Focht Family Practice is now offering a unique opportunity to couples and families at a significant sliding scale fee! There is currently limited availability being offered with Rachel D. Miller, who is a doctoral student at Adler University. These sessions are required to be video recorded solely for the focus of educational purposes and are completely confidential and HIPPA compliant. To learn more, please complete the form on our Contact Page and add a note of interest in the message section.
PART III: Couple & Co-Parent Conflict
In conversations with new parents, one of the topics that often gets overlooked (and hidden) is the shock that the transition to parenthood can have on the couple. Some couples do transition to co-parents seamlessly, but more often than not, there is an enormous amount of stress associated with this shift, and growing pains to navigate.
[Before diving in, I want to acknowledge and honor that people (individuals and couples) enter into parenthood in a myriad of ways; for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on couples that have been together as romantic partners prior to becoming parents.]
As if the addition of a tiny human wasn’t stressful enough, the transition from partners to co-parents can be one of the most fraught, and often deprioritized. Suddenly, you now have two relationships to foster – your romantic one, and your co-parent one. (There is an upcoming post on the romantic relationship post-baby, stay tuned!)
Often, in times of transition we experience a spike in stress, depression, anxiety and conflict. This applies to everything from moving to a new city to losing a job, and even losing a loved one. Transitions are some of the hardest things we go through as humans – and frequently, we have trouble navigating the new environment we find ourselves in. Couples can have it particularly hard – as each parent attempts to navigate the demands of parenthood for themselves, they also have to simultaneously make that adjustment as a team. As you can imagine, or you have already experienced, this new territory (plus sleep deprivation) can create the perfect storm for couple conflict.
Why is it important to minimize couple conflict?
While I think most of us can agree that fighting with our spouse is generally unpleasant (and unwanted), we may not have enormous incentive to change our behavior and curb our conflict. Conflict doesn’t just impact our marital satisfaction and mental health, it also impacts our physical wellbeing. There is research linking hostile couple conflict with heart disease, and a slower rate of healing. (Dunn, 55). If that isn’t incentive enough, we have learned that children, even our babies, react negatively to conflict.
Researchers at the University of Oregon were able to conclude that infants as young as six months old react negatively to angry argumentative voices (Dunn, 23). According to Julie and John Gottman, children three to six years old believe that they are the cause of their parents fighting, and children ages six to eight tend to pick sides between parents during conflict (Gottman). In fact, psychologists have found that the day after a conflict, mothers are better able to compartmentalize and return to normal parenting mode with their children, whereas fathers had a much harder time returning to family life, therefore impacting their relationship with their children. They found that the conflict between parents often spilled over for the father, and resulted in friction between him and the children even days after the fight (Dunn, 24).
So, what does this mean for childhood development? Researchers from Notre Dame found that kindergarteners whose parents fought frequently were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and struggle with behavioral issues by the time they reached seventh grade (Dunn, 24). Babies raised in unhappy marriages have shown a plethora of developmental problems, from delayed speech and potty training to inability to self-soothe (Gottman).
It is unrealistic to assume that you and your partner will never fight. In fact, it would be a disservice to your children if you never showed them conflict at all. Think about it as an opportunity to be on your best behavior to show your children that people can be mad and still love each other. Those two things can certainly co-exist, but the important part is to model fair fighting.
Tips for fair fighting & Reducing Conflict:
1. Active Listening Techniques (Dunn, 72-76)
1. Emotion Labeling – helping to name your partner’s emotions (if you see frustration, you might say – “you seem frustrated”); naming and validating these emotions can take the person from a purely emotional state to a more reflective, rational state (Dunn, 73).
2. Paraphrasing – simply restating your partner’s message in your own words; this tells them that you are listening and absorbing what they are sharing with you.
3. Offering minimal encouragement – this is offering either non-verbal nods, or verbal “mhms” and “yeahs” in order to convey to your partner that you are still tracking them while they speak.
4. Asking open-ended questions – The goal is to avoid yes or no questions but to give your partner more space to share; you can do this by saying “can you tell me more about that?” or “I didn’t understand what you meant by that, but I’d like to. Can you help me by explaining further?” (Dunn, 75).
5. Using “I” Messages – The “I” message allows you to share your feelings in a less provocative manner. Rather than saying “You are always late!” you could try “I feel so frustrated when you’re late because …”
2. What NOT to do – Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Gottman, )
1. Criticism – insults, using phrases like “you always…” or “you never…”
2. Defensiveness – counterattacking, whining, denying responsibility
3. Stonewalling – freezing out your partner and shutting down mid conversation; 85% of stonewallers are men because they tend to become so overwhelmed by conflict that their limbic system shuts them down, unable to take in new information (and leaves their partner in the lurch.)
4. Contempt – cynicism, attacking your partner’s character, eye-rolling, mocking, and sarcasm(!)
3. Take a time out
Sometimes, conflicts can just become too overwhelming and out of control. If you are “deadlocked” – take a break. Gottman found that it takes approximately 30 minutes for the chemicals released during a conflict to exit the body. After this time, come back together and try discussing the topic with some of the included tools (Gottman).
4. If all else fails: here is a helpful script (courtesy of Julie & John Gottman and Jancee Dunn)
[Share hidden soft emotion, like hurt/sad/betrayed/isolated] when [describe what happened without blame]. Then, [State your need clearly]. [admit your role in the conflict] and [accept influence]. Finally, [repair.]
For example -
[share soft emotion] I felt hurt when [what happened without blame] our childcare plans fell through last minute and I was left to figure it out by myself since you were out of town. [ask for what you need] I need you to help me set up childcare and backup options so that the burden isn’t entirely on me. [admit your role] I was already stressed when this happened, so I totally acknowledge that I lost my cool with you. [accept influence] I trust your ability to help choose babysitters so I would love your input. [repair] I’m sorry I lost my temper when we discussed this before and I’m hopeful we can get through this together.
Sources & Resources:
Dunn, Jancee. How not to hate your husband after kids. Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Gottman, John M., and Julie Schwartz. Gottman. And Baby Makes Three: the Six-Step for Preserving Martial Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives. Three Rivers Press, 2007.
Gottman, John M. and Silver, Nan. The seven principles for making marriage work. Cassell Illustrated, 2018.
It’s that time of year again. Television, radio, and social media are plastered with ads for gyms, weight loss programs, dating sites, and a myriad of products to help you quit whatever bad habit you have resolved to give up this year.
“New year, new you!” has been January’s motivational mantra for decades. For those in committed relationships, this may not be the best approach to New Year’s resolutions. As Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), points out in her book Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, “Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”
New Year’s resolutions tend to focus on individual goals, that many abandon before the end of January. Why not make this the year that you add relationship resolutions to your annual list? Ensuring a safe, loving, deep connection with your partner, may just be the thing you need to bring out the best in yourself in the coming year. Here a few suggestions to get you started.
1. Start couples therapy. Therapy isn’t just for times of crisis. It’s actually a great way to take a proactive approach to your relationship and strengthen your connection.
2. Refocus on prioritizing, improving, or expanding your sex life. A great sex life is an integral part of a satisfying relationship, but it rarely happens spontaneously, or without intent. Fun ways to do this might include attending a class or workshop at your local adult novelty store, setting up weekly sex dates (yes, planed sexual encounters can still be fun and satisfying), or exploring erotic literature or mutually pleasurable porn together.
3. Create a book club with your partner. Whether you choose books on relationships, sex, or just share the latest fiction best sellers, reading the same book promotes intentional, planned conversations that do not revolve around things like bills, chores, kids, or work. Some of my personal favorites, if you need a place to start are:
· Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson
· The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman
· Come as you are by Emily Nagoski, Phd
· The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John Gottman, PhD & Nan Silver
· Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
· Attached by Amir Levine, MD & Rachel S. F. Heller, MA
Sharing experiences, meaningful conversations, and physical intimacy create opportunities for connection and closeness. When we feel securely attached to our partners, and our relationships becomes our safe space, we are better equipped to handle the stresses and challenges life will undoubtedly throw our way, and become our best selves. Make this year different. Focus your energy on a “new us” to help you be successful in your quest for a “new you.”
BY Karen Focht, MA, LMFT
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Erin McDaniel, who is a fertility coach dedicated to helping women have a more positive family building experience. Erin is committed to providing unique care and assistance during the challenging time of infertility. I not only have the privilege of working with individuals and couples during the process of infertility, but I have also navigated through my own personal process with secondary infertility. These experiences have created a passion in supporting couples through this challenging process. When Erin asked if I would be interested in participating in an interview on this very topic I enthusiastically accepted. I hope you enjoy....here it is!
WHAT TIPS CAN YOU SHARE FOR COUPLES WANTING TO STAY CONNECTED DURING THEIR FERTILITY JOURNEY?
The fertility process is experienced differently from partner to partner. With that being said, it is common that each person will have their own individual feelings and needs that may differ from one another. The most important thing to focus on is communicating with your partner, sharing your process, and advocating for your specific needs throughout the journey - while also holding space for your partner's needs. Recognizing and allowing for these differences will create support within the relationship.
DO YOU HAVE RECOMMENDATIONS OF THINGS TO "DO" OR WAYS TO "BE" TO HELP KEEP THE RELATIONSHIP STRONG THROUGH THIS CHALLENGING TIME?
Here are a few things to consider as a couple during the process:
Communication: It is important to allow space for open and honest thoughts and feelings. Remember that the way you deal with the process may look different from your partner. Allow for acceptance of this difference while also advocating for what your specific needs are. The treatment process can at times feel all consuming. Try carving out specified time for a regular check in with your partner each week. This time can be spent sharing your thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears along with checking in with your partner around their needs. Day to day life is already busy and with added doctor's appointments and treatment, it can add challenge to taking the time to share. This check in will make the time while also creating safety in knowing that there is intentional space to share with one another
Counseling: Providing support to one another is important. With that being said, you are each going through this process. Identifying professional support can be vital to keeping communication strong while also providing a platform to share your emotions and experience.
Time for fun: When fertility treatment becomes all consuming, this is when you should think about things you can do together as a couple to help create more of a balance within life and the relationship. This could be as simple as a date night, cooking class or other activity that may have been pushed aside while navigating through the fertility world. Re-engaging in quality time, activities, and hobbies will allow for positivity and connection.
Sex & intimacy: The science behind fertility treatment creates very specific instructions around what you can and can not do...especially when it comes to sex. This can be experienced as taking the fun or pleasure out of the relationship which may result in a decrease in intimacy and sexual satisfaction. If you are instructed to restrain from sex, consider nonsexual forms of touching in order to connect. This could be as simple as a hug, holding hands, massage, or cuddling.
On the other end of the spectrum is the instruction to have intercourse during very specific times. This can often create pressure and take the fun out of sex altogether. Consider making a change to the norm. Plan for a "staycation" with a stay at a local hotel, a night out on the town, or a romantic dinner at home to create an opportunity for something outside of the "norm". Talking about sex with your partner will help build a stronger bond with intimacy. Working with a couples therapist can help guide you through these challenging conversations while providing support.
I OFTEN HEAR QUESTIONS FROM MY FEMALE CLIENTS ABOUT THEIR MALE PARTNERS. QUESTIONS LIKE, "HOW IS HE FEELING?", "DOES HE NEED ADDITIONAL SUPPORT?", AND "WHO CAN HE TALK TO?". WHAT RESPONSE WOULD YOU OFFER?
Although it is important to provide support to one another, it is also beneficial for each partner to identify and access additional support through the process. This can be through family, friends, a therapist, or support group. Unfortunately, there aren't many support groups out there for males which ends up reinforcing a message that male partners don't need support. This is not the case and support through community can be very helpful. A list of support group providers can be found here.
MANY WOMEN WILL TELL ME THEIR PARTNER IS THE "ROCK" AND THE "HOPEFUL ONE." THIS WORKS WELL - UNTIL S/HE FALTERS. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SIGNS THAT YOUR PARTNER MAY BE STRUGGLING, AND WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST TO HELP?
The most important message with this is the fact that each partner is going through this process together in real time. Yes, it is important to support one another, but it is also vital to have access to additional support outside of the relationship. Being proactive and identifying this support early on will ensure that each partner has options as struggle, disappointment, and challenge may arise.
WHEN SHOULD A COUPLE CONSIDER THERAPY AS PART OF THEIR FERTILITY JOURNEY? WHAT SHOULD THE COUPLE EXPECT FROM THE THERAPY PROCESS?
I find it to be beneficial to proactively seek additional support through this journey, which also includes couples therapy. It is important to identify a therapist who is familiar with fertility treatment and has specific experience working with couples. The therapy process holds a focus of creating a safe platform to communicate and share with one another while also identifying goals to focus on throughout the process.
WHAT ARE SOME RESOURCES YOU RECOMMEND FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION?
Support through fertility treatment is vital. Here are a list of resources to check out:
Click here for full interview details.
I will be participating in a monthly group support call through Shine Fertility on Wednesday, 11/29, at 8:00pm CST. These calls focus on providing support to anyone facing infertility. We will be focusing on the topic of staying connected with your partner during infertility. Click here for more details!
Every couple will experience conflict in their relationship, no matter how happy they are together. Research done by John Gottman and Robert Levenson found that 69% of conflict in relationships is about unresolvable, perpetual problems based on differences between partners (Gottman). They also found that stable couples experience 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction, while that ratio for unstable couples is 0.8:1. So what does this information tell us about conflict in relationships? Simply put, conflict is inevitable and manageable. So let’s learn how to manage it!
Step one to learning how to manage conflict is identifying that you are angry. Often before we can even recognize that we are angry, our bodies already know. Our heart is beating faster, our thoughts are racing, our muscles are tense, our faces are red - we are physiologically activated. Pay attention to these sensations, as they are your body letting you know you’ve reached your emotional threshold. Aka your point of no return.
Once you are able to identify that you are angry, it’s time to learn how to calm yourself back down. Why? Because reaching your emotional threshold puts you on auto-pilot, meaning you lose your ability to choose your reaction to your partner. This means that any chance of having a productive conversation is lost. If you want to hear and be heard, you need to come back to a calm state. You can do this by taking a few good deep breaths or by taking a walk (if leaving is agreed to be non-threatening by both partners).
Once you have gotten yourself feeling a little calmer, it’s time for some self-reflection. Try and identify what caused your anger. Were you feeling misunderstood, judged, blamed, hurt? These are the feelings to share with your partner. It’s easier to connect when we share softer emotions, rather than our harsh anger. In order to share those softer emotions with your partner, you need to agree upon a time and place to try again. Check in about a good time to revisit the conversation. Lastly, remind yourself that you and your partner are on a team, that there are positives to your partner and your relationship with them. This will help you soften more towards your partner, rather than revamping your side of the argument.
Ok, so now you’re calm and you’ve established a time to try again. Here are a few things to try when sharing your perspective with your partner.
DO use “I-Statements.” These are statements that share your feelings in a non-accusatory way and propose a solution. They are the opposite of “you-statements,” which place our partner on the defense and assign blame.
You-statement : “You are always so inconsiderate! Why can’t you just come home when you say you will?!”
I-Statement : I feel anxious when I haven’t heard from you when you’re out. Could we set up a check-in system?
DON’T assassinate your partner’s character. This escalates the conflict and gets you farther away from sharing your perspective and working towards resolution.
DON’T call your partner names. This escalates the conflict and puts your partner on the defensive.
DON’T use the words always or never. This derails the conversation and allows more opportunity for further debate.
DO continue taking deep breaths throughout the conversation. This keeps you in control of your reactions and further away from your emotional threshold.
If you can begin implementing some of these tactics, your ability to manage conflict within your relationship will continue to become more and more effective, and easier to do consistently.
By Karen Focht, MA, LMFT
I often find myself referencing the work of John Gottman within in my work with couples, my own marriage, and even in past writings for this blog. (If you haven't yet seen it check out "Five to One from previous posting). When my associate, Sasha, brought this article to my attention from The Atlantic, I instantly wanted to share it in this space. Through his past and current research, Gottman has provided information and insight on what characteristics are crucial for healthy marriages, along with the qualities that are detrimental and damaging. The article tilted Masters of Love, by Emily Esfahani Smith, highlights the concept of kindness and generosity being the most crucial characteristics required to create lasting, stronger and healthy relationships. I hope you will enjoy this article which I have included below. For more information please visit The Atlantic .
Masters of Love
Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.
By Emily Esfahani Smith
Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say “I do,” committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.
Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?
"Disaster" couples showed signs of being in fight-or-flight mode in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.
Psychologist John Gottman was one of those researchers. For the past four decades, he has studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. I recently had the chance to interview Gottman and his wife Julie, also a psychologist, in New York City. Together, the renowned experts on marital stability run The Gottman Institute, which is devoted to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies.
John Gottman began gathering his most critical findings in 1986, when he set up “The Love Lab” with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington. Gottman and Levenson brought newlyweds into the lab and watched them interact with each other. With a team of researchers, they hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked the couples to speak about their relationship, like how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects' blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweat they produced. Then the researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six years later to see if they were still together.
From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages. When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.
But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal—of being in fight-or-flight mode—in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked. This sent their heart rates soaring and made them more aggressive toward each other. For example, each member of a couple could be talking about how their days had gone, and a highly aroused husband might say to his wife, “Why don’t you start talking about your day. It won’t take you very long.”
The masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart.
“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”
Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
“If your partner expresses a need,” explained Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”
In that moment, the easy response may be to turn away from your partner and focus on your iPad or your book or the television, to mumble “Uh huh” and move on with your life, but neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.
The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt and aggression spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship.
“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
John Gottman elaborated on those spears: “Disasters will say things differently in a fight. Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.’”
For the hundreds of thousands of couples getting married this month—and for the millions of couples currently together, married or not—the lesson from the research is clear: If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.
"A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it's executed poorly. So appreciate the intent."
When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.
One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.
Or say a wife is running late to dinner (again), and the husband assumes that she doesn’t value him enough to show up to their date on time after he took the trouble to make a reservation and leave work early so that they could spend a romantic evening together. But it turns out that the wife was running late because she stopped by a store to pick him up a gift for their special night out. Imagine her joining him for dinner, excited to deliver her gift, only to realize that he’s in a sour mood because he misinterpreted what was motivating her behavior. The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.
“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”
Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news. When one person in the relationship shared the good news of, say, a promotion at work with excitement, the other would respond with wooden disinterest by checking his watch or shutting the conversation down with a comment like, “That’s nice.”
We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But research shows that being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.
In one study from 2006, psychological researcher Shelly Gable and her colleagues brought young adult couples into the lab to discuss recent positive events from their lives. They psychologists wanted to know how partners would respond to each other’s good news. They found that, in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways that they called: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.
Let’s say that one partner had recently received the excellent news that she got into medical school. She would say something like “I got into my top choice med school!”
Those who showed genuine interest in their partner's joys were more likely to be together.
If her partner responded in a passive destructive manner, he would ignore the event. For example, he might say something like: “You wouldn’t believe the great news I got yesterday! I won a free t-shirt!”
If her partner responded in a passive constructive way, he would acknowledge the good news, but in a half-hearted, understated way. A typical passive constructive response is saying “That’s great, babe” as he texts his buddy on his phone.
In the third kind of response, active destructive, the partner would diminish the good news his partner just got: “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”
Finally, there’s active constructive responding. If her partner responded in this way, he stopped what he was doing and engaged wholeheartedly with her: “That’s great! Congratulations! When did you find out? Did they call you? What classes will you take first semester?”
Among the four response styles, active constructive responding is the kindest. While the other response styles are joy-killers, active constructive responding allows the partner to savor her joy and gives the couple an opportunity to bond over the good news. In the parlance of the Gottmans, active constructive responding is a way of “turning toward” your partners bid (sharing the good news) rather than “turning away” from it.
Active constructive responding is critical for healthy relationships. In the 2006 study, Gable and her colleagues followed up with the couples two months later to see if they were still together. The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together. In an earlier study, Gable found that active constructive responding was also associated with higher relationship quality and more intimacy between partners.
There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. As the normal stresses of a life together pile up—with children, career, friend, in-laws, and other distractions crowding out the time for romance and intimacy—couples may put less effort into their relationship and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart. In most marriages, levels of satisfaction drop dramatically within the first few years together. But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.
I often find myself focusing on the theme of positivity with most of the clients I work with. Early on in my training, I learned of John Gottman, a well-known professor who has devoted much of his life towards relational research, scientific direct observations and creating influential literature.
Through Gottman’s research, he identified his “magic ratio” of positives VS negatives within a relationship. Gottman states “as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable”. This really struck me, as it is very easy to get pulled down in negativity. I also find that we operate from a platform of assumption. For example, as I explore positivity and appreciation within relationships I often hear responses such as “he or she knows these things, I don’t need to say them out loud”. Even a simple shift in directly expressing these ideas can create much positive change.
As I share this information with clients, I am encouraged and inspired to see dedicated commitment to the focus of positives. So the next time you find your relationship or communication in a place of negativity remember the “magic ratio”. Five to one!
For more information check out https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-positive-perspective-dr-gottmans-magic-ratio/