Can a relationship counsellor figure out a failing marriage in 5 mins?

Apart from the substantial age gap between them, nothing about Ratika and Onit inspire misgivings about a future together. The Mumbai couple had dated for seven years and were considering marriage. But within minutes of a pre-marital orientation , the counsellor got a sinking feeling.

Relationship counsellor Minnu Bhonsle says the cracks showed up the minute they started a normal conversation. During a discussion on how Onit interacted with their women friends – a point of contention between the two – Onit came across as too arrogant. He wanted Ratika to “deal with it” . She appeared brave but was essentially submissive, says Bhonsle. Despite seven years of seeing each other, the two computer professionals “did not have a common definition for a relationship” .

Can marriage counsellors really tell within minutes whether a marriage is doomed? It’s possible, say counsellors who use what pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin-slicing techniques” to study cases . “A keen observer with fine powers of observation can read body language and micro-expressions and tell whether the style of communication between a couple is healthy and likely to last,” says Bhonsle. “We can get a fairly good idea from about an halfhour conversation but the subject must be open and honest,” adds marriage counsellor Vimal Kumar.

Delhi-based psychologist Sanjay Chugh says after one session of counselling he is able to correctly predict the future of a relationship in 40 to 50 per cent of cases. He relates the story of Ravi and Sumitra, both about 25, who came to him for counselling last year. Ravi works for an MNC, his wife teaches at a vocational training college. “Ravi was making his lack of interest evident by looking away,” says Chugh. “Plus he was constantly defensive. I told the girl’s parents to get her out of the relationship . After the first session, I could tell one of them was in for a bad time.”

The theory of thin-slicing is well-expounded in Gladwell’s bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (2005). He defines thinslicing as “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience” . The unconscious “sifts” through available information, homes in on the significant and concludes – all in a matter of moments.

Gladwell describes a study conducted by psychologist and mathematician John Gottman that started in the 1980s with over 3,000 married couples. The study involved their conversing for about 15 minutes on any subject of dispute. The couples were wired to electrodes and sensors that monitored the heartbeat and noted details like perspiration levels and skin temperature; their chairs were fitted with jiggle-o-meters that registered fidgeting and video cameras recorded every expression. Every emotion expressed is assigned a digital code on a system with 20 categories of emotions called the SPAFF (Special Affect) coding system. Spaff translates conversation into series of digits representing emotions displayed during interaction.

The four emotions to look out for – and which spell trouble – are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. When an hour of conversation is analysed, it is possible to “predict with 95 per cent accuracy whether that couple will still be married 15 years later” , writes Gladwell on the study.

Nonetheless, counsellors also warn against the dangers of overstating the power of blink. Counsellor Kumar points out that rigged and wired is not a natural state by a long shot. “Experiences with lie-detector and polygraph tests show that subjects take a very long time to open up if they know they are being observed and monitored,” he says. Chugh, too, warns that trying to predict the future of every case is like trying to “play God” .

Nimesh Desai, professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, explains it further. “There is nothing instinctive about snap judgments,” Desai says. “That is true for experts in every profession but more so for those dealing with human relations. Snap judgments are almost never snap. Only if the observer is experienced then he is that much more alert.”

“When I was training, the professor after threefive minutes of observation would say the patient had schizophrenia or whatever,” says Desai. The students would believe that his diagnosis was based on instinct but now, after being in psychiatry for 30 years, he says he realises it is possible for an experienced person to read a situation in a few minutes. “What may seem intuitive, is not really,” he says.

Desai goes on to illustrates his point. “While you don’t need to look at the total interaction for long, you need multiple thin slices,” he says. “One slice is at best a single window to a pattern, which can be established only through multiple observations. For instance , suppose you walk into an office and see the boss being very firm with a subordinate. Just from that you can’t conclude that he is a harsh person. But if you come everyday and on eight out of every 10 visits , you find him being tough, then you may call it a pattern and infer from that.” So if you base your analysis on one slice, on one observation, then you make the serious error of missing out on the context, and context is critical.

Taking that into account, Bhonsle says that single-level thin-slicing can, at best, help one arrive at a “hypothesis” . Her own assessment of the situation between Onit and Ratika entailed deeper investigation than merely watching them converse. For instance , she went into each one’s past, read the influences , mapped vulnerabilities, so on and so forth. “People are complex beings, they are fluid,” she says. “By observing an interaction, you can predict with a fair bit of accuracy. But the method is still not foolproof .” In other words, it’s okay to blink. But being blinkered about it is not.

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