Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Building Intimate Trust

Happy couple in sunny park.

        Marriages are special because they are uniquely and reciprocally intimate. They are supposed to be affectionate, trusting, enduring, loyal, loving, and also sexual, erotic, passionate, and romantic.

        This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in the middle ages marriage was not at all about romance, it was all about property. Stability was the goal, not passion. Passion and love were known to be fickle, so how could they be the basis of stable marriage? Punch-and-Judy puppet shows at fairs in the middle ages parodied everything from the local farmer to the King. They also parodied the husband who was in love with his wife. No kidding. 



        The word “uxurious” was coined for this fool of the middle ages, the fool husband who was “in love” with his wife. Uxurious sounds like a disease, or a white-collar crime, doesn’t it? So this idea that marriages and other lasting relationships should be loyal and stable as well as romantic, lustfully sexual, and passionate is really a new idea.

        Some writers have argued that these are in fact two distinct forms of love, that “loving” a person in a lasting relationship is antithetical to being “in love” with that person. Helen Fisher, for example, has claimed that these are two separate chemical systems, the first “in love” being about the neurotransmitter dopamine – the chemical of the reward centers of the brain, and the “loving” system being all about oxytocin and vasopressin, the hormones of bonding and trust. Being “in love” has nothing to do with trust, but with the madness of an obsessive and manic state some psychologists like University of Hawaii psychologist Elaine Hatfield have even given a separate name from love, calling it “limmerance.” Perhaps this is, in fact, true.

       Lewis, Amini, and Lannon certainly agreed. They wrote, “Loving is limbically distinct from in love. Loving is mutuality; loving is synchronous attunement and modulation. As such, adult love depends critically upon knowing the other. In love demands only the brief acquaintance necessary to establish an emotional genre but does not demand that the book of the beloved’s soul be perused from preface to epilogue. Loving derives from intimacy, the prolonged and detailed surveillance of a foreign soul.” But, were they right? Isn’t it possible to have romance, passion, and loyal love and trust in a lasting relationship? We say that it can be, and we call it “intimate trust.” 

A happy couple smiles, happily enjoying each other's company.

        It may surprise you that in intimate relationships there seems to be a confusion even among therapists about how to become intimate and how to nurture intimate trust. Some therapists have claimed that intimacy is created by establishing boundaries between partners. Esther Perel’s recent book called Mating in Captivity actually claims that the secret to long-term sexual intimacy is emotional distance. As strange as that may seem, she is actually following in the footsteps of a famous psychiatrist, Murray Bowen, and the sex therapist David Schnarsh. All three of these writers claim that the greatest danger to intimate trust and to great sex is too much connection, which they call by such insulting terms as “fusion,” “merging,” “enmeshment” and “symbiosis.” Too much togetherness kills erotic attraction, they claim.

        Instead, these writers claim that intimacy is established by a process they call “individuation.” The term was initially invented by Murray Bowen, who defined an individuation scale from 1 to 100. People low on the scale were those unable to control their emotions with reason, while people high on the scale were able to control their emotions with reason. The definition has recently been extended to also mean that individuated people in a relationship are those who have very separate identities from one another, and are very clear with one another about their own self-interests.

        These ideas are at odds with what we have been proposing here on the Gottman Sex Blog. The Bowen definition of individuation is typical of an emotion-dismissing philosophy, which creates a scale in which reason is at one end and emotion is at the other end of a continuum. The establishing boundaries part of the individuation definition emphasizes separateness, self-interest, which is antithetical to cooperative methods we have been proposing for building trust. Of course there are always two separate minds in a relationship. That is the basis for attraction and also the basis for regrettable incidents. What is needed to build intimate trust is cooperation, not self-interest.

        Their hypothesis is that boundaries between people and emotional distance creates great sex and intimacy. The alternative hypothesis, which we favor at the Gottman Institute, is that emotional attunement creates intimate trust and makes intimacy personal. 

        Attunement means that one listens non-defensively to the partner’s negative emotions (even if they are about you), and tries to understand these feelings and empathize with them. Attunement also means that one’s partner’s pain is not ignored, dismissed, or overlooked. The communication is, “If you hurt, baby, then the world stops until we figure out how to change things so you don’t hurt. I will listen and try to understand, and help you figure out what you need, and try to meet that need.”

       When intimacy is more personal, lovemaking is much more passionate, intense, and satisfying. Deepen intimate trust with your partner this week by improving the emotional attunement in your relationship. 

The Gottman Institute

Monday, December 12, 2011

Learning from Same-Sex Couples



        Masters and Johnson performed a remarkable study on committed same-sex relationships that was reported in a book they published in 1979 called Homosexuality in PerspectiveThe book was initially reviled in the gay and lesbian communities because it talked about interventions for changing gay and lesbian people’s sexual orientation.

        However, a major part of the book reported the results of a study that would be hard to do these days in most University research labs. Most human subject committees would be afraid that the University would be sued, or even persecuted by Congress if they approved such a study. For this study, Masters and Johnson studied couples. They watched couples have various forms of sex, alone and with one another. The couples were either committed heterosexual couples, committed gay and lesbian couples, or (get this) complete strangers. That’s right, they also watched heterosexual strangers and gay and lesbian strangers having sex.

        They also watched many of these people having just oral sex, and they watched most of these people masturbating as well. An amazing and very important study.


Same sex couple pose happily while looking into each other's eyes.

     
        Here's what they discovered. In comparing the committed couples with one another and with strangers, they found that the gay and lesbian couples had sex very differently from the heterosexual couples or the strangers. The committed gay and lesbian couples were the only people excited by their partner’s excitement. They turned towards their partners bids for emotional connection during sex. They took their time. They were playful and teasing, repeatedly arousing their partner and then backing off, letting the excitement slow down, and then starting playfully exciting the partner again. They seemed to enjoy the stimulation and sensuality itself, rather than moving quickly to the goal of orgasm.

        Strangers and committed heterosexuals were focused on getting rapidly to orgasm. Instead of enjoying the ecstasy of lovemaking, they were only focused on getting off. They were doing sex to their partner rather than having it with their partner. That was true of both women and men in these groups and it was the central conclusion of their book.

        Dr. John Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson spent a dozen years studying the conflict interactions of gay and lesbian committed relationships and comparing these couples to married heterosexuals. The gay and lesbian couples in that study were less defensive, more direct, had more humor in their discussions, and were less aggressive in the way they initiated the conflict. As heterosexuals, Bob and John concluded, we have a lot to learn from same-sex couples. 



        So, in the area of sex, once again, we see that heterosexuals have a great deal to learn from committed same-sex couples about all phases of lovemaking. Have a great week! 

All for now,
The Gottman Institute 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Constructively Solving Conflict

Couple sitting on a couch construcively solving a conflict.
       
        Inevitably there will be some moments in your relationship when there is conflict between you and your partner. Therefore, you need a tool for dealing with conflict constructively before it starts to become a real problem. If small conflicts start to lead to bigger fights, the lovemaking in your relationship will suffer dramatically. You and your partner will start to build resentment, you will stop communicating, and you may even stop having sex all together. The goal here is for conflict to lead to greater understanding. 

        This blueprint for conflict resolution is to be used whenever there is a hot-button issue that needs to be discussed. While this is not a solve-all to relationship conflict, this blueprint will provide the framework for communicating with your partner about concerns you are having with your relationship. Although it may seem like a long process, it will help you and your partner come to an understanding on the most sensitive of topics. 

Part One of the Blueprint: Communication

A couple in a romantic relationship sit and resolve a conflict.
        Agree on a time and place to sit down with each other, free of distraction. Before either partner engages in persuasion attempts, they each have to be able to state their partner's position to their partner's satisfaction.

Speaker's Job: 

  • Talking: The speaker talks about what he or she feels and needs. This means not commenting on the partner’s personality, or what the partner isn’t doing right. Tell your story without blaming your partner and try to help your partner understand your point of view on this issue. Be specific about this situation and issue. 
  • Stating your needs gives your partner an opportunity to shine for you: Needs are clear statements of the positive things your partner can do that would make you feel better about this issue. Don’t talk about what you don’t want. Talk about what you do want. The positive need is the recipe for success with you that you are offering your partner. 
  • Finding your positive need: Within every complaint is a longing and within every longing is a recipe. What do you need? What do you long for and wish for here? 
  • No Criticism: Criticism and blame must be eliminated in needs statements (“YOU always…” or “YOU never…” or “here’s what’s wrong with YOU,” or “Why do YOU do this…?” or “Here’s what YOU must stop doing…,” etc.).
  • Hearing your partners eventual summary of you: Do not have ultra-high standards. Take in what your partner is saying even if it is only “good enough.” Take in the comfort, the empathy, the optimism, the positivity, and SAVOR it. Tell your partner what you like about the summary and what you still need.  Look for the validation as well as the summary. Validation means the listener is communicating something like, “I understand what your feelings and needs are and they make sense to me. I get it."
  • Validate: You need to communicate empathy and compassion for your partner’s feelings and a willingness to meet your partner’s needs. Empathy has three parts: 

  1. Knowing what emotions your partner is feeling (being able to name the feelings) 
  2. Feeling a bit of what your partner is feeling (let yourself feel the emotions a bit) 
  3. Understanding WHY your partner is feeling these emotions. This involves seeing the world through your partner’s eyes and understanding why these feelings and needs make total sense, given your partner’s viewpoint.

        The listener's job is to summarize your partner. Remember, perception is everything, so facts are not important. No one has a “God camera” that shows absolute truth. We make videotapes of couples talking and there are still two very different interpretations of the video. Both people are right. This job will require the listener to write down what the speaker is saying. Write down the partner’s words, noting your partner’s words AND feelings.

       It may be helpful to ask questions if you don’t understand. Interview your partner. Say things like:
  1. Tell me more about that, how you feel, how you view this. 
  2. Help me understand why this is important to you 
  3. What would you specifically wish for in this situation? 
  4. Is there a history in your life of these needs? 
        Don’t get defensive when your partner corrects you and make sure that you can state both feelings and needs to your partner’s satisfaction. Listen to your partner’s story and try to understand you partner’s point of view on this issue. The more defensive you feel, the more you must write down close to every word.

        The greatest skill in listening is to control your own defensiveness. Instead of getting defensive, it’s okay to feel defensive, but try not to react immediately. Here it is your job to listen. Not to speak. Take notes. Shut up. Try to see your partner's pain then get in touch with your own feelings of love and protectiveness. 

        Understanding your partner does not necessarily mean that you agree. It just means that, given your partner’s perceptions and interpretations of experiences that you can see the validity of your partner’s feelings and needs. 

Part Two of the Blueprint: Compromise 

Couple discuss their relationship over coffee.
        Compromise is hard. It is hard because people don’t feel safe in compromising. They are afraid they will have to give up the core of who they are on this issue. They may have to sell out what they really need on this issue. So the first part of compromise is to identify the minimal core of what you each need on this issue. Then help your partner understand why this is so core for you. There’s always a story to tell there. Tell it. Next identify the areas you can be more flexible about.

        Then the persuasion can begin in a structured fashion. Use the two-circle method.

1. In an inner circle write what you are inflexible about, what your core need is here. Try to make the core need clear and specific. Make it as small as possible.

2. Now write down what you are more flexible about. Perhaps you are flexible about how or when or how many resources get used toward your partner’s core need.

3. Discuss: 
  • What are our common feelings here? 
  • What are our common goals? 
  • What can we agree on at least temporarily 
  • What can we make an experiment that gets revisited after a time? 
4. Then think of a proposal. 

        Ritualize this so it happens in the home. Once a week schedule one hour for a "State of the Relationship" conversation. Start the conversation by talking about what has gone right this week in your relationship. Then give one another 5 appreciations each. Then bring up a conflict of you need to.

        The more you can script and schedule the blueprint, the better. In the beginning, to establish this ritual, it has to happen often. Make an appointment for it to happen. Where will the conversation take place? Pick one place. Minimize interruptions (no phone calls accepted, kids are told not to interrupt, or child care is arranged, or videos are put on). Manage conflicts before they really turn into problems in your relationship. If you address conflict early and often, your lovemaking doesn’t have to suffer.

All for now,
The Gottman Institute

Monday, December 5, 2011

Seven Spicy Sex Ideas

Young couple in white shirts turning towards each other.

        We spent this past weekend at the Gottman Art and Science of Love Couples Workshop in Seattle and were overwhelmed by the positive response to the Gott Sex? series from couples and therapists alike. Thank you so much for your continued support!

        If you find the content of this blog valuable to your relationship and have yet to check out the Gott Sex? Series, head over to www.gottsex.com and take a look around. If you have any questions about the interface or accessibility of the website please do not hesitate to contact us. 

Young couple facing each other gazing into each other's eyes.

        As always, here are seven ideas for spicy sex this week brought to you by the experts at the Gottman Relationship Institute: 

1. When you get home from work this week, greet each other warmly with a kiss that lasts at least six seconds.

2. Decide to have sex in a totally new place this week. It could be in a new room of your home, in your office after everyone has gone home for the evening, or in a public place. The threat of getting caught will make your lovemaking passionate and thrilling.

3. Take turns giving each other back massages one night this week before you make love.

4. Talk to your partner this week about your favorite places to be kissed on your body. Then kiss each other slowly.

5. Make love in the shower together this week. See how many positions you can maneuver into in such a limited space.

6. Ask your partner if they will cook dinner one night this week then surprise them by seducing them in the kitchen (just don’t let your food burn!).

7. Watch an erotic film with your partner this week and see how many positions you can imitate before climaxing.

Have a great week!
The Gottman Institute

Friday, December 2, 2011

Making Love

A young, happy couple sitting on red leather couch in front of a white Christmas tree.


          It’s time for us to get practical. How can we ensure that we are creating a relationship built on lasting love? How can we increase our chances for intimate sex, passion, and romance that can last a lifetime? How can intimacy and sex become intertwined, at least some of the time?


          That’s our job. That’s where research and scholarship and our clinical experience come in. It’s very important to realize that we can’t just talk abstractly about making love. It’s our job to provide a recipe for making it all a lot easier. That’s what this blog is about, as well as the videos we’ve created in the Gott Sex? Series.




          That said, it may surprise you that for the case of intimate relationships there seems to be a confusion even among therapists about how to become intimate and how to nurture a strong sexual relationship. Some therapists have claimed that intimacy is created by establishing boundaries between partners. Esther Perel’s recent book called Mating in Captivity claims that the secret to long-term sexual intimacy is emotional distance.


          As strange as that may seem to some of us, she is actually following in the footsteps of a famous psychiatrist, Murray Bowen, and the sex therapist David Schnarsh. All three of these writers claim that the greatest danger to intimate trust and to great sex is too much connection, which they call by such insulting terms as “fusion,” “merging,” “enmeshment” and “symbiosis.”


          The idea here is that too much togetherness kills erotic attraction, they claim. Instead, these writers argue that intimacy is established by a process they call “individuation.” The term was initially invented by Murray Bowen, who had a special meaning for the term that had to do with his thoughts about emotion and rationality. Bowen defined an individuation scale from 1 to 100. People low on the scale were those unable to control their emotions with reason, while people high on the scale were able to control their emotions with reason. The definition of Bowen’s has recently been extended to also mean that individuated people in a relationship are those who have very separate identities from one another, and are very clear with one another about their own self-interests. Individuated couples are supposedly more mature, independent, and at a higher developmental plane than highly cooperative, interdependent couples.


          These ideas are at odds with our notion of intimate trust. The Bowen definition of individuation is typical of an emotion-dismissing philosophy, which creates a scale in which reason is at one end and emotion is at the other end of a continuum. The establishing boundaries part of the individuation definition emphasizes separateness, self-interest, which is antithetical to cooperative methods we propose for building trust.


          Of course, there are always two separate minds in a relationship. That is the basis for attraction and also the basis for regrettable incidents. In our opinion, what is needed to build intimate trust is cooperation, not self-interest and boundaries.


Couple holding hand on the beach in front of a beautiful sunset.


          Our findings and those of Zilbergeld’s run contrary to psychologist Esther Perel’s idea is that lasting good sex in a committed relationship comes from emotional distance, and from avoiding affection, cuddling, and what she calls the “dreaded flannel nightgown,” which kills erotic attraction. In Perel’s own words, “eroticism requires separateness.”


          We think that Perel’s hope may have been that since for many people in many relationships sex becomes dull, and strangers seem more exciting than one’s partner, the secret to good sex in a lasting relationship must be to turn the partner into a stranger. Or maybe Perel’s fear is that closeness may force people to merge their identities, and become unable to distinguish what they want from what their partner wants. Surely strange twisted relationships like these must exist, at least in Perel’s practice.


          Or perhaps Perel reasons that if there is emotional distance and the partner is a stranger, then the partner seems exciting and “hot.” There were in fact couples in our studies of the transition to parenthood who played games such as pretending to be strangers, making up new identities, and even starting an erotic evening by going to a bar and pretending to pick one another up. Their fantasies spiced up their sex life. However, these were the playful and fun activities of two people who knew and trusted one another to a great degree. Sharing sexual fantasies requires vulnerability and intimate trust, not emotional distance.


          In sum, our data also suggest the opposite of Perel’s recommendation that for lasting romance we need to “remove the protective layer of affection.” That certainly was not true for the couples in our sample who just had their first baby. Romance, passion, and good sex were part of one equation for creating and establishing intimate trust. Building the friendship in our relationship, as Zilbergeld’s study showed, was essential for a satisfying sex and romantic life, not antithetical to it.


          Maybe for some people emotional distance and great sex go together. Our research suggests that this is not the case. In fact, in our three studies of partners becoming parents, it is unfortunately separateness in a relationship that comes quite easily. No one has to work at the boundaries that create separateness after a baby arrives. It comes just from two people leading very busy and separate lives, and cultural gender differences.


          The issue when a baby arrives is not how to be more separate, or how to create more boundaries, but instead how to continue connecting on a deep emotional level, instead of having our lives together become an infinite to-do list where we never get to talk, we never get to play, we never get to be listened to, we never get to dream together, and we never get to have adventures together. Separateness is a real enemy that divides us after a baby arrives, not a good friend that makes our partner always new and erotic.


          Their hypothesis is that boundaries between people and emotional distance create great sex and intimacy. The alternative hypothesis, which we favor, is that emotional attunement creates intimate trust and makes intimacy personal.


          More on emotional attunement and intimate trust next week.


Have a great weekend,
The Gottman Institute