In 1986, Dr. John Gottman, of the Psychology Department of The University of Washington, developed the Family Research Laboratory or the “Love Lab” as it is also known. His research explored lesbian and gay relationships, domestic violence and parenting, but it is his ground-breaking work with marital couples that he is most revered.
Gottman’s work focuses on a series of “core strategies” that help foster “relational well-being.” One of the biggest barriers to good communication is emotional reactivity. Once emotions escalate, quite often partners stop hearing one another and communication shuts down. Gottman’s first strategy is to “Calm down”. He takes a two-step approach to the reigning in of emotions. First- each individual is to monitor their own emotions. Awareness of how and where emotions are located in the body is the first step towards emotional regulation. The second is to take a “time out.” By disengaging and going to their separate corners, couples can then engage is the art of self-soothing and when they are calm they can then head back to the ring…with emotions in check.
The second, core strategy is, what Gottman calls; “speaking non-defensively.” Similar to the “couples dialogue” from the Imago Relationship theory playbook, partners learn how to express their feelings in a way that the counterparts not only “hear” are also able tot take in. This involves speaking in a nonthreatening, non-confrontational manner. The Gestalt therapists have a term called speaking from the “I.” Sounds corney, but when partners frame their thoughts around speaking from the “I” and avoid the “you did this” and the ”you do thats” it is more likely partners will be able to hear, understand and possibly russle up a few kernels of empathy for one another.
There is a funny scene from the film “Starting Over” where Burt Reynolds, who plays a macho football player, learns a new form of communication in order to win over a beautiful self-help junkie.(Jill Clayburgh) At one point he says to her; ”Don’t talk, just… experience me.” Cheesy and funny coming from macho Reynolds but also a pretty good strategy. In fact it is along the lines of Gottman’s 3rd core strategy of validating. “Experience me” is Reynold’s request for understanding. Underneath all the anger and hurt, most partners are just seeking to be “experienced.” We want our loved ones to understand how their actions affect us. Empathy building is a core tool used to engage the listener to hear and to respond with understanding and compassion.
Overlearning, the 4th core strategy follows the concept of acquired skills and repetition. Practice beyond the point of mastery leads to second nature habits or automaticity. Once one has “overlearned a strategy, for example, non-defensive speaking and empathic listening, it is often at one’s fingertips when conflict arises. In addition to the “practice makes perfect” scenario, the “graded mastery “ of these skills, leads to increased levels of positivity in the relationship.
Last of Gottman’s core strategy is the simple concept of “paying attention to the little things.” Noticing a new haircut, appreciating the little quirks that make a partner unique, using humor and playfulness are great ways to, according to Gottman, “cultivate positive affect.” The most successful relationships are those with many day to day moments of positivity. Relationship satisfaction is not just about the resolution of conflict but also the quality of connection. Which, according to Gottmman, is fostered by the accumulation of a lovely, playful, funny, moving, daily moments. Viktor Frankl – in his page-turning Man’s Search For Meaning, (1959) talks about finding meaning in perhaps one of the worst, most horrific scenarios. (Auschwitz) Frankl reports that often it is the little things, sharing a piece of bread, taking in a sunset, a good nights rest that can be the most valuable. “It also follows,” reflects Frankl, “that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.” (p.65) Perhaps it is a delicate combination of conflict resolution, positivity along with the daily triflings, that are the glue that holds a healthy partnership together.
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