“There’s absolutely no hope for this relationship,” I thought to myself, with a sinking feeling.
It was my first time to observe my mentors, Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone, work with a real couple in a live session. After years of following their work, I was finally studying with the masters themselves. The week-long workshop in their northern California home was limited to only twelve participants, with more than half traveling from other countries. After making the long trek up from San Francisco through wine country, then a redwood forest, and finally to my bed and breakfast overlooking the ocean, I felt like I was in a foreign country.
As the week drew to a close, the whole multi-dimensional learning experience peaked for me in this rare opportunity to observe marriage therapy unfolding in real-time.
I’d Agree With You, But Then We’d Both Be Wrong.
But we were over forty-five minutes into a session that appeared to be surely and steadily disintegrating before our eyes. I couldn’t fathom a remote possibility that even these two “masters of relationship” might be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat for this couple.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Dr. John Gottman was in his “love lab,” conducting the world’s first research on the science of relationship. How do some couples keep finding ways to work it out, so their love for each other isn’t overwhelmed by their differences?
First, some bad news: Gottman found that “all marital conflicts, ranging from mundane annoyances to all-out wars, really fall into one of two categories: Either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual, which means they will be a part of your lives forever, in some form or another.” According to Gottman, the majority of marital conflicts — 69 percent, to be exact — fall into the perpetual category.
The good news? Gottman’s research also reveals that “Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.”
“What the heck does that mean?” I wondered, as my mind hit a wall against this counterintuitive notion.
“And how the heck does a marriage thrive, if you’re arguing about the very same issues the rest of your lives?”
As I continued to watch Hal and Sidra facilitate a real live couple into working it out right in front of me, I realized I had underestimated my new mentors. I was about to find out what John Gottman meant when he said don’t believe everything we therapists tell you.
Love Is Not Enough.
John Gottman, Hal and Sidra Stone, and other champions of relationship have cracked many of the codes to what makes love last and relationships work. Here’s my unadorned translation of some of the things I’ve learned:
- For most of us, love is the whole point of being in a relationship. Some of us would even say that love is what makes life worth living.
- Love is a necessary but insufficient condition for sustaining a loving relationship.
- Another necessary condition is each partner’s willingness and ability to work on themselves — for their own good and the relationship’s good.
- There are no guarantees, and not every relationship is meant to last forever. Each partner’s commitment to the relationship process will allow the relationship to go where it needs to go.
- The love part is what makes it all so gloriously worth the effort.
Do you get a sense of the delicate balance of all these factors? No wonder relationships are so fragile.
Does that mean it’s an endless struggle, and we can never relax?
This relationship superpower of continually working it out with your partner may not be as exhausting and elusive as you think. There’s a good chance you already know how to do this. I’ll bet you regularly use these very same solution-focused skills in other situations and with other people in your life. You’re probably not be starting from ground zero.
Here’s where almost all of us need help, though: Transferring these solution-focused communication skills into your most intimate personal relationships can be a tad tricky. In the comfort and safety of our intimate relationship, we get out of the habit of using these skills with our loved one. They end up gathering dust in the back of your mental closet at home.
To dig those skills out and dust them off, start with a simple process designed to bring something up without it turning into a big fight.
How Not to Have an Argument
1. Start by describing what could be caught on camera only.
Describe only the concrete, actual behavior you observed. Not your assumptions or interpretation of what the raw footage data means. Otherwise, as soon as you start, you’re already in an argument. You just don’t know it yet.
For example, if you say, “You gave me the cold shoulder” or “you’re ignoring me,” you’re interpreting the other person’s behavior, not describing the actual behavior you observed.
2. Use descriptive words that are specific, neutral, and accurate.
So you might modify the example above to say, “I noticed you came into the room and left without looking at me or speaking to me.” Congratulations. You just resisted the rush to judgment.
Maybe. Your body language must be congruent with your words to pass the litmus test of being neutral. So think of how you’d look and sound on a video recording, including your tone of voice, gestures, posture, and facial expression.
For example, if your tone of voice is sarcastic or you’re smirking or rolling your eyes, that’s not neutral. Your body language is incongruent with your words. So which message is the other person to believe? Most people instinctively put more stock in the way you said it.
Because words like never and always are seldom an accurate description of what you observed, you may end up eliminating them from your vocabulary, especially if you tend to direct them to your partner as “you never…” or “you always…”
3. Lead with “I” not “You.”There’s something about leading with “You” that’s just about guaranteed to put the other person in “Uh, oh. What did I do wrong?” defensive mode.
The beauty of starting with “When I saw you do A” or “When I heard you say B” is that you’re talking about your own experience. There’s automatically less about which to argue. Now maybe you can progress to what’s bothering you about what you observed.
“When you come into the room several times without looking at me or speaking to me, I get a little worried, and I wonder if there’s something wrong.”
It’s simple, right? If you can immediately execute all this flawlessly, yay for you. A caveat: Don’t be surprised if you find it deceptively difficult to do.
Here’s why: We tend to get very attached to our interpretations, evaluations, and assumptions about other people’s behavior. You may need to do some individual work on your emotional regulation skills to stick with what the other person actually said, what they actually did, and the chain of events to which you’re reacting.
What I love about this approach is that it works on the flip side, too. If you get blindsided by a judgment or criticism without specifics, you can respond with this same solution-focused process to elicit information, which can increase your understanding. Examining your behavior in specific, neutral terms is empowering for you and can be emotionally regulating for both you and your partner.
The best part? A solution-focused process isn’t just something you do for your partner, like a big favor, which can breed resentment. Why do I have to take all the responsibility in our relationship? Why do I always have to take the initiative? Why do I always have to do all the work? A solution-focused process works as resentment repellent.
Here’s the secret: You’re not just doing it for them. You’re doing it for you.
- You have a better chance of staying centered and calm.
- They have a better chance of staying centered and calm.
- You both have a better chance of resolving conflict and restoring your emotional connection.
As veterans of divorce and after decades of marriage and a blended family of five, Hal and Sidra boldly declared, “We are passionate advocates of relationship. We do not believe that the magic in relationship must die when people get married or when they have children… Like every other couple we know, we had to learn about relationship by living it, by tripping over ourselves and getting up over and over again.”
Witnessing a couple begin to work it out right in front of me helps me understand why it’s worth it. And why I want to be a part of it.