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 Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Featured Blogger: Casey and Meygan Caston

Marriage Requires Being Intentional 365 Days a Year 
By Casey and Meygan Caston

Between our parents and step-parents there are 11 marriages that have ended in divorce due to lying, affairs, addictions, mental illness, or simply just giving up. Because of this, we have a total of 9 siblings, yet only one is fully blood related. The baggage we brought into our marriage was immense. It’s taken us years to work through the trauma and abandonment issues of watching our family break apart, many times over.

It didn’t take long for problems in our own marriage to set in. They started on our wedding night when we got in a fight and Casey slept on the couch, and everything went down hill from there. Our early years of marriage were horrible because we were both deeply wounded and had no idea how to communicate and respect each other. We both got married to be happy, but no one ever told us it would require so much work.

It was the pain of watching our own relationship crumble that fueled our desire to learn how to succeed in marriage. We quickly realized it wasn’t just our marriage at risk. It was all around us. Our friends were quitting on their marriages too. Many of them would find their way to our couch, where we would listen to the pain, confusion, and regret of their recent divorce. They thought that leaving was the easy way out – that the grass was greener – but soon realized that it was even worse on the other side.

That’s when we turned the corner. Deep down inside we wondered, if we continued the way we’re going, would we be sitting on someone else’s couch saying the same thing? It seemed that we weren’t just courting the Four Horsemen. We had built stalls for them in our living room. Things got so ugly in the early years of our marriage that we weren’t sure if either of us were going to make it out alive.

In our eagerness to learn about marriage principles, we got our hands on Dr. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. We discovered the wealth of resources offered by his team at The Gottman Institute and found ourselves watching his videos on YouTube together. We thought that we were doomed and destined for divorce, but then we heard Dr. Gottman say something really amazing.

Conflict is inevitable and it’s a mechanism for learning how to love each other better.

Those words went straight to our hearts and our minds in a significant way. We discovered that we needed to go back to the roots of our friendship and start using Love Maps to spark conversation and build connection.

Conflict cannot be managed without a strong friendship in the marriage. Of course we are going to disagree on where that picture should be hung up, or which restaurant we should eat at, but focusing on our friendship has allowed us to use conflict to better understand each other and love more effectively. We became good at asking each other questions, we listened more, and we even began sharing the same goals and dreams for our future together.

Three years ago, we created Marriage365 as a channel of hope to other struggling couples. Through our daily Facebook and Instagram feed, we provide practical advice to help these couples get back on track. And it’s working. We have gathered almost 40,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 19,000 on Instagram. The positive response is giving us the courage to spend our lives gathering resources for couples that will reach the next generation.

We are continually faced with the challenges of making our marriage a priority. Some days we win, some days we lose. We discovered that great marriages don’t happen by accident, but require being intentional 365 days a year. We want to see marriages thrive. We want to see marriages last a lifetime. We want to be part of the solution. We’ve enjoyed playing the role as coach and mentor for couples in the early stages of marriage and when they hit the rough patches. The influence of Dr. Gottman’s research runs deep in our work, and it has provided a proven framework for us to give help to couples in need.

The legacy of the Love Lab lives on in Marriage365 and we are so grateful for that.


You can learn more about Casey and Meygan Caston at their blog at They live in Southern California with their 2 kids, one with special needs. Like Marriage365 on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

6 Arguments All Married Couples Have

6 Arguments All Married Couples Have
By Michael Fulwiler 

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman lists the 6 most common areas of marital conflict. He explains that, “even in very happy and stable marriages, these issues are perennial.” We will touch on these six hot spots, the task they each represent for a marriage, and offer practical advice for addressing the solvable disagreements they often trigger. 

If you need to brush up on the difference between solvable and perpetual problems, Zach Brittle wrote about unsolvable problems last week here. Remember that all couples argue, and that’s okay. We grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That's how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.

1. Work Stress


The Task: Make your marriage a place of peace.
The Solution: Acknowledge that at the end of a long, stressful day you may need time to yourselves to decompress before interacting with each other. If you bring your work stress home, it will sabotage your marriage. Build time to unwind into your daily schedule. Once you’re both feeling relatively composed, it’s time to come together and talk about each other’s day. Have a stress-reducing conversation.

2. In-Laws


The Task: Establish a sense of “we-ness,” or solidarity, between partners.
The Solution: Side with your spouse. Establish your own family rituals, values, and lifestyle and insist that in-laws respect them. An important part of putting your spouse first and building this sense of solidarity is not to tolerate any contempt toward your spouse from your parents.

3. Money


The Task: Balance the freedom and empowerment money represents with the security and trust it also symbolizes.
The Solution: What’s most important in terms of your marriage is that you work as a team on financial issues and that you express your concerns, needs, and dreams to each other before coming up with a plan. You’ll each need to be firm about items that you consider nonnegotiable. Itemize your current expenditures, manage your everyday finances, and plan your financial future. If you’re having trouble, see a financial planner.

4. Sex


The Task: Fundamental appreciation and acceptance of each other.
The Solution: Learn to talk to each other about sex in a way that lets you both feel safe. The goal of sex is to be closer, to have more fun, to feel satisfied, and to feel valued and accepted in this very tender area of your marriage. A major characteristic of couples who have a happy sex life is that they see lovemaking as an expression of intimacy but they don’t take any differences in their needs or desires personally

5. Housework


The Task: Create a sense of fairness and teamwork.
The Solution: The simple truth is that men have to do more housework. Maybe this fact will spark a husband's enthusiasm for domestic chores: Women find a man's willingness to do housework extremely erotic. When the husband does his share to maintain the home, both he and his wife report a more satisfying sex life than in marriages where the wife believes her husband is not doing his share. However, the quantity of housework is not necessarily a determining factor in the housework = sex equation. Two other variables: whether the husband does his chores without being asked, and whether he is flexible in his duties in response to her needs.

6. A New Baby


The Task: Expand your sense of "we-ness" to include your children.
The Solution: In the first year after baby arrives, 67% of wives experience a precipitous plummet in their marital satisfaction. Lack of sleep, feeling overwhelmed and under appreciated, juggling mothering with a job, economic stress, and lack of time to oneself, among other things. Why do the other 33% sail through the transition unscathed? What separates these blissful mothers from the rest has everything to do with whether the husband experiences the transformation to parenthood along with his wife or gets left behind. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

5 Things Zebras Can Teach Us About Fighting Stress

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers*, a highly acclaimed guide to stress (for humans), Dr. Robert Sapolsky speaks about the latest discoveries in the field of stress physiology. From this wise and witty offering, scientists and nonscientists alike can learn the ways in which chronic stress – the twenty first century's black plague – has become one of the leading proximal causes of death, leading to strokes and heart attacks along with a variety of other sub-optimal outcomes, from decreased immunity to insomnia, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, heart disease, and serious memory loss. 

But there's good news too. We can also discover the ways in which certain lucky critters – from lab rats and monkeys to our fellow human beings – have adapted to living marvelously well under pressure and avoided developing these afflictions, even in their old age! An exploration of how these lucky buggers cope can help us learn to take control of stress in our own lives.

According to Sapolsky, these lucky buggers tend to have the following in common: 

1. An outlet for frustration
2. A sense of predictability
3. A feeling of control
4. An optimistic outlook 
5. Social support

If a tiny sarcastic voice in your head is grumbling, “Oh good, glad we’ve got those all sorted out,” remember this: 

  • Knowing the destination is more than half the battle. The rest is one part perspective, and one part knowing how to get there.
  • Luckily, if you’ve been following the blog, reading Dr. Gottman’s books, or seeing a CGT (Certified Gottman Therapist), you've got some perspective, and already know a lot about how to get there.
  • Sapolsky’s ideas overlap significantly with GMCT (Gottman Method Couples Therapy). Particularly in the realm of stress and conflict mangement. So, dear reader, you and your wisdom are ahead of the curve!

Relationship problems can be a significant stressor, but our approach to love matters enormously. Believing that “Love is a battlefield,” or, even more dangerously, that “All’s fair in love and war” may not be the best strategy. 

By approaching our relationships from a different perspective – with a desire to overcome challenges by working together – we may achieve a far more satisfying outcome.

When we consider the parallels between Dr. Sapolsky’s research and GMCT, this makes a fantastic amont of sense. In GMCT, problems are divided into solvable, perpetual, and gridlocked. Getting a better feel for how our problems fit into these categories can help us enormously, as we can identify those we can solve easily and those we need to approach in a different way. While perpetual problems are clearly predictable, they don’t have to raise our blood pressure – we can use models like GMCT to reach mutual understanding.

When we truly listen to each other, we hold the key that unlocks potential in conflict discussions. We gain insights that grant us access to each other’s inner worlds, and also activate protective factors against illnesses caused by chronic stress. 

Your Weekend Homework Assignment:

This weekend, build emotional attraction through a heart-to-heart, stress-reducing conversation with your partner.

Actually understanding why we’re having the same arguments over and over can safeguard us from unnecessary stress, providing an enhanced sense of control and making room for a more optimistic outlook.

From this position, we may begin to see alternate ways to approach perpetual problems in the future. By building Love Maps, we learn about each other’s histories and potential triggers, so that the ways in which our words and actions affect each other become clear. We can predict what will happen. This is especially helpful in overcoming gridlock and stress from within our relationships.

Finally, the social support we give each other in a heart-to-heart is a true source of vitality – making an impact far beyond our in-the-moment emotional state. Rather than bottling up our frustration until we feel hopeless, helpless, and totally haywire (see: NSO), we can reach out to each other to gain access to those outlets, a feeling of control, and an enduring positive outlook. 

When we feel truly seen, heard, and understood, we are soothed, lowering each other’s levels of stress hormones and cortisol, working together to weather any storm. 

In this way, we can live and love, enjoying not only radically improved relationships, but longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Have a great weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

*Why, indeed? As it turns out, stress triggers a fight-or-flight response in both zebras and humans. However, as zebras don’t usually worry about social and psychological stressors (like in-laws, the Middle East, dress sizes, or the stock market), and focus solely on physical stressors (like lions and twigs snapping suspiciously in the distance), they don’t suffer the same chronic activation of stress response we do. Our inability to turn off the stress-response is what gives us our highly evolved ability to be “worried sick.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Relationship Between LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers

The Relationship Between LeBron James and The Cleveland Cavaliers
By Michael Fulwiler

"We had five great years together and one terrible night," Gilbert told James, and so started the process of reconciliation on Sunday night in Miami. "I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back."

Sound familiar? The relationship between LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers is not unlike a marriage. Four years after taking “his talents to South Beach” and crushing the collective heart of Cleveland, LeBron is coming home. What would Dr. John Gottman say about the complicated, off-and-on romance between the NBA superstar and NBA franchise? Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we will analyze their relationship – through the lens of Gottman research – to explain how to overcome a betrayal and rebuild trust.

Marriage #1 (2003-2010) 

According to Dr. Gottman, one of the best predictors of a couple’s future is how they view their past. Let’s start from the beginning. When the Cavaliers selected LeBron James as the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, the city of Cleveland had already fallen in love with “The Chosen One” from nearby Akron, Ohio. According to author Ryan Jones, James left high school as “the most hyped basketball player ever.” The relationship between the hometown kid and the Cavaliers flourished as James took the team to the NBA finals in 2006 and won back-to-back MVP awards in 2009-2010. He tossed chalk (below), adorned larger-than-life billboards, and organized regular charity events in the Cleveland-Akron area. He was “King James," Cleveland's homegrown superstar. 

However, James failed to deliver a championship to the city and faced heavy criticism for his poor shooting and costly turnovers, especially late in games. He became an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2010.

The Betrayal (2010) 

Everything changed the night of July 8, 2010. On a nationally broadcasted television special dubbed The Decision, Lebron James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat.” The public breakup was a devastating emotional blow to the city of Cleveland. According to the AP, fans “could not understand why James, Akron born and bred, would embarrass the people who say they loved him most.” Within an hour, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert published an angry letter on the team’s website to reassure the fanbase. In it, he mocked the "King" and his nicknames, referred to his leaving as a “shocking act of disloyalty” and “cowardly betrayal,” and promised Cleveland would win a championship before James did. Fans burned his number 23 jersey on national television and greeted him with venom in his first game back the following season. It wasn’t pretty. However, James did not retaliate. “I have the utmost respect for this franchise, the utmost respect for these fans,” he told reporters after the game.

The Other Team (2010-2014)

James would go on to win an NBA Championship in his second season with the Miami Heat while the Cavaliers went 40-108 in their first two seasons without him. James and Gilbert did not speak. "I'd sit on the baseline when he came back to play in Cleveland. He'd look at me from the free-throw line. Not good. Not bad. Just look,” Gilbert later told USA Today. James would take Miami to the NBA Finals for four consecutive years, winning back-to-back MVP Awards and NBA Championships in 2012-2013. While the Cavaliers floundered in mediocrity, LeBron James became the most successful basketball player on the planet. 

After losing the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs earlier this year, James opted out of his contract with the Heat on June 25 and became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Rumors began to swirl that the Akron native was considering a return to his hometown. Would he get back together with the team that he had broken up with? If so, how would he be received by the fanbase that he betrayed? 

Marriage #2 (2014 – current) 

On July 11, James shocked the sports world by publishing a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated. In it, he revealed his intentions to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now,” he explained. If he had to do it all over again, yes he still would have left, but he would have done things differently. He addressed Gilbert’s letter, the booing of the Cleveland fans, and the burning jerseys. “My emotions were mixed… Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” King James was coming home.

In an exclusive interview with USA Today, Gilbert explained his first meeting with James, a scene Mitch Albom described as “every guy seeing his ex-wife after the divorce.” The two had not spoken in four years. According to Gilbert, “The first thing I said to him was, ‘LeBron, you know this is true. We had five good years and one bad night. Like a marriage that's good and then one bad thing happens and you never talk to each other again.’”

"On this planet," Gilbert said, "there is no perfection. If you chose to end relationships because of one mistake, you're going to be alone."

The Future

Will it be possible for both parties to regain trust in one another? As Dr. Gottman explains in What Makes Love Last?, our system for healing after a betrayal is founded in our 40+ years of scientific research and clinical experience. “The Gottman Trust Revival Method” is separated into three phases.

Phase 1: Atone
Rebuilding cannot begin without the betrayer’s expression of remorse, even in the face of profound skepticism. This is the confession. However, confession is not enough. The commitment to honesty must extend into the present. This is the verification. Then, both partners need to grasp why betrayal occurred in their relationship in the first place. This is understanding. The betrayed partner needs a clear explanation of why the deceiver wants back in. If the reason isn’t made clear, the partner will remain wary that the new commitment will be short-lived. It is then that the betrayed partner can begin to forgive, the last step in the atonement phase. 

LeBron James’ essay in Sports Illustrated addresses all steps of the atonement phase. Why did he leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat? “I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two.” Why does he want back in? “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” Dan Gilbert has forgiven James. The city of Cleveland should too. 

Phase 2: Attune
After the couple emerges from the atonement phase with tentative forgiveness, they come together to build a new relationship. This is attunement. As part of this new commitment to each other, the couple goes public with the “new normal” in their relationship. Getting the word out helps to establish this new relationship as “real” and garners support from the people who are closest to them. It is important that the betrayer refuses “CL – ALT,” which stands for “comparison level for alternatives.” Couples must relearn how to handle conflict so that it doesn’t overwhelm them. For this purpose, we use the Gottman-Rapoport Blueprint and the Aftermath of a Fight Intervention from Gottman Couples Therapy. 

James and the Cavaliers are currently in the Attune phase. While they are primed to regain trust in one another following the Atone phase, their “new” relationship has not yet begun. There is still work to be done. 

Phase 3: Attach 
Following the Attune phase, couples can complete the Gottman Trust Revival Method by expressing fondness and admiration, using rituals of connection, and turning towards one another. This is attachment. The couple builds a “new” shared meaning system so that forgiveness has existential meaning to each partner. If there are remaining gridlocked conflicts, we use the Dreams Within Conflict Intervention from Gottman Couples Therapy. 

The success of the Attune phase will determine the success of the Attach phase. Once James and the Cavaliers begin their "new" relationship this season, will they be able to create a "new" shared meaning system? Time will tell, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if James brought home an NBA Championship to the city of Cleveland. 

Albom, Mitch. "Dan Gilbert Tells How He and LeBron James Mended Fences." USA Today Sports. 13 July 2014. 
Gottman, John M., and Nan Silver. What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. 
James, LeBron. "I'm Coming Home." 11 July 2014.
Reynolds, Tim. "Reunion? LeBron James' Relationship with Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert Could Be Homecoming Hurdle." Fox News. 07 July 2014. 
Wojnarowski, Adrian. "How LeBron James Forgave Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert and Returned to Cleveland." Yahoo Sports. 11 July 2014.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: P is for Problems

P is for Problems
By Zach Brittle, LMHC

John Gottman’s research revealed that about ⅔ of relationship problems are unsolvable. One of my favorite questions for couples is whether that statistic is discouraging or encouraging. Think about that for a second. Does the idea that 69% of your issues are not going away bum you out? Or does it give you hope?

Dr. Gottman calls these perpetual problems. They’re the ones you’ll likely still be fussing about five years from now even though you were fussing about them five years ago. The easiest example from my own marriage is the fact that one of us is an extrovert, lights up a room, and all that. The other is an off-the-charts introvert. We still haven’t figured out how to make the other one go to a party the right way.

Most couples I know are frustrated by the fact that most of their problems are unsolvable. It’s hard to have the same battles over and over again. My personal bias, however, is that I’m glad to know that we’re normal. My wife and I spent way too much time arguing over the fact that we were having the same fight that we ultimately forgot what we were fighting about in the first place.

Dr. Gottman has said that the number one thing that couples fight about is nothing. I can vouch for this. This past weekend, my wife and I got into an argument over fruit flies. It was really stupid. Later, when our older daughter (age 11) was explaining the argument to her sister (age 7), she said, “It’s never about the fruit flies.” Indeed. What’s it about then?

I think it’s about perspective (bonus p-word). If you can accept that many of your problems aren’t going away, then you can focus on what to do about those issues when they come up. As a first step, quit trying to solve the problem. It’s wasted energy. Instead, focus on achieving perspective, empathy, and, ultimately, dialogue.

Think of the problem as a third thing, trying to distract and disgust you - kind of like fruit flies. That third thing is designed to disrupt the comfort of the home, literally bugging you with the accumulation of small annoyances that become an infestation. In the case of fruit flies, there are a bunch of home remedies. We use a glass of red wine covered in Saran wrap. But what’s required is that you find the nest and remove it. Best if you do that together - with one another..

That’s what dialogue is. It’s a conversation with one another - rather than at one another - that is designed to reveal the deeper meaning of a particular conflict. Dr. Gottman refers to this as the “dream within conflict.” Whenever the dream or hope or aspiration for the relationship is ignored, problems arise. But when those dreams are revealed and understood and respected, it creates space for the relationship to become more meaningful than the problem. 

Dr. Gottman suggests becoming a “Dream Detective.” Try this exercise: think through some of your perpetual problems. See if you can recognize the patterns within the conversations that you’ve been rehashing over and over without progress. Next, make up a brief - but new - story that may explain your own dream or position within that particular conflict. What hidden meaning are you trying to express? Is it connected to something in your childhood? Is it rooted in anxiety or fear? Does it stem from a previous relationship expectation? Once you’ve crafted your own narrative, try doing the same for your partner. Get curious about their dream or position. See if you can articulate what deeper meaning may be there for them. Try comparing notes after you’ve both done the exercise and see if it doesn’t create new dialogue around an ancient issue.

This process, called Overcoming Gridlock, is one of the 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. It bears noting that we’ve only addressed perpetual problem solving and that we’re still left with another ⅓ of all problems. These qualify as “solvable problems” and Dr. Gottman recommends, simply, that you solve them. There is, of course, a science and an art to this, but knowing which problems you can solve and which require more patience is a great first step. Read more about solvable vs. perpetual problems here

I’ll let you guess which one of us is the extrovert and which one is the party-pooper. Suffice to say, we gave up trying to convert one another many years ago. Now we can go out with friends and each settle into our respective roles. We’ve learned to accept and appreciate that we each get something different out of the same environment and that’s okay. By choosing to appreciate our differences - and our dreams - we’ve been able to eliminate the fussing. 

Head’s Up: My next column, due on Aug 18th, is the letter Q. I've decided that "Q is for Questions." Please send me your relationship questions anytime between now and August 15th. I’d like to dedicate my Q column to whatever is on your mind. I’ll do my best to field all questions, so ask me anything at


This is Zach's 16th 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 in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Turn Towards Your Child

Ask parents what their favorite part of summer is and you’re likely to hear "having fun with the kids!" Building that connection can be a blast with the sun out and freedom in the air. Today, we’d like to offer you support in this pursuit, the most worthwhile of goals.

Below, we present a list of activities that can help you take advantage of the free time you have together by identifying opportunities to turn towards. This list is brought to you from the pages of The Relationship Cure. It has two parts: things you can do for your child and things you can do with your child.

Read over these suggestions and consider those you arrived at on your own in the past week! Are there some you’d like to try in the weeks ahead? Are there some you’d like to make a part of your daily interactions together? 

Jot 'em down, try 'em out, and then look back over your notes to see how you did! 

Consider how new efforts to turn toward your child affected your feelings of emotional connection with him or her.

Things to do for Your Child
  • Pay attention to what’s going on in your child’s day-care center or school. Talk to teachers. Read newsletters. Show interest.
  • Attend your child’s sports activities, performances.
  • Sit down with him or her at mealtimes, including breakfast. Turn off the TV and talk.
  • Pack your child’s lunch. Include healthy treats and a funny note.
  • Take photos of your child.
  • Show affection by touching your child gently and often – cuddle and stroke smaller children. Offer your hand to bigger kids as long as they’ll take it. Make hugs a habit. 
  • Offer choices whenever possible. Within reason, let your child decide what to wear, what to eat, what activities to pursue.
  • Pay attention to your child’s likes and dislikes. If she likes crunchy peanut butter better than creamy, buy crunchy.
  • Take interest in your child’s friends. Ask questions about them. Be kind to them.
  • Show interest in your child’s creative projects. 
  • Express gratitude.
  • Ask your child what she wants to be when she grows up. Listen.
  • Ask your child about his fears. Listen.
  • Apologize when you’re wrong. This teaches kids that it’s okay to make mistakes and admit to them.
  • Monitor activities. Always know where your child is.
  • Keep asking questions about your child’s experiences and thoughts.

Things to do With Your Child

  • Play games.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Take a nap.
  • Make up stories.
  • Cook a meal or bake a treat.
  • Have a “grug” – a group hug.
  • Share “butterfly kisses” (with your eyelashes) or rub noses.
  • Tickle, wrestle, or horseplay (but be careful with small children).
  • Look at your child’s baby pictures. Tell your child happy or funny stories about her birth and infancy. Let your child know how glad you are that he was born.
  • Read the newspaper, watch TV, or laugh at the funnies together. Talk about them.
  • Read books aloud – even after your child is old enough to read by themselves.
  • Go to their favorite restaurant.
  • Go to a children’s play or a movie. Talk about it.
  • Play catch, shoot baskets, kick a soccer ball around. Practice conditioning.
  • Plan and take a vacation. Make a scrapbook of memories when you get home.
  • Plant a garden and designate one part as theirs.
  • Sing. Play music. Dance.
  • Do craft projects.
  • Play make-believe.
  • Camp out in the backyard, or, on a rainy day, build a pillow fort.
  • Provide homework help when appropriate.
  • Make packages of letters, drawings, and audio/videotapes for out of town friends and relatives.
  • Research the family tree.
  • Do a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Go to the park or a playground. Crawl around on the equipment together.
  • Plan birthday celebrations. Make plans for the holidays.
  • Go to “story hour” at the local library or bookstore.
  • Share an activity like swimming, skiing, hiking, camping, or bowling. 
  • Go to an art fair. Make up stories about the pictures.
  • Make a growth chart and check it often.
  • Do community volunteer work together.

Have a great weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff