Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: S is for Sex

S is for Sex
By Zach Brittle, LMHC

The idea of me writing about sex is kind of comical. My wife will be the first to tell you that I don’t possess any kind of particular expertise. It’s not a criticism. It’s just part of the simple truth that despite seventeenish years of practice, we simply haven’t mastered what Drs. John and Julie Gottman have dubbed The Art and Science of Lovemaking.

In their Gott Sex? Series, the Gottmans have suggested that the best sex tends to be a result of the strongest friendships. In preparing to write And Baby Makes Three, Dr. John Gottman and his research team interviewed couples about sex and intimacy shortly after they had their first baby. I was fortunate enough to be part of this team which ultimately confirmed the hypothesis that good sex is very much interrelated with intimate trust, friendship, and conversations that create emotional connection.

This doesn’t seem like earth shattering information, but it also doesn’t necessarily line up with the thousands of contrary messages we are receiving about sex each day. I don’t know about you, but my sex life doesn’t look anything like the stuff I see on HBO or even the commercials during the Seahawks game. I call that “sexy sex” and it’s too simple. Most of the actual sex I’m familiar with is complicated. It’s risky. But, ultimately, it’s more rewarding than anything on TV.

With apologies to any of you looking for advice about how to have more "sexy sex," here are some thoughts on actual, real life lovemaking.

Talking about sex is more intimate than having sex.

Turns out, the most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.

But have you ever tried talking about your sexual preferences, your fears, your hopes? Have you ever told your partner your sexual story? Do you know your sexual story? Not the story of your triumphs. Rather, the story of how you learned about sex, how you became aware of your sexuality, how you experienced the pain and shame, but also the joy and beauty of sex.

It’s tough. It’s not typical dinner table conversation, especially if your kids are around. And it’s not something you can check off the list while running errands. I don’t recommend texting or instant messaging about these most intimate details. However, probably the worst time to attempt this kind of conversation is during sex. Talking about sex deserves an intimate time and space. 

And it should be a priority. The Gottmans recommend creating Love Maps of your partner’s sexuality. If you’re new to this concept, start simple. You don’t have to go straight to questions of technique. Try this one:

There is an old saying that some partners want sex to feel close, but others only want sex when they already feel close. Does that fit us in any way? Do you think that’s true? Is it true of us? Is that a problem? If so, how can we make that better?

Do the work of cultivating intimacy in order to increase the quality of your intercourse. That said…

Intimacy is more important than intercourse.

We’ve somehow been conditioned to think about sex in terms of quantity and quality of intercourse. At the micro level, we’re primed to think about quantity and quality of orgasm. This emphasis misses the mark in both cases. Sex isn’t about the act. Or rather, sex isn’t only about the act. It is also and primarily about the connection.

There are seasons of life when capacity and tolerance for sex fluctuates. The mark of a healthy sex life cannot be measured by a number. If it were, then post-partum moms and men with erectile dysfunction (to name just two categories) would be in big trouble. Not to mention the depressed, the distracted, the deployed, etc. Even when sex (or orgasm) is impossible, intimacy is critical. 

This is where talking about sex comes in handy. But not just that, hugging, holding hands, snuggling, kissing all foster intimacy. So does conflict and resolution. So does growing old together. A commitment to intimacy can yield more frequent and more satisfying sex, but even when it doesn’t, intimacy remains and ultimately trumps intercourse. 

Impersonal sex is more fun than personal sex.

Wait. What did he say? I said, impersonal sex is more fun, but only in the way that a roller coaster is more fun than a hot-air balloon ride around the globe. (The latter may not seem like fun to you, but you get my meaning, I’m sure.) Impersonal sex, or, “erotic activity not founded on emotional connection and adoration of the partner” is always more fun. But, only because it doesn’t involve the hard work of intimacy building.

Much has been said about the perils of pornography, perhaps the most accessible example of impersonal sex. And there are no shortage of arguments against it: It promotes objectification of and violence towards women. It causes changes in the brain that lead to addiction. It’s immoral. It’s illegal. It’s pervasive. Whatever your objection, it seems to me that the biggest problem with pornography is that it has convinced men and women around the globe that sex is easy. That it’s “fun.” 

By now you know, I don’t think fun is the point. The point - in committed relationships - is sharing both the body and the mind and, I dare say, the soul. That’s not fun. It’s difficult and risky and also better. Personal sex isn’t easy. It’s hard work. Learning how to initiate (and refuse) sex is work. Getting to know your partner’s dreams, preferences, and body is work. Overcoming resistance, fear, and shame is work. Improving your technique is work.

Personal sex is work. It’s harder. It’s messier. It’s riskier. But it’s better. And couples who are committed to improving their intimate, passionate, romantic, and sexual lives with one another don’t have to settle for fun sex. 

So, back to the idea of me writing about sex. Believe it or not, it was pretty risky for me. I really wanted to write about Stonewalling, but I know that my ongoing sexual journey requires me to continue to do the work of leaning into intimacy and making personal sex a priority. Sometime this week, my wife will read this and shortly thereafter, I suspect we’ll be having a talk. But I’m ready, and looking forward to reaping the benefits of our hard work together.


This is Zach's 19th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com. Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Style of Parent are You?

What Style of Parent are You? 
By Michael Fulwiler

As promised on Wednesday, today on The Gottman Relationship Blog we provide a self-assessment to determine your parenting style. Are you a Disapproving parent? A Dismissing parent? An Emotion Coach? 

This self-assessment written by Dr. Gottman comes from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. It asks questions about your feelings regarding sadness, fear, and anger – both in yourself and in your children. For each item, please select the choice that best fits how you feel. If you’re not sure, go with the answer that seems the closest. While this test requires you to answer a lot of questions, try to stick with it. The lengthy design ensures that we cover most aspects of each parenting style. 

1. Children really have very little to be sad about. T F

2. I think that anger is okay as long as it’s under control. T F

3. Children acting sad are usually just trying to get adults to feel sorry for them. T F

4. A child’s anger deserves a time-out. T F

5. When my child is acting sad, he turns into a real brat. T F

6. When my child is sad, I am expected to fix the world and make it perfect. T F

7. I really have no time for sadness in my own life. T F 

8. Anger is a dangerous state. T F

9. If you ignore a child’s sadness it tends to go away and take care of itself. T F

10. Anger usually means aggression. T F

11. Children often act sad to get their way. T F

12. I think sadness is okay as long as it’s under control. T F

13. Sadness is something one has to get over, to ride out, not to dwell on. T F 

14. I don’t mind dealing with a child’s sadness, as long as it doesn’t last long. T F 

15. I prefer a happy child to a child who is overly emotional. T F 

16. When my child is sad, it’s a time to problem-solve. T F

17. I help my children get over sadness quickly so they can move on to better things. T F 

18. I don’t see a child’s being sad as any kind of opportunity to teach the child much. T F

19. I think when kids are sad they have overemphasized the negative in life. T F

20. When my child is acting angry, she turns into a real brat. T F

21. I set limits on my child’s anger. T F

22. When my child acts sad, it’s to get attention. T F

23. Anger is an emotion worth exploring. T F

24. A lot of child’s anger comes from the child’s lack of understanding and immaturity. T F

25. I try to change my child’s angry moods into cheerful ones. T F

26. You should express the angel you feel. T F

27. When my child is sad, it’s a chance to get close. T F

28. Children really have very little to be angry about. T F

29. When my child is sad, I try to help the child explore what is making him sad. T F

30. When my child is sad, I show my child that I understand. T F

31. I want my child to experience sadness. T F 

32. The important thing is to find out why a child is feeling sad. T F

33. Childhood is a happy-go-lucky time, not a time for feeling sad or angry. T F

34. When my child is sad, we sit down to talk over the sadness. T F

35. When my child is sad, I try to help him figure out why the feeling is there. T F

36. When my child is angry, it’s an opportunity for getting close. T F

37. When my child is angry, I take some time to try to experience this feeling with my child. T F

38. I want my child to experience anger. T F

39. I think it’s good for kids to feel angry sometimes. T F

40. The important thing is to find out why the child is feeling angry. T F

41. When she gets sad, I warn her about not developing a bad character. T F

42. When my child is sad I’m worried he will develop a negative personality. T F

43. I’m not really trying to teach my child anything in particular about sadness. T F

44. If there’s a lesson I have about sadness it’s that it’s okay to express it. T F

45. I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done to change sadness. T F

46. There’s not much you can do for a sad child beyond offering him comfort. T F

47. When my child is sad, I try to let him know that I love him no matter what. T F

48. When my child is sad, I’m not quite sure what she wants me to do. T F

49. I’m not really trying to teach my child anything in particular about anger. T F

50. If there’s a lesson I have about anger it’s that it’s okay to express it. T F

51. When my child is angry, I try to be understanding of his mood. T F

52. When my child is angry, I try to let her know that I love her no matter what. T F

53. When my child is angry, I’m not quite sure what he wants me to do. T F 

54. My child has a bad temper and I worry about it. T F

55. I don’t think it is right for a child to show anger. T F

56. Angry people are out of control. T F

57. A child’s expressing anger amounts to a temper tantrum. T F

58. Kids get angry to get their own way. T F

59. When my child gets angry, I worry about his destructive tendencies. T F

60. If you let kids get angry, they will think they can get their way all the time. T F

61. Angry children are being disrespectful. T F 

62. Kids are pretty funny when they’re angry. T F

63. Anger tends to cloud my judgment and I do things I regret. T F

64. When my child is angry, it’s time to solve a problem. T F

65. When my child gets angry, I think it’s time for a spanking. T F

66. When my child gets angry, my goal is to get him to stop. T F

67. I don’t make a big deal of a child’s anger. T F

68. When my child is angry, I usually don’t take it all that seriously. T F

69. When I’m angry, I feel like I’m going to explode. T F

70. Anger accomplishes nothing. T F

71. Anger is exciting for a child to express. T F

72. A child’s anger is important. T F

73. Children have a right to feel angry. T F

74. When my child is mad, I just find out what is making her mad. T F

75. It’s important to help the child find out what cause the child’s anger. T F

76. When my child gets angry with me I think, “I don’t want to hear this.” T F

77. When my child is angry I think, “If only he could just learn to roll with the punches.” T F

78. When my child is angry I think, “Why can’t she accept things as they are?” T F

79. I want my child to get angry, to stand up for himself. T F

80. I don’t make a big deal out of my child’s sadness. T F

81. When my child is angry I want to know what she is thinking. T F


Dismissing: Add up the number of times you said “true” for the following items: 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 28, 33, 43, 62, 66, 67, 68, 76, 77, 78, 80. Divide the total by 25. This is your Dismissing score.

Disapproving: Add up the number of times you said “true” for the following items: 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 20, 21, 22, 41, 42, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 63, 65, 69, 70. Divide the total by 23. This is your Disapproving score. 

Laissez-Faire: Add up the number of times you said “true” for the following items: 26, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 52, 53. Divide the total by 10. This is your Laissez-Faire score. 

Emotion Coaching: Add up the number of times you said “true” for the following items: 16, 23, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 51, 64, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 79, 81. Divide the total by 23. This is your Emotion Coaching score.

Compare your four scores. The higher you scored in any one area, the more you tend toward that style of parenting. Then look back at the bulleted lists from Wednesday’s posting, which summarizes behaviors typical of each parenting style and explain how each style affects children.

If, after reading about the different styles of parenting, you identify aspects of your relationship with your child that you’d like to change, you’ll find the Emotion Coaching: The Heart of Parenting video program helpful. It offers detailed information and exercises about the five steps that constitute Emotion Coaching.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Four Parenting Styles

The Four Parenting Styles 
By Michael Fulwiler

With school starting up again, we would like to turn our attention to the relationship between parent and child. As Dr. Gottman explains in Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, "good parenting involves emotion." Dating back to the 1990s, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships. For parents, this quality of “emotional intelligence” means being aware of your child’s feelings, and being able to empathize, soothe, and guide them.

When it comes to raising children, what parental behaviors make the difference? As a research-psychologist studying parent-child interactions, Dr. Gottman has spent much of the past forty years looking for the answer to this question. Working with research teams at the University of Illinois and the University of Washington, his studies involved lengthy interviews with parents, talking about their marriages, their reactions to their children’s emotional experiences, and their own awareness of the role emotion plays in their lives.

The results tell a simple, yet compelling story. We have found that most parents fall into one of two broad categories: those who give their children guidance about the world of emotion and those who don’t. We call parents who get involved with their children’s feelings “Emotion Coaches.” 

We have identified four types of parents and the effects of this parenting style on their children: 

The Dismissing Parent 
  • Treats child’s feelings as unimportant, trivial 
  • Disengages from or ignores the child’s feelings
  • Wants the child’s negative emotions to disappear quickly
  • Sees the child’s emotions as a demand to fix things
  • Minimizes the child’s feelings, downplaying the events that led to the emotion
  • Does not problem-solve with the child, believes that the passage of time will resolve most problems 

Effects of this style on children: They learn that their feelings are wrong, inappropriate, not valid. They may learn that there is something inherently wrong with them because of the way they feel. They may have difficulty regulating their own emotions.

The Disapproving Parent 
  • Displays many of the Dismissing Parent’s behaviors, but in a more negative way 
  • Judges and criticizes the child’s emotional expression
  • Emphasizes conformity to good standards of behavior 
  • Believes negative emotions need to be controlled 
  • Believes emotions make people weak; children must be emotionally tough for survival 
  • Believes negative emotions are unproductive, a waste of time

Effects of this style on children: Same as the Dissaproving style.

The Laissez-Faire Parent
  • Freely accepts all emotional expression from the child 
  • Offers little guidance on behavior
  • Does not set limits
  • Believes there is little you can do about negative emotions other than ride them out
  • Does not help child solve problems 
  • Believes that managing negative emotions is a matter of hydraulics, release the emotion and the work is done 

Effects of this style on children: They don’t learn to regulate their emotions. They have trouble concentrating, forming friendships, and getting along with other children.

The Emotion Coach
  • Values the child’s negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy
  • Is aware of and values her or her own emotions
  • Sees the world of negative emotions as an important arena for parenting 
  • Does not poke fun at or make light of the child’s negative feelings
  • Does not say how the child should feel 
  • Uses emotional moments as a time to listen to the child, empathize with soothing words and affection, help the child label the emotion he or she is feeling, offer guidance on regulating emotions, set limits and teach acceptable expression of emotions, and teach problem-solving skills 

Effects of this style on children: They learn to trust their feelings, regulate their own emotions, and solve problems. They have a high self-esteem, learn well, and get alone well with others. 

The concept of Emotion Coaching is a simple one that’s rooted in our deepest feelings of love and empathy for our children. Unfortunately, however, Emotion Coaching doesn’t come naturally to all parents. Rather, Emotion Coaching is an art that requires emotional awareness and a specific set of listening and problem-solving behaviors – behaviors Dr. Gottman and his colleagues identified and analyzed in their observation of healthy, well-functioning families. The path to becoming a better parent, like almost every road to personal growth, begins with self-examination. On Friday, we will share an assessment to help you determine what style of parent you are.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Repair Attempts

Weekend Homework Assignment: Repair Attempts 
By Michael Fulwiler 

As Zach Brittle explained in his “R is for Repair” column on Tuesday, in relational terms, repair is less about fixing what is broken and more about getting back on track. Dr. Gottman refers to repair attempts as “the secret weapon” of emotionally intelligent couples, even though many of these couples aren’t aware that they are doing something so powerful. Are you effectively utilizing repair attempts in your relationship? 

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we provide a questionnaire to assess the effectiveness of your repair attempts. Take some time this weekend to complete it with your partner. 

Repair Attempts Questionnaire: 
Read each statement below and choose T for “true” or F for “false.”

During our attempts to resolve conflict: 

1.  We are good at taking breaks when we need them. T F
2.  My partner usually accepts my apologies. T F
3.  I can say that I am wrong. T F
4.  I am pretty good at calming myself down. T F
5.  We can maintain a sense of humor. T F 
6.  When my partner says we should talk to each other in a different way, it usually makes a lot of sense. T F
7.  My attempts to repair our discussions when they get negative are usually effective. T F
8.  We are pretty good listeners even when we have different positions on things. T F
9.  If things get heated, we can usually pull out of it and change things. T F
10.  My partner is good at soothing me when I get upset. T F
11.  I feel confident that we can resolve most issues between us. T F
12.  When I comment on how we could communicate better my spouse listens to me. T F 
13.  Even if things get hard at times I know we can get past our differences. T F
14.  We can be affectionate even when we are disagreeing. T F
15.  Teasing and humor usually work to get my partner over negativity. T F
16.  We can start all over again and improve our discussion when we need to. T F
17.  When emotions run hot, expressing how upset I feel makes a real difference. T F
18.  We can discuss even big differences between us. T F
19.  My partner expresses appreciation for nice things I do. T F
20.  If I keep trying to communicate it will eventually work. T F 

Scoring: Give yourself one point for each “true” answer
6 or Above: This is an area of strength in your relationship. When conflict discussions are at risk of getting out of hand, you are able to put on the brakes and effectively calm each other down.
Below 6: Your relationship could stand some improvement in this area. By learning how to repair your interactions when negativity engulfs you, you can dramatically improve the effectiveness of your problem solving and develop a more positive perspective of each other and your relationship.

What separates stable, emotionally intelligent couples from others is not that their repair attempts are necessarily more skillful or better thought out, but that their repair attempts get through to their partner. Because repair attempts can be difficult to hear if your relationship is engulfed in negativity, the best strategy is to make your attempts more formal and deliberate in order to emphasize them. Talk to your partner this weekend about repair attempts. If you need a place to start, check out the Gottman Repair Checklist here. What works for you? What doesn't? Don't be afraid to get creative.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: R is for Repair

R is for Repair
By Zach Brittle, LMHC

Repair is easily my favorite concept in the entire Gottman encyclopedia. Typically, we think of repair in terms of what we have to do to a car or a washing machine or a botched haircut. As in, it’s broken, it needs repair. But in relational terms, repair is less about fixing what is broken and more about getting back on track.

Masters of relationships repair early and often. And they have lots of strategies for how to repair. Gottman describes a repair attempt as “any statement or action - silly or otherwise - that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” The reason I love the concept so much is because of that word “any.” It leaves a ton of room for creativity. And because every relationship is different, finding the repair strategies that work for you can actually be a unique game that belongs to just the two of you.

But of course, you have to be in the right frame of mind to play. Whenever our family has an especially long, stressful, tiring day - the kind of day where nothing goes right and we’re all about to tear each others’ heads off - my seven year old will, without fail, ask to “play a family game.” It’s her own attempt at repair I guess, but man those games are tough. And sometimes it’s hard to rally.

There’s a book I love that was given to me by one of my favorite therapists. (As in, one of my favorite therapists that was actually my therapist.) The book is called Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. You could and should buy and read it, but in case you don’t, I’m going to give you the central thesis now.

Carse argues that human beings are constantly playing one of two kinds of games, finite and infinite. In a finite game the boundaries are really clear. The rules are predetermined and when a player violates the rule he is penalized. The game has a specific time limit and the object of the game is to win. It’s football. American Ninja Warrior. And the stock market. 

In an infinite game, there is no time limit and the boundaries are fluid. The rules are made up by the players and can change at any time. The goal is not to win, but instead, to prolong the game. It’s the game of life, or for our purposes, the game of relationships. Carse also suggests that, “if you must play, then you cannot play.” This notion speaks to the value of cooperation, intentionality, and agreement. Players (partners) can’t be forced to conform to unknown or unstated set of rules, but instead must work together to draft rules that ensure the continuation of the game (the relationship).

Repair is ultimately about rules. More specifically, it’s about making rules together. The Gottman library of interventions include a Repair Checklist. It’s a list of phrases clustered into different categories including I FEEL, SORRY, GET TO YES. The idea is that as conversations escalate, you can turn to the list and identify which phrases will and won’t work. 

I especially like the category called STOP ACTION which is designed to interrupt the escalation of an argument before one or both partners gets flooded and redirect the conversation. There are a dozen or so phrases to choose from and the “game” is looking at the list together and deciding what might work and what might not. You might decide together, “I really like #3, #6 and #11, I think those will help me calm down. But I do not like #10. If you use that phrase with me it’ll only make it worse.” (It should be noted that “calm down” is not an option on the list of suggestions because “calm down” never works for anyone ever. Don’t use it.) This process of engaging the Repair Checklist is a great example of shaping and prolonging an infinite game by making rules together. 

But you’re not limited to the list. I have a couple in my practice that met at a Super Bowl party. One of their stop action techniques is to “throw a flag.” They literally have a yellow flag like the ones football officials use and either partner can throw the flag at any time to keep an argument from escalating. The reason that it works is because they agreed to create and follow that rule. 

No matter what strategies you choose, it is absolutely critical that you master the art of making and receiving repair attempts. In Dr. Gottman’s research, the consistent failure of repair attempts is a sign of an unhappy future. Statistically, a marriage can survive The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but only if partners learn to repair effectively. Without that, you get stuck in a finite game where even when one partner wins, you both end up losing. 

Playing the infinite game is complicated because creativity is always complicated. But start simple. Remember that a repair attempt is any statement or action - silly or otherwise - that prevents negativity from escalating out of control. So, have fun brainstorming what will work for you. Is it ironic that play is the real work of the relationship? Maybe. But if you relish the game, you can prolong the relationship and ultimately reap the the mutual benefit of increased trust and intimacy. 


This is Zach's 18th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com. Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

5 Ways to Strengthen Your Relationship This Labor Day Weekend

5 Ways to Strengthen Your Relationship This Labor Day Weekend
By Michael Fulwiler

In the United States, Labor Day weekend is a time for fun, friends, and family. It’s a time for camping trips, barbeques, and the kickoff of the college football season. Celebrated every year on the last weekend in August, it symbolizes the end of summer and the beginning of autumn – whether you’re ready for it or not.

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we share five ideas for using the upcoming three-day weekend to strengthen your relationship with your partner. 

Examine Your Rituals 
Creating informal rituals when you can connect emotionally is critical in a relationship. How did you spend Labor Day weekend as a kid? How did your partner? Do you know?

Most of us were raised in families in which some rituals were considered important. By making them a part of your life (or coming up with your own new ones together), they become your rituals as well and further your identity as a family. Click here for some great ideas.

Update Your Love Maps 
When is the last time you sat down and had a real conversation with your partner? Do you know what stressors they are facing at work? Do you know what their biggest accomplishment has been this month? What are their goals for the next year? Have they changed?

Set aside time this weekend to update your Love Maps. No cellphones or television allowed. Click here for some questions to get you started, and don’t be afraid to come up with a few of your own.

Accept Your Partner’s Influence 
You want to go hiking this weekend, but your partner wants to stay home and make those repairs around the house that you’ve both been putting off. What to do? Why not both? If you have differing opinions of how you want to spend your three-day weekend, then we encourage you to accept each other’s influence. Get that housework done on Saturday so you are free to hike on Monday!

Accepting influence is extremely important, especially for men. In a long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, we found that, even in the first few months of marriage, men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct. Click here to read more about the importance of accepting influence.

Express Appreciation 
Have you told your partner how much you appreciate them lately? If not, use this long weekend as an opportunity to do so. Write down five positive qualities about your partner. For each item, think of an actual incident that illustrates this characteristic. Then share it with them! This is called the “I appreciate…” Exercise and you can read more about it here.

Expressing appreciation is a great way to build the fondness and admiration system, which is crucial to the long-term happiness of a relationship because it prevents contempt – the most dangerous of The Four Horsemen – from becoming an overwhelming presence in your life. The better in touch you are with your deep-seated positive feelings for each other, the less likely you are to act contemptuous of your partner when you have a difference of opinion.

Share a Six-Second Kiss 
You should already be doing this daily, but if you aren’t, use this weekend as an excuse to start. See if you can share a kiss each day this weekend that lasts at least six seconds, then carry it over into next week! 

Long enough to feel romantic, the six-second kiss serves as a temporary oasis within a busy day and creates a deliberate break between the on-the-job mentality (i.e., going to or from work) and a couple’s one-on-one time together. It releases oxytocin, which is the same hormone that is secreted when breastfeeding. Oxytocin is responsible for the comfort and connection that forms between mother and child and may explain the way kissing bonds us to another. A six-second kiss also releases dopamine, which triggers the same part of your brain that is stimulated by cocaine. Those butterflies in your stomach, they come from epinephrine and norepinephrine, which increase your heartbeat and send oxygenated blood to your brain. Some studies have even shown that kissing can cause a reduction in the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, so a daily six-second kiss could help lower your blood pressure and prevent heart attacks. Click here to read more about the importance of kissing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: Q is for Questions

Q is for Questions
By Zach Brittle, LMHC

I have to confess, when I opened up my column to your questions, I was really hoping to get a bunch of benign inquiries like: What’s your favorite novel? Where did you honeymoon? Cats or dogs?

But your questions were not benign. They were filled with pain and longing and betrayal and confusion. I am grieved for you. I am sorry that your relationships are struggling. I’m sad that you’re not enjoying the fruits of intimate, trusting, joyful relationships.

Peter* laments, “Affection, touch, sex. I want it. She does not... almost never. 1-2x a year at best. No kissing, no touching, I've pretty much given up after years of rejection.” Then he asked, simply, “Why?”

An almost identical question came from Annie, “My spouse has put me in the Friend Zone - wants to be friends, co-parent, cohabitate, hang out - but without romance, passion, or even lovemaking. We're only 40!” She asks, “What can we do to ‘fall in love’ again?” 

Why? What can we do? Simple questions. Powerful. Devastating.

The honest truth is that there aren’t simple answers to these questions. Part of what makes satisfying relationships so rewarding is that they’re hard to create and maintain. And when you lose focus on the relationship, even for a moment, you can slide into habitual patterns of disconnecting pretty easily - even without noticing.

No couple ever woke up one day and decided to stop being affectionate. They accepted, sometime much earlier in the relationship, that intimacy wasn’t a priority. This is super subtle and can be seen in Dr. Gottman’s theory of bids and turning towards.

Both Peter and Annie are describing relationships where at least one partner has stopped making bids, likely because the other partner stopped turning toward previous bids. Why? Who knows. That’s part of why therapy is really helpful. What can we do? Start by focusing on bids.

First focus on turning toward your partner’s bids. Let them know that you’re paying attention to them. That you think they’re interesting. Funny. Attractive. Prioritize intimacy, even if it’s not sex. Become an expert at turning toward the bid. Then re-evaluate the strategy for your own bids for affection and attention. Get really good at holding hands, then hugging, then the six-second kiss.

The relationship got knocked off-track way back when. It’ll take hard work and patience to get back to where you deserve. But it’s the tortoise’s work, not the hare’s.

If there was one dominant topic in your questions, it was jealousy and betrayal. Specifically, how to avoid jealousy and recover from betrayal. This issue, just like the intimacy questions above, ultimately boil down to how well a couple can make and respond to bids for affection and attention. When you do that well, you will protect yourself from the perils of infidelity. When you don’t, you sow the seeds for the small betrayals that can lead to the eventual affair. But what about after the affair?

Sarah wrote about how well she and her husband have been doing in the aftermath of his affair. They’ve both done a great job taking responsibility and re-investing in their friendship. They are talking together and working through conflict and distress more and better than before. Still, they’re having a hard time trusting in the “new norm.” “How long,” she asks, “does it take to create lasting overall confidence and trust?”

Of course it would be silly to try and offer a precise timeline, but I tend to think it boils down to perspective. The further away you get from the incident, the more it fades into the distance. It’s natural to have some post-traumatic stress in the wake of an affair and to continue to struggle with confidence and security. But at some point, the perspective (and the story) will shift away from the affair and toward the recovery. The Gottmans refer to a process of Atonement, Attunement, Attachment. Trust that process and continue to lean into the new norm. At some level, simply committing makes it so.

Secure attachment goes a long way toward mitigating jealousy even when infidelity has never been an issue. Justin asks, “How do I lovingly connect to my jealous wife while not giving up who I am and what I enjoy?” I suppose it really depends on “who you are” and “what you enjoy.” Certainly some things are inappropriate. The best way to lovingly connect with your wife is to discover your wife’s dream and honor it. Her jealousy is attached to some portion of her dream that has not been heard or respected. If you want to mitigate betrayal in your relationship, focus on atonement, attunement and attachment.

The final theme that came up in your questions, and perhaps the most telling, is how important it is for you to be heard. More than a few of you sent me paragraphs about your relationship. I imagine it must have felt good to believe, if only for a moment, that someone was willing to hear your story and offer empathy and insight. Or maybe just the act of writing your story down helped you make sense of it. In any case, I want to encourage you to consider therapy as a means to understand your struggle. A good therapist is infinitely more effective than some guy sitting at a keyboard.

Cheryl wrote, "My husband is so controlling, at this present moment he hasn't been talking to me for two weeks now. He even moved out of our bedroom and stopped eating my food. The only time he talks to me or things are normal is when I compromise my happiness and do what he wants, and I am tired of living my live through making him happy at the expense of my happiness."

Ashley said, "My husband and I have been married for 15 years and been experts in the four horseman since we walked down the aisle. We've lived parallel lives for most of our marriage. Lately, we’ve been trying to stop the four horseman cycle, to nurture our fondness and admiration and turn toward each other. It's not working well enough (yet) for me to imagine staying in this marriage much longer."

Cheryl and Ashley are asking the same questions: Can my marriage be saved? When is enough enough? Are my expectations too high? Help.

Sometimes, the answer is “No, your marriage cannot be saved. ‘Enough’ was a long time ago. Yes, your expectations are too high.” Most couples are unhappy for an average of six years before they seek help. Even then it could be too late. Dr. Gottman often refers to the “Story of Us.” If your “Story of Us” is fraught with contempt rather than admiration, more “me” than “we,” and more disappointment than satisfaction, it may be time to try telling a different story.

Dr. Gottman says, “If there is clear compelling evidence that your relationship is already over or unsalvageable, and you want to move on, I believe it’s okay to let it go.” I agree. Even as a relationship therapist, I’m not in the “Stay Married At All Costs” camp. But I’d urge you to get some help before you decide to walk away. A good therapist will help you identify the strengths in the relationship that may simply be hiding in the midst of some present chaos. Minimally, it’ll be a good opportunity to tell your “Story of Us” and get some insight and empathy. Check The Gottman Referral Network to see if there’s a good Gottman trained therapist in your area.

I can tell you this for sure: you are not alone. I get questions like yours all the time. I hear stories of pain and longing and betrayal and confusion. But I also see couples recover and reclaim the best of themselves and their relationship. Again, it’s the tortoise’s work, not the hare’s.

By the way, my favorite novel is The Brothers K by David James Duncan. My wife and I honeymooned in Bermuda. And I don’t have the pet gene, so my preference with regard to cats and dogs is “neither.” Thanks for asking.

*NOTE: The questions and quotes in this column are submitted directly from readers. All names and identifying information have been changed. Some questions have been edited for brevity.


This is Zach's 17th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com. Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.