanding of it is still not comprehensive. Weiss (2005) purports that it is “a most important aspect of adult intimacy, yet so elusive in its promise” (p. 22).
  • Throughout various studies, satisfaction has been defined and described in many ways. Older models, such as behavioral and cognitive models, have provided insight into marital satisfaction, but have been limited in their conceptualization (Weiss, 2005); thus, limited in their application for the promotion of a satisfied, stable marriages.

A Critique of Previous Marital Satisfaction, Quality, and Stability Models

  • One-dimensional. For example, the behavioral model only takes into account the behavior that occurs during an interaction and ignores how each person in the relationship interprets the behavioral interaction (Jacobson & Moore, 1981).
  • Static. For example, researchers measure satisfaction using one measure (e.g. Dyadic Adjustment Scale; DAS) with one score in one “snap shot” or specific time frame (Weiss, 2005).
  • Attainable State. Satisfaction is often seen as an attainable state or an ideal to be achieved and measured in terms of agreement alone (Weiss, 2005). However, through longitudinal research, it can be seen that satisfaction is not static rather a phenomenon in “flux” (Bradbury et al., 2000).


Carrere and Gottman (1999) found that the startup of a conflict interaction is critical; couples in stable marriages display more positive affect (humor, affection, interest, and joy) and less negative affect (anger, contempt, discuss, sadness, and fear) at the very beginning of their conflicts than couples whose marriages end in divorce.

A wife’s threshold for negativity; that is the amount of negativity she will tolerate from her husband before she allows it to negatively impact her and the interaction influences the level of marital satisfaction and stability. In terms of the complex dynamical system theory, a wife’s low negativity threshold can assist the couple in moving from a negative attractor into a positive attractor; thus, facilitating relationship repair.

      • Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw
  • Lucinda Spaulding
  • Anita Knight

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