Saturday, July 26, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Taking Care of Each Other by Taking Care of Ourselves

Relationships are vital to our health and happiness. With that said, our relationships with ourselves are no less important than our relationships with others.

As we discussed on Thursday, autonomy is necessary for personal growth. It’s great to have time and space to ourselves. There are moments in which we all know that ignoring the need to recharge would be a terrible idea!

Moreover, taking time to do our “own thing” once in a while can actually benefit us and make us appreciate our relationships with our partners more! If we work or play apart for a bit, we have a chance to miss each other and feel extra glad to reunite. (Added bonus: something new to talk about!)

On the other hand, as we all know, too much space can be destructive. And a sign of underlying problems. Whether space is created out of fear of losing ourselves or each other, out of mistrust or insecurity about our relationships, self-isolation rarely ends well, and the barriers we build to protect ourselves usually end up hurting everyone involved.

The fear that we can’t provide our partners with all that we “should” is another common source of barrier-building. Rifts are made out of guilt and resentment, which in turn spring forth from misconception. 

Remember: No one can provide their partner with everything. A single person can’t fulfill another’s every need.

Rather than distancing ourselves from one another in hard times, acknowledging that we are all human (with natural strengths and limitations) and reaching out to each other in our communities will naturally grow and strengthen relationship intimacy.

It makes sense that unhappy couples are typically isolated, cut off from friends and family. Their relationships have grown either codependent or overly distant, and when the going gets rough, the echo-chamber in which they have become trapped may exacerbate problems. Detachment and a lack of support from others often limits perspective and feels destabilizing and alienating. 

Happy couples, “Masters of Relationships,” often have supportive circles of friends who recognize, affirm, and celebrate their bond.

Escaping from the false dichotomy of independence vs. dependence – and reaching a happy state of interdependence in the context of a larger, supportive community – allows couples to experience growth: to encourage one another to explore and follow personal dreams. 

To reach this happy realm, couples must build a strong, secure sense of shared trust.

Today, we’d like to share an activity that may help you build this trust, lending strength and stability to your relationship.

Though you may have some difficulties forming new patterns in your communication about certain topics, the results will pay off enormously. To begin with, try the following simple changes. You know the drill - these are just examples. Every relationship is unique! Feel free to improvise:

  • When your partner says, “I’m feeling so stressed! I'm going to go on a run,” try this: “Great, I’ll watch the kids! When you’re back, I’ll take my turn?” 
  • When your partner says, “I’d like to go see Mike tonight, he’s been asking me to get drinks with him for a while,” say, “Sure! I’ll hold down the fort, maybe do some of that laundry. Could I see Linda tomorrow?”
  • When your partner asks, “Could we go to that BBQ for Tess’s birthday tomorrow?” take the time and go – the two of you deserve a break. If you’d like, you can add, “That sounds wonderful. Could we work on the taxes later this weekend, though?”

Try it this weekend!

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Importance of Autonomy in Your Relationship

In Monday’s post on The Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach Brittle explained that "O is for Opportunity." Marriage, as he described it, is an opportunity to build your own Sound Relationship House and create shared meaning. While any intimate relationship can become a wellspring of opportunity for inspiration and growth, these same relationships can also feel stifling!

When we get into “official” romantic relationships, a shift in perceptions often occurs. Others may see us differently, and we may feel personally transformed. This can be a blessing and a curse. The burden of expectations - both internal and external pressures - can make us feel trapped. Forced to behave in certain ways, we are left despairing and mourning (or cursing) our loss of autonomy.

Today, arguably more than ever, we value our independence. We balk at any perceived threat, highly aware and protective of our rights to be ourselves and follow our dreams. And while we truly deserve to live on our own terms, things can go terribly wrong when we get confused about terminology.

To avoid confusion, let’s clarify our definitions. 

Autonomy is the freedom of self-determination. Too often, the overzealous pursuit and protection of personal space (head-space, or our “personal bubbles”) leads somewhere completely different: self-isolation. When we are stressed out, instead of exercising autonomy to achieve actualization or happiness – to become “more ourselves” – we end up in self-imposed alienation. Paradoxically, it is this isolation that poses a real threat. In this position, we truly stand a chance of “losing” ourselves!

The uncertainty and loneliness we may experience in this state is dangerous for many reasons. It may distract us from both short-term goals and long term projects. It may distance us from ourselves and from our loved ones, and cause us to lose sight of our values and dreams. When the fear of being prevented from pursuing independent self-actualization, happiness, and freedom catches up to us, it often backfires. As many of us know all too well, building walls for the sake of “autonomy” often creates the misery, anxiety, and insecurity we originally feared. This isolation makes daily stressors more difficult to handle. What do we need most in these moments? A friend! A partner! A support network!

We are social animals. We need community. To achieve long-term happiness and self-actualization, we may need to reconsider our notion of “freedom.” Most of us need to feel “a part of something” – a wolf pack, a tribe, a family, or any other intimate, supportive relationship – in order to feel fulfilled.

Look forward to a hands-on follow-up in our next posting, your Weekend Homework Assignment!

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

PS: The Siegel-Gottman Summit with Dr. Dan Siegel begins tomorrow in Seattle, WA. You can join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #SGSummit in your tweets and Facebook postings. Follow us on Twitter: @GottmanInst.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: O is for Opportunity

O is for Opportunity
By Zach Brittle, LMHC 

Whenever I work with pre-marital couples, we spend a fair bit of time pondering whatever a marriage actually is. Is it a social contract? A political statement? A business agreement? A holy sacrament? Of course, it’s all of those things and they each have their own implications and consequences. More thematically, we explore whether marriage is a right, a privilege, a gift, a responsibility, a burden - there’s a reason the ball-and-chain metaphor exists. Mostly, we work on exposing the attitudes, biases, and expectations for the relationship. 

If you’re a newlywed, or about to be, I encourage you to explore each of these ideas even if you don’t read another word of this column. Minimally, you need to acknowledge and talk about the fact that marriage is complicated. That said, if I were to argue for simplicity - which I am - I would say that marriage is, above all, an opportunity

Dr. Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an allusion from book of Revelation - the last book of the bible. There is some ancient wisdom from the first book of the Bible as well. In the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are going through their pre-marital counseling, God basically says marriage is when “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Leaving theology and gender issues aside for the moment, let’s take a look at the wisdom of this definition:

1. Leave Home: One of the reasons that Dr. Gottman’s Sound Relationship House metaphor is so effective is that it implies a structure that belongs to you and your spouse alone. The only way to build your Sound Relationship House together is to ensure that you’ve created healthy boundaries around your relationship. This starts with mom & dad. Marriage is an opportunity to declare that someone else is taking the role of “the man in your life” (or the woman, of course). Sometimes, it’s tough to “leave” your mother and father, especially if they are good parents, who have loved and supported you throughout your life. But I’ve actually found it’s tougher to “leave” parents who were less than perfect or even harmful.

Leaving home isn’t just about your parents. It also includes your old boyfriends and girlfriends. Maybe the band you were in during college. Maybe it’s the fact that you usually spend every Saturday with your sister. It could be the actual physical structures that you are living in. Shirley Glass has famously noted that the healthiest relationships are the ones partners keep a window open between each other while erecting walls that protect their privacy from the outside world. Relationships get in trouble when walls and windows reverse and boundaries become messy. Think of your marriage as an opportunity to draw healthy boundaries and build a strong foundation for your very own home. 

2. Seek Unity: Most of us want to find a compatible partner, someone who also likes chocolate and Ghostbusters and long walks on the beach. Personally, I think compatibility is overrated. What’s required is unity. Unity doesn’t mean you’re the same. It means you’re together. The top level of the Sound Relationship House focuses on creating shared meaning. Don’t underestimate the value of this opportunity. 

With the confidence that comes from healthy boundaries, you can take creative risks in establishing new rituals. How will you make “The Holidays” uniquely your own? You can get ambitious about setting goals. Where will celebrate your 5th, 10th, and 50th anniversaries? You can get courageous about defining (and re-defining) your roles in the relationship. Who cleans this week? What happens when we switch the bread-winner role?

Unity means defining together the ideas of “home” and “money” and “family” and “sex” and “autonomy” and even “unity.” This is hard work, because it means having to give up some of your own ideas in order to accept your spouses. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a whole bunch: The hardest lesson I learned during my first year of marriage was how selfish I was. Unity means letting go of your selfishness in order to become a better version of your self. Again, what a wonderful opportunity.

3. Have Sex: This may seem like a no-brainer, and indeed, you may already be having sex, but I wisdom “becoming one flesh” is a specific invitation to have married sex. I’m not trying to spark a moral debate, but I do think there is something inherently different - and better - about married sex. Even Hollywood has figured this out. Think of all the times you’ve ever seen two people making love on screen. It can be explicit or implied. Probably hundreds, right? Now think of how many of all those hundreds depicted married people having sex with each other. Pretty small percentage, I bet. Hollywood is either implying that married sex isn’t sexy, or that it’s somehow too sacred to sell commercials with.

The Gottmans have done a beautiful job advocating for married sex that is both sexy and sacred. They argue for “personal sex” by shifting the focus away from intercourse and toward intimacy. Dr. Gottman is a champion for erotic and emotionally connected sex that comes from a strong sense of trust and commitment. Indeed, you should practice the techniques of sex, but think of your marriage as an opportunity to have different - and better - sex by focusing on your long-term friendship and emotional connection. 

NOTE: Many of my colleagues and friends encouraged (i.e. dared) me to write an “O is for Orgasm” column this week. I would have argued that a focus on achieving orgasm misses the point of married sex. The ability to talk about orgasm in a safe and curious is a much stronger indicator of sexual health for a couple.

Regardless of how you feel about the Bible, there is some important wisdom about how we are meant to be in relationship with one another. Genesis gives us a glimpse of what a marriage should be. Revelation reminds us of what it shouldn’t.

But let’s take the Bible out of it and weigh the opportunities available to anyone willing to commit to a long-term relationship. There’s a freedom that comes from leaving home and establishing healthy boundaries. There’s an exhilaration and maturation that comes from seeking unity by creating shared meaning and establishing new patterns. There’s an intimacy that comes from investing in emotional connection and prioritizing personal sex. 

Every opportunity comes with a cost. In this case, it’s the work of exposing your attitudes, biases, and expectations for your relationship and then leveraging those things toward the construction of your very own Sound Relationship House.

Happy to bat these ideas around with you, especially if you’re a recently or about to be married and need some help thinking through how to leverage your new opportunity. Feel free to email me at anytime.


This is Zach's 15th 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, July 18, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Build Bridges Of Trust

As many of us know all too well, having learned the hard way, trust begins and ends with emotional communication. Though we may wish this wasn’t so, no corner of our world is free from this rule. We are governed by it in our relationships just as our bodies are governed by the laws of gravity. Dr. Gottman’s studies cannot magic-away all of physics. He freely admits to this. Comparing broken trust in a relationship to a shattered mirror, he says: "You can glue it back together, but it will never be the same again.” 

Nonetheless, his many years of research on our complicated human relationships fill him with hope. He offers it to us, bestowing tools upon those of us who dream of protecting trust. Though we've all been shattered by its fragility, we are not forever doomed to stand amid shards of glass. His studies have shown that a little bit every day goes a long way. If both partners build habits of turning towards each other in simple everyday moments, they build bridges wrought of affection, fondness, and admiration for each other: these are the bridges of trust.

Think of the exercise below as a list of ideas, of building blocks, and remember that they are not set in stone. Every relationship is different. Whether you’d like to build bridges, carve intricate tunnels, or sail messages in bottles towards each other, the connections you create will bring the two of you closer together. Practice affection, and trust will naturally follow.

Things to Do for Your Spouse:

  • Fix coffee, a snack, or a meal for your partner.
  • Wait on your partner when he or she is ill.
  • Compliment your partner, say thank you, praise his or her efforts around the house.
  • Listen. Listen. Listen.
  • Buy a silly gift. Buy something inexpensive. Make it an inside joke.
  • Do something kind for your partner’s friends or family.
  • Run errands for your partner.
  • Call or send an email during the workday. Ask how it’s going.
  • Put a loving note into your partner’s lunch or briefcase.
  • Draw a funny picture or write a sweet note. Hide it in your partner’s coat pocket.

Things to Do Together:
  • Hug.
  • Kiss.
  • Hold hands.
  • Cuddle.
  • Reminisce.
  • Take a class together.
  • Volunteer together.
  • Talk over drinks, or coffee, or tea.
  • Philosophize.
  • Wash the dishes: you wash, they dry.
  • Go camping. 
  • Create artwork together.
  • Help to take care of aging relatives.
  • Take a shower or a bath together.
  • Fold laundry.
  • Take a spontaneous trip to somewhere beautiful.
  • Plan your future. Dream. 

This activity comes from the pages of Dr. Gottman's The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening our Marriage, Family, and Friendships. To learn more about bids, emotional connection, and the many other building blocks of trust, be sure to check it out. For now, we wish you a beautiful weekend.

Happy Friday,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How To Share Compassion & Empathy in Intimate Conversation

In recent posts on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we've been discussing new relationships. Today, we'd like to take a look at their core: the deep bond a couple builds through intimate interaction, in particular through their daily conversations. In this post, we will explain how to apply Dr. Gottman’s skills for sharing compassion and empathy with your partner. 

Note: While the ideas we share are theoretically pretty straightforward, they can be difficult to put into practice. If you find implementing them to be a challenge, don’t get discouraged! Remember Dr. Gottman’s advice: No opinions or problem solving until you’ve gone through the four steps of attunement. 

Also, remember that immediate advice may come off as glib and insulting to your partner. They may think to themselves, “Does this person think I’m so dumb I can’t come up with my own solution?” This probably rings a few bells - bells of annoyance and maybe even indignation.

Below, you'll find an illustration of two possible conversations between Cheyenne and Will, a young couple walking home from a dinner with their mutual friend, Abby. 

The first example is a failed attempt at expressing compassion and empathy in a bid for intimate conversation:

Cheyenne: I couldn’t believe how Abby reacted when I brought up what happened at the party. What a crude attempt at changing the subject! Who does she think she is? Just shutting me down like that…
Will: You know Abby just doesn’t like crowds. Next time, you shouldn’t bring it up, it makes everything so awkward.
Cheyenne: You’re such a pushover, why can’t you stand up for me? You thought she was acting weird the other night, I don’t see why I can't talk to her about it.
Will: Come on, we’ve been through this before. Let’s go get some coffee or something. On the way, I can show you that art gallery I thought you’d like.
Cheyenne: No, whatever. It’s fine, let’s just go home.

In this scenario, Will reacts without considering Cheyenne’s need for support from him when she is upset. He immediately rushes to offer an explanation, even defending the person his girlfriend feels attacked by. He refuses to engage with her on an emotional level and attempts to distract her instead. She is left feeling disappointed and even more frustrated than before. She expected his empathy, and instead received advice she didn’t ask for and criticism she certainly didn’t expect to hear. Here is a way that Will could apply Dr. Gottman’s skills for intimate conversation to the same scenario, increasing his and Cheyenne’s attunement and trust in each other:

Cheyenne: I couldn’t believe how Abby reacted when I brought up what happened at the party. What a crude attempt at changing the subject! Who does she think she is? Just shutting me down like that…
Will: I’m sorry, I understand how that would make you upset. I know you wanted to help, but she never wants to go there.
Cheyenne: I like Abby… It’s just so frustrating that I have to walk on eggshells around her. It’s exhausting.
Will: That makes sense. I hate it when I have to censor myself in social situations. I just want to relax, too.
Cheyenne: Yeah. You know what? Let’s go see that gallery you’ve been talking about, the one you said I’d like…

Try these techniques in your own relationship, and the results may surprise you! By engaging in supportive, intimate conversations with your partner, you can build trust - the most important ingredient in a healthy, happy relationship - and be closer than ever!

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Friday, July 11, 2014

What Makes Same-Sex Relationships Succeed Or Fail?

Today, in the aftermath of Pride - in the wake of parades and marches strutting their colorful stuff through the streets of Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, New York, and Chicago - we’d like to turn our attention to same-sex couples. 

Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman have observed the strength and resilience of same-sex couples, even in the midst of the cultural and social stresses to which they are uniquely vulnerable. Together, the Gottmans have made a commitment to assuring that lesbian and gay couples have as much access as straight couples to resources for strengthening and supporting their relationships.

Using state-of-the-art methods to study 21 gay and 21 lesbian couples, Drs. John Gottman and Robert Levenson (UC Berkeley) were able to learn what makes same-sex relationships succeed or fail in The 12 Year Study.

One key finding: Overall, relationship satisfaction and quality are about the same across couple types (straight, gay, and lesbian) that Dr. Gottman has studied. This result supports prior research by Lawrence Kurdek and Pepper Schwartz, who found that gay and lesbian relationships are comparable to straight relationships in many ways.

According to Dr. Gottman, "Gay and lesbian couples, like straight couples, deal with every-day ups-and-downs of close relationships. We know that these ups-and-downs may occur in a social context of isolation from family, workplace prejudice, and other social barriers that are unique to gay and lesbian couples." However, his research uncovered differences suggesting that workshops tailored to gay and lesbian couples can have a strong impact on relationships.

In conducting interviews, coding facial expressions, and collecting other measures, the researchers found the following.

Same-sex couples are more upbeat in the face of conflict. Compared to straight couples, gay and lesbian couples use more affection and humor when they bring up a disagreement, and partners often give it a more positive reception. Gay and lesbian couples are also more likely to remain positive after a disagreement. "When it comes to emotions, we think these couples may operate with very different principles than straight couples. Straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships," suggests Dr. Gottman.

Same-sex couples also use fewer controlling, hostile emotional tactics. Drs. Gottman and Levenson also discovered that gay and lesbian partners display less belligerence, domineering, and fear in conflict than straight couples do. "The difference on these ‘control’ related emotions suggests that fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones."

In a fight, gay and lesbian couples take it less personally. In straight couples, it is easier to hurt a partner with a negative comment than it is to make one’s partner feel good with a positive comment. This appears to be reversed in gay and lesbian couples. Same sex partners' positive comments have more impact on feeling good, while their negative comments are less likely to produce hurt feelings. "This trend suggests that gay and lesbian partners have a tendency to accept some degree of negativity without taking it personally," Dr. Gottman observes.

Unhappy gay and lesbian couples tend to show low levels of "physiological arousal." This is just the reverse for straight couples. For them, physiological arousal signifies ongoing aggravation. The ongoing aroused state - including elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and jitteriness - means partners have trouble calming down in the face of conflict. A lower level of arousal allows same sex partners to soothe one another.

In conflict, lesbians show more anger, humor, excitement, and interest than conflicting gay men. This suggests that lesbians are more emotionally expressive - positively and negatively - than gay men. This may be the result of being socialized in a culture where expressiveness is more acceptable for women than for men.

Gay men need to be especially careful to avoid negativity in conflict. When it comes to repair, gay couples differ from straight and lesbian couples. If the initiator of conflict in a gay relationship becomes too negative, his partner is not able to repair as effectively as lesbian or straight partners. "This suggests that gay men may need extra help to offset the impact of negative emotions that inevitably come along when couples fight," explains Gottman.

And what about sex?

In their famous 1970s study, Masters and Johnson found that the gay and lesbian couples have sex very differently from the heterosexual couples or strangers. The committed gay and lesbian couples were the only people excited by their partner’s excitement, while the others were focused on getting to orgasm. Gay couples turned towards their partners’ bids for emotional connection during sex. They took their time, enjoying the ecstasy of lovemaking. Rather than being constrained by a single-minded focus on the end “goal,” they seemed to enjoy the stimulation and sensuality itself.

To learn more, clinicians and all others interested may find The 12 Year Study here.

Have a great weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Art of Science & Love is for Everyone

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we pick up where Zach Brittle left off in his Relationship Alphabet column on Monday, "N is for Newlyweds." Actually, we pick up before "N is for Newlyweds," and even before "M is for Marriage," all the way back at "L is for Love" ... or "like-like," if you please!

In short, if you're in a relationship, this post is for you - whether you've gotten to M or not.

If you've been enjoying the blog, but have been wishing to supplement your reading with something a little more hands-on, look no further! Please imagine us waving excitedly, possibly hopping up and down, and directing your attention to this...

Our Art & Science of Love weekend workshop, fully explained here, is appropriate and excellent for all couples, no matter what your relationship status - premarital, newly married, or long-term partners!

If you have a strong relationship, this workshop will provide you with insights and tools to make it a great one. If your relationship is distressed, this two-day workshop will provide a road map for repair.

If you live in Seattle, or would like to visit our beautiful city, you can register for one of the following dates. Workshop co-creators Drs. John and Julie Gottman will present on:

  • August 9 & 10 at the Seattle Convention Center 
  • October 11 & 12 at the Shoreline Community Center
  • December 6 & 7 at the Tacoma Convention Center

Additional Art & Science of Love workshops are presented by Certified Gottman Therapists (CGTs) around the world. Check them out here.

Questions? We have compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the workshop. 

Q: We are happy and in love. Why should we attend a Gottman weekend workshop before we get married?
Start early! Get your relationship off to a healthy beginning and keep it healthy. The average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems (and keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years). This means that the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long, and we always advocate a position of prevention over intervention. Learning the skills that masters of relationships have taught us will improve your ability to build friendship, manage conflict, and create shared meaning in your partnership. 

Q: Can I add The Art & Science of Love weekend workshop to my wedding registry?
Absolutely! If you are using The Knot or Amazon Wish List to manage your registry, you can add the workshop to your universal gift wish list. We're biased, but we think this is the most important gift that you can list on your registry.

Q: Can I give the workshop as a wedding gift?
Yes, you can. Just call us at 888-523-9042 ext 1 or email us at, and we will help you put together your wedding gift.

Q: Where can I hear from real couples about how the workshop helped them? 
KIRO 7 News did a "Profiles" documentary on Drs. John and Julie Gottman in August 2010 and they interviewed real couples about their experience. Watch it now here. 60 Minutes Australia did a piece in May 2010 on the Love Lab and also interviewed real couples. See it here. We also filmed our own testimonial video after a workshop in 2012, which you can view on our YouTube channel here.

Q: We don’t want group therapy. Do we have to share with the other couples?
No. The workshop is an educational experience with exercises built into the curriculum to teach you the skills that the “masters” of relationships use. There is no group work and no public disclosure of any kind. The information is presented to you in an interactive lecture format by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, and you will work in a “nest” of just the two of you during the exercises. We provide plenty of room, so you don’t have to worry about the other couples overhearing you. And if you get stuck on an exercise, we have a team of CGTs on hand to help you through the exercise.

Q: We would prefer to get private therapy before we get married. Are there CGTs who do pre-marital work?
Yes. Just give us a call at 888-523-9042 ext 1 or email us at and we will give you a referral for a CGT in your area who does pre-marital work. You can also find a Gottman trained therapist near you by using The Gottman Referral Network here.

Click here to view more FAQs. For more information about The Art & Science of Love or to register, please visit our website here, call us at 888-523-9042 ext 1, or email us at

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff