Gottman

One Game-Changing Tool to Approach Arguments as Opportunities for Intimacy in Marriage

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It’s a typical Saturday afternoon, and you’re wrapped in up in cleaning the house, watching a pot of soup on the stove, and attempting to keep your kids entertained.  Your spouse walks in the door to see Legos scattered around the floor, the debris left over from one of your many attempts at distraction.  Your spouse gives you a look that communicates, “did a bomb go off in here?”

You immediately feel a flood of anger coursing through your veins.  You snap at your spouse, irritated with their nonverbal insensitivity and criticism.  You start defending yourself, and meanwhile your spouse looks completely bewildered and caught off guard, like a deer in the headlights.

Little did you know in that moment, but that particular look on your spouse’s face was exactly the same as the look your father used to give you before he launched into a tirade about your irresponsibility and immaturity.  For a moment, your father’s face flashed before your eyes, not your spouse’s, and you were brought right back to the feeling of being a chastised child.

What is a trigger?

You’ve likely experienced moments like these in your life, where you’ve had an intense and strong emotional reaction to something that didn’t make sense.   These moments, referred to as triggers, are moments when you experience an intense and extreme emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the event that occurred.  Typically, these are brought on by memories of past experiences where you felt hurt, ashamed, guilty, or a range of other negative emotions.  Most often, triggers differ from person to person and are not easily predicted, and therefore can lead to arguments or miscommunication in marriage.

Talking about triggers is an integral part of learning to communicate more effectively in your relationships and have arguments that lead you to become more intimately connected with one another.

Wait a second – arguments that cause you to become more intimately connected?  That sounds like a mistake.

Guess what?  It’s not.

John Gottman, marriage researcher, prefers to talk about the concept of conflict “management” rather than conflict “resolution.”  Why’s that?  He found that 69% of conflicts couples have in their marriage are unresolvable – meaning that conflict resolution is a myth in 69% of arguments.

Instead, couples need to come to a place of compromise in their arguments.  The process of getting to compromise involves learning more about triggers in order to grow to understand your partner’s past.  As you get to know your partner’s experience, you’ll become more adaptive and empathetic to their needs, and more willing to make a compromise.  You’ll also feel known and understood as they learn your side of the story.

Sounds like a win-win after all!

How can I tell when I’m being triggered?

Step one to understanding triggers is understanding when you’ve been triggered.  This involves becoming aware of your emotional and physical reactions.  In the example above, you had no idea why you jumped from relatively neutral to raging in less than 3.6 seconds at the look on your spouse’s face.

If you were able to take a step back a little later when you had calmed your emotional arousal, you may have been able to gain more awareness of what emotion came up.  In the example above, you may have felt fear or defensiveness.  Triggers typically involve emotions or beliefs that are deeper under the surface, so uncovering them is a crucial process.

When you identify the emotion, ask yourself: what message does this emotion communicate to me?  If I could give the emotion a voice, what would it be saying?  In the example, the fear of defensiveness is saying that I’m worthless or not good enough.

Then, take a moment to ask yourself this question: when was the first time I remember feeling that way?  What is a significant time in my past when I remember having those thoughts?

Alternatively, think of that emotion or that belief and rewind the tape of your life back – what moments stand out to you as times when you truly believed that thought?  When that emotion was felt?

How do I communicate about triggers with my spouse?

Once you’ve calmed down enough to identify that trigger, then it’s time to communicate the trigger to your spouse.  This process mirrors Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight exercise, allowing you to name what you need.

First, talk to your spouse about how you felt in the moment about what happened. “I felt angry when you came home because it seemed as though you were judging me for the state of the house.”

Next, identify why that particular reaction was triggering to you.  “The look on your face reminded me of a look my father used to give me before yelling at me about how irresponsible I was.  Back then, I would feel afraid and believe that I was worthless and not good enough.”

Then, take responsibility for the disproportionate reaction: “I responded out of fear and defensiveness to you, even though you are not my father, and I don’t believe those words were what you were trying to communicate to me.  I am sorry for snapping at you and criticizing you.”

Finally, communicate what you will do in the future, as well as asking your spouse for help.  As an option, you can invite your spouse to suggest an idea for him or her to carry out.  “In the future, I will do my best to remind myself that you are not my father and that you are not commenting on my worth or value.  If you’re willing, it would be helpful for me to hear you say that you love me or offer to help.  Is that something you’re willing to try?”

Notice how the interation above invites intimacy.  You have to step into the risk of sharing vulnerably a difficult part of your story that allows your spouse to get to know you better.  You humbly take responsibility for your fault in the matter, as none of us are without blame.   And it gives a solution-focused response on how to approach those conflicts in the future.

My hope is that you’ll begin to see your arguments with your spouse not as a signal that your relationship is falling apart, but as an opportunity to grow closer to one another and connect to one another’s worlds.

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Do you find yourself caught in a pattern of getting triggered every time you and your spouse have a conflict?  Have you been completely unaware of where those triggers are coming from?  Are you looking for help with creating intimacy with your spouse through fighting well?  At Restored Hope, I believe in the power of intimacy-building in relationships through honesty, vulnerability, and open communication.  I offer couples counseling at my Ann Arbor therapy offices – give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.

Surviving the Holidays With Your Spouse

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Christmas trees are going up, holiday lights are twinkling, and peace and love are filling the air everywhere…well, everywhere except in your home.  The holidays are notorious for being fraught with conflict and stress, which can wreak havoc on our relationships.  Marriages are particularly under fire.  You’ve likely experienced arguments about which family traditions to uphold, where the holidays will be spent, and stress that comes with in-laws and shopping.  Research shows that divorces are shown to increase in the months following the holidays. I believe that relates to the conflict and strife that arises out of this season of the year.

How can you actively work to combat the potential devastation the holidays can bring to your marriage?

Discuss and plan traditions in your family.

As John Gottman likes to say, regardless of where we were born, we each bring our own cultures into the marriage: the culture of our family growing up.  We raised with traditions around the holidays, and you have likely tried to implement some of these within your current marriage.  However, some of these rituals can clash.

Talk with your spouse and ask about their favorite holiday traditions.  Pay attention to traditions they love now, favorite traditions of childhood, and what they wish you’d do together.  Talk about your best and worst experiences of the holidays growing up as a way of identifying common factors to implement and avoid.  Talk about your favorite holiday memories together as a couple and seek to put into practice similar moments.

If you come from families that didn’t have a lot of traditions, it might be helpful to implement some new practices, or rituals of connection, with your family.  Rituals of connection are practices infused with meaning that family members do in order to create connection, intimacy, and security in who you are as a family unit.  These rituals are an important factor in creating a new sense of family within your marriage.

Identify your own triggers and those of your spouse during the holidays.

While the holidays often carry special and joyful memories, they can also be overshadowed by trauma or pain.  If a loved one who has recently passed away played a major role in holiday festivities, the signs of the season may bring on fresh waves of grief.  Sit down with your spouse and children and talk about ways to honor the memory of those who won’t be celebrating with you this year.

Holidays also often involve time with family, which can sometimes be distressing.  Family dynamics can be their worst at the holidays, as stress makes our negative qualities more prominent.  Have a plan ahead of time for how to navigate those triggers together as a couple.

Sometimes even just lowering your expectations for the holidays can help.  It’s often the moments when you’re most trying to make the holiday perfect for someone else that you end up steamrolling over your spouse’s emotions.

Practice damage control when (not if) you fight.

If you know you and your spouse have the same argument every holiday season, take some time to plan ahead and talk through the potential fight earlier.  Use Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight discussion as a tool to process past fights, identify sensitivities or triggers you may have, and plan for how to approach those arguments in the future.

And when you inevitably find yourself in the argument, try to understand your spouse’s perspective and practice empathy.  Look for an opportunity to come to a place of compromise so that you can have a win-win situation, rather than trying to come out on top.

Inject some fun into your holiday celebrations.

Holidays are stressful.  (Have I said that enough?)  There are a multitude of events and schedules to juggle, between children’s schooling, work parties, and travel to visit family.  Take some time aside with your spouse to slow down and just have fun together.

Go see the Christmas lights at Greenfield Village.  Spend a day cuddled up under the blankets with hot cocoa having a Christmas movie marathon.  Drive around your neighborhood to see the lights and choose a favorite house.  If you have a hard time thinking of something, or you worry about having fun on a budget, Google some ideas and pick one or two that sound fun or inexpensive!

Budget together for Christmas shopping.

Finances are one of the top areas that couples tend to fight over, and the holidays are the season when it's easiest to overspend.  Buying gifts for friends and family, shopping the hot Black Friday deals, or going out for celebratory holiday meals can lead to greater spending than anticipated.

As a couple, set some limits on spending for the holidays.  Talk through how much you’d like to spend on your children, family members, and friends.  If this means you have to have hard conversations with your children or your extended family about your financial limits, seek to do so united as a couple.

Volunteer together.

The old adage about Christmas says that we ought to be more cheerful about giving than receiving.  However, that sentiment can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle.  Slowing down to notice opportunities to give back this time of year can help your family to connect to gratitude for the blessings you have and a larger purpose for the season.

Find an activity you can do with just your spouse, or bring your children into it as well.  Donate your time at a food kitchen.  Hand out blankets, food, and hygiene kits to the homeless.  Help out at a children’s Christmas party in an impoverished part of the city.  Ring a bell for the Salvation Army.

 

I believe taking one of the items above and putting in into practice could radically transform your marriage this holiday season.  Give it a try – you never know how one little shift could change your Christmas.

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Are you looking forward to the holiday season with a sense of dread rather than joy?  Do you promise to scale back during next year’s holidays every year, just to forget that promise?  Are you tired of always fighting about money during the Christmas season?  At Restored Hope, I know this time of year can take a major toll on marriages, family, and stress levels.  I’d love to support you through one-on-one or marriage counseling services at my Ann Arbor location.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or fill out my form here to find out more about how I can help you thrive during the holidays.

The Key Roadblock to Effective Communication

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 “At one point I couldn’t even think straight.”  “I was seeing red.”  “I felt like a deer in the headlights.”  “I wanted to run out of the room.”  “Nothing I was saying was making any sense.”  “I just couldn’t listen to him/her anymore.”

Have you ever found yourself saying these words when describing an argument you had with your spouse?  You’re not alone in experiencing this phenomenon.  If you notice adrenaline pumping through your body and you can feel your heartbeat pounding, you might be experiencing what marriage researcher John Gottman describes as “flooding.”

Imagine you’re in a water tank as you talk with your spouse.  As the argument goes on, the water is rising closer and closer to your face.  As your heart rate increases, you slowly become submerged.  At this point, you can’t hear the person speaking to you above the water, you can’t see more than a foot in front of you, and you panic as you realize you can’t breathe.

Flooding occurs when you’re in the midst of a heightened emotional situation, like an argument where the Four Horsemen are present.  Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, with the most obvious sign being a rapidly rising heart rate.  When you’re in this state of diffuse physiological arousal, the part of your brain that runs your impulse control and decision-making capacities shuts down.  Essentially, the thinking part of your brain is overtaken by the emotional part of your brain.

Flooding interrupts your discussion as you become unable to absorb what your partner is saying and understand his or her point of view. It’s easier to say hurtful or harsh words to your spouse that you will later regret.  As you get overwhelmed with emotion, your spouse can follow suit.

Often, flooding happens when you’re triggered by something unrelated to the present-day conversation.  Perhaps your spouse mentions feeling overwhelmed by household chores.  This immediately reminds you of how angry and unstable your mother would get when she felt overwhelmed, and memories arise of feeling unsafe.

When flooding takes place, here are a few ideas of how to handle it:

Acknowledge that flooding is happening.

Identify the signs of flooding as they occur, accept that it is a normal response to tense interactions with your spouse, and acknowledge that you aren’t the best version of yourself when you’re flooded.  By taking this first step, you preempt your spouse suggesting you might be flooded, as that will likely make the situation worse.

Communicate that you’re feeling flooded or overwhelmed.

When you notice adrenaline racing through you and your thoughts spiraling out of control, pause and communicate what you need to your spouse.  Your partner can’t tell what is going on in your body or foresee your emotions, but when you communicate how you feel you invite you partner to respond differently.

Ask your partner to rephrase the statement.

Your spouse may simply be communicating with a certain tone or phrasing that triggers you.  Asking your spouse to restate the sentence allows them to slow down and think about how they are expressing their concern.  As they reframe the statement, you can sort out if you’re being triggered by what they’re saying or by the way it is being expressed.

Practice self-soothing.

Mindfulness strategies for reducing anxiety can be helpful when your body is in fight-or-flight mode.  Focusing on your breathing brings you back to the present and tells your body that you’re safe and in control.  Practice these skills on your own so that you’re prepared to use them when needed in the midst of a conflict conversation.  When you notice being flooded, you can even invite your spouse to practice with you, using an app such as Headspace.

Take a 20-minute break.

When the discussion feels too overwhelming, ask your spouse for a 20-minute break.  Do something unrelated to the conversation you’ve been having with your spouse.  While you are on this break, be sure not to rehash the conversation, how you wish you would’ve responded, or what you’ll say next. Instead distract yourself: take a walk, go for a run, read a book or magazine, listen to a playlist of your favorite music, watch a funny TV show, draw, or doodle.  This calms your body’s reaction to the trigger and allows you to re-enter the conversation from a neutral state of mind.

Take a longer break.

Sometimes 20 minutes just won’t cut it.  Returning to the conversation at a later date gives you an opportunity to cool down.  If you choose this option, set a specific time to return to the conversation and make sure you follow through. You’ll avoid resentment and bitterness that can come if the conversation goes unfinished.

Before that continuation conversation, identify what triggered you in the earlier conversation. Notice where you’ve felt that particular emotion in your life, including outside your marriage.  Be prepared to share what you discover with your spouse, as well as one thing both you and your spouse could do differently the next time you’re triggered. The goal of sharing about your trigger isn’t to create guilt in your partner, but to create intimacy in your relationship.

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Are you tired of feeling overwhelmed and angry in every conversation you have with your spouse?  Maybe you connect with the idea of feeling flooded, or you’ve seen your spouse go through the same emotional rollercoaster.  If you’re looking to experience freedom from these patterns that are no longer working in your life, I’m here to help.  At Restored Hope, I use the Gottman Method Couples Therapy approach at my Ann Arbor counseling office to help you experience a healthy and vibrant marriage.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me about how I can help you.

Tired of Destroying Your Marriage? Four Antidotes to Heal a Hurting Relationship

Have you ever had a huge fight with your spouse, but then realize you have no idea what started the argument?  Are you sick and tired of exploding into anger and insults in conversations with your partner?  Maybe you walk away from discussions with a sinking feeling that something in your marriage isn’t working. Or instead of arguing, you notice yourself or your spouse muttering passive-aggressive comments, and your mutual respect and understanding is slowly slipping away.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the four communication habits that destroy marriages, as researched by John Gottman.  Luckily, Gottman has found an antidote to each of these behaviors that can help you to reverse your downward spiral into these four destructive habits.  Let’s take a look.

Instead of criticism?  Use gentle start-up.

Remember how Gottman can watch 10 minutes of a couple’s conversation and predict with surprising accuracy if that couple will divorce?  In the first three minutes of every conflict conversation, certain indicators will predict how the rest of the conversation will go.

You’ve likely seen this in your own relationship.  If you bring up a topic with your partner that begins with an accusatory “you,” your partner immediately goes on the defensive.

Instead, state your personal feelings, reactions, and needs.  The magic formula for authentic communication is founded upon naming a personal emotion you’re experiencing, expressing what you saw or heard that led to that emotion, and naming a positive need.  By expressing yourself in this way, you allow your partner to see the effect his or her actions have on you, but you also provide a solution.

  • Destructive tactic: “You never follow-through with what you say you’re going to do, I can’t count on you for anything.”

  • Antidote: “I feel ignored and hurt when I ask you to help me out with a task, but it doesn’t get done. I need to know what timeline you have for completing that task. Can we create a schedule?”

Instead of contempt?  Practice fondness and appreciation.

Contempt takes criticism a step further and is born out of a place of seeing your partner as less than, or looking down on them.  One way to diagnose contempt in your relationship by asking if your partner ever feels “small” or like a child when you criticize them. 

If you notice contempt is an issue for you, seek to remember the things you love about your partner and what attracted you to them in the beginning of the relationship.  Notice their strengths and abilities, particularly in areas where you aren’t as strong.  Pay attention to their contributions to your relationship or your family. 

Valuing your spouse by building up your fondness and admiration system leads to a more solid foundation of friendship and respect in your marriage.  In general, practicing gratitude and seeking to accept your present circumstances with contentment can have a multitude of benefits for your mental and relational health.

  • Destructive tactic: “Only an idiot would forget about our daughter’s soccer game.”

  • Antidote: “I can see why this slipped through the cracks. You’ve been working long hours for your promotion at work. I’m thankful that you’re hard-working and dedicated to providing for our family.”

Instead of defensiveness? Try taking responsibility.

When you’re feeling criticized or your spouse is pointing out your weaknesses, it can feel self-protective to fight back and point out their not-so-great qualities.  Our natural bent is toward defensiveness, especially if we’re feeling guilt or shame about our behaviors.

In reality, none of us are perfect.  We all make mistakes from time to time, lose patience with our loved ones, or forget to do something we’re asked to do.  Before immediately reacting to your partner’s feedback and expression of needs, slow down and pay attention to what’s going on emotionally and in your body.  If you’re noticing feelings of guilt or shame, think through any weaknesses or faults you may be struggling to admit.

In some cases, your partner may have been triggered by something you did or said that you didn’t realize would affect them so strongly.  When you didn’t intend to hurt them, it can be helpful to acknowledge the trigger and what made it difficult for your partner and ask, “How can I support you better the next time something like this comes up?”

  • Destructive tactic: “You would go out gambling too if your life was anywhere near as stressful as mine is.”

  • Antidote: “You’re right. I should have cleared it with you first before I spent our money at the casino. How can we work together to approach this differently in the future?”

Instead of stonewalling? Practice self-soothing.

Stonewalling is usually accompanied by an experience Gottman calls “flooding,” which is a state of physiological arousal, the commonly known “fight-or-flight” response, where the brain is unable to process additional information.  Responding to flooding by calming your body’s natural response allows you to re-enter the conversation with greater presence of mind and ability to listen and respond to what is being shared.

There are a few different ways to respond to stonewalling.  Self-soothing exercises, such as mindfulness breathing exercises, are designed to help you focus on the present moment and sensations in your body.  The rhythm of deep breathing calms your sympathetic nervous system that has you in fight-or-flight mode, instead telling your body that you are safe.

Another strategy is to give yourself a break of at least 20 minutes from the conversation.  During this time, do whatever it takes to take your mind off of the argument.  Ruminating about what was said and what you wish you would have said only continues the state of flooding.  After this 20-minute break, come back together for another try at the discussion. 

  • Destructive tactic: Zoning out, checking out of the conversation, or not listening.

  • Antidote: “I’m feeling flooded right now, and I’m having a hard time being able to listen well because of it. Can we take a 20-minute break to cool off and then come back to finish talking?”

My hope is that, as you begin to use these antidotes, you’ll be able to experience greater connection and more productive experiences of conflict management with your partner.

Have you and your partner hit a rut in your communication where every conversation ends in a fight?  Have you become so accustomed to using destructive strategies that you aren’t even sure what the antidotes would look like in your life?  At Restored Hope, I use Gottman Method Couples Therapy to help couples achieve greater connection and intimacy, solid strategies for effective communication, and overall satisfaction with their marriages.  I offer couples counseling at my Ann Arbor location.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form here to talk with me today.

Four Surefire Ways to Destroy Your Marriage

My guess is that you didn’t walk into your marriage hoping that one day you’d be signing divorce papers.  You typically don’t enter into a relationship with someone that you can’t stand, or anticipating arguing nonstop.  But it’s true that over time, couples tend to slip into unhelpful patterns of relating that create distance and conflict in their relationship.

John Gottman is a researcher on healthy marriages who claims that, by watching a couple interact with one another for 10 minutes, he can predict with over 90% accuracy whether they will divorce or remain married.  How does he achieve this kind of wizardry?

Gottman has identified different communication patterns that are consistent in relationships headed toward divorce.  When he sees these patterns, coined as the Four Horsemen, he knows this relationship is headed downhill if changes aren’t made.

Learn more about these Four Horsemen in this video:

Let's look in more depth at each type of communication he lists as a risk factor.

Criticism

Criticism is the first of what I would call the “offensive strategies.”  Instead of directly communicating a concern or complaint, criticism takes the form of a negative remark about your partner’s behavior that implies a flaw in their character.  These statements start with an accusation, indicated by the word “you”.  Criticism is usually the first Horsemen that pops up in a marriage.  If it is left unchecked, the feelings of harm or pain caused by the critical communication style will likely lead the other Horsemen to develop.

Example: “You’re so inconsiderate.  You always wait until the last minute to take out the trash.  If you actually cared about how stressed I am, you’d do it sooner.”

Contempt

As the second offensive strategy, contempt twists criticism into a more destructive pattern.  Contempt is criticism coming from a place of superiority or judgment.  It attacks your spouse's character in a pointed and sarcastic manner.  It usually involves behaviors like name-calling, cynicism, and mocking your partner.  If you've ever rolled your eyes and scoffed at your partner's choices, you likely know what contempt feels like.  Gottman identifies contempt as the strongest predictor of divorce.

Example: “You’re so stupid and lazy.  Don’t complain to me about having to take out the trash, like it’s so hard.  You’re such an idiot.”

Defensiveness

Defensiveness, as can be expected from its name, is the first of the “defensive strategies.”  It involves making excuses to explain yourself against a perceived attack from your spouse.  Usually you notice a feeling of self-righteousness in response to criticism, or a desire to see yourself as the victim.  Defensiveness often comes after an insult to your pride and is an attempt to short-circuit taking responsibility.  Often, it turns the tables and places the blame back on your partner.

Example: “You think I’m inconsiderate for not taking out the trash?  Why would I try to be considerate when you leave the dirty dishes in the sink all day and can’t be bothered to clean them?”

Stonewalling

This defensive strategy is a bit like an invisible killer.  It’s the most difficult of the Four Horsemen to notice because it is quiet and contained.  Stonewalling is characterized by checking out mentally or emotionally, withdrawing from the conversation, not responding to requests or communication, or simply walking away.  I imagine it like a garage door closing over your attention: nothing is allowed in, and nothing can slip out.  When stonewalling, you can feel flooded, with adrenaline coursing through you a rush.  You can feel like your blood is boiling and your mind is racing, and you can't process any more information from your spouse.  You might stonewall in order to avoid lashing out in anger, having seen negative effects of those outbursts before.

Example: "I don't want to talk about this anymore."

At this point, you may see yourself in one (or many!) of these styles of communication.  But don't lose hope!  Recognizing these destructive relationship patterns is the first step toward change.  In a few weeks, we’ll talk through ways you can change your pattern of communication into a healthier and more honoring discussion with your spouse. (Hint – the video above previews some of these antidotes!)

In the meantime, pay attention to conversations with your spouse, coworkers, or friends.  While it may be easier to point out how everyone around you is using the Four Horsemen, I encourage you to notice which of these styles of communication are your default response when you’re disagreeing with someone.

Have you noticed these communication patterns crop up in your arguments with your spouse or partner?  Are you feeling exhausted and hopeless about being able to change how you talk to your spouse?  Are your constant arguments creating anxiety and stress in your day-to-day life?  At Restored Hope, I want to support your desire to create a healthy and fulfilling marriage using Gottman Method Couples Therapy.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me about how you can stop the cycle of destructive communication in your marriage and feel connected once again.