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Nominated by About.com for "Relationship Blog of the Year" 2012 & 2013. The Gottman Relationship Blog provides practical tools and skills to strengthen relationships, all based on 40+ years of research performed by Dr. John Gottman.

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    The 6 Things that Predict Divorce
    By Michael Fulwiler 

    The first step toward improving or enhancing your marriage is to understand what happens when relationships fail. This has been well documented by Dr. John Gottman’s extensive research into couples that were not able to save their marriages. Learning about the failures can prevent your relationship from making the same mistakes – or rescue it if it already has.


    In The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman lists the 6 things that predict divorce. His ability to predict divorce is based in part on his analysis of the 130 newlywed couples who were observed at his “Love Lab” apartment at the University of Washington. Among other things, he asked these couples to spend fifteen minutes in the lab trying to resolve an ongoing disagreement they were having while he videotaped them. As they spoke, sensors attached to their bodies gauged their stress levels based on various measurements of their circulatory system. This is what he found.

    1.  Harsh Startup
    The most obvious indicator that a conflict discussion (and marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins. When a discussion leads off with criticism and/or sarcasm (a form on contempt), it has begun with a “harsh startup.” The research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note. Statistics tell the story: 96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction.

    2. The Four Horsemen
    Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that we call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. Read more about The Four Horsemen and their antidotes here.

    3. Flooding 
    Flooding means that your partner’s negativity – whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness – is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted, then, by habitual harsh startup and frequent flooding brought on by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during disagreements. Although each of these factors alone can predict a divorce, they usually coexist in an unhappy marriage.

    4. Body Language 
    When Dr. Gottman monitored couples for bodily changes during a conflict discussion, he could see just how physically distressing flooding was. One of the most apparent of these physical reactions is that the heart speeds up – pounding away at more than 100 beats per minute – even as high as 165. Hormonal changes occur, too, including the secretion of adrenaline. Blood pressure also mounts. The physical sensations of feeling flooded make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.

    5. Failed Repair Attempts 
    It takes time for the four horsemen and flooding that comes in their wake to overrun a marriage. And yet, divorce can so often be predicted by listening to a single conversation. How can this be? The answer is that by analyzing any disagreement a couple has, you get a good sense of the pattern they tend to follow. A crucial part of that pattern is whether their repair attempts succeed or fail. Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes to deescalate the tension during a discussion. The failure of these attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future. Read more about repair attempts here.

    6. Bad Memories
    When Dr. Gottman interviews couples, he asks them about the history of their relationship. In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together. Conduct your own Oral History Interview here

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    U is for Understanding
    By Zach Brittle, LMHC

    There are about a half-dozen primary sound bites that frame Gottman Method Couples Therapy. One is Small Things Often. Small Things Often is the idea that it’s the small positive things done often that make the difference in relationships that thrive. Small things - a wink, a compliment, a car wash - add up and create a surplus of good-will and affection that make it easy to ignore some of the very many mundane trials that couples face every day. Small things often can create big changes over time.

    Another soundbite is Process Is Everything. This means that how you talk through those very many mundane trials is what matters. Your ability to treat one another with kindness and respect is more important than your need to solve the problem. Couples who process well know how to repair and reflect. They know that it’s not what they say, but the way they say it that matters. They know that all of their feelings and emotions are allowed, but that some of the ways they express those feelings and emotions are not. Process is everything means the relationship is more important than the issue. 

    A third soundbite, and one of my favorites, is Understanding Must Precede Advice. This, of course, is ancient wisdom that could have come from Buddha or Gandhi. More recently, it’s entered popular consciousness in the form of Steven Covey’s 5th Habit for Highly Effective People:“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Even more recently, Jason Headley and the guy who invented the internet have brought us this video.

    Understanding Must Precede Advice is a difficult premise to uphold. In part, it’s because we want so desperately to be understood. It’s the way we’re wired. Human beings have been trying to express themselves since the beginning of time. I recently read about a sculpture of two reindeers carved into a mammoth tusk. The carving is nearly 13,000 years old and is part of the collection at the British Museum. What’s fascinating about the sculpture is that it is one of the earliest known expressions of art and historians suggest that the capacity - and indeed the drive for art - is evidence that humans have an innate desire to make their inner world known. The impulse to be understood is deeply ingrained. And it’s hard to suppress what is, essentially, our humanity.

    The second reason that Understanding Must Precede Advice is so hard is that it’s so easy, and comforting, to give advice. Especially for men. “It’s Not About the Nail” is funny because it’s true. As a man, I love solving problems. And, if I’m honest, I’d rather solve your problems than my own. Because if I can fix you, then I can feel good about myself without having to look at my own stuff. (SIde note: Whether you’re a man or a woman, this is an especially present challenge for a mental health therapist. But I am convinced that we serve our clients better when we avoid the temptation to give advice and instead offer understanding.) I’m actually convinced that’s true no matter what role you play. But again, it’s hard, so how do you avoid the trap?

    Think of a cue ball. You can probably imagine the heft, texture, and color in your hand pretty simply. Not much to consider, amiright? I once read, however, relative to the surface of the earth, the ridges and valleys on a cue ball were higher than the highest mountains and deeper than the deepest oceans on our plant. I think that’s kind of wild. Now imagine a conversation (or a conflict) where the topic was a cue ball being tossed back and forth. All too often, we fail to consider what is actually being said. In part because we think we already know. That cue ball isn’t really all that interesting if you’re not paying attention. It’s certainly not as interesting as the thing I want to say, so I’m going to toss that ball right back. 

    But consider if that cue ball was a globe. Go ahead and imagine a regular desktop globe and imagine the conversation involves tossing it back and forth. Have you ever noticed how much bigger the Pacific Ocean is than the Atlantic? Do you know close Alaska and Russia are? How far do the Rocky Mountains run north to south? What’s the quickest way to fly to from Kansas City to Greenland? How far north is Rome compared to Miami? Which is bigger, Germany or Chile?

    You have to look. You have to consider. You have to take that globe that’s been tossed at you and roll it around. Look at it from different angles. You have to marvel that the cue ball you had before is actually more textured than the detailed map you’re holding in your hand. That means entertaining the possibility than you might not have complete clarity about the situation, the conversation, the complication.

    Understanding requires looking, considering, examining, comparing and contrasting. It requires more curiosity than certainty. And more safety than solution. Ideally, you’ve done a good job with Small Things Often and Process is Everything. Then you can confidently do Understanding Must Precede Advice. The first step is to set aside the impulse express yourself and your temptation to solve. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a much better chance of discovering what that cue ball, or globe, or conversation or conflict is really all about. Because most likely, it’s not about the nail.

    Special Note I Promised To Include: 
    My daughter and I took a walk the other day when, during our conversation about “understanding,” it started to rain. Being from Seattle, I take a special sort of pride in not owning an umbrella. Being 11 years old, my daughter takes a special sort of pride in being fancy. She had an umbrella and was serious about using it. I refused, for whatever 41 year old reason I could conjure, to take shelter with her when she said, “You know dad, if you were standing under my umbrella, you wouldn’t be so wet and miserable. Understanding protects you from the storm.” Linguistically, it’s a stretch, but I think the insight is pretty sound. Sometimes 11 trumps 41 when it comes to wisdom.

    ______________________________________________________________________________


    This is Zach's 21th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com. Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

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    5 Strategies for Being a Better Parent
    By Michael Fulwiler

    In How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman explains the five steps of Emotion Coaching, which you can read about here. He also provides a list of strategies that may prove helpful when – no matter what you say or do – you can’t seem to get your message across to your child. They are based on what Dr. Gottman and his colleagues have learned through parent groups, clinical work, and observational studies. 

    1. Ignore Your “Parental Agenda”
    Although emotional moments can be a great opportunity for empathy, bonding, and coaching, they can also present a real challenge for parents who have what Dr. Gottman calls a “parental agenda.” That is, a goal based on a particular problem the parent has identified as interfering with the child’s best interests.

    We applaud mothers and fathers who share their values with their children. Dr. Gottman believes such teaching is an extremely important part of parenting. Parents need to be aware, however, that unless parental agendas are communicated sensitively, they can get in the way of a close parent-child relationship. For one, the parental agenda prevents parents from listening empathetically to their children. Avoid negative labeling by steering clear of global, enduring critiques of your child’s personality traits. When correcting kids, focus instead on a specific event that happened. 

    2. Empower Your Child by Giving Choices, Respecting Wishes
    Children need practice weighing their options and finding solutions. They need to see what happens when they make choices based on their family’s value system, and what happens when they choose to ignore family standards. Such lessons are sometimes painful, but with Emotion Coaching, they can also be powerful opportunities for parents to offer guidance. 

    The earlier a child learns to express preferences and make wise choices, the better. In addition to a sense of responsibility, giving children choices helps them to build self-esteem. The next time your child makes a small request – no matter how silly or trivial it may seem to you at the time – try not to perceive it as a battle of wills. The results may benefit your child, who uses such interactions to develop a sense of self. 

    3. Share in Your Child’s Dreams and Fantasies
    This technique is a great way to get on your child’s emotional level, making empathy and understanding easier. It’s particularly helpful when children express desires that are beyond the realm of possibility. 

    Remember: All wishes and emotions are acceptable. All behaviors are not. Whatever your child’s dreams are, the important thing is that they know you have heard them and that you think their desires are okay. 

    4. Read Children’s Literature Together
    From infancy through adolescence, children’s books can be a great way for parents and kids to learn about emotions. Stories can help children build a vocabulary for talking about feelings, and illustrate the different ways people handle their anger, fear, and sadness. 

    Age-appropriate books can provide a way for parents to talk about subjects they may find difficult to address. TV programs and movies can also be a fuel for family discussions, but Dr. Gottman recommends books because the reader and listener can stop at any point to discuss what’s happening in the story. Reading aloud also gives children a better sense that the family is participating in the storytelling, and so they may feel a greater investment in the narrative. 

    5. Don’t Try to Impose Your Solution on Your Child’s Problems
    One of the quickest ways to sabotage Emotion Coaching is to tell a child who’s sad or angry how you would solve the problem at hand. To understand why, just think about the way this dynamic commonly occurs in marriage. Zach Brittle wrote about Understanding Must Precede Advice here.

    Parents may feel frustrated with their child’s unwillingness to take unsolicited advice, especially considering the relative amount of wisdom and life experience parents have to share with their kids. But that’s not the way children learn. To propose solutions before you empathize with children is like trying to build the frame of a house before you lay a firm foundation.

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    V is for Violence
    By Zach Brittle, LMHC

    In case you missed it, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’m not really sure how you could have missed it, however. Presumably you have access to the internet which has lately been saturated with messages like this and this and this. If you’re a sports fan (like me) you’ve been attuned to stories of Ray Rice and Slava Voynov and Hope Solo. If you’re a therapist, you’ve seen it in your office more often than you’d care to admit, and not just in October. Even if you’re not paying attention, you must know that domestic violence awareness isn’t important simply because the media says so.

    It’s a tough topic. Not for the faint of heart. And I fear that I won’t be able to bring the proper gravitas to the stories of the one in three American women who are abused each year. In the time it takes me to write this sentence, another woman will be assaulted or beaten in the US. Just typing those words makes me feel powerless, but not nearly as powerless as the 1.3 million women who will be assaulted by a partner in 2014. 

    The observant reader will note that I haven’t even scratched the surface with regard to violence perpetrated against women and children worldwide. You might also be inclined to remind me that 85% of adult domestic violence victims are women. I could, and maybe I should should, dedicate 15% of my word count to the plight of abused men. But it’s not really the point, is it? The point is that these statistics - these stories - are tragic. And perhaps we’re not as powerless as we think.

    As a therapist, I find the question of how to assess violence a tricky one. Research suggests that 50% of couples seeking therapy have experienced violence in their relationship, whether they are telling you or not. In some cases, when there’s violence in the relationship, therapy can do more harm than good. In any case, it is important to distinguish between violence and battery:

    Battery is a form of abuse where the primary aggressor employs violence ranging from pushing to relationship rape, to homicide, to enhance the aggressor’s control over their partner, leading the partner to modify their behaviors in daily life. It is meant to instill fear and intimidation.
    - Ann Ganley

    When battery is present, couples therapy is inappropriate.
    Identify and provide appropriate referrals for your client(s). Battery is evidence of what Dr. Gottman calls
    Characterological Violence, where one partner clearly demonstrates controlling and dominating behavior. In this case, refer to a treatment center, hotline, shelter, specialist, or the police. If you suspect battery is present but one or both partners are denying it, refer. If you’re not sure, refer. It’s irresponsible, unethical, and likely even illegal for you to begin couples therapy when Characterological Violence is present.

    But what about when violence is more subtle, what Dr. Gottman call Situational Violence? Situational violence occurs most often with couples who lack conflict resolution skills. Generally both partners feel remorse, understand the impact, and internalize the blame. In this case, treatment for the couple prioritizes conflict management, with an emphasis on flooding and repair. The couple must also learn to recognize and reign in the Four Horsemen so that conflict does not escalate. Eventually the therapist should help the couple replace toxic conflict patterns with a deeper sense of friendship and shared meaning. I have intentionally not gone into detail here because my goal is not to train therapists as much as to raise awareness. Also, therapists aren’t necessarily my audience just now. If you are a therapist and do want to talk about this, send me an email at zach@gottman.com.

    Many of you reading this are wondering what to do about your own relationship. Wondering if there’s hope or help. There is. No doubt your community has resources available to you. You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You may be wondering if you’re experiencing Characterological or Situational Violence. If you’re not sure, I suspect it’s more severe. It may not make a difference and it may not matter. Domestic violence is never the victim’s fault. Seek help. 

    If you’re certain that you and your partner are simply bad at conflict, then get better at it. Remember that you are adults. You have a responsibility to behave like adults. When conflict escalates in your relationship:

    • Self-Soothe When Flooded: This is the first step to conflict regulation. Check your pulse. Is it racing, like 95 beats per minute or higher? If so, take a break. Try 10-15 deep breaths. Go for a walk. You simply cannot engage your partner in a meaningful way when you are flooded. Give yourself time to calm down.

    • Identify your Common Enemy: Situational Violence occurs when partners identify one another as the enemy. This is a bad strategy. You need to define your common enemy. In this case, it could be the violence itself. When negativity rises up, remember, you have a response-ability to deny it access to your relationship. By identifying a common enemy, you can become more attuned and attached to one another. Fight with, not against, each other.

    • Practice Repair: Repair, any statement or action - silly or otherwise - that prevents negativity from escalating out of control, is an advanced skill for couples. But skills can be learned. You’ve heard the phrase, “practice makes perfect.” I actually disagree. Practice makes permanent. If you practice poor conflict management, it’ll become permanent. Practicing repair shifts the balance away from the conflict and toward the couple. Get creative.

    Whether you are a therapist or a client. A victim or an abuser. A running back or a goalkeeper. No matter who you are, you can do something about domestic violence. It’s a solvable problem. It begins with awareness - thanks October - but it requires attention and action. Pay attention. Act. Ask for help. Respond. Help.

    You are not powerless.


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    This is Zach's 22nd posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com. Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

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