Monday, June 24, 2013

Emotional Attraction: Maintaining Connection in Conflict Discussions

We’ve spent the last two weeks on The Gottman Relationship Blog discussing emotional intimacy, sharing tools to keep the fire alive in your relationship over the long haul. This week, we feel that it would be pretty helpful to touch on its role in conflict and conflict discussions.

When you argue, fight, or disagree with your partner, do you feel emotionally intimate with them? This question sounds like a joke. It sort of is. The truly funny (and ironic) thing is that it doesn’t have to be.

Our inclination to laugh stems from a universally accepted sociocultural belief that fighting is the antithesis of emotional intimacy. Our research suggests otherwise.

In his research, Dr. John Gottman has demonstrated that conflict and emotional intimacy are not antithetical. In fact, to enjoy a lasting and healthy relationship, even the most functional of couples must engage in conflict discussions about areas of disagreement.  Having areas of disagreement is natural. 
Negativity plays many prosocial functions – for example, culling out interaction patterns that don't work, renewing courtship over time, etc.

As we’ve mentioned before on our blog, the presence of conflict in your relationship does not predict impending doom –
it is the method in which you approach conflict discussions that determines your shared future. 

This should come as somewhat of a relief. We don’t have to stop fighting to keep our relationships intact – we just have to learn, you might say, to fight "smart" (see Psychology Today’s recent article on "conscious combat" featuring Dr. Gottman's research). We must learn to manage conflict by keeping our hearts and minds intimately connected.

As we have discussed on The Gottman Relationship Blog, most recently in our 4 Horsemen series, one of the greatest stumbling blocks encountered by couples in a conflict discussion is physiological 
flooding. We’ve explained its mechanics and taught you tools for fending it off before it overwhelms you, but today we’ve got another tip: you don’t have to fight it alone.

The following activity is designed to help you and your partner fight flooding together. We hope you find it helpful!

Flooding Questionnaire: Fight Flooding as a Team

With Dr. Gottman’s words in mind, “When you’re in conflict with somebody and you become flooded with fear or anger, all your best intentions can go out the window,” answer the following questions. If possible, jot down your thoughts and have your partner do the same. Share your answers and talk about their implications.

1. What typically happens just before you start to feel flooded?

2. Are there particular words, actions, or topics that seem to “trigger” you to flood?

3. What would allow you to stay in an intense conversation without flooding? 

4. How are upsetting topics introduced into conversations?

5. Does either of you bring up these subjects in a harsh way?

6. Are there ways that either of you could introduce these subjects so that you might stay calmer?

7. Does either of you tend to “store up” problems and try to deal with them all at once?

8. Can you do a better job of handling your problems one at a time?

9. What can you do to soothe yourself when you feel irritable, scared, or angry?

10. What can you do to soothe each other?

11. What signals can you develop for when either of you feels flooded?

12. Can you take breaks?

13. What can you do during these breaks to calm down?

14. How do you make sure that you get back to the problem later on?

15. How could you conclude a discussion of a currently unresolved issue with a sense of reaching a temporary solution? What would this take from you? What would it take from your partner?

Though neither of you want to escalate the argument or to hurt the other, flooding overrides any attempt at rational thought or balanced thinking. You both lose control. So try this:

Be attentive. When one of you begin to notice signs of flooding - when you can feel your blood pressure rising or your heart rate increasing - or start to notice your partner becoming seriously upset, stop. Remember the exercise. Remember to breathe. What can you do to handle things differently this time? How can you prevent the takeover of flooding?

This will take practice, patience, determination, and the willingness to compromise. If you don’t see change happening overnight, don’t be discouraged. Think small steps. Learning to preempt and manage flooding in conflict is difficult, but if you keep working on it together, you will be very happy with the results!

Trusting your partner to be there for you when you are both fraying at the edges can change your entire relationship dynamic. 
If you can stop at the first smell of smoke, you can avoid having to put out a fire. You can keep each other safe.

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Friday, June 21, 2013

Weekend Homework Assignment: How to Have A Stress-Reducing Conversation

In today's posting on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we'd like to build on Tuesday's post on emotional attraction by giving you easy, straightforward instructions for having a stress-reducing conversation. As you approach the "how was your day, dear?" conversation from a new perspective, draw on ideas from the following exercise.

Note: This exercise draws on the technique of "active listening." The goal of active listening is to listen (not just hear) to the speaker’s words with empathy and without judgment. You certainly won’t be feeling emotional attraction to your partner if you feel like they aren't listening to you. This is all well and good, but when applied in couples’ therapy, it often fails because couples are asked to use it when they are airing their gripes with each other.

However, we have found that this same listening technique can be extremely beneficial if specifically employed during discussions in which you aren’t your partner’s target. In this context, you’ll feel far more readily supportive and understanding of your partner (and vica versa) - strengthening your mutual love and trust. Here are eight guiding rules for having this discussion:

1. Take Turns. Each partner gets to be the complainer for fifteen minutes.

2. Don’t give unsolicited advice. The major rule when helping your partner de-stress is that understanding must precede advice. 

3. Show genuine interest. Don’t let your mind or eyes wander. Try to stay intently focused on your partner. 

4. Communicate your understanding. Let your partner know that you can and are empathizing with what they are saying.

5. Take your partner’s side. This means being supportive, even if you think that part of his or her perspective is unreasonable. It's all about perspective! Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees - if your relationship is important to you, it is likely more important than your opinion about the intricacies of your mate's conversation with their boss. Again, understanding must precede advice.

6. Express a “we against others” attitude. Let him or her know that the two of you are in this together. That you are a team. 

7. Express affection. Hold your partner, put an arm on his or her shoulder, and say, “I love you.” 

8. Validate emotions. Let your partner know that his or her feelings make sense to you by telling them just that. 

Research has proven that emotional attraction is just as important as physical attraction in having great sex. If you are feeling emotionally rejected by your partner, chances are that you won’t be in the mood to make love. Try this active listening exercise this weekend and see how it affects the level of emotional attraction you feel for each other. You'll thank us for it. Good luck!

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Emotional Attraction: The Stress-Reducing Conversation

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to build off last week's discussion of maintaining desire in a long-term relationship by introducing a very important topic: emotional attraction.

When you are emotionally attracted to your partner, you value them for more than just their physical appearance. For example, you might find it pretty sexy that your partner can carry out an intellectual conversation, or talk about a novel or current news story that you've both read. This kind of attraction goes much deeper than the physical - think of it as an expansion of  "looks aren't everything."  

Emotional attraction means being attracted not just to your partner's body, but also to their hearts, minds, and dreams. You value them for who they are and what they stand for. While you may be sexually attracted to your partner’s physical appearance, developing deeper emotional attraction will make these feelings much stronger. 

So, how do you make this happen?

Your emotional attraction to your partner is largely determined by the ways in which you communicate. 

If you are communicating well, you are likely comfortable opening up to your partner about your opinions without having to worry about being judged for them. This high level of intimate trust is reaffirmed in daily dialogue - specifically in a “How was your day, dear?” conversation - but you may be surprised to find out that this conversation doesn’t always have a positive effect!

The Stress-Reducing Conversation:
What this conversation does (or ought to do) is to help each of you to manage the stress in your daily lives, stress that is not caused by your relationshipso that this outside stress doesn't spill over into your relationship. 

According to Dr. Gottman’s close friend and colleague, UW’s Dr. Neil Jacobson, one of the key reasons for couples’ relapse after problem-solving in marital therapy is "discord caused by stress from other areas of their lives."

In other words, outside problems (at work, with friends, with family members) often end up coming into relationships to fuel the fires of conflict.

Couples who are overrun by stress and fail to talk about it with each other see their level of emotional attraction drop, and subsequently see their relationships suffer. 

On the other hand, those who talk about the stresses of daily life with one another and help each other to cope keep their relationships strong.

Many couples have this sort of conversation at the dinner table or while undressing for bed. Sadly, this discussion does not always have the desired effect. Instead of decreasing stress, it actually increases it. While there is a time to talk about issues with your partner, discussing those that affect your relationship at this time is, to put it gently, inadvisable.

For starters, think about the timing of the chat. Some people want to unburden themselves when they’re barely through the door. Others need to decompress on their own for a while before they’re ready for discourse, but may want to talk before it gets late and they feel too tired. Talk to your partner and find out their preference!

The cardinal rule in having a stress-reducing conversation is: only about stress outside of your relationship. 

This is not the time to discuss areas of conflict between the two of you, or point fingers of blame. It's also not the time to instruct your partner on how to fix the problems they're facing. It’s an opportunity to support each other emotionally regarding other areas in your lives. Remember: understanding must precede advice. 

Though these conversations don’t center on your relationship, they directly improve it. They allow you to connect on an intimate level. How? Emotional attraction (and transitively, sexual attraction) grows when you feel your partner is listening to you, respecting and accepting your perspective, and expressing genuine care. 

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Friday, June 14, 2013

Desire in a Long Term Relationship: Part III

There's a reason why most fairy tales and romantic comedies end with a first kiss, a proposal, or even a wedding. Falling in love is easy. It's staying in love that can be the challenge. With that said, you can build long-term happiness and stability in your relationship with the proper tools.

So, how can you keep your romance going strong, long after the credits roll?

In his most recent book, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, Dr. John Gottman says it's possible to predict whether a relationship will succeed or end in the heartbreak of infidelity. But it's not all doom and gloom: with the right tools, he says, you can make sure your fairy tale is one of the happily ever afters.

Once the hormonally driven "falling in love" phase is over and couples move into the next phase of settling down, the big question becomes, "Can I trust you?"

At this point, Gottman explains, you are likely to start wondering:

  • "Do I come first?" 
  • "Am I more important than your friends?" 
  • "Am I more important than your mother?" 
  • "Can I trust you to really work for our family, to be faithful to me, to keep finding me attractive?" 

As these questions come up, you begin to either build loyalty in your relationship, or what he calls a "Metric of Betrayal."

"You have to feel that your partner has your best interests at heart," Gottman says. And your partner has to feel that way about you.

"Even before there's any actual betrayal," he explains, "you start acting in a way that creates betrayal." Those actions, he says, involve comparing what you're getting to what you think you could get. "If you get into a habit where you start thinking you could do better, where you can imagine a better partner," says Gottman, "those negative comparisons lead you to nurture resentment about what is not there." The seeds are then planted for eventual discord, distrust, and betrayal.

Alternatively, he says, you can act in a way that creates loyalty. "Loyalty is about nurturing gratitude for what you have," says Gottman. The key, he says, is cherishing your partner, "which involves both people making a conscious decision to minimize their partner's negative qualities and maximize the positive qualities. Masters of relationships have a way of scanning their environment to catch their partner doing something right." If you want to create trust, you must start with the basic building blocks, and you must build bridges.

How can you work on building loyalty and trust in your own relationship? Dr. Gottman offers these tips:

1. It's the "very small moments" that are important. Find little moments throughout the day to think about what it is you love, respect, and honor about your mate. Devote some effort to nurturing that way of thinking.

2. Share those feelings with your partner! Take the opportunity to show your partner affection, and take advantage of sliding door moments. "Let them know how great they look this morning," says Gottman. Express how much you appreciate the effort they put into running an errand for you, or something you love about them. "Cherishing becomes a ritual of connection in your relationship."

3. If you have doubts or concerns, bring them up! "Don't avoid dealing with feeling lonely, or like you're not as attractive to them as you used to be," says Gottman. Talk about it so you can resolve the issues.

4. Reframe. If you have a complaint about your partner, pause for a moment to think about where they might be coming from. If, say, they can get a little controlling, maybe it will help you to remember that they're also very supportive and protective of you. If it's a constant issue, then it's something you need to talk about with them -- maybe they don't know they're doing it.

Of course, sometimes they're just not the right partner for you. "You can't build trust with just anybody," says Gottman. "When you bring up an issue with your mate, they should be open to working on it, which, in turns, helps build even more trust. It's a real active process, it's a mental and emotional process, where you are both thinking how lucky you are to have each other."

Note: Here's something for our clinicians, and those of you who'd like to get your hands on the science behind these tips!

Have a great weekend, 
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff