Note from Rebecca: I am thrilled to introduce you to Brian Reiswig, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern. I first met Brian when he was a graduate student of mine last spring. His big heart, sharp mind, wisdom and calming presence inspired me to invite him to join the Potentia clinical team and I am so grateful he agreed to join us! He is digging deep in his training and supervision as he develops his clinical expertise to support couples, men with compulsive behaviors, trauma/EMDR and those struggling with food and body issues. I am excited so many will have a chance to learn from him via this blog in addition to his clinical work at Potentia. Welcome, Brian!
I recently attended a training event for couples therapists from one of the true masters in the field, John Gottman.
Known for his straight-forward and practical insight about why marriages suffer and tools for making your marriage great, he’s been a pioneer in the field for more than 40 years. I showed up expecting to learn some new and powerful ways of helping couples get past pain and disconnection and nurture a loving bond. What I didn’t expect was how much his 40 years of research has revealed some insights that are counter-intuitive to what I intuitively thought what made a good marriage. Here are 5 insights from the training that will probably surprise you and will definitely help you foster a deeper, happier connection with your spouse.
1. The heart wants connection but the brain gets in the way.
One thing that Gottman did in his research, that most researchers don’t, is he studied what was going on inside the body during conflict not just what was going on between the couple. What he discovered was that the physiology of the brain changes drastically during high stress conflict. When we get into a fight with our loved one, our heart rate speeds up. When it crosses the 100 beats per minute line, we go into a “diffuse physiological state” and our whole body changes gears. To make things worse, our bodies start secreting adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) which send the message to our brains that we are in imminent danger. So, when a conversation about dirty dishes with our partner starts to get tense, the fight or flight response is triggered. The part of our brain where we listen and problem solve shuts down – right when we need it most.
Helpful tip: When you notice yourself getting upset, don’t wait to take a time out. Tell your partner you need some time to calm down, you love him/her, you really want to hear their point of view and be able to take responsibility for yours. Then set a time limit on this break – less than 24 hours. This break isn’t a strategy for abandonment, but one for closeness. Then go practice a calming skill and take a break from thinking about the problem. If you keep thinking about the problem you actually keep your brain in an escalated state.
2. Solving all your problems won’t solve all your problems.
Another counter-intuitive discovery that Gottman made in his research is that conflicts are not resolved by solving problems. Gottman observed that over time, the majority of conflicts in a marriage (about 69%) are never “solved.” Ever. So, for example, the conversation you avoid every year about whose family to visit for Christmas probably isn’t going away. Most couples never finds a solution that puts their big issues to rest permanently. There can be ominous sense of impending doom that comes with unsolved problems between you and your beloved. The difference between the happy marriages and the unhappy ones is that the happier couples make peace with having some issues unresolved and continuing to work through them.
Helpful Tip: Remember that all marriages struggle with unresolved conflict. When you and your partner can’t find a comfortable middle ground to a longstanding conflict, the struggle can grow and grow until if feels like the relationship hangs in the balance. Unsolved problems have a way of feeling like a bad omen, foretelling the demise of your union… unless you remember that all couples have unanswered problems. Just knowing that this kind of struggle is normal takes the emotional charge out of the problem and allows couples to approach their problems from a not-so-catastrophic point of view.
3. Conflict isn’t the problem.
The day after I proposed to my wife, Sarah, we took a 7 hour road trip to visit family and celebrate the engagement. On that road trip I had a very specific itinerary that we would take advantage of the face time and discuss our vision for our married life together. One of the goals that I had for our marriage, which I had gleamed from endless hours reading self-help books and listening to inspiring speakers, was to never fight. And yes, I was serious. I’ll never forget her face when I explained my expectations, like she was looking at a little boy who wanted to be superman when he grew up. She smiled and gently said, “That’s sweet, but I think we’re probably going to fight sometimes.” If you just read my reflections on my engagement story and thought my marriage vision was a bit ridiculous – congratulations! You’re way ahead of where I was back then. But it illustrates a myth that I think many buy into and that the idea of conflict is inherently bad.
Helpful Tip: At it’s core, conflict is healthy. Conflict means you’ve discovered a part of your partner that you don’t yet understand. Conflict is an opportunity for new depths of intimacy. Conflict is an opportunity to know your partner better. But you can get derailed when you bump into those opportunities and mistake them for threats. According to Gottman, conflict is all about listening. Instead of listening to understand, many often speak to be understood or to prove a point. Some just speak to shut down their partner. It is an absolute game-changer if – in the moment you realize have entered into the misunderstanding zone – you can remind yourself that all you have to do in this moment is listen. The understanding that comes with listening will ease the tension, even if you do not find a solution to the “problem.”
4. Friendship is more important than love
As it turns out, the Beatles were wrong. Love is not all you need. If fact, its not even the most important thing you need. Many ask me what could be more important than love for a happy marriage. The answer is friendship. If love is the strength of your commitment to your spouse, than friendship is the strength of your connection. There are a whole lot of people that I love, who I have no interest in spending time with, no sense of safety in sharing my heart with and no special inside culture that is just our own. There are people in my family who I love but I am not really friends with. On the other hand, within my sacred group of people I consider my dear friends, there is no one I do not love. Friendship is the substance of healthy intimacy.
Helpful Tip: Gottman has discovered that the average U.S. couple with school-age children spends about 35 minutes a week in actual conversation. And most of that time is spent discussing who is going to do what, when, etc. With that sobering statistic in mind, it is no mystery many struggling couples report they love their spouse but when asked about the status of their friendship, they are not as positive. Perhaps a more useful benchmark to the health of our marriages is not “how are we keeping the romance alive?” but instead “how are we keeping the friendship alive?”
5. The landscape is always changing
Building on this idea of friendship as core to marital health, Gottman urges couples to think of their partner as an ever-changing landscape. Just because you got to know them in a deep and personal way while you were dating, or before you started that new job, does not mean you your sense of knowing them is the same today.
Helpful Tip: Gottman proposes thinking about your knowledge of your spouse as a “love map” that you must constantly update. Building a love map is not a task that you complete. Instead, It is a task that is an ongoing practice. Building a love map is the process of rediscovering who your partner is, what are their values, their beliefs, their preferences, what makes them laugh and what keeps them up at night. Ask open-ended questions and listen to the answers. Asking questions every week about life, goals, dreams, fears and disappointments gives you and your partner a chance to be known and you can show each other that your love is not based on the bond you shared years ago but the one you share today.
I would love to know which Gottman insight resonated with you the most? Which one surprised you?
Please share your thoughts, reflections and questions in the comment section below. I would love to hear from you.