Tony and I are just getting back to reality after a glorious time away at The Art and Science of Love weekend workshop by The Gottman Institute. We have featured the wisdom of Drs. John and Julie Gottman essentially since we started writing this blog two years ago. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of their work, their extensive research, and the accessible way they are helping therapists and couples understand how to create healthy relationships. I’ve been really excited to hear them teach live and the workshop was even better than I had hoped.
The entire workshop is centered around The Sound Relationship House. Using this as the framework, the teaching was meant to encourage us to change three things:
♥ Become better friends, increasing our positive feelings for one another
♥ Change the way we handle conflict
♥ Build a sense of shared meaning
Dr. John Gottman, who I will just refer to as Dr. John from here on out since we’re basically best friends now, opened the workshop by simply saying, “Good morning. I know some of you are here voluntarily…” Right away we had the sense it wasn’t going to be all business. I’m excited to share with you my favorite moments from this weekend’s workshop.
15 Favorite Moments from Our Gottman Workshop Weekend
1. Couples who laugh together last together.
“Couples who can laugh together, even during disagreements, have long happy marriages,” Dr. Gottman told us. I’ll admit that when he said it, I couldn’t imagine how that would work, but it became a truth I leaned on during the second day of the workshop when we dove deeply into conflict.
2. Recipients of criticism and contempt have decreased immune systems.
One of the foundational findings in the Gottmans’ research is what they call The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The name came from the description of the four horsemen who precede the end of the world in the book of Revelation from the Bible. In marriage, they have found the presence of these “four horsemen” were reliable predictors of divorce. They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. I was stunned to learn that these behaviors and attitudes not only do harm to the marriage relationship, but being on the receiving end of criticism and contempt is actually damaging to a person’s health! Our words and attitudes toward each other have such a profound effect.
3. Masters of Relationships know how to make repairs.
There are only subtle differences between the Masters and Disasters of Relationships. But those subtleties are profound. Masters of relationships not only know how to make repairs during and after conflict, but their repair attempts work well because they have spent time investing in the emotional bank account of their relationship.
4. Fondness and admiration are crucial.
“Fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long lasting romance. Although happily married couples may feel driven to distraction at times by their partner’s personality flaws, they still feel that the person they married is worthy of honor and respect.” – Dr. John Gottman
5. We don’t know as much as we think we do about our partners.
Before lunch on the first day we had a break-out session where we got to use the Love Maps card deck. I went into it thinking, “We’ve totally got this! I know Love Maps, Tony knows Love Maps, we’ve read about this and we’ve even written about this.” Turns out, we didn’t know as much as we thought.
My favorite moment was when Tony pulled a card that said, “What are your partner’s hobbies?” After a long pause he said, “I don’t know… List making? Making baby food? Excel spreadsheets?” I could not stop laughing. “Really?” I said. “Those are the things you think I enjoy doing?” Clearly we had some work to do on building up our understanding of each other’s inner world. We laughed through most of this exercise.
6. Specific appreciation goes a long way.
Dr. John told us a story of a Swedish farmer who loved his wife so very much that one day he almost told her. It was extra funny to Tony and I because of his Swedish heritage. I have no doubt that he loves me, but it’s clear that I’m the wordy one in our relationship. The next exercise was so helpful. We were to look over a list of 71 positive adjectives, choose three that describe our partner, and share with them a story about each one. It was a great example of a simple way to make huge deposits into that Emotional Bank Account they kept referring to.
7. Be your partner’s best friend. Don’t side with the enemy.
Dr. Julie shared that the Masters of Relationship don’t experience less external stress than the Disasters of Relationship. But, the Masters know how to keep those external stressors from harming their relationship. They do this by practicing stress relieving conversations. She said that when our partners are sharing something that is bothering them, the best thing to do is listen empathetically. She said, “Empathy is guessing what your partner is feeling and being able to say ‘I get it.'” These stress relieving conversations are not problem solving sessions and they are not the time to pile on the things that are frustrating you about your partner. She encouraged us to be our partner’s best friend and never side with the enemy.
8. Couples that talk about sex have better sex.
I’ll admit it, this part made me blush. But, who doesn’t want a better sex life? Talking about sex is certainly an area that Tony and I can work on and they gave us a great start with their Salsa card deck activity. There were three decks to help us get some conversation going around our sex life; mild, medium, and spicy. Dr. Julie shared, “In good relationships, couples touch each other a lot, they value their friendship with one another, and they don’t leave sex as the last item on the to-do list.”
… And with that, we took a break for the evening. We were encouraged to keep things light for the rest of the day and not to bring up any conflicts. They let us know that for Day 2, we would discuss conflict management and resolution and that we should do our best to enjoy each other for the rest of the first day. Tony and I decided we would check out a friend’s restaurant for dinner, but first we walked back to our beautiful hotel room so I could freshen up. He was so excited for our date that he fell asleep while I was in the bathroom! To be honest, I took the quiet time to relax before I woke him up to head out. I mean, we did leave our three littles behind and had this calm hotel room at our disposal. A nap really was the best idea.
We arrived late the next morning, but I figured that since it was going to be about conflict, we really just got a head start…
9. It is very American to view conflict as a symptom of a bad relationship. It’s not.
The day began with some reassurances. All couples argue. All couples have intense conversations. All couples have regrettable incidents. Masters and Disasters alike, no couple is without their share of disagreements. The goal isn’t even to minimize the number of them. Instead, the goal is to make conflict constructive and utilize it to help us understand our partner better. Conflict, then, is an opportunity to learn how to love our partner better over time.
Drs. John and Julie modeled what it looks like to process a conflict that happened in the past, how to talk through it and really listen to one another without getting back into the conflict itself. It was then that we witnessed something I’ll never forget. As Julie discussed what might have triggered her to say something really mean and insensitive to John, she recalled something that happened in her childhood. She had been neglected badly by her parents and suffered tremendous health obstacles. As she attempted to share, she had a hard time catching her breath around her tears. John reached over and caressed her leg, keeping eye contact with her sweetly, reassuring her that he was there. They finished modeling the conversation, but I think it was clear to all of us that we were privy to something real, something we all wanted. Not that we all want to be John and Julie Gottman, but we want that ability to be vulnerable with one another and to receive each other with tenderness when things are hard. We can see that it takes work, but the payoff is enormous!
10. The best thing to do during a heated fight is to take a 20 minute break.
Dr. John led us through the science of what is happening in our bodies when our brains perceive any sort of threat, which they do when we are in a fight. Because of adrenaline, increased heart rate, constricted blood flow, and other physiological changes that occur during a heated conflict, we are unable to truly problem solve. This is why learning to self-soothe and communicate the need for a break are so vital to successful problem solving. No matter how much we might want to fight well, sometimes our physiological response simply won’t allow it. We feel flooded, which leads to stonewalling as well as the other three horsemen. Flooding leads people to reject incoming information. Being soothed, taking that break, remembering that we are safe in our relationship leads to the ability to take in information. Sometimes we may need more than 20 minutes, but however long we might need, we should communicate that to our partner and should never take more than 24 hours to readdress a problem.
11. Make “I” statements instead of “You” statements
The next phase of the workshop was for processing a “regrettable incident.” The goal here was simply to listen to our partner’s perspective of what happened and not to find a solution. As we walked to a more private area together, I couldn’t think of one single thing Tony and I could use for this exercise. Don’t worry, Tony thought of one immediately! As we discussed it, we had to practice a very formal way of asking questions and listening to each other. We had to remember to talk about our perspective without using blaming language like, “You said this and it was totally out of line!” Instead, we’d have to say, “I heard these words and it made me feel upset.” We then had to practice validating each other whether we agreed with their perception or not. It was tricky. In the end we were both enlightened about the conflict we talked about, but it was difficult not to explain ourselves or get defensive while we were getting there. Ultimately, though, learning to use language that takes ownership was a great benefit. It certainly softens the impact when we aren’t blaming one another for what happened.
12. We need to be ok with good enough
Back in the lecture hall we had opportunity to ask questions about the exercise. One woman asked, “What should we do if our partner doesn’t apologize for the part of the conflict that we feel they should apologize for?” Good question, I thought. Dr. Julie responded by saying, “Sometimes we just need to be ok with good enough. We are never going to get to perfect communication, and perfection is not the goal. We just want you all to be able to live with each other and move forward.”
It felt really good to hear that. It’s easy to think, especially when we are all spending two whole days with the experts, that we need to be experts at our relationships. It’s not true. They reiterated that the differences between the Masters and the Disasters of relationships is very subtle. The Masters of relationships are not always the best communicators, they simply show they care about their partner and make an effort to show appreciation. Good enough, in other words, is great!
13. Perpetual problems in a relationship usually cannot be solved. The goal, then, is understanding.
We learned that there is a difference between solvable problems and perpetual ones. The perpetual problems that exist are there because, well, we simply didn’t marry someone quite as perfect as we are. If you were married to someone else, you would just have a different set of perpetual problems. While we need to be able to discuss them, and through an intense exercise, Tony and I did, we shouldn’t expect to come up with a solution. We had some tears during this break-out session, and while it was rough, we were grateful that there were roaming Gottman Certified therapists on hand to help answer our questions and get us unstuck.
This was also the session that it became clear to us how much we rely on the humor between us to get us through tense times. We were not seeing eye-to-eye… that’s the nature of a perpetual problem… but we were still able to love each other and make little jokes with one another. It was soothing and reassuring for both of us.
14. Dr. John Gottman is a feminist!
“Being the father of a daughter, I am an ardent feminist.”
– Dr. John Gottman.
I know that word can be controversial, but I was excited to hear him say it. It could have seemed out of place in a couples workshop, but it made perfect sense as he began to explain. He shared a story of a man in San Francisco in the 1960’s who handcuffed himself to his wife while she was in labor when the doctors ordered him out of the room. Gottman said that today 91% of men are present to witness the birth of their children. In 1960, that number was 0% in hospitals in the United States. Gottman said that something profound happens when a man witnesses the birth of their own child: their reverence and respect for all women increases.
He shared with us that he believes we are in the midst of a cultural shift toward the better when it comes to the treatment, respect, and honoring of women. In our marriages, he encouraged us that it is vital for us to honor one another’s dreams and life goals, especially the dreams of women. This is not to suggest that a man’s dreams are not to be honored. But in our history, unfortunately, it has typically been the woman’s dreams that have not been taken seriously by both genders. Honoring each other’s dreams is a vital part of a long-lasting fulfilling relationship.
15. Listening is sexy.
Dr. John told us that a husband came to him during a break at one of their workshops to ask him a question. “The research is out there and new medicines are being invented and discovered all the time. When will they come up with an aphrodisiac for women?” He replied to the curious husband, “Good news! It’s already been discovered! It’s called ‘LISTENING’!” Ha!
Every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay. Turning toward each other instead of away, listening to your partner, and showing appreciation are all ways to keep the temperature of your relationship warm and positive. That warmth is what sets the tone for a great sex life, a long-lasting friendship, and creating shared meaning and value in your relationship.
There you have it: a snapshot of one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time! If you feel like there is a lot here, you’re right. I’ll be referring to and expanding on what we learned over the coming weeks and months little by little because there was just so much! As promised, I did get to meet them and I did tell them about you, our #staymarried Community.
I’d love to hear which of our 15 favorite moments is now your favorite. Let us know in the comments below if any of these stood out to you or if you’d like me to dig a little deeper into one of them. Tony and I have been so impacted by the work and research of the Gottmans, and we know we aren’t the only ones. We met couples from California, Canada, and even as far as Australia at this conference! If you ever have an opportunity to go, DO IT! We can’t think of better people to learn from if you want to #staymarried.
The #staymarried blog was created to offer hope, stories, and resources for couples who want to stay married.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these other Gottman-influenced entries:
♥ What Would Happen if We Did Not Argue
♥ The Love Crumb
♥ What is a Love Map
♥ How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage
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