Monday, April 14, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: H is for Humor

H is for Humor
By Zach Brittle, LMHC 

When I was in the ninth grade, I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit six times in the movie theater. I have probably watched it at least once a year since then. It is my favorite movie of all time. I am not kidding.

First of all, Bob Hoskins is a genius. He and his thick English accent seamlessly disappear into the character of Eddie Valiant, an alcoholic private investigator in depression-era Hollywood. On top of that he spends half of the movie acting alongside a cartoon rabbit. (It’s an Oscar-worthy performance though he was only nominated for a Golden Globe.)

The film (yes, film) was ahead of its time technologically. It combined live action and animation in a way that is said to have spearheaded the modern era of American animation. It’s also an exercise in collaboration, as several competing studios came together to create a robust “Toon Town” which included our favorite Disney and Warner Brothers characters and even Betty Boop.

But the reason Who Framed Roger Rabbit is my favorite is because of Roger, a scrawny, precocious, hilariously odd yet lovable character - not terribly unlike ninth grade me. And because of Roger’s wife Jessica, a beautiful, sophisticated, classic noir femme fatale, complete with the smoky voice and endless curves. (She’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.) 

Roger is crazy in love with Jessica. Despite the fact that Jessica is way out of Roger’s league, she’s crazy in love with him too. Eddie doesn’t understand it, so he asks her, with more than a little suspicion, “What do you see in that guy anyway?” Jessica responds simply and unapologetically: “He makes me laugh.” 

All of a sudden, ninth grade me had hope. Could it be possible that a good sense humor was enough to help me get - and keep - the girl? I think so.

Humor has been woven into our relational DNA since the earliest of days. Aristotle believed that laughter is what separates us from the beasts, and that a baby does not have a soul until the moment it laughs - usually around its 40th day. 

If laughter is what makes us human, then humor is a necessary tie that binds us to one another and reminds us that our relationships are designed to bring joy. Monty Python’s John Cleese, who understands humor more than most, says, “A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.” 

During the course of his research Dr. Gottman was able to divide couples into two categories: masters and disasters. The disasters were prone toward “systems of dividing,” specifically the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. The masters had effective strategies for dismantling those systems. Dr. Gottman calls these strategies repair attempts.

Repair attempts are the “secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples,” according to Dr. Gottman. Repair attempts are “any statement or action that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” Masters repair early and often using a variety of strategies. 

Repairs can be cognitive strategies like compromise, taking a break, or asking for clarity. They can also be emotional repairs like expressing affection, taking responsibility or - you guessed it - using humor.

Humor is a powerful repair technique. It can lower the tension level of an argument, destroy the division between you and your partner, and remind you that you’re human. An artfully deployed inside joke can shift the focus away from your fixed position and toward your shared we-ness. It’s an emotional repair without an emotional conversation. 

It’s important to note that humor can also backfire. Humor needs to be balanced with sincerity. If humor is your only strategy, you will dilute its power. Also, any humor that expresses criticism or contempt or belittles the other’s point of view (like sarcasm) will not serve to repair the relationship, but will actually deepen the conflict. 

Remember that repair attempts are the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples. Humor is the most secret because it’s your secret. As you and your partner build your friendship, and collect experiences, look for the places where comedy shows up. Look for the ridiculous, the surprising, the awkward. Watch Monty Python sketches. Buy a joke book if you have to.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Roger literally uses humor to save Jessica’s life. It’s unlikely that any of you will be terrorized by a pack of weasels trying to erase you with toxic Dip, but the symbolism is clear. Relationships are under constant threat of toxic systems. Take it from ninth grade me: A strong sense of humor is a powerful tool. 

*I’m aware of having written a post on humor that isn’t especially humorous. So here’s a bonus joke. It’s my favorite:

Q: What did one snowman say to the other snowman?
A: Do you smell carrots?


This is Zach's eighth 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

Friday, April 11, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Spring Cleaning Part II

In Wednesday's posting on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we shared Lisa Brookes Kift’s excellent suggestions for reinvigorating your relationship in her article, “Get Out The Broom...8 Ways To Spring Clean Your Marriage.” In today’s Weekend Homework Assignment, we continue our discussion of spring cleaning your marriage by offering our own practical advice that you can try with your partner this weekend! As these have been drawn from Dr. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and The Relationship Cure, we should note that there are many, many more activities like these available to you. Check out his many books on our website to gain access to a wealth of relationship knowledge.

Below you will find Dr. Gottman's research-based suggestions for ways to build on Lisa's 8-step model. We have also provided methods (with helpful links!) to avoid experiencing such a deep clean altogether. As long as you regularly give it a gentle polish, your relationship will shine on its own! Take some time this weekend to try these activities with your partner:

Take a walk down memory lane. 
Conduct your very own Oral History Interview!

Get back to checking in.
Check in with each other on a daily basis, and make time regularly for longer conversations about potential stressors in each other’s lives. Listen to your partner and be supportive. Here is an exercise that the two of you can try, which will help you to talk about the stress that is being caused within your relationship.

Look under the carpet for hidden resentments.
Though you may feel exasperated with each other at times (don’t worry, we all do), make sure that you don’t amplify the problem by attacking each other from the get-go. By approaching conflicts gently, you significantly increase the likelihood of resolving them healthily and productively. We call this a Soft Startup.

Check your assumptions. 
Don't get tripped up in those frustrating mixed messages, don't jump to conclusions - see“Fuzzy Bidding” - and watch out for messages you may not even know you’re sending to your partner!

Create happy memories.
Every moment of emotional connection in your relationship can an opportunity to create a happy memory. From the little interactions we share daily with our loved ones (morning coffee, grocery shopping, driving to school, eating dinner) to important celebrations (birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays) we can make each other smile.

Remember one of the most vital determinants of health in a relationship, Turning Towards, and make sure to catch those Sliding Door moments. Create shared meaning in celebrating life in your own way!

If you broke it, fix it. 
Remember to Repair and De-escalate! And when you are Moving Forward, ask yourself the following questions: How did I get into this muddle in the first place? Why didn’t our conversation go well? What is the meaning of the issue between my partner and I? What are the sources of our gridlock on this subject?

More gratitude, please. 
Share fondness and admiration, and your Emotional Bank Account will grow, strengthening your connection!

Take it up a notch if needed.
Show your partner affection and appreciation. If you show your love, trust and intimacy will naturally follow!

Have a lovely weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Spring Clean Your Marriage, Again!

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we’d like to share an excellent article written by our friend Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT, titled “Get Out The Broom...8 Ways To Spring Clean Your Marriage.” We love her suggestions for reinvigorating your relationship and putting the focus back on you and your partner this Spring! We’d like to add that it is absolutely possible (and realistic) to work on these things year round. We know that this sounds overwhelming. It doesn't have to be.

As our research has shown, the happiest couples build romance everyday in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments. Keeping your romance aflame is not about dedicating all of your time to your partner. It is about nurturing a strong connection by turning towards each other, staying emotionally engaged, showing each other fondness and admiration, building bridges, and knowing and loving each other all year round. For more on staying emotionally connected, see our blog post, Magic 5 Hours A Week! And now, we give the virtual floor to Lisa:

Get Out the Broom...8 Ways to Spring Clean Your Marriage 
By Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

A very popular post last year about this time, this piece on spring cleaning your marriage deserves a repeat performance. I think we all need reminders such as this to put the focus back on our loved ones. Enjoy!

For many, spring is a time of renewal and recharge, a sleepy-eyed yawn and waking up from a winter slumber of sorts. People feel the urge to clean their homes, their cars and their work environments. Marriages can also benefit from a good spring clean as they can also “fall asleep” and get into a rut.

Here are some ways you can take the spirit of renewal into your marriage:

• Take a walk down memory lane. Do you remember when you met? Can you recall what drew you to each other? Take some time to reflect upon this time. Research shows that happier couples are the ones who can recall pleasant earlier memories. It can be an anchor for the relationship, a reminder of what you might have forgotten. ”Oh yea, that’s what I fell in love with…”

• Get back to checking in. At one time you likely talked a lot, especially in the early stages of your relationship. As time goes on and life gets peppered with kid related responsibilities, family, social obligations and work, it’s easy to let the communication between you and your spouse get tossed out the window. Re-prioritize a daily relationship check-in, even if brief. ”How are you?…How are we?…Is everything ok?”

• Look under the carpet for hidden resentments. One problem that can be a consequence of insufficient communicating in marriage is the build-up of negative emotions towards each other. If anger, disappointment or sadness go unchecked they can become toxic. Resentment can undermine the very fabric of the relationship. If there is something bothering you, bring it up. It’s useful to begin with “I statements” rather than using attacking language.

• Check your assumptions. What if what you were upset with your partner because you misunderstood what he/she said or meant? What if you never clarified this? Well, you’d be suffering for no reason. One of the best ways couples can avoid distress is to simply ask the other what they meant rather than assume you know. Otherwise, you will likely have a negative emotional response towards him/her, followed by a negative behavior – and all for nothing.

• Create happy memories. If boredom, “same ‘ol, same ‘ol,” and a lack of fun has permeated your marriage, it’s time to have positive experiences together to lay down over the other. It’s kind of like the negativity bias of the brain; the more you internalize positive emotions, the more you can ease your brain away from the negative. Plan date nights, go out and play, take a walk or do something totally new and invigorating.

• If you broke it, fix it. We all make mistakes and can inadvertently hurt our partners. The important thing for the health of relationships is taking ownership when it’s appropriate. John Gottman, PhD refers to successful repair attempts as “the happy couple’s secret weapon."

• More gratitude, please. There is a lot of research out there now on the power of gratitude, individually and in relationships. Express appreciation for each other when possible. Notice the good rather than focusing on the not so good. It’s easy for couples to slip into negative cycles together. Make the effort to shift to a more positive (and reinforcing) cycle of support and gratitude for each other.

Take it up a notch if needed. If your marriage feels particularly “dusty” and in need of some TLC, get proactive and get access to the many tools available to help couples do just that; a local marriage weekend workshop or going through a marriage workbook or a book might be just what you need.

It would be nice to imagine being able to do these things 365 days a year but this probably isn’t realistic for many. At the very least, adding your marriage to your spring cleaning to-do list every year is one consistent way to put the focus back on you and your partner again. If you’ve slipped up and “fallen asleep” during the winter, you can get back to prioritizing your marriage again…and maybe make up for some lost time.


If you have gotten in the habit of sticking a band-aid over problems that have built up over the Winter, now is your chance to heal any remaining wounds - to patch them up, make peace, and restore your relationship to health.

Remember that “Spring Cleaning” your relationship is a process – a deep clean, if you will. It requires patience, commitment, and hard work from both you and your partner. Don’t start wielding the feather duster to attack the cobwebs while looking under the carpet for hidden resentments, or make ambitious plans to renovate the entire house! Take your time. Know that “slow and steady wins the race.” Be gentle with each other.

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Springtime Reminder from Dr. Gottman

As you are roused from your Winter slumbers by the annual alarm-clock that is Springtime, we encourage you – yes, you, and especially you, dear, perennially damp Seatteites – to notice the sweet smell of flowers, the trilling of birds, and the sudden, definitive upsurge in collective optimism. We encourage you to channel this energy wisely – instead of cramming a few more hours of email efficiency into your day, take this opportunity to strengthen your bonds with those who matter most. Your efforts will pay off, not only this Spring, but in the many seasons to come! (See more here).

Remember: Relationships require regular care 
 like a plant, or your first pet goldfish – only more.  Harmony is gradually created or destroyed in the myriad, seemingly inconsequential moments that make up our days and lives. It’s easy to forget this, but, as Dr. Gottman explains in The Relationship Cure:

Strong bonds are not necessarily forged out of earth-shattering events like job loss, irreconcilable conflict, or horrid disaster. Trust doesn’t require gut-wrenching conversations that plumb the depths of your souls. Rather, good relationships usually develop slowly over time, growing out of the thousands of mundane interactions we share each day:

“How was your day?” “A little hectic. You look kind of tired, too.” “I am. Would you like some iced tea?” “Sure. Here, let me help you…”

It turns out that all of this thoughtfulness does pay off richly in times of crisis – and at all other times. Making a habit of turning-towards leads to a virtuous cycle, and to “better access to the healing power of humor, affection, and compassion during times of conflict or catastrophe.” 

In the words of Walt Disney: 

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

Listen to each other with mindful awareness to increase mutual sensitivity to each other’s needs, re-invigorating your relationship and fortifying trust and connection!

We'll leave you with some encouragement of the very best (Dr. Seussian) kind. Be brave and take heart...

And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!

Look forward to more seasonally inspired relationship tips throughout this week on The Gottman Relationship Blog!

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Siegel-Gottman Summit

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we break from our regularly scheduled programming to make a very important announcement. As you may have heard over on our Facebook page, we will be collaborating with Dr. Dan Siegel this summer at The Siegel-Gottman Summit in Seattle, WA on July 25 & 26. 

We invite you to participate in this monumental gathering of Drs. John and Julie Gottman, world-renowned couples researchers and therapists, and Dr. Dan Siegel, internationally acclaimed pioneer in Interpersonal Neurobiology. Here is what you need to know about this historic event:

Who is Dr. Dan Siegel? 

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. is a pioneer in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. Dr. Siegel has published extensively for the professional audience as well as books for the general reader, including Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, an in-depth exploration of the power of the mind to integrate the brain and promote well-being. Most recently, Dr. Siegel released The New York Times bestseller, Brainstorm: The Power and purpose of The Teenage Brain. Click here to read more.

What is Interpersonal Neurobiology?
Interpersonal Neurobiology attempts to find the “consilient” discoveries that emerge from independent disciplines of knowing, such as the various disciplines of science. In this field, relationships are seen as fundamental to how the mind is created. As a participant, you’ll be able to apply the principles of this interdisciplinary synthesis to see how the mind can be envisioned as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.

This definition of mind then offers us as mental health practitioners not only a clear view of the “mental” of our title, but also of the “health.” Integration - the linkage of different parts of a system - is seen as the way in which a self-organizing aspect of mind enables harmony in function to emerge. With impediments to integration, chaos and rigidity unfold.

Who is this training intended for? 
Participants working in the following fields will benefit from this training: Mental Health Practitioners, Educators, Coaches, Organizational Leaders, Allied Professionals, Clergy, Students and Interns, Professors, Researchers in the Social Sciences, and anyone who promotes the growth of vibrant relationships and healthy minds. 

What will this training be about?
Learn the science behind how the brain develops and is shaped through relationships. Understand what principles guide a happy, lasting relationship. In this rare training event, you will deepen your therapeutic skills by learning scientifically proven ways of assessing couples and implementing interventions by combining the principles of Interpersonal Neurobiology and Mindsight with Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, together with Dr. Dan Siegel, will share the stage in an interactive, in-depth training and discussion using clinical vignettes, therapy videotapes, and experiential exercises with audience participation.

What will I learn?
Following this training, participants will be able to:
  • Summarize the three domains of the Gottman Method Sound Relationship House
  • Apply principles of Interpersonal Neurobiology to clinical assessment
  • Describe ways in which the Gottman Method can be integrated with the principles of Interpersonal Biology
  • Define the self-organizing aspect of the mind and mental health
  • Identify Gottman Method interventions that promote self-integration
  • List as least seven aspects of integrative prefrontal functions 
  • Discuss the ways in which attachment patterns and couple relationship dynamics intersect 

Can I get CEs for this training? 
Continuing Education (CE) credits will be available for this workshop through our training partner, CMI Education Institute, for an additional fee and number of CE credits and fee will be determined ASAP. If you are seeking Continuing Education Credit for this training, you will need to sign in each morning and again after returning from lunch on both days and turn in a course evaluation form which contains a short post-test. Gottman Institute staff will be on-site to answer any questions you may have regarding Continuing Education. For CMI’s accreditation information, please click here.

How much does the training cost? 
Early Registration Rate: $425 (Ends May 1)
Student/Military Discount: $399
Preferred Seating: $50

Click here for a full listing of frequently asked questions. Still have questions? Please contact We look forward to seeing you at The Siegel-Gottman Summit this summer! 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: G is for Gratitude

G is for Gratitude
Zach Brittle, LMHC

Do you “give thanks” before meals? If so, to whom? Or to what? Does it matter? If you don’t give thanks, why not?

What is the most thoughtful gift you ever received? What made it special? Was it the gift or the giver? How did you show thanks for the gift? Do you still need to do that?

What special traditions, rituals, or habits do you have around Thanksgiving? How do those traditions make you more grateful? What if you celebrated Thanksgiving more than once a year? 

Have you ever really thought about gratitude? About gratefulness? About thanksgiving? I mean, really thought about it?

My guess is that most of us haven’t. I have a friend who describes himself as a “gratefulness mystic” in the manner of Brother David Steindle-Rast. I have another friend who has become known as “That Gratitude Guy” and speaks regularly on the benefits of gratitude. I have another friend who works in fundraising. Most people assume he asks for money all day. He disputes that assumption saying that what he really does is say “thank you” all day. These friends have thought a lot about gratitude.

If you’re unfamiliar with the “manner of Brother David Steindle-Rast,” consider his thesis that if you want to be happy, be grateful. Steindle-Rast gently argues that grateful living comes from an awareness that “every moment is a given moment.” Every moment is worthy of gratitude. An abundance of gratitude translates into less fear and violence in the world. More contentment. Less scarcity. Maybe this is too mystical for you.

Maybe you’re more inclined toward facts than theories. Consider that contemporary research is starting to expand the science and practice of gratitude. Recent studies have shown that people who consistently practice gratitude have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They have higher levels of positive emotions like joy, optimism, and happiness. They’re more inclined to “pay it forward” with generosity and compassion.

Maybe you’re more inclined toward obedience. The Apostle Paul implores us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Jesus likes that. Maybe you’re more inclined toward etiquette. You definitely mailed your “thank you” notes before you celebrated your first anniversary. Maybe you’re inclined toward mid-90’s pop music. The band Geggy Tah celebrated gratitude in their one hit “Whoever You Are:” All I wanna do is to thank you / Even though I don't know who you are / You let me change lanes / While I was driving in my car. (Did you say “thank you?” You’re welcome.) 

What does this have to do with your relationships? Everything.

Gratitude is relational. It shifts our focus from ourselves to one another. I get it… we’re all narcissists. We’re all looking out for our own best interests, which may be great in the stock market, but doesn’t work that well in a marriage. Gratitude requires – actually invites – us to abandon our narcissism and remember that we are not alone. That reminder is a gift. Receive that gift and be thankful for it. The fact that you are not alone means that you can experience empathy, intimacy, and love.

Gratitude is the secret that could put therapists out of a job: if couples would shift from defensiveness and toward gratitude on their own, they wouldn’t need to seek counseling. The thing about gratitude is that it’s easy. All you have to do is say “Thank you for __________.” At first it may be hard to fill in the blank. But if you make it a habit, it becomes just that. Here’s a trick: Set an alarm on your phone or your watch or whatever, and when it goes off, send a quick note of thanks to your partner. See how long it takes them to notice.

They will notice. Everybody likes to be thanked. No one in the history of ever said, “Please don’t thank me, it makes me feel terrible.” Being appreciated feels great. It increases our sense of worth and value. And it’s contagious. I guarantee you that if you work gratitude into your relationship – even secretly – it will come back to you. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll feel happier and healthier.

Commit to thinking about gratitude and to injecting it into your relationships. It’s a simple, powerful way to strengthen the friendship level of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House. It accelerates the shift to the positive perspective and leads quite naturally to fueling fondness and admiration for one other. Gratitude is the rising tide that lifts all boats in the relationship. 

Try becoming a “gratitude mystic.” Start by giving thanks before dinner. If only to begin your meal with something besides your hunger. Say “thank you” again for that really thoughtful gift. Consider having Thanksgiving dinner more than once a year. We’ve already got Christmas in July. Why not Thanksgiving in May? Mark your calendars now for May 22nd. And set the alarm on your phone.


This is Zach's seventh 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

Friday, March 28, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Q&A and Review

This Friday on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we reach the end of our series on The Four Horsemen and Self Care! As the clip-clopping of hooves grows faint and the dust clouds settle around us, we give you your Weekend Homework Assignment.

This weekend, we’d like to give you a chance to reflect on all that you’ve learned. 
To help in tying everything together, we share a short interview with Dr. Julie Gottman below. In the following Q&A, she shares her take on the links between mindfulness and Gottman Method Couples Therapy (GMCT): 

Q: How can couples be more mindful of their own personal histories and shared history when approaching the Four Horsemen in the moment?

A: First of all, they have to be aware of how their childhoods affected them. Many are not. That means remembering how their parents voiced anger and disciplined them when young and conflicted between themselves. Then, couples must realize how these set the stage for their style of emotional expression with their partners here and now. Couples should aim to break the cycle – not use the 4 Horsemen themselves with either their partners or kids. This might mean having a long discussion with their partners about that history, each taking turns describing their experience while the other listens.

Q: Generally speaking, where do you see links between GMCT and mindfulness practices?

A: Mindfulness is wonderful. It’s a way to practice self-acceptance, self-soothing, and centering. When we can witness [ourselves] using mindfulness techniques, we tend to not judge ourselves so harshly. Mindfulness allows us to just see, observe, and understand without judgment. In turn, when we are less judgmental with ourselves, we are also less judgmental with our partners. Mindfulness also allows us to develop compassion for ourselves, which leads to feeling more compassion for others, including our partners. In GMCT, we encourage people to describe themselves rather than describing their partners, especially during conflict. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to do that through the self-awareness it creates.


As you consider our latest series from the finish line, we encourage you to take the time to navigate back through our recent blogs, jotting down a few notes as you review, including connections you’ve made to events in your own life. These reflections may bring up difficult or painful memories, so whether or not you plan to talk about your conclusions with your partner this weekend, remember to practice good self care!

Remember: It takes time to develop a natural habit of mindfulness, but as you gain awareness of your thoughts and emotions in the moment, you will become better able to take advantage of all of the tools offered by Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Self-knowledge is the key to developing a deeper understanding of your relationship - and to strengthening trust, commitment, and romance!
Have a great weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff