Defining the Gottman Method, Part 1

Image fromUnsplash by Carly Rae Hobbins

I am frequently asked to explain The Gottman Method used in my practice. This counseling method is based on research studying thousands of REAL couples over many years together, and isolating and identifying the important skills, habits, and mindset that either make or break a relationship.

The three cornerstones of this method are: 1) Friendship and Intimacy, 2) Conflict Management, and 3) Shared Meetings

We will start by exploring the three aspects of FRIENDSHIP & INTIMACY.

Friendship is the foundation of any strong relationship. There are three “practices” when trying to strengthen the friendship within a marriage or couple. We’ll look at each of them over the next few weeks, then move on to the other two cornerstones.

The first dimension important in fostering friendship and intimacy is called Building Love Maps.

Have you ever been on a date, or met a colleague who told you about themselves but never asked about you? How did that make you feel? Probably not very important.

This is what happens to couples over time. Often, the conversations end up being about who needs to walk the dog, fetch the kids, cook dinner tonight. Conversations like these are transactions—we are interacting, but not connecting.

When we first meet, our goal is to get to know our new partner. We ask questions about their history, daily life, values. This process is called building a love map because we are creating a mental map of what we learn about the other person.

The skill we focus on is to create protected time and routines around talking with each other in ways that allow you to continue to learn more about each other. You are not the same person you were a year ago, or 20 years ago, and neither is your partner. We are always changing and growing.

Just like a traffic map, our love map for each other needs updating with current information— what is going on for each other right now? Generally we talk to each other like friends, which is a good thing. When that doesn’t happen, life becomes transactional and distant. We talk with each other like colleagues instead of friends.

By building love maps, you will accomplish 2 goals:

  1. You will understand each other better by staying up to date on each other’s lives, and
  2. You will feel my partner cares about me.

Building Love Maps sets the stage for the second dimension important in fostering friendship and intimacy: Sharing Fondness and Admiration. We’ll dive into that one in our November 9 post.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Dealing with Criticism in Your Relationship

John and Mary’s neighbors have grown accustomed to the signs of discord—one or both of them getting a little loud, slamming doors, and on the occasions where they are both in the yard, a chilling silence. It can go on for days.

It starts when Mary feels unimportant and tells John his friends are more important to him than she is, or when John feels frustrated and tells Mary how inconsiderate it was that she bought the wrong kind of shaving cream…once again.

It starts when one of them criticizes the other.

The Gottman Institute speaks of the four negative forms of communication—indicators of the decline of a relationship—called “The Four Horsemen.” They are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Today, we’ll take a deeper look at Criticism.

When Mary tells John he cares more about his friends than he does about her, she is, essentially, telling John he is wrong. The same is true when John tells Mary she is inconsiderate. The message is not just that you have done wrong, but rather that you are wrong.

At the heart of criticism is a complaint—and they are actually two sides of the same coin. One is destructive, the other constructive. Both have a valuable message about a need or want.

Criticisms are statements about who the other person is, rather than what they have done or said. A complaint—the other side of the coin—is a statement of what you want or need instead.

Criticism means the speaker is in attack mode, which probably means they are triggered or what we term emotionally flooded—their ability to communicate well is compromised.

When we feel criticized, we want to respond. The impulse is to say Yeah, well, but here is how I feel about it…. Basically to defend or deflect the criticism. How you feel about it is just as valid, but it is not productive to try to have that conversation when someone is flooded.

What is important, in dealing with either side of the coin, is to express appreciation that the other has brought this up. Oh, I know—it’s hard and risky to move toward conflict! Still, I encourage you to express appreciation, then ask open-ended questions to help you understand the problem behavior and how it impacted your partner.

Mary could tell John that she’s feeling lonely and unimportant, and ask him to spend more time with her.

John could thank Mary for picking up the shaving cream, and tell her that he is frustrated when she buys the wrong brand repeatedly.

Regardless of how it is phrased, John and Mary have received feedback from their partner. How should they respond?

We inevitably do or say things that displease our partner. When that happens, it is important to remember that part of the “glue” of our relationship is to remain loving, while holding ourselves and each other accountable.

John or Mary might say, Thank you for telling me (Or reminding me… or holding me accountable). ?How does it make you feel? What do you need me to say or do instead?

Understanding the difference between criticizing and complaining can make a major difference in your relationship, assuming your goal is to maintain the relationship.

Part of being a mature adult is the ability to choose your responses and reactions, even when you don’t like what you hear from your partner.

If you already know the answers, saying thank you and expressing appreciation is enough.

If your partner is in attack mode, they are probably not able to absorb your side. They took the risk to bring up the problem. This is their moment, let them have it.

Appreciate and acknowledge their side, and find another time when they are no longer triggered and emotionally flooded to raise the topic again and ask that complaints be brought up more gently in the future.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

When Problems Seem Unsolvable

Image from Unsplash by Alice Yamamura

Most of the problems you will face as a couple are unsolvable.

This can be discouraging to hear, so I ask you to hear me out:

The Gottman Relationship Institute did over four decades of research with thousands of couples at different point in their lives together. They surveyed the couples about which topics create problems in the relationships. This survey was done at the time of the marriage, then at numerous points throughout their decades of marriage together.

The ongoing answers were compared against their original answers. Results showed that roughly two-thirds (69%) of the struggles or problems in the marriages remained consistent across the entire relationship, and only about one-third of the problems couples faced were different.

Yes, at first this seems discouraging. Are our problems truly unsolvable?

The truth is that most of the problems we face are not things to “be solved,” but are part of the relationship dynamic. They are rooted in the differences about who each person is in their character, preferences, and way of living.

If, for example, I am a spender and my partner is a saver, any time there is a financial decision, I will want to spend more than he does, and my partner will want to save more than I do. If I have a high need for spending time with family and being social is important to me, I’m always going to feel that way. If my partner is more introverted, likes quiet one-on-one time, they are always going to feel that way.

This reality applies to so many relationship issues.

These issues are not truly unsolvable, but they are MANAGEABLE because we can get better at discussing and dealing with our differences in the current situation.

The solvable problems we experience, on the other hand, are often tied to where we are, and the unique season of our relationship.

Young couple starting careers and forging a life together face different situations than couples who have been together for years or decades. Their kids are older, their careers are established—and this, in turn, is very different from the problems faced by empty nesters and those nearing retirement.

David and Lisa are remodeling their kitchen and need to select new appliances. They both feel stressed about so many decisions and so much money. David wants the super high-end version that matches their cabinet colors and has all the bells and whistles. Lisa is much more comfortable with the mid range purchase that fits the space, is stainless steel, and will get the job done. They go 20 rounds explaining why their choice is logical, and they both make fair points.

So now what?

They start with a wonderful request. They say to each other: Help me understand why this choice is so important to you.

David talks about how he grew up feeling less than others. His family lived modestly and he wore hand-me-down clothes from his brothers. He feels he has worked very hard and built a good career. He feels like his home is special and he wants to feel special living in it.

Lisa talks about how her parents were always extravagant with their purchases but almost always ran out of money at the end of the month, and there were constant money fights. She remembers a sense of fear and chaos around money. She grew up and promised herself to never put herself in the position of instability that she felt as a child.

Now, David and Lisa can start having a dialogue about compromises each are willing to make that still honors David’s need to feel valued and important and Lisa’s need for stability. After lots of good discussion they find a middle ground that works for both. The fridge is the biggest, most noticeable and gets used the most anyway. So the big fancy fridge gets purchased and the oven, microwave and dishwasher are more modest.

They both needed to compromise, but now their kitchen symbolizes many wonderful things for them about their marriage and teamwork—and they both feel special and secure in that.

Think of unsolvable problems as temporary compromises that work where you are right now in your life together. This is life’s emotional journey. And each seemingly unsolvable problem that you manage together is one small part in the wider story of your life together.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Summon Positive Thoughts

Image from Unsplash by Kelly Moon

One the critical skills needed to achieve long-term success in relationships is the ability to summon positive thoughts about the other person or your life together.

In rocky relationship times our minds seize on the negatives; we are less inclined to balance that view with the positive. We are less able to recognize the positive in the person or the situation—because we are, after all, human.

Meanwhile, those we call “Masters of Marriage” develop a skill to diffuse the pessimism and summon positive thoughts about their partner.

Jack and Diane are a perfect example.

On a recent evening, coming downstairs after getting the kids bathed and in their pajamas, Diane noticed that the roasting pan in which the meal was cooked was sitting in the sink, full of grease and stuck-on scraps. Jack had neglected to clean it, and was now sitting in his favorite spot on the couch playing on his phone. It barely registered for her that he had washed the plates and utensils from dinner, and wiped down the counters.

In the past, Diane’s thought would have been, Do I have to do everything? And on this night, she could have given into those feelings and popped off on Jack, saying something critical about expecting her to always manage the household.

Instead, she took a few calming breaths, and reminded herself that he had washed most of the dishes and cleaned the countertops. She paused and connected with a feeling of gratitude for the positives that were actually present.

Diane and Jack have been working on creating what we call a “Culture of Appreciation,” which is important for the longevity of any relationship. This is the flip side of “toxic positivity”—turning a blind eye to the issues—which is not productive and leads couples to avoiding their conflicts instead of addressing them together.

On this night, Diane goes to Jack, and says, “I really appreciate that you washed the plates and wiped the counters! That makes my night so much better. Thanks for being a teammate here. Before you turn on the TV, would you please get the big pan soaking? I can finish up after I get the kids in bed.”

Conflict avoided.

The bottom line is this: In challenging situations, we need to calm ourselves down, and—from a centered place—ask for what we need, clearly and directly. We speak of the negatives, but in a way that expresses appreciation for the positives. Starting from appreciation rather than criticism opened a dialogue that helped Jack and Diane function better as a team.

And yes, this is easier said than done! Which is why we acknowledge it as a skill we can learn and improve upon. With practice, it becomes more intuitive and natural. Over time, you and your partner will be more likely to bring up and resolve problems early on, creating a stronger relationship.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Defining the Gottman Method, Part 3

Image from Unsplash by Nick Sewings

I am frequently asked to explain The Gottman Method used in my practice. This counseling method is based on research studying thousands of REAL couples over many years together, and isolating and identifying the important skills, habits, and mindset that either make or break a relationship.

The three cornerstones of this method are: 1) Friendship and Intimacy, 2) Conflict Management, and 3) Shared Meetings.

We began our exploration of Friendship and Intimacy in the October 26 post on Building Love Maps, and built upon it in the November 9 post on Sharing Fondness and Admiration.

Today we’ll focus on the final dimension of Friendship and Intimacy, called Turning Toward Bids.

How many big or small interactions do you and your partner have over the course of an hour? Asking How Are You? is what we call a bid. It looks like the weather is fine is a bid. You hurt my feelings last night is a bid. I’m worried that we aren’t saving enough for our retirement is a bid.

All bids are calls for connection and interaction.

Couples who thrive are good at consistently responding to each other’s bids in a warm and receptive way. When your partner puts out their hand for a connection, that is a moment of vulnerability.

When our bids are consistently received with kindness, warmth, and affirmation, we feel secure that the other is there for us, for the big needs and the small needs.

Similarly, if we are missing or rejecting each other’s bids, we become disconnected over time, and that disconnection grows and grows.

Let’s say you spend an hour together on a Saturday morning and have 100 moments of interaction. How do you feel at the end of the hour if most are received with love and affection?

How do you feel if they are not?

Multiply that by seven days a week, 52 weeks in a year, and your relationship is either strong or corroded.

The next time your partner asks How Was Your Day?, think of it as a bid for connection, and don’t just respond with fine. Turn to them, say something meaningful about your day, then ask them how they are doing.

is the third and final aspect of Friendship and Intimacy, the first cornerstone of the Gottman Method. Next, we will turn our attention to the second cornerstone: Conflict Management.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker