John Gottman has spent decades studying how married couples interact. His most striking finding is the tendency of couples at risk of divorce to have markedly different interaction styles. His recent book, The Mathematics of Marriage, summarizes his observations of married couples and presents a parsimonious model of marriage (see here for Slate’s review). The highlight of the research is that couples where the dominant mode of interaction includes criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are very, very likely to divorce. Successful marriages involve a great deal of mending and reworking of the relationship. The mathematics links some theories about emotions and interaction to this observed pattern.
What I find interesting is the implication for thinking about politics. Let’s assume that political order is a sort of “marriage” between state and citizen. At least from the perspective of the citizen, it’s a relationship that can be broken, if warranted. This is a premise of many normative theories of revolution – the citizens have a right to a new government if they feel the written and unwritten rules have been violated. Unfortunately, what we know about exactly how this happens – moving to abandon the social contract – is sketchy at best, although political scientists and sociologists have a hunch that it involves some combination of repression of the population and a de-legitimizing of the government, which itself might have multiple causes.
Gottman’s approach to studying relationships offers a useful way to think about these issues. Gottman’s point is that there may be varying sources of the emotions that destroy marriages, but the road to divorce usually starts in the same place – once spouses have learned certain interaction strategies, they create hard to change feedback loops. Similarly, governments and populations that learn certain strategies for interacting with each other probably set up hard to break cycles leading to long term stability or perpetual crisis. The nice thing about Gottman’s analysis of marriage is that the math predicts stability or decline, and not much in between – a non-trivial prediction. The same prediction for states is that states tend to be on a tough to change road to constant crisis (like in Africa and the Middle East) or stability (like in the US). Switches from one path to the other should be infrequent and difficult, which seems to describe the world pretty well.