"A Visit to The Marriage Doctor" by Jane Browne
My husband and I are in an airplane, 30.000 feet above the ground, making small talk, trying to keep our minds off where we're headed. It's the kind of idle chatter people engage in when they're going to the doctor's office knowing the visit may or may not be so pleasant. No wonder: we're headed out to see the man who is considered to be the guru of marriage, John Gottman, Ph.D., and to attend his brand new two-day workshop for couples at his newly founded Seattle Marital and Family Institute. It is a pilgrimage made not so much because our four-year-old marriage is in trouble with a capital T, but rather because, we agree, since the birth of our daughter two years ago, we no longer have a marriage that sings.
And once upon a time we did; we had conversations that helped change and direct both our lives (we even stayed up past 10:30 pm to have them); we shared affectionate hugs and hand squeezes so often we rarely seemed to be out of each other's reach. What we expressly did not have were whole days now and then when we'd grouse defensively over issues, which led to fights which picked up exactly where they left off the week before, like hitting a nasty pothole (much as you try to remember to steer clear of it) each time you drive down a certain road.
We've lost each other a little along the way. We should handle our conflicts better, there's no doubt in either of our minds. Maybe, in fact, we could learn not to have so many conflicts. Ours are the fairly common sorts of things couples go around about: My husband, an investment banker who works long days (and who would meanwhile rather be writing screenplays, especially now that he's had some small success here and there) can turn glum and grouchy on a dime when overtired, and I get tired of navigating his mood shifts. I also, alas, excel in dishing out a hearty amount of disdain whenever he plays Eeyore. As for his part, he feels I no longer listen to him in the way I once did when he reveals to me his pent-up frustrations and dreams. And then there are the lesser issues: Since I'm home all week with only a toddler, the nanny, and my computer, I look forward to socializing; he spends all week at his investment firm glad-handing clients and would rather dive into his writing when he has a few spare hours than step one foot out the door with yet another smile glued on his face. And last but not least: He doesn't think that our sex life is a high enough priority now that we have a 2-year-old running around (my attitude is: True, but hey, is it really that big a surprise?).
Oh, I know what you, gentle reader, are wondering right about now: how did I get David to bite the bullet and come along? I mean, this is the kind of conversation ("Hey honey, let's go to a marriage workshop!") that drives most guys out of the kitchen to sit, mute, in front of the T.V. nervously flipping the remote. Well, in part, it's because David is at heart a very loving guy, but it's also that Gottman's take on what couples need to do to make their marriage thrive comes out of a totally different mind-set than that of most couples therapists. Gottman doesn't believe it helps much to sit and talk ad nauseam about your childhood wounds. Author of "Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last", Gottman uses an approach with which most men are comfortable. In addition to being a therapist, he's also a mathematician ; he has developed statistical predictions, based on his 25 years of studying couples, as to what makes some relationships glide forward while others break down. As a result, he has a 90 percent success rate at predicting which marriages will make it over the long haul and which will not.
And so, we are on our way, David and I.
Day One: Intimacy Building
The first thing I notice after we arrive at the workshop conference room at the Seattle Institute is that among the crowd of 100 or so, there seem to be a few dozen shrinks here with their spouses. Seems that Gottman is the guy shrinks go to to fix their own marriages (David and I agree that bodes well). Before things get started, however, Gottman has us each take our resting heart rate (for later use, he says). Mine is 64. David's is 60. We duly jot them down.
Love Maps: Knowing the Details of Your Partner's Day
As the workshop begins, one of the first facts Gottman spells out in his overview of his research resonates with us: seventy-five percent of couples (particularly the wife), he says, experience a drop in marital satisfaction after their first child is born. Gottman is able to predict, looking at the way a newlywed couple interacts during their first three months of marriage (he has couples stay in his love lab -- set up like an apartment -- then videotapes their interaction for 24 hours), which couples will face this radical dip in their happiness. It turns out that couples who are just as happy after their first baby is born have one factor in common: The husband, prior to the child's arrival, already gave a lot of thought to his wife's daily routine and concerns. Meaning this is the kind of husband who thinks to himself, "Jane has that big meeting at two o'clock and she was worried about it last night -- I wonder how it's going?" So he might call her later and find out.
All this translates into a much better awareness of his wife's reality once she becomes a mom and faces more demands. The more such awareness, and therefore empathy a husband has, the more satisfaction both partners feel in their marriage. It may be that the husband's role is so important here because women are already more likely to ask after the details of their husband's day.
Gottman and his wife, Julie (also a licensed therapist and the workshop moderator) give each couple a board game they've designed called "Love Maps", one of a dozen exercises we will do that day. We're instructed to spread out and read out our "question cards." Our questions include: "What foods does your partner hate?" and "What are your partner's greatest disaster scenarios?" I tell David I figure his would be getting stuck in a huge, crowded party with no visible exit and having to chat people up until he feels a creeping anxious need to escape, like T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. David hits the nail on the head with my worst disaster scenario, too: I abhor the idea of anything -- anything -- medically terrifying or life-threatening happening to anyone I dearly love, most especially our daughter, Anna.
David and I are both surprised by how knowingly and tenderly the other addresses our deepest fears. I realize it's not so much that we don't know these things about each other, or care, it's more that we tend to get mired down by carrying around resentments toward each other. At the end of the exercise, as Gottman calls the group back together we are talking the way we used to talk. As we sit down, David squeezes my hand.
Gottman asks us to make a commitment to each other that for the next week after this workshop neither of us will walk out of the house in the morning until we each know one thing our partner is thinking about or some event of importance that will occur in our partner's life that day. Later, at the dinner table, we're to find out exactly what happened. It feels so good -- just this half-taste of our old relationship -- that we vow we can do this. It is, in fact, the way we used to live -- and back then, it wasn't an assignment.
Seeing Your Partner as a Soothing Force
Next on the agenda: a "physiological soothing exercise" where we each take a turn lying down on the floor while our partner takes us through a set of relaxation exercises ("tense your feet, hold it for ten seconds, now let it go . . .") for the entire body. Gottman asks us to take our heart rate again. Yup, much lower; mine is 56, David's is 54.
The point? Twofold. First, to reinforce that our partner -- who we're bound to view, in heated moments, as the greatest source of our stress -- can also be a soothing force in our lives. (I, for one, am so relaxed I have trouble rousing myself and lifting my head off David's lap before we head back into the lecture hall). Second, Gottman tells the group as we return, when we are overly aroused -- and our heartbeat races over 95 beats per minute, as happens during most marital disagreements -- our physiology changes we're "flooded," in a high state of physiological arousal; our heart and thoughts are racing, so that we're unable to listen well. We begin to thin k less clearly and any creative problem solving skills we might have once possessed skitter out the window.
As a result, we have less access to recently learned behavior (like better marital skills learned during this workshop). Instead, we tend to revert to our habitual -- usually negative -- the type that Gottman likes to refer to as the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" (as in, they'll blast your marriage to smithereens): criticism and blaming, defensiveness (that includes merely rehearsing thoughts in your mind like, "I'm not going to take this!"), stonewalling and contempt, which can be shown in the smallest of damning gestures, like rolling your eyes while your partner is speaking. In fact, one of the quirky stats Gottman has compiled is this: The number of times a husband rolls his eyes, for example, while his wife is talking is a good predictor of how many infectious illnesses she'll have during the next four years.
In sum, the degree to which you'll be able to constructively problem-solve is inversely related to how physiologically aroused you are. As a result, Gottman recommends that whenever an argument is brewing, both partners take a break that lasts at least 20 minutes (it takes that long for our body to calm down physiologically to our normal non-heart-racing, non-flooded state). And, he adds, it's important not to spend that break time rehearsing "distress maintaining" thoughts like, "He can be such a jerk!" (Good luck). Just as there is an optimal heart rate for aerobic exercise, Gottman adds, there is an optimal heart rate for marital interaction -- and it's below 95 beats a minute.
Building Fondness and Admiration
One of our next tasks is to share with each other three adjectives (from a list of 60 which Gottman has given us) which describe qualities our partner has that we appreciate the most -- and to give examples as to why we feel that way. I'm happy to see that choosing only three would be entirely impossible; there are many things I admire about David. I tell him he is: loyal (I am thinking of the time someone in his family made up a terrible story about me and he stood up for me like a hero and never doubted me for an instant); creative, interesting, funny, intellectual, coordinated (which might sound funny, except if you knew what a klutz I am), reliable, practical, handsome and, well, funny and lively (as in the way he can entertain Anna until there are tears in my eyes, as I watch them pretend to be tigers roaring up the stairs). He tells me that he sees me as loving and sensitive and brave and intelligent and generous and elegant and a great friend, and suddenly I have tears in my eyes now.
Happily, our twenty minute session alone together is not enough time for us to say all the things we love about each other and why. It's our last exercise of the day, and we walk out of the conference center on air. I know our problems are still there, and we haven't yet discussed our toughest issues, but, as we traipse off (with our homework assignment -- to have an "erotic thanksgiving" and tell each other more qualities we love in one other, only this time it's emotional strengths and body parts we're talking about) I feel deeply secure about us for the first time in a long time; we're really going somewhere.
The Fall From Grace
Backward, that's where we're going.
Halfway into our erotic thanksgiving, as David is singing the praises of my earlobe, I realize that in my rush to go over a zillion details with the nanny I forgot to pack birth control. I tell David and the joyful air between us deflates. He says something about how sex is such a low priority for us that I didn't even remember to bring my diaphragm. For a split second I try to save the day: It's not that bad, the evening is hardly lost, I venture. But he has already quickly tipped, as is his way, into a morose place from which he cannot easily be retrieved. A moment ago, I was so happy! We were! And now here he is with his all-too-familiar, mirthless, mood-switch, due to some small imperfection that doesn't meet up with the movie-in-his-mind of how things should be. It is (as you may be getting the idea by now) the very thing I like least about David, and I am certainly not about to give an erotic thanksgiving for that. Instead, I glare.
We teresly make small talk and then coldly go to bed. Back to back. I cannot sleep, my heart is beating too fast for sleep (in search of a distraction from my poor jet-lagged, fuming brain, I check my heart rate: 98 beats a minute), and the irony is too much for me -- here we are at our marriage workshop weekend and I am thinking: divorce. I can't live with Mr. Bleak anymore; by 2 a.m. I am sure of this. I am taking Anna, I am getting out of Dodge. There's clearly no choice. I hear Gottman's voice lecturing, "Marriage needs to be a port in a storm, rather than a storm in a storm," and I am thinking, adios, stormy weather.
Day 2: Conflict Resolution
We have a chilly cab ride back to the Seattle Institute for day two. When we get into the conference room, Gottman and his wife Julie ask how our homework assignment went. I want to evaporate like a pricked bubble. David gives out an ironic little laugh. Funnily, a few other husbands do too. Gottman, assessing the mood of the room, tells us he's not surprised if, after a day of intimacy as profound as that which many of us shared yesterday, there were a few explosions. Sometimes, he explains, the rapid increase in intimacy is more than we can handle. It sounds a little bit like pat-shrink-talk to me, but I'm not going to be picky: I don't really want a divorce. In the cold light of day the thought seems downright silly. I take Gottman's excuse and run with it. David and I exchange half-apologetic glances.
Today, Gottman tells us, is about resolving the deeper issues in our marriage: the stumbling blocks. I laugh to myself remembering how, yesterday, I couldn't think of a single big issue to complain about -- and now a million complaints sit ready to cascade off my tongue.
Gottman asks us to consider how, when it comes to the issues between us that are the hardest to resolve, we might really be arguing because our partner's actions seem to be holding us back from achieving our unspoken dreams. It sounds confusing at first --very--but once he gives us several examples we're primed. Each of us is to tell the other about a dream that has gone underground in our relationship, and the story of that original dream. I go first, though I'm not really sure what to say. Haltingly, I tell David that my dream, I think, is to have a home where I can know -- within reason -- what the mood in the house will be five minutes from now. I tell him that I am realizing, just now, that I have had this dream since my father died in a completely unexpected accident when I was 16. How, before my father's death, you could more or less count on our house to be a place where emotional comfort reigned; my father was the one on the up in our home, my mother was the one often on the way down. But once he was gone, that even feeling of safety was gone too. I have always longed -- no, needed -- to create an even-keel home again. And now that we have a child, I feel doubly so inclined.
Of course, David already knows the story of my life. But this time, in the telling, I don't spend all my emotional energy implying how when he gets moody he ruins everything for everybody. Instead, I talk about my dream.
My dream, I go on (I'm surprised to find my throat catching) is to build a home, as an adult, that is safe again. My dream is to build that home with him. He is holding me now, and his voice is ragged and soft when he says, "Your dream will come true."
He confesses to me then that when he is moody he feels, briefly, as if he's at the bottom of a well, only by the time he's ready to climb out, I've shown such utter disdain for him it feels as if I've put a lid on the well; I acknowledge that his metaphor is apt; I tell him that I understand now -- perhaps for the first time -- why the depth of my rage at him is so great. Because I long so much for my dream to be real.
David's lost dream, not surprisingly, has to do with his need to feel free -- in his life with me -- to follow his creative passions, even though he's also enmeshed in a fast track career and has no desire to quit his "day job." And yet he often feels, he says, that when he complains or gets touchy because he has precious little time to himself in our stretched-thin life, I offer no sympathy; I cut him off, I'm not interested in helping him to find the time to be alone with his muse. He fears I far prefer him to be a big earner, which makes him feel the same sense of being misunderstood that he felt all his life from his rather well-to-do parents, who subtly pressured him toward a higher status career than writing. He fears he's expected -- by me now, too -- to squelch his creative drive. And that, as a backdrop for our life together, makes him feel very sad, and low, and -- (especially when I schedule in parties and dinners on the weekend), a tad dour. I reach out and take his hand, and we exchange the kind of lovers' gaze that has been all too scarce of late, but is nevertheless as safe and familiar as the warmest embrace.
It is then that he tells me, too, that he knows I feel hurt by the fact that he's not as affectionate as he used to be. But, he adds, each time we embrace there is Anna, between our feet, calling for a glass of juice or a new game, and there is dinner to fix and on and on into infinity. Sometimes, he goes on, he doesn't touch me because he can't stand to rev up the engine with nowhere to go. So he steers clear. "You can't ever think it's for any other reason than that," he says. "You can't ever doubt how much I love to be with you. It's because I am so attracted to you that I turn away." And I think my tears let him know how much I have doubted it, and how many times.
Epilogue: Three Months Later
Framing our core misunderstandings in terms of what dreams we each have that are unaddressed, rather than as accusations, or as deficits (from childhood) which we expect the other person to make up for, is a powerful catalyst. It has helped us to be more open than we have ever been about our marriage's trouble spots, and in a thoroughly non confrontational way. Much of the heat has, happily, gone out of our exchanges. And while one weekend does not a changed marriage make, it can change where you are in your marriage. Because you can't go back again. Indeed, once home, David decides that he has to work his career-versus-dream conflict out for himself (with my support) and takes up seeing a shrink to help him think it through. He has stated his dream out loud to me, and now he has to do something about it. As for his moods, they aren't gone, but they are far less frequent, and we have a way of laughing about them now that is new to us.
The new us, anyhow.
Jane Browne is a pseudonym for a happily married writer.
WHAT MAKES A MARRIAGE SING
* Seek Help Early. The average couple waits six years before seeking help, Gottman says (and half of all marriages that do so in the first seven years). Meaning the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long.
* Edit Yourself. Gottman's studies show that couples who avoid saying every angry thought when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest.
* Be Careful How You Start Up a Discussion. Wives have a crucial role in keeping arguments from getting out of hand, Gottman emphasizes. He has found that arguments first "start up" because the wife escalates the conflict from the get go by making a dramatic, angry or upsetting remark in a confrontational tone.
* A Marriage Succeeds to the Extent that a Husband Can Accept Influence from his Wife. If a woman says, "Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend and I need your help getting ready," a husband who replies "My plans are set and I'm not changing them" is a guy in a shaky marriage. A husband's ability to be persuaded by his wife is so critical because (research shows) women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband is able to do so as well. * Happy Couples Held High Standards for Each Other Even as Newlyweds. The most successful couples, it turns out, are those who, even as newlyweds, refused to accept hurtful behavior from one another. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple is down the line.
* Successful Couples Know How to Exit an Argument. Happy couples know how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Successful repair attempts include: gossiping about other people together (very useful); changing the topic to something completely unrelated; throwing out some humor; stroking your partner with a caring remark ("I understand that this is hard for you"): making it clear you're on common ground ("This is not your problem, it's our problem"); backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art akido, Gottman says, "You have to yield to win") and, in general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way ("I really appreciate and want to thank you for . . .").
* Focus on the Bright Side. In a happy marriage, couples make five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship ("We laugh a lot" as opposed to "We never have fun") than negative ones. A good marriage, Gottman says, must be a rich climate of positivity.
* Make Deposits to Your Emotional Bank Account. In the final analysis, however, it's not how you fight that makes the difference in whether you'll be happily married, says Gottman. It's how the two of you move through time together -- in the most subtle of ways -- when you're not fighting that determines the mood of your marriage (and what your fights will be like). Gottman calls this the art of "turning towards one another." For instance, if a couple is at dinner and she's talking about the baby doing something cute and her husband ignores her and comments, instead, "look at that boat going by the window," (and then she, in turn, ignores his comment as well) they are turning away -- and apart. Gottman has found that when these types of couples go on to talk about a troubling issue between them, their repair attempts simply don't work very well. The climate of their marriage is already too cold. "If you can get people to practice turning towards each other in the little ways day in and day out -- reading things out loud from the paper to each other, acknowledging whatever the other person has to say -- the terrible arguments just don't happen.
Check out the Art & Science of Love Workshop for yourself. Couples interested in attending the weekend workshop on marital communication by The Gottman Institute can find out more information at www.gottman.com <http://www.gottman.com/> or by calling 888-523-9042. This workshop is presented by Drs. John and Julie Gottman in Seattle, WA and presented in many locations around N. America by Certified Gottman Workshop Leaders. If you can't attend in person, check out the workshop packaged in DVD ($175).