Have you ever had a sudden revelation that felt like a full on kick in the pants? Or sometimes I call it being hit over the head with a spiritual 2×4. Wow. It hurts like the dickens, but on the flip side, you really needed the wake up call.
That’s how I felt when I read a certain piece of advice in John Gottman’s book The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. That book is LOADED with good, practical advice and I highly recommend it with this one caution: Gottman shares some things that people do who eventually divorce. It was really hard for me to read those parts, especially when the habits he was describing hit close to home.
I have three typed pages of notes from this book, which just goes to show you how much resonated with me. But rather than share ALL my notes, I’ll just give you the highlights and you can see if it feels like a good fit for you right now.
1 – Turn toward each other not away – use NVC for daily de-stress conversations.
This was my kick in the pants. Gottman says spouses benefit from having regular (even daily) de-stress discussions. In essence, it means that you can vent your greatest frustrations and your spouse is supposed to be able to handle all your negativity, and if they CAN, then you’re stress levels will go down and you’ll go from being a bear to becoming a teddy bear.
Here’s a quote:
“I have worked with couples who find that the de-stressing exercise above actually adds to their stress because one or both of them feel very uncomfortable listening to the other express negative emotions, even when they aren’t the target. [THAT WAS ME.] This is a form of turning away. I can’t emphasize enough how beneficial it will be to your relationship to give your partner the gift of being there when he or she is upset. After years of studying couples in the lab and working with them directly, it has become clear to me that happy couples live by the credo ‘When you are in pain, the world stops and I listen.’ Of course, when your partner’s negativity is directed at you, it’s especially hard to listen …” I’m inserting a note here. I found that working with NVC principles and practices has really helped me to stay calm and listen empathically and not take on other people’s frustrations as much. By the way, NVC stands for Non-Violent Communication and is also known as Compassionate Communication, and here’s a blog post I did on it.
“Usually this very common tendency to turn away from negative emotions is rooted in childhood. [True in my case.] … Having a talent for problem-solving is certainly an asset. But in order to achieve real intimacy, you also need to be there for your partner, to see the world from his or her perspective and to empathize with negative feelings.” (103)
He follows this up by saying: Don’t try to cheer up the partner. Don’t take things personally. Don’t ever tell your partner to “calm down”. Don’t minimize their frustrations.
2- PSO or NSO – positive sentiment override or negative sentiment override. Every couple has issues, but if the quality of friendship is high and the positive thoughts about the person and relationship are high and their positive interactions are frequent, couples just seem to let irritations slide off their backs instead of making mountains out of them.
I think of Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account analogy. If there are enough deposits of positive interactions going into the relationship on a regular basis, it’s like making regular deposits in a bank account. The more that goes in, the better. Then, when a negative interaction happens, there’s so much positive that it doesn’t make a lot of difference and the balance is easily restored and keeps growing from there. It’s like this heart image with three hearts of differing sizes. When you nurture love, it grows and grows and gets bigger and bigger.
3 – Attunement – this means being in tune with your spouse instinctively. You’re just paying a high level of attention to your spouse.
4 – Repair attempts, the success of which depends on the quality of the friendship.
A “repair attempt” is something one person does to de-escalate rising negative emotions that could get to the point of hurting someone emotionally. In one example, someone agrees with her spouse. In another example, a husband gives his wife a really goofy grin. It’s something that breaks the tension and brings you back together again. This one is worth mastering, but the bigger issue is that repair attempts only work if the couple’s friendship is well cared for. Otherwise, the repair attempt will be seen in a negative light and won’t work.
5 – “Most marital arguments cannot be resolved” (28)
This is something I read about in Michele Weiner-Davis’ book “The Divorce Remedy” and isn’t it fascinating! And liberating! Reading about this from experts who have worked with many couples helped me see the issues in my marriage in a different light, a better light. It helped me relax in a very good way. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree, come up with a workable idea that accomodates you both in the best possible way, and shake on it. Whatever it is is not worth your friendship, your love, and your marriage! I would definitely recommend reading up on this in both books.
6 – Gentle start ups
This just means being thoughtful about how you bring something up so your heart is open and loving and your spouse has a chance to hear what you’re really trying to say.
I remember talking to my husband about a touchy subject that was very male/female based. Meaning, I think just about ANY woman would have seen it may way and just about ANY man would’ve seen it his way. So, instead of saying, “This is the deal. This is how I see it, so fix it!” I started with, “I know you don’t see it this way, but this is how I see it.” So, I was trying to communicate that even though I saw the situation differently than he did, I trusted his heart was in the right place. I didn’t accuse him of being thoughtless, I just wanted to share how it was coming across to me. Interestingly, he altered the situation the next day in a quite ingenious way that met both of our requirements. I was so impressed!
7 – Flooding – prevent it and take 20 minutes of time out to recover if flooded.
Flooding is when you get so emotionally and intensely negative that all your rational thinking ability flies out the window. Your face gets red hot, your eyebrows draw together, your muscles clench, and you are ready to fight! Then you say the absolute stupidest things and later hope your spouse, God, and the neighbors will someday forgive you.
Using repair tactics successfully, which depends on taking good care of your marriage on a daily basis, helps prevent flooding. But ultimately, it’s your responsibility to be tuned in and if an interaction is headed for flooding, take about a 20-minute break and then try again. If you get flooded, apologize profusely and do better next time. Your emotions are your responsibility.
8. The Magic Six Hours
How does Gottman suggest you build your friendship, respect, and overall relationship? Well, here are his six suggestions (278-279):
- Partings – Before you part for the day, learn one thing that is happening in your spouse’s life that day. (10 min)
- Reunions – “We recommend a hug and a kiss that lasts at least six seconds. The six-second kiss is worth coming home to. Also, be sure to engage in a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday for at least 20 minutes (see page 97).” (20min 5x/week = 1 hr. 40 min.
- Admiration and appreciation – “Find some way every day to communicate genuine affection and appreciation toward your spouse.” (5m/day, 7d/week = 35 minutes)
- Affection – “Show each other physical affection when you’re together during the day, and make sure to always embrace before going to sleep. Even if on occasion your goodnight kiss just lasts for microseconds, think of it as a way to let go of any minor irritations that have built up over the day. In other words, always lace your kiss with forgiveness and tenderness for your partner.” (5 m/day, 7d/wk = 35m)
- Weekly date – This date is for just the two of you. Try to make it relaxing and romantic. Ask open-ended questions to get conversation flowing. (2 hours 1x/wk = 2hrs)
- State of the Union Meeting – Use a gentle start up by talking about what went right over the last week. Ask if there are any issues to talk about and then listen non-defensively. Finish with “what can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?” Keep this time sacred. (1 hour/week = 6 hours
To conclude, I must admit that this is not the only kick-in-the-pants marriage book I’ve read. In the future, I’ll share a book written by a woman blessed with a great kicker, and I mean that in the best possible way: Dr. Laura Schlessinger. And with Father’s Day in mind, I like her title: The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.
Happy Reading! Or in this case, maybe, the reading will hopefully help your marriages be happier.