How To Improve Your Relationship Communication Posts

Repair Attempts

Repair attempts are so important in a relationship and are difficult for us to do. What Gottman found in in his 40 some years of couple research is that what most distinguished couples who were masters of relationships and those who were disasters of relationship was the way they handled conflict and repair attempts. Those who were masters at their relationship could deescalate the negative emotion in the conversation when the conversation went off track they could quickly make repairs. I remember years ago when I was in training watching hours of couples who were arguing (interesting pastime…). I remember how some couples were so good at deescalating by using humour or by distraction. I particularly remember one couple who were having an argument and right in the middle of it, the guy said to his partner, “Oh I really like your shoes – are they new?”. She responded that she really like them too and that yes they were new. When they continued their argument, the heat had gone out of their battle. So, if you are having difficulties in the area of arguing where might you look in order to grow this part of your relationship?

A great quote from John Gottman’s book, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, is “Whether a repair succeeds or fails has very little to do with how eloquent it is and everything to do with the state of the marriage.” (P41) What that means to you is that if your repair attempts are not working, look to the foundations in the marriage first, rather then the repair attempt structure itself. The foundations include all that would come under friendship. Do you take the date night in your relationship seriously? Do you know your partner’s struggles and wishes for life? Do you know and empathize with their daily work life either away or at home? Do you know what they worry about especially at night? What hurts them in the world? Do you provide a place of safety for them? Are they able to talk to you and be understood – not fixed. Do you touch them often to reassure them – you are there for them? It is in these circumstances that we are able to make better repairs. The reason for this is that the conflict does not have the same importance as the relationship does. It becomes “just an issue”, not a threat to the relationship. Remembering that sometimes issues get resolved right away and sometimes they evolve and change over time or we change and the issue changes. Think on this in your relationship today. Go forth and Be Wonderful!

Reducing Conflict by Telling Like it Really Is

Telling it like it is… used to be a saying that let us speak exactly what we were thinking, despite the consequences it might have in our relationships. It was worn like a badge of honesty. But when we are angry (mostly a secondary emotion), frustrated or blaming we are engaging in secondary emotions and this is only a part of the truth, if the truth at all. The real you is underneath in our primary emotions. When we communicate these emotions, we are really telling it like it is.
What are our primary emotions and how does this work? Researchers have found that we only have 6 primary emotions. They are sadness, surprise/excitement, disgust/shame, fear, joy and occasionally anger. Our first response when something triggers an emotion, is our primary emotion. The trigger, primary response and secondary emotion happens lightening fast. We will often find our primary emotions a place of vulnerability and openness. Our emotions are in a constant state of reappraisal and we will often cover our primary emotions over with our secondary emotions. You will notice this when you remember the last time you felt something intensely with your partner. As you think about your unmet expectation, or whatever your wound was in that moment, you will notice your emotions changing towards secondary emotions such as anger or blaming or victimization or a myriad of other emotions. You will notice that your secondary emotions close you up and you can sometimes feel more powerful but disconnected from communicating in a healthy way from your partner. This may be the conflict pattern that you and your partner have that may last a few days or weeks, where you do not communicate. You may be a person that has struggled with anger in a relationship. If that is the case, you are familiar with your defensiveness and often blaming which is disconnecting in your relationship. If you looked at your primary emotion that lies below your anger, you might find some fear or sadness. When you share your fear, sadness or shame with your partner, your partner is able to hear and connect with those emotions and your vulnerability that goes with that. They will find you open and it will be a connecting experience in your relationship rather then more fuel for conflict.

When you are learning this new way of communicating, sometimes it is difficult to get to your primary emotions. One way to begin is to guess at what might be underneath. Once you have some practice, you will find it easier to understand yourself in this regard. At first you may not do this well each time. If you don’t do this well in the moment and regret your secondary emotional response, make sure your repair with your partner includes sharing what was really going on. If you are the hearer of these emotions, you will likely relate to these deep emotions. Your response is important. Make sure you honour the gift of your partners sharing by creating emotional safety and treat the gift with a gentle and reassuring response. This creates continuing attachment security in your relationship which is what we all long for.

Bids for Connection Re-Visited

Bids for connection are so important for couples
to understand and attend to in their relationship. I have written about this before and it is well described in John Gottman’s book, “the Relationship Cure”. I am drawn to write about this again for 2 reasons. One is not just because of the importance of the habit but the amount that I notice couples making disconnections in this regard. Second is the newer research by John Gottman’s student who sets out a hierarchy of bids that I think are also important to know. First, let’s review what bids for connection are. As people who want to connect, we are continuously making bids for connection that are actually “trust tests”, according to Gottman. We respond to these bids either by turning towards our partner, thereby making connection, or turning away from our partner by ignoring, or against our partners by anger or other negative responses, thereby losing the connection. This loss of connection has great meaning in the overall status of the health of our human need for secure attachment as well as the health of our everyday lives together. Apparently, Janice Driver, using the Gottman study research (remember the love labs that gave us the great information found in the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work?) found that  couples who had divorced 6 years after their marriage had turned towards each other 33% of the time versus those who were not divorced after 6 years turned towards each other 86% of the time. A big difference and such crucial information if you care about your relationship. So how does the hierarchy of bids work? At the bottom of the hierarchy are the little trust tests, a small bid for attention, for instance. They are not so costly for us and just need a nod, a touch or some kind of acknowledgement. Another couple of examples are a bid for help at 3 and  sharing events of the day is an 8 on the scale. Halfway is problem solving at a 10. The last 4 up to 20 (the end of the scale) are the ones that couples  can have difficulties with. They are intimate conversation, emotional support, understanding (compassion, empathy) and sexual intimacy.  As couples are successful at lower levels where there is less risk, they are willing to move higher up the ladder to more vulnerability where the benefits get bigger. Another huge benefit was found by another student (Kim Ryan) who studied conflict and bids for connection. It was found that changing to more turning towards causes positive affect during conflict (the ability to have humor and affection – right in the middle of conflict!). This kind of positive affect in turn causes stability in relationship. I say learning the skill of meeting your partner’s bids for connection is worth doing! Go forth and Be Wonderful in your Relationship!

Tips for Getting out of the Criticism Contempt Loop

Being in the middle of a criticism contempt loop is so hard on couples. Gottman’s research shows that it is a direct cause of the break up of a relationship. The party who is the “criticizer” feels so justified and will often ask friends to affirm their thoughts and feelings. They have amassed a story that makes the other person unworthy to be alive and they may make a psychological diagnosis for their partner (my favorite). Their partner in return becomes defensive and then depending on their attachment style, avoids their partner, leaves the situation or moves in to the relationship intensely to ‘prove’ they are not that person. And the loop goes on.

People have often chosen a partner that is somewhat like one of their parents  and may be triggered by this criticism defensive loop. Even if their partner is not being harsh in their criticism, they may have been triggered by both the past and the present feelings in the interaction which causes greater wounding and a bigger response. If the criticizer has grown up with criticism, they will often not understand how often they are actually criticizing and how much they are responsible for crushing their partner’s spirit. So what are some ways to get out of this loop?

1. When your partner has spoken and you feel a big response to their words, assume that you have been triggered by something in your past as well as the present. Take responsibility for your big reaction. Do not blame or hold your partner responsible.

2. Take a time out for approximately 25 minutes in order to calm your physiology. It takes that long to calm emotional flooding. Make sure that you have let your partner know that you will return to your discussion after the time out. Do not think about the comments during that time.

3. Come back into the discussion with an attitude of curiosity. What is your partner trying to say to you? What is their message? Check it out. Let them correct you so that you can gain a much better understanding of what they are trying to say.

4. After understanding your partner well, let them know what you are thinking and feeling. Let them know of your vulnerability to criticism and thank them for helping you with a time out so that you could avoid defensiveness.

5. Have a discussion about trigger words for you both and areas of conversation that can lead to defensiveness. Do not avoid these areas but understand each other’s vulnerabilities and how you can speak more carefully. Download the pithy little rule book for satisfying marital conversations on the right side of this website in order to understand words that are more sensitive.

Do the above diligently, until you can successfully mange conversations that are sensitive. The rewards are that you will feel understood, that you will feel you can understand your partner and that your connection will feel strengthened.



Learning to be Attuned with Your Partner

So many challenges occur in relationships when couples are not attuned to each other. John Gottman has used the beginning letters of the word attunement to describe attunement itself. The first letter stands for awareness. Being aware when there is tension between you and taking the time to work it out. Being aware of your partner’s vulnerabilities to being triggered by you is important. Being aware of the way you speak to your partner, softening your approach and re-interpreting your partner’s harsher approach to their feelings of need or wishes in the relationship. The letter “T” stands for tolerance. This is a mindset that says that there is value in my partner’s perspective even if i don’t see it. I will respect his/her perspective. The next “T” stands for transforming criticism into wishes. Look for the need your partner is trying to express when you feel criticized. The “U” stands for using understanding rather then a problem solving mindset. It is so important that your partner is able to express their experience without you trying to fix it. The “N” stands for non defensive listening. If this is a challenge you came with from your life experience – you may need to take a time out or do some deep breathing in the moment. Good self talk is also helpful here such as “we are in this together – we care about each other “etc. And finally the “E” stands for empathy. This is a mindset that sets aside one’s own world view to become curious about your partner’s world view and experience (like taking off your glasses and putting their glasses on and looking at their world) and to be able to articulate an understanding of that experience. Where do you think you are in your attunement to one another? Rate yourself and ask your partner to rate you. Have a great discussion about how you can improve in each of these areas to boost your attunement to each other. Take each of these areas as a challenge for change and Go forth and be wonderful!

Relationship Triggers – How to Use Them Well

We are often triggered in life and mostly we look at triggers in a negative way. When triggered negatively, we find ourselves having a quick – what feels like a negative response to something from our past that can send us spiraling downward. These triggers are often from unresolved issues in our lives. But we also have spontaneous triggers that we enjoy such as a scent or scene that reminds us of a past event that we experience as a great memory. Because we know that triggers work well in the brain, we can use this knowledge to set up triggers deliberately for good in our relationship. When we want to make a change in ourselves regarding our relationship, we can set up triggers that effectively help us to make that change. For instance, I often recommend to my clients who bring their stress home from the office to find a stop sign close to home (a trigger) to dump their stress and undone ‘to do’ lists, knowing they can pick everything up on the way back to work the next day, if necessary. You can use triggers in other positive ways. What would you like to change in your relationship? Who would you like to be as a partner? How would you like to show up for your partner? Would you like to be a better listener, more supportive, more demonstrative in your affection? Choose one characteristic that you know would make a big difference in your relationship.  You can use a trigger to remind you of that characteristic for the next month. For instance, you could use the door you walk into when you arrive home to trigger you of that word and your intention to carry out that characteristic when you walk through the door. Use that door as your trigger for the next month and see how this works. This is a great way to make a change that is easy and works well. Go forth in be wonderful in your relationship today!

Your Best in Relationship

Would your partner say that you show up in the relationship feeling engaged, energetic and enthusiastic? We could say that your emotions are experienced by your partner in at least 2 ways. One is the quality of the emotions you bring. Are they positive or negative? When you come together as a couple are you communicating your affection, your love and your gladness at being together again? Or do you come together with the day’s cares and grumpiness from work events? If you were honest, would you say that you are not communicating your attachment and connection for your partner in a way that increases the security of the relationship together in the quality of your emotional engagement?

 The other quality of emotional experience that your partner registers is the intensity of the emotions you bring to the relationship. This too can range from barely there to a high intensity. You know the old cartoon where there is a newspaper propped up at a table and the female partner is talking to the back of the newspaper not even realizing there is no one there. The relationship pattern is so lacking in intensity of emotion that the person is not there period and the partner is not noticing the difference.  The updated version to that is that our partners are glued to their phone or computer and ‘not there’ as well. This communication of low intensity does not communicate your love and affection effectively, in fact not at all. I find in my practice that couples argue about this a great deal. It is most often both of the partners that experience this lack of intensity and will bring it up as an issue for change. Remember that our attachment experience needs the reassurance of our partner’s affection and connection daily. It needs to be “you can count on me to be there for you”. It has to be a commitment on our part especially when we are coming and going from each other. You may understand that magic 20 minutes that you and your partner need together to communicate but you may not have thought about how you were showing up to these times in terms of emotional quality and intensity. Become aware today and make this small change that makes a big difference. Communicate your love and attachment to your partner well. Go forth and be wonderful!

Defensiveness in Relationships

John Gottman’s research found that defensiveness was one of 4 important ways that relationships break down. If you are the person in the relationship that is defensive, it is so important that you take care of this in yourself so that the relationship is not damaged. Often when one person in the relationship brings up something negative, (more…)

Spice Up Your Relationship

I love September. Maybe it is a leftover from having kids going back to school but it seems to me it is like New Years. A time of opportunity and change. I get re-enthused about my blogging and want to start some new courses for the fall and develop new programs to help you. One of the coming programs is an on line course based on John Gottman’s research and his book called ‘Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’ that I am currently putting together. More to come on that. This morning it was foggy for the first time, a sure sign of fall where I live. It adds a bit of mystery to the morning world and I was thinking how fun that was. Variety is important to us as humans and keeps our brain healthy. I wondered what newness, mystery or opportunity you can facilitate in your relationship and your life for this season? Sit down together and pull out the calendar. Without this step it is not likely to happen. Brainstorm some possibities that you might like to do together this fall. Perhaps you can go away for the weekend or join a class together. You are really only limited by your brainstorming so go for it! Use the momentum of the natural change in the season to spice up your relationship and tune up the connection between you! Do something different and add some health and mystery to your relationship. Mark it in the calendar! Go forth and be wonderful!

Peace as a Choice for Your Relationship

I agree with Michelle Weiner-Davis (author of “Divorce Busting” and many other relationship books) that telling everything in a relationship in the name of honesty does not work well. Sometimes choosing to keep the peace or to let something go is a good idea. This is related to John Gottman’s research which says that there needs to be a 5 to 1 ratio of positive interactions to negative in a healthy relationship. If your mindset (particularly in these dark months of winter) is more negative, making the choice to keep back some of that negativity is a good thing. We tend to focus on the negative when our lives are out of balance. For instance, the brain processes positive and negative differently. Positive things are processed through the hippocampus while negative things are processed through the amygdala. When we are sleep deprived (an astounding number of North American’s are sleep deprived) the hippocampus is directly affected. Therefore, the brain recalls more of the negative in our lives. So there are lots of reasons including the dark winter months that have us accessing the negative in our relationships.

When I am suggesting that you don’t share everything that you are thinking, I don’t mean that you will stop sharing your thoughts or yourself with each other but that you will keep things in balance. I am also not saying that you will perseverate on the negative and just keep simmering quietly about the issue. This really defeats the whole purpose. You might consider focussing on the positive in your relationship because where you focus WILL get amplified. You might consider turning your eyes on yourself, instead of your partner and look at the kind of partner you aspire to be. This may be helpful in “letting go” of the issue. A relationship is a living thing and needs to experience happiness. It is a journey and you will have other opportunities to make the same complaint. Balance is the key.

So where might you find some difficulties with doing this? For some couples who have challenges with emotional management skills, this idea is difficult to carry out. When they feel emotion, they also feel compelled to share the reasons for the intensity of their emotions. I have experienced some couples, who despite the consequences and repeated promises to manage their emotions before dumping them into the couple relationship, continue to do so, to the point the relationship breaks down permanently. If you find yourself in this category, and you have been consistently acting this out in your relationship, find a way that works for you to manage your emotions. If you consider that you have tried and tried to manage your emotions, consulting with a therapist to work through a change is a good idea.

Another helpful strategy is becoming aware of your vulnerabilities from the past that tend to make the present more intense. For instance, if your early childhood included circumstances where you were not listened to, this can spill into your relationship today. So when your partner is not fully focussed on you, you may experience today’s challenge with your partner in light of your early experience as well and feel more intensely negative then if you did not have that early experience. Being able to understand your vulnerabilities and being able to self soothe will be helpful when you are aiming to have some peace in your relationship. There will certainly be other opportunities to share your wish for your partner to change in this regard. Balance would mean that you will consider waiting for another opportunity, not that you will bury it and simmer. For those of you that regularly avoid confrontation, knowing your vulnerabilities will mean that you will balance by promising yourself a specific day that you will bring up your thoughts and desires regarding the relationship, negative or positive. When that day comes, you will follow through.

What are the benefits of “keeping the peace”? There are so many. Crowding out the negative leaves room for joy and playfulness. Connection and bonding together becomes so much easier when there is peace between you. Making positive memories becomes easier. Meeting each others needs becomes easier. Your attachment feels more secure. And all of these benefits translate into wonderful biological benefits as well. It is worth it to grow into this behaviour. Go forth and be wonderful in your relationship today!