Interesting article in Business Insider on what a psychologist has learned about what makes the difference between enduring marriages and those that fail. John Gottman has been studying the subject for decades. What he found affirms the importance of what we, in the technique that I teach, call sending and receiving.
Gottman first invited newlywed couples to come to a lab, where he wired them up and recorded physiological indicators as he asked them to talk about issues central to their marriages. He found that the couples broke down into two groups, which he dubbed the masters, who turned out, when Gottman followed up six years later, to still be married, and the disasters, whose marriage had ended at the time of the follow-up. The masters and disasters exhibited contrasting physiological signals during the monitored discussion:
When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.
The masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
Gottman believed that the contrast was due to a climate of trust and intimacy in their marriages, so that they could feel safe and calm around their partners. But he wanted to understand more about how this climate was created by the couples. So he invited the couples to stay at a lab disguised as a bed-and-breakfast, where, presumably, the couples were observed as they vacationed together. In observing the couples, Gottman observed something he found significant:
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
What Gottman is recognizing is central to how we attempt to look at scenes in class. Everything a character does is a bid for the other character to give her a piece of her underlying objective, the single, visceral need the actor has found to pursue throughout the role. The bid can be “Look at that beautiful bird outside!”, as in the example above, or it could be “Do you know the way to San Jose?” or “Leave me alone!” or “This is important!” or even “You are dead to me.” Every utterance has to be understood as a bid for a piece of what the character needs. From our point of view, nothing is said just to describe how someone is feeling, or to express a feeling about what someone else has said. Nothing is mere banter or small talk. Even lines that appear to be intended to end a relationship are bids for the other character to give her a piece of what she needs.
This is what is meant by sending and receiving: while acting, the actor is constantly sending his partner signals about what he needs, feedback about what the partner is sending to him. He is also receiving, which means taking in what is being sent to him, verbally and non-verbally, in the manifest meaning of words as well as in intangibles like tone and intention, and measuring it against what he needs. This measuring is simultaneous with the hearing, they are not two separate processes, but it is important that the actor is both hearing what is said and viewing what is said in light of what he needs. This sending and receiving is what acting is, and it has to go on at all times during an actor’s performance.
I like Gottman’s bird example because this is the kind of innocuous utterance that actors are often tempted to to see as an occasion that calls for “emotion” to be shown. If you ask an actor what she is doing with this line, you will likely hear something like “I am really excited about the bird.” While that may or may not be true and appropriate for the character at that moment, what is important is that the actor comes to understand that in exclaiming about the bird, she is asking her partner to respond and affirm the beauty of the bird, and the partner’s willingness to respond in the desired way means something about the state of play in the relationship, specifically, about the partner’s measuring up to his end of the contract that defines the relationship.
Embracing this view about words, sentences, scenes and acting involves a “Gestalt switch” for most people: their whole way of looking at acting and thinking about it needs to be changed in a fundamental way, and this takes time. It’s one thing to explain all of this conceptually, and it’s quite another to develop a practice that makes this perception the governing principle. Doing that takes a sustained effort over time; it takes looking at a host of scenes both as an actor and as a classroom observer, and examining how the understanding and the execution of a scene is transformed by this view of it. In other words, it takes patience and an active commitment to learning. But the actor who troubles himself to assimilate this way of looking at things will have equipped himself well for the challenges of the work.