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Nominated by 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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    Happy New Year's Eve! Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we'd like to talk about New Year's Resolutions. 

    For many people, the start of a new year is a time for looking back to the past, and more importantly, looking forward to the coming year. It is a time to reflect on the changes we want (or need) to make, and to commit to following through on those changes. A new year guarantees a fresh start, an opportunity to leave the negative in the past, and to focus on the positive in the coming year. Have you been the best partner possible to your significant other over the past year? Even if you think you have been, you can always do more to strengthen your relationship. In today’s post, we would like to help you make attainable 2014 New Year's Resolutions for your relationship.

    If you have been meaning to change something about your relationship, but haven’t felt ready to ask for it, now is the time! Remember that your relationship is constantly evolving as you and your partner spend more time together. Your individual likes and dislikes may change more than you think. Reassess the state of your relationship, paying particular attention to how you both felt about your relationship over the past year. What aspect of your relationship was most satisfying? Most frustrating? Were you sexually satisfied last year? If not, what would you like to see changed? Where would you like to see progress?

    Communication is extremely important when discussing these topics, as feelings of discontent may elicit a defensive response. Take turns letting each other speak. Don’t interrupt. Once you have each had a chance to voice your opinions, respond to each other’s comments. Do not make targeted suggestive attacks like “I don’t like the way you…” or “You need to...” Instead, make the conversation about your relationship as a whole by using positive statements like “I think we could…” or “We need to...” When “you” is changed to “we,” the conversation involves both parties. You become a team! Before making resolutions for your relationship, here are three tips to consider:

    1. Set realistic expectations: Do your best to think about the things you'd like to change as well as what a realistic change would look like. If you and your partner have been struggling, don’t expect change to happen overnight! However, making a long-term commitment to each other is the first step in getting your relationship to where you want it to be. Talk to each other about where you want your relationship to be in two months, six months, a year…

    2. Set both specific and holistic goals: Good resolutions focus on specific details as well as the bigger picture. While having a stronger relationship may be your ultimate goal, improving the way in which you communicate about your day at work or the way that the two of you decide which TV show to watch together make for specific goals that are very attainable. Relationships are incredibly complex. Break your resolution down into smaller goals and it will seem a lot less daunting.

    3. Focus on the means, not just the ends: One of the best ways to set New Year's resolutions is to focus on the means of getting to where you want to be, not just focusing on where you want to be. Improving your relationship is a process. Enjoy the opportunity to getting to know your partner on a more intimate level.

    Now that you’re prepared to make resolutions for your relationship, ask yourself what exactly you want to change! Whatever your decision, what is most important is that you are both equally committed to achieving the same goal in the end. Shared goals can be bedrock for relationships - they can give us a purposeful pathway that enriches our lives with meaning. To find out if you and your partner are on the same page, sit down together this weekend and answer the following questions:

    • How can we keep or bring back the fun in our relationship? 
    • How can we spend more quality time together? 
    • How can we build intimacy, both sexually and emotionally? 
    • What is something we can both do to improve our friendship?
    • How will we let each other know about our physical and emotional needs? 
    • How will we handle jealousy, resentment, or competition toward one another? 
    • How will we handle fights and bring them to a healthy resolution? 
    • How will we communicate and "check-in" with each other daily? 
    • What is the most important thing to us about our relationship? 

    If less than half your answers match your partner’s, you could use more dialogue. Which areas do you agree with and which areas do you disagree with? Can you form a compromise on the areas of different opinion? Find one aspect of your relationship where you and your partner share similar goals and discuss how you can both work toward it this year.

    As Dr. Stephen Covey once said, “If you don’t know where you’re headed, it doesn’t help to try to go there any faster.” Before embarking on this year-long journey to a better relationship, make sure you and your partner agree on the same course. And, as usual, remember to take your time - changes don't happen overnight! Any relationship resolution may only succeed through mutual effort and communication. If the two of you can take small daily steps to improve your sex life, build intimacy, and strengthen your relationship, you will be surprised by their lasting impact!

    Wishing you a healthy, happy, and loving year,
    Ellie Lisitsa
    TGI Staff

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    Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we welcome you into 2014! We welcome you into a year filled with potential for finding and nurturing great love, warmth, and connection. We welcome your dreams, knowing that many of you are making resolutions for the future, hoping to keep them in the next twelve months. 

    Though we all have different goals for the new year, a common thread uniting many of our resolutions is self care: an internal commitment to devoting time and energy to ourselves, making healthy choices that assure increased well being and personal development in many areas of life. 

    In the next few weeks, we will be sharing some of Dr. Gottman's strategies for greater fulfillment in a very important area: our relationships with ourselves!

    This weekend, we share an exercise you may remember from Dr. Gottman’s book The Relationship Cure. We hope that working through it can help you to reconnect with yourself, to reach greater clarity and certainty in your thoughts as you formulate concrete goals for the coming year. 
    Set aside some time this weekend to reflect on these important questions.

    Who Am I?
    By John Gottman, Ph.D. 

    My Triumphs and Strivings: 
    1. What are some of the proudest moments of your life? What kinds of trying and stressful experiences have you survived in which you felt more powerful, victorious, capable of meeting challenges? 
    2. How have these successes shaped your life, changed the way in which you view yourself, your goals, your dreams?
    3. Did your parents show you that they were proud of you for your accomplishments? What about other important figures in your life? How did this affect your experience of feelings of pride in yourself?
    4. Were you shown love and affection in your family? If not, how has this affected your relationships in your adult life?

    My Injuries and Healings: 
    1. What experiences have you had in which you have felt the deepest senses of disappointment, loss, self-doubt, hopelessness, loneliness?
    2. What kinds of deep traumas have you undergone? How have you survived through them? What kinds of changes do you feel in yourself after going through these difficult times in your life?
    3. How did you strengthen and heal yourself? How did you protect yourself? Did you find ways to avoid such experiences in the future?
    4. How do you think that these experiences have affected your relationships? Your relationship with your current partner? What do you want your partner to understand about you and your past injuries?

    My Mission and Legacy: 
    1. What do you feel is the purpose of your life? Its meaning? What do you want to accomplish? What is your greatest struggle?
    2. What kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind when you are gone?
    3. What kinds of significant goals do you still yearn to realize to feel that you have lived a full life?

    Who I Want to Become?
    1. Describe the person that you want to become.
    2. What kinds of struggles have you faced in trying to become that person?
    3. What internal demons are you fighting? What demons have you conquered?
    4. What would you most like to change about yourself?
    5. What do you want your life to be in five years?

    In the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams!" 

    Have a great weekend,
    Ellie Lisitsa
    TGI Staff

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    We have an announcement, and it's a pretty big one. Please join us in welcoming Zach Brittle, LMHC as a permanent columnist on The Gottman Relationship Blog. You may remember Zach from his popular guest postings here and here. Zach, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy, will be writing a 26-post column that will be affectionally called the Relationship Alphabet. You can look forward to hearing from Zach every other Monday in 2014. Today, Zach begins with Letter A.

    A is for Arguments
    Zach Brittle, LMHC 

    Just for kicks, I decided to ask Google for help finding marriage and relationship words that started with “A." I got a lot of help with my Scrabble game, but not too much else. I did find one site dedicated to “marriage vocabulary.” The list of “A” words included: Acceptance, Admiration, Affection, Affinity, Allegiance, Appreciation, Approval, and Attentive.

    All of those words are relevant and essential to healthy relationship. They’re good words. And I think that you should accept and admire and all those other things with your partner, but I also think you should argue. Maybe it’s just me, but I think if you’re not arguing, you’re probably not committed.

    When engaged couples come into my office for pre-marital counseling, one of my first questions is, “Could you tell me about when/how/why you argue?” 

    If they don’t or can’t or won’t argue, that’s a major red flag. If you’re in a “committed” relationship and you haven’t yet had a big argument, please do that as soon as possible . It’s important for you to understand the anatomy of your arguments. To discover the patterns...the themes. Most importantly it’s important for you to know that arguing is okay. It can even be productive.

    In Gottman Method Couples Therapy (GMCT) we actually ask couples to argue during the first few sessions. Arguing is just part of the’s one of the permissions of a committed relationship, kind of like sex. Think about it, you get to have sex with your partner and you get to yell at them at the top of your lungs. Can you do that with a colleague at work? (No? Didn’t think so.) (Yes? Maybe you need to look for a new job.)

    There’s something special about a truly committed relationship. Something sacred. 

    John Gottman discovered that about ⅔ of all arguments were perpetual. This means that, most likely, five years from now you’ll be fighting about the same thing you were fighting about five years ago. It might be her mother…or the way you put away the dishes…or his introversion. It doesn’t matter. It’s not going away.

    Can you wrap your head around that? 69% of your problems are perpetual. That is simply and statistically true. If you can accept that, consider this question: “Is that discouraging or encouraging?

    Think about that question for a minute...if you knew with certainty that most of your problems were unsolvable, would that give you courage or would it deflate you?

    Typically, when it is is discouraging for my clients, it’s usually because they know exactly what their perpetual problems are and they are overwhelmed with the idea that they may have to spend the next 35 years arguing about them.

    When it is encouraging, it’s usually because they realize that they’re (statistically) normal...that the fact that they are having the same argument over and over isn’t a sign that their relationship is doomed. It may actually be a sign that their relationship has a hope they hadn’t previously imagined.

    My bias is that the reality of perpetual problems is encouraging. It allows, requires, even invites, perspective about the the role that conflict plays in our relationships. More importantly, it suggests that we have agency in the midst of our arguments. 

    What does agency mean? It means you’re not subject to the whim of the moment. It means you can choose in the midst of that very same moment.

    Choose kindness. Choose humor. Most importantly, choose perspective.

    It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the power of a single argument, but what if you took a few steps back to explore the anatomy of all your arguments. How do they start? How do they escalate? How do they go off the rails? How do they end?

    If you could map them out, understand them, predict them, perhaps you could defuse them. Kindness helps. It can pave the way to repair and remind you that your relationship is bigger than your argument. Humor helps. It can break the tension of the moment and provide the opportunity to connect anew.

    I’m not suggesting that some arguments aren’t worth pursuing. About 31% of them have to be addressed. It could be your anniversary. Her affair. His addiction.

    Whatever it is…whenever you can solve an argument, do. Whenever you can’t, recognize and remember that you’re normal, that kindness and humor help, and that in the end, perspective is key. 

    Whether you find it encouraging or discouraging, arguing is simply part of the deal for committed relationships. You get to choose what you do next.


    PS: Additional “A” words to consider: Agency, Anatomy, Anniversary, Affair, Addiction…plus the ones I found on Google.

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  • 01/08/14--19:31: Arguments and Self Care

  • In Monday’s post on The Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach Brittle began his Relationship Alphabet column with the letter "A."

    A is for arguments. Zach is also for arguments. That is, he believes that arguing is an essential part of any healthy relationship. According to Dr. Gottman’s research and the laws of the universe, it is critical for partners to learn to overcome disagreements, because disagreements are inevitable, and because the way that a couple works through them determines the outcome of their relationship. 

    Today, we’d like to talk about arguing in the context of self care, which we began to discuss last Friday.

    To build and maintain a healthy relationship, partners must learn to assert themselves, identifying and expressing their emotions, including feelings of anger. However, Dr. Gottman has found that 69% of the time, the outcome of all of this emotional expression and identification will get us nowhere. 

    Or rather, that it will get us to the exact same place we’ve always ended up, because, as we all know, in any relationship there are topics on which mutually satisfying resolution is basically impossible. (Some of these perpetual problems calcify into “gridlock,” an unpleasant and important phenomenon you can read more about here.)

    Zach reminds us that we always have agency, that it is within our power to make choices in our arguments, to infuse them with positive intention and perspective, and, whenever possible, to express kindness and humor.

    Of course, when it’s the zillionth time you’ve fought about an issue, when you’re really caught up and have just about had enough, it’s a little tricky to feel sufficiently in control to make healthy choices. 
    It’s very hard not to feel, as Zach says, “subject to the whim of the moment.” It’s very easy to feel helpless. 

    Luckily, helpless is a thing you are not.

    You are not helpless because you are not your emotions. As human beings, we have the ability to alter our experiences of conflict by engaging critically and empathetically with ourselves –  with our feelings and thoughts. We exercise this ability through mindful self-awareness. 
    We exercise this ability, for example, when we notice that we are flooded and respond by practicing physiological self-soothing

    On any given week, the power of mindfulness asserts itself from the headlines of dozens of studies and journal articles. We hear a lot about Eastern practices (meditation, yoga, and many others) teaching self-awareness. Those who practice these arts are equipped with the skills to recognize and understand the messages their bodies are sending them: 
    I am overwhelmed,” “I am exhausted,” or, “I need a break.” 

    Listening to these messages allows us to determine, among other things, when an argument has potential to be constructive and when it is no longer worth having.

    Not listening to these messages predicts negative outcomes.

    When we are out of touch with ourselves, we may expect very soon to be out of touch with others. If we don’t check in with ourselves, we risk growing so distant from our partners that we forget how to connect – and even how to argue!

    By engaging in proactive self care, we can create the conditions necessary for deep, mutually fulfilling connections with ourselves, our partners, families, and friends. 

    This Friday, look forward to a related weekend homework assignment – an exercise created by Dr. Gottman that should leave you feeling more rejuvenated, in touch with yourself, and better equipped to handle any minor stressors that come your way!

    All for now,
    Ellie Lisitsa
    TGI Staff 

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    This week on the Gottman Relationship Blog, we've been talking about conflict and self care. Today, as promised on Wednesday, we bring you a related Weekend Homework Assignment written by Dr. John Gottman himself. We encourage you to try it out in this coming week, and share his reasoning for its importance:

    "Regularly expressing praise and appreciation can change the whole emotional climate of your home, your workplace, and your various circles of family and friends. People grow closer in the knowledge that they can count on one another for support in good times and in bad. The subsequent exercise can help you to transform a crabby, critical habit of mind to one that praises and appreciates."

    Exercise: Thanksgiving Every Day

    A steady diet of gratitude is one of the best-known cures for a crabby habit of mind. Here’s how the diet works.

    1.  Each day for one week, keep track of the times you felt like criticizing somebody important in your life, such as your spouse, a relative, a friend, or a close coworker. Try to come up with at least five incidents each day, and write them down.

    2.  After you’ve described the critical feelings and the incident that preceded it, find a way to counter that criticism with praise and appreciation. You may feel some resistance to doing this, especially if you feel that your criticism was justified. But try to ignore the resistance. Just set aside the faults you perceive in that person and look instead for reasons to value him or her. The list of qualities provided may be helpful as you consider these reasons.

    3.  Each day, make a point to share those five bits of praise or appreciation with the people who earned it.

    4.  Notice what effects these offerings have on your relationships, and write about them in your log.


    • Criticism: You’re sitting there thinking that Jack the bartender’s habit of whistling drives you up the wall.
    • Praise or appreciation: You notice that the customers really seem to like Jack’s sense of humor, and that’s good for business. You tell Jack what you’re thinking.
    • Effects of praising him: Jack laughs and seems to be in a good mood all night. You think maybe it’s made him whistle more, but folks are hanging around and he’s selling lots of drinks.

    • Criticism: Your daughter forgot to fold the laundry as you asker her to do. You think, “She’s so thoughtless,” but you say nothing. You start looking around for something about her to appreciate. 
    • Praise or appreciation: You see why she forgot about the laundry: She has so much homework to do. At least she’s diligent about her studies. She gets good grades, and she’s learning so much. You decide to praise her for being so good about her homework.
    • Effects of praising her: She seems calm and peaceful, content to keep studying. You realize how proud of her you are.

      • Criticism: Your brother is so opinionated. He acts like such a know-it-all. You don’t say anything. Instead you try to think of qualities you like about him.
      • Praise or appreciation: You realize that he takes such good care of your mom. He’s so conscientious and responsible. You don’t know what your family would do without him. You’ve never told him how much you value this about him. You decide to do so now.
      • Effects of praising him: He seems to understand how genuinely grateful you are. You notice that he becomes a little easier to be around. It seems that he’s not trying so hard to prove himself. Maybe he just needed a little appreciation.

      We see what we want to see. Give this exercise a shot this week, and see how much things can change. In the words of Oscar Wilde, "The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole!"

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we'd like to share an article from The Huffington Post directly relating to our current theme: self care. Author Terry Gaspard's perspective on self awareness in "the blame game" is inspired by Dr. Gottman's research, a strong belief in the power of individual agency, and wisdom gained from personal experience (see: Moving Past Divorce). We hope that you'll find the piece thought-provoking (and that you enjoy her super helpful summary of some Gottman Method Therapy principles at the end!) 

      For your convenience, we have attached hyperlinks to many of our previous blogs as their subjects appear in Gaspard's article. We encourage you to follow them and refresh your memory! If you like, you can even bookmark this page for use as a cheat-sheet for easy access in the future. 

      To see the following piece in its original form, click here.

      I Love You, But Please Change
      By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

      What makes for a happy, fulfilled relationship? While this is a complex question that doesn't lend itself to a quick answer, there are aspects of successful and lasting relationships that have been studied by experts and many approaches to pick from. The good news is that if you are in a relatively happy relationship, there are some simple things you can do -- positive behaviors -- that can make your relationship better.

      Fortunately, even if you're in a relationship or marriage that's heading in a bad direction, there are strategies that can set you and your partner on the right path again. After studying marital success and divorce prevention for decades, my hero is renowned psychologist John M. Gottman, and I'm about to explain why. But first, let's start with the premise that it's crucial to examine your own actions and to adopt realistic expectations about your partner's willingness to change.

      Do you spend more time second-guessing your partner's comments or reactions than examining your own behavior? While I believe it's important to be vulnerable with your partner -- to be open and reveal yourself without fear of rejection -- it's also critical to take responsibility for your own actions. While vulnerability can enhance intimacy between you and your partner, it's important not to blame your relationship problems on negative traits that you see in them. Dr. Lisa Firestone writes,"The focus needs to shift away from how to "fix" the other person and toward a broader view of how to repair the relationship."

      A typical example is Tim and Megan, both in their mid-thirties and married for seven years. "I've been unhappy for some time," complains Megan. "I've asked Tim to be more considerate of my needs, but things don't appear to be changing. It feels like I'm at the bottom of his list." To this Tim laments: "Megan just doesn't make me happy anymore and things just aren't getting better." The common thread in these statements is this couple's focus on "fixing" the other person rather than on taking specific actions to change their part in a relationship dynamic that is undesirable.

      Let's face it, it's easy to complain about your partner and many self-help articles, movies and TV shows highlight the merits of fixing other's shortcomings. For instance, in a recent hit movie Enough Said Eva, (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), seemed happy with her new boyfriend Albert (the late James Gandolfini) until she became friends with Marianne (Catherine Keener) who pointed out her ex's faults incessantly. One big take away for me was that if we're relatively satisfied with our partner (as Eva was prior to getting close to Marianne) focus on their positive traits rather than on fixing their flaws (like how they eat or their wardrobe).

      After years of research, Gottman has revealed seven principles that will prevent a marriage from breaking up. After reviewing his book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work, I'll highlight four principles that I've seen change the dynamic of a marriage in a positive way. Keep in mind that one of Gottman's guiding principles for a successful marriage is the five- to-one ratio -- meaning for every negative interaction in a relationship, you need five positive interactions.

      1.  Nurture fondness and admiration: Remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities -- even as you grapple with their flaws -- and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day.
      2.  Let your partner influence you: Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and avoid the blame game.
      3.  Overcome a gridlock: Often perpetual conflicts go unresolved when we get stuck in negative patterns of relating such as the distance-pursuer pattern -- a tug-of-war where one person actively tries to change the other person, and the other resists it.
      4.  Create shared meaning together: Dr. Gottman found that couples who have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, values; and customs for family life -- such as rituals for holidays -- are generally happier.

      In Gottman's acclaimed book,Why Marriages Succeed or Fail he uses a metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (depicting the end of times in the New Testament) to elaborate on his theory of couples communication. This metaphor can be used to describe the following communication styles to depict the end of a relationship.

      1.  Criticism: According to Gottman, criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. Consequently, you are cutting to the core of their character when you criticize. For instance, a complaint is: "I was worried when you were late. We agreed that you'd call when you were running late." Versus a criticism: "You never think about me, you're so selfish!"
      2.  Contempt: When you communicate in this manner, you are being disrespectful -- using sarcasm, ridicule, mimicking, icy tone of voice or name-calling. The goal is to make the person feel despised or worthless. 
      3.  Defensiveness: We all get defensive at times -- especially when a relationship is on the rocks or we feel we're being treated unfairly. However, defensiveness is a way of blaming our partner and not taking responsibility for our own actions.
      4.  Stonewalling: This is when one partner shuts down or withdraws from the interaction. Unfortunately, this becomes a habit and issues that get swept under the rug are never resolved -- leaving the partner who feels hurt even more resentful.

      In closing, be sure to pay close attention the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner and examine the part you play. Keep in mind Gottman's guiding principle of adding more positive interactions -- a five-to-one ratio. Next, see if you can spot any of the Four Horsemen and then observe their effects on your partner. Don't take love for granted or expect that your partner will alter their behavior simply because you've asked them to. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness. So next time you feel upset at your partner, check out what's going on inside yourself -- at the very least -- pause and reflect before you place the blame on them.

      Thoughts? Reactions? Opinions? We invite you to share and join in the discussion on our Facebook page!

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      In Monday’s entry on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we shared an article from the Huffington Post, in which Terry Gaspard gave us insight into self care through the following bits of relationship advice. According to Gaspard, when experiencing relationship problems, it is wise to:

      1. Examine your own actions
      2. Adopt realistic expectations about your partner’s willingness to change

      In other words, don’t try to fix your partner - this is both impossible and unethical - and don’t play the blame game (no one wins). We agree that critical self-awareness and others-awareness is very important. Today, we add a third suggestion:

      3. Practice emotional attunement

      According to Dr. Gottman, masters of relationships approach problems as a team. To do so, they must both be aware of their personal experience in the moment and motivated to work together. It is impossible to nurture healthy relational dynamics without practicing attunement. Let’s take a look at the first couple in Gaspard’s article:

      “A typical example is Tim and Megan, both in their mid-thirties and married for seven years. "I've been unhappy for some time," complains Megan. "I've asked Tim to be more considerate of my needs, but things don't appear to be changing. It feels like I'm at the bottom of his list." To this Tim laments: "Megan just doesn't make me happy anymore and things just aren't getting better."

      Do you think that Tim and Megan are attuned to each other? This couple doesn’t feel like a team – both partners feel uncared for and unloved. Neither partner is practicing good self care by allowing this relationship dynamic to continue.

      Both Tim and Megan have succeeded in identifying a general feeling – unhappiness in their relationship – but haven’t managed to pinpoint specific sources for this unhappiness. In despair, they’ve turned on each other.

      This kind of blame is universal. It feels like a personal, characterological attack, which beyond being painful and unproductive may, with repetition, completely destroy their relationship (and personal sanity). The couple is thrown farther apart than ever, and one can hear the clip-clopping of the Four Horsemen drawing near! (Defensivess has already arrived in Tim’s words - see the antidote here).

      How can Tim and Megan turn things around? The first step is for them to get in touch with themselves: to discover what they need and want, determine what they feel is missing from their relationship. This is self care. They have to understand themselves before they can understand each other.

      But emotions are devious creatures. With so much focus invested in the small crises and stressors that arise in our jobs and daily activities that it is difficult to find a moment to truly connect with what we are feeling. As a result, our emotional lives often spiral out of our control, and internal pressures build up. At a certain point we explode, like Tim and Megan, potentially harming our bonds with those we care about the most.

      If we cannot identify our own emotions, how are we supposed to understand them or process them or communicate about them with others? How can we expect our partners to be a source of comfort and support?

      These are problems we all struggle with!

      If you feel frustrated in your inability to have intimate conversations about your deepest feelings with your partner, you are not alone. And we can help.

      Here’s a brief exercise to help you deepen connection with yourself and with your loved ones:

      Tip 1: Ask Open-Ended Questions. If you ask questions that require only a yes or no answer, you are destroying conversations before they even have a chance to begin. You are accidentally slamming the door that you are trying to open. This door is unfortunately labeled “Intimacy.” Instead of “Did you watch that movie?” ask, “What was your favorite part?” Instead of “Are you upset?” ask, “You seem upset – what’s going on?

      Tip 2: Relax. Take your time. If you are bothered by your inability to label your emotions, stop and meditate for a moment. Clear your mind. Search for a word. When a word comes to mind and your body relaxes, you have hit the spot. Here are a few examples you can use in this activity. Remember, these are just a starting point!

      Positive Emotions 
      • Amused 
      • Appreciated 
      • Lucky 
      • Satisfied 
      • Silly 
      • Turned On 
      • Joyful 
      • Safe 
      • Proud 
      • Powerful 
      • Playful
      • Fascinated 

      Negative Emotions

      • Alienated
      • Tense 
      • Misunderstood 
      • Powerless 
      • Ignored 
      • Inferior 
      • Criticized 
      • Ashamed 
      • Betrayed 
      • Numb 
      • Unsafe 

      We look forward to sharing more skills for building internal and external intimacy in our next blog posting this Friday! We will show you the fundamentals of deepening connection in your conversations and expressing compassion and sympathy.

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      When we talk to our closest friends about our problems, what we want most from them is their understanding and support. Building and maintaining a strong connection to a reliable support system is one of the most important parts of practicing good self care! 

      Dr. Gottman’s research has taught us a great variety of things about relationships of all kinds, but whenever he discusses romantic relationships, he begins with a deeply meaningful idea: the most important predictor of a good relationship is the friendship at its core. Couples who “know each other intimately [and] are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams” are the couples who make it. 

      To deepen your connection with your partner, and to build on the first two skills of self care described this week here and here, we offer you this powerful exercise. Its beautiful simplicity allows you to apply it in everyday conversations to build trust and friendship with your partner - Dr. Gottman’s keys to romance.

      The purpose of this exercise is to assist you in the management of daily external stress, stress that comes from OUTSIDE the relationship. How you manage stress turns out to be very critical. Research has shown that the couples who buffered their relationships from external stressors were more capable of maintaining consistent progress over time. 

      This weekend, talk to your partner about a recent or upcoming stressor in each of your lives, like an upcoming job deadline, or a future event (outside of your relationship) that may prove stressful. When your partner speaks, respond in your own words, reflecting the emotion that you just heard back to them. Don't give advice! Remember, you don’t have to hit the ball out of the park right off the bat. To extend the metaphor, as long as you are in the ballpark, your understanding and encouragement will open your partner up to sharing more with you. 

      David comes home very late from a meeting with an old friend, and flops into an armchair in the living room next to his wife Lisa. Both are exhausted, and David is stressed. He wants to talk.

      Failing to Deepen Connection:
      David: Rich was ridiculous tonight. I’m not sure what to do with him.
      Lisa: You sound like you’re mad at him.
      David: (frowning) I guess.
      Lisa: What are you so mad about?
      David: I don’t know, we’re both tired. Forget it. Let’s just go to bed…

      Succeeding in Deepening Connection:
      David: Rich was ridiculous tonight. I’m not sure what to do with him.
      Lisa: Are you feeling like you need to do something with him?
      David: I’m just so frustrated, he seems like he’s trapped in life.
      Lisa: It sounds like you feel responsible, is that what’s making you frustrated?
      David: (sigh) Yeah. He’s relying on me, we’ve known each other since we were little, and I know his family life isn’t exactly peaceful.
      Lisa: He’s lucky to have you, someone who cares so much about him. I’m lucky to have you!
      David: Let’s invite him over to dinner Tuesday night? I’m sure he would relax. I would relax.
      Lisa: (laughing) We would all relax…


      As you can see, in the second example Lisa restates how David is feeling ("It sounds like you feel responsible") and empathizes, which tells him that she is actively engaged in the conversation. This deepens their connection and ultimately leads to David feeling comforted and supported. Try it at home with your partner this weekend - the conversation will give you a great opportunity to turn towards each other, thereby building your Emotional Bank Account!

      Have a great weekend,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach continues his Relationship Alphabet column with the letter "B." If you missed his first posting, "A is for Arguments," you can read it here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at

      B is for Betrayal
      Zach Brittle, LMHC 

      There’s a sentence in the introduction of Dr. John Gottman’s book, What Makes Love Last?, that is a little bit crazymaking. The sentence: “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship - it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.

      It just doesn’t seem very Gottman-esque. It implies that (a) there is a single secret and (b) it applies in 100% of failing relationships.

      Dr. Gottman’s body of research seems to always include options - there are seven principles, four horsemen, and two kinds of marital conflict. And nothing is 100% - divorce is predicted with 91% accuracy, 35% of husbands are emotionally intelligent, and 70% of couples that have sex are unhappy with the frequency or quality of the sex. It’s pretty rare that he makes this sort of absolute declaration.

      Additionally, the sentence implies that relationship failure isn’t caused by a deficit in communication, compatibility or chemistry - three of the most popular relationship cliches - but rather the presence of betrayal, the one thing you swore you’d never tolerate.

      According to Dr. Gottman, however, if your relationship is struggling, you have indeed tolerated - or perhaps perpetrated - betrayal.

      “Hold your horses,” you might say. (Who says “Hold your horses” anymore?) “I’ve never had an affair. My spouse hasn’t either. How can you say betrayal is the cause of our relationship troubles?”

      It’s a fair question. It’s easy to lump “betrayal” and “infidelity” into the same bucket. Indeed, affairs, even emotional ones, require a duplicity that tears at the fabric of commitment. But the affair is never the beginning of the betrayal. It’s simply one of the possible outcomes.

      No question, infidelity is the juiciest and most interesting of betrayals - that’s why you love to absorb The Good Wife and Scandal and Homeland and Grey’s Anatomy and even Betrayal from the comfort of your living room. But, it’s not the most common, nor the most dangerous form of betrayal. 

      The most damaging betrayals are the everyday ones. The ones that pile up over time as you and your partner consistently ask and answer the question,“Can I trust you?”

      Can I trust you to pick up the milk? To listen to my feelings? To not get drunk at that party? To respect my time? To focus on our kids instead of the television? To choose me? For better and for worse? Again? And again?

      Most of you are convinced that your spouse would never cheat on you. But are you as sure that he will genuinely care about your anxieties and fears. That she will graciously hear you confess your suspicion that you may be a fraud. That he will still think you’re beautiful even when though you no longer look like the pretty young thing he married way back when.

      When the “Nos” pile up, you start to look for “Yes” in other places. That’s when alternative outcomes avail themselves. The extra glass of wine you have after the first extra glass. The stay-at-home dad with the great smile. Your mother. Opportunities for full blow betrayal are everywhere.

      Seems pretty grim, but I say hold your horses. There’s good news. Since there’s a single secret to failing relationships, there’s also a simple solution. It goes like this:

                Can I trust you?

      The trick is learning how to get to Yes.

      I think it’s important to suspend for now the notion that one of you is the betrayer and the other is the betrayed. You are both responsible. You have to learn to get to Yes.

      The way to Yes is through a Bonus B Word that is right in the heart of Gottman’s body of research: Bids.

      A bid is simply your expression of a need for connection. You are responsible to make bids toward your partner…rather than the pretty lady at the gym. You are also responsible to turn toward your partners bids...rather than bury your nose in your phone.

      Bids aren’t complicated. Just pay attention. Be present. Show him that you are trustworthy by listening to what he says, answering his question, laughing at his joke...even the one you heard before. Show her that you trust her by asking her advice, playing with her, complimenting her shoes.

      The key is to make a big pile of Yes. Concentrate first on “Yes, I am trustworthy.” And lean into “Yes, I trust you.” “Yes” is at the heart of every thriving relationship. Trust me.

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    • 01/23/14--17:07: Self Care: Trusting Yourself

    • In Monday’s post on The Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach attacked the letter B in his Relationship Alphabet column with, "B is for Betrayal." He started with the following quote, taken from the introduction to Dr. Gottman’s recent book, What Makes Love Last?:

      “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship – it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.

      As immensely important as it is to remember these words, it is equally important to consider these words in context.

      Context: It’s safe to say that, as members of the human race, we all betray and are betrayed at some point. We betray each other and we betray ourselves.

      As Zach reminds us, betrayals come in all shapes and sizes, not limited to the most iconic and sensationalized. Though the fascinating ways in which Don Draper and company cheat their way through each season of Mad Men may command our attention more than, say, picking up the dry cleaning on the way home or remembering to schedule a babysitter for Friday night, routinely failing to do these things can be just as dramatically destructive to our relationships.

      By failing to turn towards bids and keep commitments, even when they seem inconsequential, we inspire feelings of doubt in our partners. By failing to be consistently reliable, we communicate the message: "You can’t trust me!"

      As Zach says, there is a simple solution to the secret of failing relationships. Happy couples respond "Yes" to the question of "Can I trust you?" The trick is learning how to get to Yes. The solution? Bids. In other words, turn towards bids of emotional expression and give each other time, attention, and affection. Connect.

      Here’s the thing: sometimes, especially when we have been betrayed, it’s really hard to get to Yes. 

      To do our absolute best in reaching it, it’s important to know when and how to  lovingly and respectfully  say no to specific requests that will take us away from the ultimate Yes! "No, I can't pick up the dry cleaning tonight, but when I say I can, you can be sure I will." 

      In other words, we have to remember what turning towards our partner really means. If we communicate an inability to commit to a specific request without a reason, we risk betraying them, and we risk betraying ourselves:

      Bid:Can you pick up the dry-cleaning on the way home?

      • Turning Towards:Sure, you got it!
      • Also Turning Towards:I’m sorry, honey, but I promised Jamie we’d get ice cream, remember? Can the dry-cleaning wait until tomorrow?
      • Turning Away: I always pick up the dry-cleaning! Why don't you do it? 

      Bid: Would you like to go out to the movies on Friday night?

      • Turning Towards:I’d love to, let’s go!
      • Also Turning Towards:I really would, but I have to meet a client for dinner on Friday. How about Saturday?
      • Turning Away:You always pick our Friday night plans. When was the last time we did something I wanted to do? 

      Ta-da! Hopefully the alternatives work, and everyone’s needs get met. Whether or not they do, you have communicated care  though you may not be physically available at a specific time, you show emotional availability and desire to connect. That's what matters. The alternative: You make a promise that you can’t keep, moving decidedly farther away from the Yes!

      In healthy relationships, this concept is well understood.

      Building and maintaining trust involves being aware not only of your partner’s needs but of your own – being realistic, knowing when you can show up and when you can't, and setting appropriate boundaries. Deciding not to let go of what matters to you. Choosing not to miss your meeting at work out of guilt and feelings of dry-cleaning-related obligation. Being loyal. Following through. Not just with your partner, but with yourself.

      And that's not easy!

      We all struggle with keeping commitments. Relationships are hard work. Sometimes we run out of energy, time, and patience. We over-commit. We under-commit. When we fail to stay attuned to each other as we commit – making promises, setting boundaries  we pave the way to places we may not want to go: breakdown of communication, breakdown of connection, break-up. 

      And we arrive in these same places when we don't check in with ourselves.

      If these travel plans don't sound appealing, we suggest the following itinerary: focus on what you can control. 

      Remember these three things:

      1.  If you are to win your partner’s trust, you must first win your own  that is, arrive at a firm belief in your ability to keep commitments and make good on the promises you do make (whether they seem big or small). 

      2.  Getting there involves finding sanity and stability – making good on promises to yourself. Having your needs met is a prerequisite for trusting yourself to navigate commitment honestly, for being consistently available to another when you promise to be, showing up.

      3.  Don't apologize for being human – be generous with yourself, and be honest as you evaluate each situation. At the heart of every thriving relationship are two thriving hearts  organs belonging to people who intentionally seek personal health and balance so that they may be capable of giving energy, time, and attention to another.

      This Friday, we’re excited to share a Weekend Homework Assignment that can help you do just that!

      For now, remember the wise words of Dr. Seuss:

      "Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."

      Happy end-of-the-week,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      In this week's Weekend Homework Assignment on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to bring your attention to something obvious:

      When you can’t stay sane, your relationship can’t either. 

      When you become so agitated that you fear you'll become unhinged, your relationship is likely to slip off the tracks. 

      Because of this, Dr. Gottman recommends that you take some time to be “selfish” – take care of yourself and your relationship will grow stronger. Both you and your partner will benefit from a release of tension. Here are a few ideas you can start with:

      Filled with nervous energy or frustration? Take some time to engage in physical activity and work it off, simultaneously staying fit and healthy! If it helps to diminish stress, bring your favorite music along. The relief you gain from spending an hour or two exercising will diminish your likelihood to snap at your partner.

      Love reading? Dive into a book. Let yourself fall into the world of fiction or, if you prefer to fill your head with facts, explore a book on your favorite academic subject!

      Miss your friends? Skip over to your favorite coffee shop or local watering hole with a few close friends. Taking the time to reconnect with those who feel like your home away from home will leave you all feeling rejuvenated. Also, you can get things off your chest that have been weighing you down.

      Play an instrument? Want to learn? Take a trip into the land of music and experience its incredibly cathartic escape. It will likely provide you the sense of satisfaction and freedom that leaves you ready to face the real world.

      Remember that you can enjoy any of these stress-free activities with your partner! Here are a few more ideas for relaxing together:

      • Watch your favorite show together. 
      • Go on a jaunt through the neighborhood. 
      • Explore a beautiful park – take a hike if you’re in the mood!
      • Watch a sunset. 
      • Go on a date. 
      • Take the kids to get ice cream. 

      Do whatever pleases you! You may learn more about each other in the process, and strengthen your bond.

      We would all do well to heed the wisdom of the Dalai Lama:

      In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel "burnout" setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.

      Try some of these ideas out this weekend! We hope that they will leave you feeling less stressed-out about your own life and about the life that you and your partner share!

      Have a great weekend,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      We’ve spent the last few weeks on The Gottman Relationship Blog discussing self care, exploring strategies for making healthy, proactive choices that will lead you on a path to stronger, happier relationships with yourself and with your partner. 

      We’ve covered some of the basics: taking time for yourself, working on self-trust, pursuing passions and hobbies outside of the relationship, etc. But all of these activities can be difficult to undertake alone, especially if introducing them into your life creates unprecedented changes in your relationship dynamics.

      In between postings on The Gottman Relationship Blog, where can you turn to for guidance and support? It turns out that – barring this blog, your partner, your family, and yourself – your greatest resources are your friends.

      Unfortunately, these days, we seem to struggle in the friendship department.

      Too often, we rationalize subordinating friendship in favor of other things. And we don’t have to be too creative in rationalization! Stressed out by work, our relationships with lovers, children, and extended family, our inability to attain perfection in every area of our lives, we neglect those who may best be able to help us relieve stress.

      When social life itself begins to seem like just another entry on our interminable To-Do list, we intentionally or unintentionally forget/avoid/disregard it. Abandon friend-ship!

      Though this stressed-out view of socializing is totally normal – in that you are not alone in experiencing it – that doesn’t make it adaptive or realistic. Regaining our collective sanity and reducing stress in our lives begins by acknowledging the lack of logic here, and then doing something about it. Trying out a different approach. This is where we come in!

      Friendships may become stressful when we are overwhelmed by other stressors. Under the pressure of the daily grind, overcome by personal challenges, we may be too tense and flustered to notice social cues. We may feel like no one cares enough to reach out! This blindness can make us feel very lonely, and provide breeding ground for self-fulfilling prophecies. F
      ertile soil for the growth of vicious cycles, sown from low self-esteem and social self-confidence.

      Luckily, this blindness does not have to lead to social avoidance, because it is itself totally avoidable. Here’s how: 

      We can take matters into our own hands, practicing consciousness of others and their social overtures, by learning to recognize bids.

      Dr. Gottman's Guide to Recognizing Bids:

      How do we recognize bids? As Dr. Gottman quips in The Relationship Cure, it would be a relief if we could create a world in which “people made all their bids for connection in the form of standard written invitations… all expectations and feelings would be spelled out in vivid detail,” and there wouldn’t be any more “tension or guesswork.”

      In the interest of responding to others’ bids in healthy ways, and learning to create a healthy pattern of interactions in your relationships, we’d like to offer you a list of potential bidding types. See the following to recognize ways in which your friends may be bidding for connection!

      Dr. Gottman says that bids can come into your life in an infinite number of ways: some of which are “easy to see and interpret, others that are nearly indecipherable.” Whether they be verbal or nonverbal, physical, sexual, intellectual, humorous, serious, in the form of a question or statement or comment, they qualify as a “bid” for attention:

      Bids may be thoughts, feelings, observations, opinions, or invitations. Easily recognizable verbal bids may sound like this:

      "Oy! Abby! do you want to go get drinks sometime this week?"
      "Drew, could you ask your friends if they know a good auto-mechanic?"
      "Jenny, could I borrow a pencil?"

      According to Dr. Gottman, nonverbal bids include:

      • Affectionate touching, such as a back-slap, a handshake, a pat, a squeeze, a kiss, a hug, or a back or shoulder rub.
      • Facial expressions, such as a smile, blowing a kiss, rolling your eyes, or sticking out your tongue.
      • Playful touching, such as tickling, bopping, wrestling, dancing, or a gentle bump or shove.
      • Affiliating gestures, such as opening a door, offering a place to sit, handing over a utensil, or pointing to a shared activity or interest.
      • Vocalizing, such as laughing, chuckling, grunting, sighing, or groaning in a way that invites interaction or interest.

      We hope that these examples will help you identify moments in which you can respond to bids (and give you some ideas for making bids of your own) leading to the formation and nurturance of satisfying, long-lasting relationships!

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we begin with a visualization exercise. Humor us by following these instructions: Stop and think about some of the happiest moments in your life. Imagine yourself popping in and taking a look around. Who were you with in these times? Chances are that you were with friends!

      As social animals, we are naturally wired to connect. To value friendship and community. To feel lucky when we find unexpected allies, confidantes, and playmates among the throngs of strangers surrounding us. 

      Friendship is a wonderful and paradoxical thing. It seems to spring up out of nowhere, out of the beautiful chaos of daily life, to form on the easy basis of pure luck and chance  and simultaneously, despite such effortless conception, to require a great deal of attention, intention, and care. 

      This, as we mentioned in our previous post on Tuesday, is where we run into problems. We run into problems when we let ourselves forget.

      Most of us have experienced the consequences of this forgetting, ranging from an uncomfortable but reversible growth of distance to a particularly painful ending of a once-simple, joyful, and loving relationship.

      Losing cherished friendships can be enormously painful, sometimes even more so than break-ups with partners. Being mindful of this and giving dearly valued friendships the attention they deserve is a critical part of self-care.

      In The Relationship Cure, Dr. Gottman says,
      One of the most delightful – and volatile – aspects of friendship is the voluntary nature of it all. Whether it’s a cup of coffee, a lavish gift, or an offer to stay by your sickbed, favors from friends are intentional acts of generosity. Friends are not obligated to us by law, economics, or family bonds. Our friends turn towards our bids for connection simply because they want to, and that’s what makes those relationships so rewarding. By the same token, our friendships often suffer from a lack of time because of all our other commitments and obligations. So it often takes a bit of extra effort and creative thought to find opportunities for turning towards your friends.
      The exercise below may help you to find opportunities to turn towards your friends.

      Ways to Turn Towards Your Friends:

      • Ask “How are you?” in a way that shows you’d really like to know.
      • Listen to their stories and jokes (even if you’ve heard them before).
      • Return the things you borrow.
      • Offer spur-of-the-moment invitations to coffee, dinner, or drinks (but don’t be hurt if your friends can’t come).
      • Accept spontaneous invitations when you can (but don’t feel guilty when you can’t make it).
      • Ask for advice, but don’t feel obligated to take it.
      • Ask friends if they’d like your advice before you offer it. If they say yes, share your wisdom. Don’t be disappointed when they don’t do what you suggest!
      • Know when what you are asking for is too much.
      • Ask your friend about his or her childhood. Listen.
      • Remember his or her birthday with a card or gift.
      • Nod in agreement when your friend says positive things about his or her partner.
      • Notice and say positive things about your friend’s children.
      • Ask your friend about his or her dreams, goals, and visions. Listen.
      • Offer compliments.
      • Accept apologies.
      • Ask you friends about their life stories. Listen.
      • Ask your friends about their parents. Listen.
      • Tell them it’s okay to call anytime.
      • Let them off the hook when they say, “I can’t do it. I’m exhausted.”
      • Drive them to the airport when they are going away on a special journey or a difficult trip.
      • Let them be as upset as they need to be.
      • Support their efforts at health improvement.
      • Encourage their efforts to build skills, learn more, become more.
      • Offer to help our when your friend is stressed.
      • Ask for help.
      • Let them help you.
      • Monitor your friend’s well-being, and be there in good times or bad.
      • When you lose track of each other over time, try to pick up where you left off.

      While the birth and development of a friendship is an organic thing, it cannot thrive on its own – it will flourish only if it is nurtured!

      The list above pertains in large part to giving, nurturing, and strengthening friendships by finding ways to be generous. Use it as inspiration for turning towards your friends in the coming weeks. 
      But keep this in mind: intimacy also grows in simply spending time together, engaging in activities you both enjoy, and being there through thick and thin. Dr. Gottman has some tips to share with you on that subject as well. Look forward to more in tomorrow’s Weekend Homework Assignment!

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      This week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we’ve discussed friendship in the context of self care, first sharing Dr. Gottman’s guide to recognizing bids, and second by providing you with a list of ways to strengthen friendships with a little TLC! Today, as promised, we add a list of concrete ways to connect with your friends, written by Dr. Gottman himself:

      Activities To Build Connection:
      • Visit one another.
      • Commute.
      • Exercise.
      • Volunteer.
      • Share gossip, jokes, and news via email.
      • Phone one another often.
      • Form a group of friends who share a common hobby or interest, like a book club. Meet regularly. When you can’t get together, discuss your common interests online.
      • Confide in one another.
      • Keep each other’s secrets.
      • Swap baby-sitting, pet-sitting, house-sitting.
      • Trade big favors like helping one another paint the house, move residences, or build a deck.
      • Celebrate one another’s successes.
      • Host a party for a mutual friend.
      • Share hugs, handshakes, pats on the back.
      • Cry together.
      • Be there for the big events in one another’s lives –kids’ weddings, parents’ funerals, serious illnesses.
      • Collaborate on a project.
      • Show one another your baby pictures.
      • Pray or meditate together.

      Apply ideas from this list to your own life, and enjoy the results. Give your friendships attention and care, and watch them flourish. In the spirit of self care, we advise you to keep Dr. Gottman’s perspective in mind:

      No single relationship can meet all your emotional needs. In fact, it would be a mistake to invest that much expectation into any relationship, including marriage. It’s better instead to focus on building congenial bonds with a variety of people who bring different gifts into your life. That way, you can revel in your friendships with a diverse group of friends!

       Have a great weekend,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      C is for Contempt & Criticism
      Zach Brittle, LMHC

      Contempt and Criticism
      The first two of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - at least alphabetically.

      The “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is a reference to the New Testament book of Revelation, where the horsemen appear to signal the end of the world as we know it. The white horse is first. His rider emerges “as a conqueror bent on conquest” (Rev 6:2 NIV). The white horse is followed by a fiery red one. The red horse’s rider bears a large sword and the “power to take peace from the earth and make men slay each other” (Rev 6:4 NIV).

      There are two more horsemen (black and pale) but for now, let’s focus on these first two. These messengers of conquest and violence are powerful symbols of their relationship twins: contempt and criticism. They can also serve as reminders of the chaos that results when contempt and criticism are allowed to run free in your relationship.

      Contempt as Conquest
      For years I misunderstood contempt. I used to think contempt was “I hate you.” Kind of the way the Hatfields feel about the McCoys. Or the way my daughters feel about one another these days. You want this. I want that. We can’t agree, so let’s just quit trying. It’s easier to fight than to reconcile anyway. It was something blatant, but simple.

      But contempt isn’t “I hate you." It’s something much worse. Something insidious and gross. Contempt is “I’m better than you.” If betrayal is a question of trust, contempt is a question of respect. Contempt says, “I don’t respect you. In fact, I’m going to actively disrespect you.”

      The contemptuous partner is “bent on conquest,” seeking to ensure the other knows who is superior. I’ve seen this a lot in religious and politically conservative relationships where the woman, or at least her role, is assumed to be “less than.” But I’ve seen plenty of relationships where the woman has mastered contempt as well. (Their husbands are usually really great at stonewalling.)

      Gottman suggests nurturing fondness and admiration for your partner as the antidote for contempt. But I wonder if it’s enough. I suspect that, in most cases of contempt, the real target is the self. Sure, nurturing fondness for your partner is critical, but not as much as coming to an awareness of your own capacity for contempt.

      Criticism as Violence
      Gottman’s research suggests that criticism is the least destructive horseman, but is violent nonetheless. Criticism is an assault against your partner. It has “the power to take peace from the [relationship].” It is designed to slay the other.

      Criticism is most often packaged in “you always” or “you never” statements. The implication is that the offending partner hasn’t simply offended, but is actually offensive. Criticism is aimed at a person’s character, not their behavior. Not surprisingly, this kind of attack often triggers defensiveness and leads to a cycle of conflict that is hard to escape.

      Gottman suggests replacing criticism with “I statements,” the most tried and true of marriage counseling cliches. I want to stress that this is more than a skill. It’s a state of mind. “You always” and “you never” defer responsibility to the partner. But you are responsible. You are.

      Your criticism is a wish disguised. It’s a negative expression of a real need. What if you took responsibility for what you really desire for the relationship...what if you owned the wish and committed to articulating it as a positive hope? It could be as simple as starting your sentences with “I wish” instead of “you never.” But, as with contempt, it takes a good introspective look, in this case, at your own inclination toward violence.

      Getting What You Want
      It’s tempting, isn’t it? Who doesn’t want to feel strong and powerful? And in a relationship fraught with conflict, wielding contempt and criticism can seem like a great way to seize a measure of control. But it’s an illusion.

      Whenever I encounter any of Gottman’s Four Horsemen with clients, I inevitably circle back to the same question: Does this behavior help you get what you want?

      The answer is always the same. No.

      If there’s no other reason for avoiding contempt and criticism, consider the fact that they simply don’t work. It may make you feel better for a minute, but disrespecting or belittling your partner will never yield the response - or more importantly, the change - you are seeking.

      So, “hold your horses.” Don’t allow contempt and criticism to run free. Reign them in. And replace them with compassion for yourself and your partner, and complain without blame, as you dream together about how to really get what you want out of your relationship.

      This is Zach's third posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed it, you can read "A is for Arguments"here and "B is for Betrayal"here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at

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    • 02/05/14--17:29: Self Care: The Four Horsemen

    • In Monday’s post on The Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach Brittle took on two of Dr. Gottman’s 4 Horsemen  Contempt and Criticism – in a well articulated and compelling argument for personal accountability and compassion. Today, we invite you to consider Monday's post in the context of our current series on self care!

      At first glance, Dr. Gottman’s Four Horseman model makes sense. Maybe too much sense. It resonates with many of us precisely because of its elegant, sense-making simplicity. Example: the antidote to criticism is to complain without blame by using “I” statements. The roundly critical and unproductive “You are so lazy!” may be replaced by the reasonable and likely effective, “I would really appreciate help with the dishes.”

      Couples usually have no problem understanding the model. Problems may arise in implementation. Application is not so obvious. 

      We all know that trying to dismantle old, maladaptive communication patterns and establish healthy dynamics in their place is no simple task! It can be monumentally challenging and become a source of stress and anxiety. One of the reasons for our frustration is the inevitable difficulty of trying to stay in touch with ourselves and a partner when challenges arise in efforts to build connection.

      The irony is less funny in practice. For this reason, we’d like to spend the next few weeks on The Gottman Relationship Blog addressing it specifically –  helping you to help yourself. 

      According to Dr. Gottman, "Masters" of relationships succeed in part because they are able to nurture a culture of appreciation composed of "respect, gratitude, affection, friendship, and noticing what's going right," all of which Dr. Gottman describes as a "habit of mind." 

      Luckily, we have power over our habit of mind. In being aware of our thoughts and emotional reactions to events, we can exert some measure of control over our behavior and experience of relationships. By Dr. Gottman's definition, this is invariably "a cross cultural experience... [involving] two valid perceptions and realities which make a difference.”

      By approaching the Four Horsemen and their Antidotes from a perspective of mindfulness and self-awareness, we hope to guide you in figuring out what you want and need, so that you can express yourself and act accordingly. So that you can find some “I” statements that you can really get behind – statements that work for you, whatever your unique value system, circumstances, and dreams may be. So that you can assert yourself with patience, understanding, and compassion.

      As you gather strength in fighting the Four Horsemen, finding and using their Antidotes, we hope that you can begin to relax and enjoy Gottman Method Therapy’s power for enriching and deepening your relationships with your loved ones – and with yourself. Until then, here is a video clip of Dr. Gottman discussing The Four Horsemen:

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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      We've spent a lot of time this week on The Gottman Relationship Blog discussing conflict in relationships from a theoretical perspective, focusing particularly on the destructive nature of contempt and criticism. In today's Weekend Homework Assignment, we would like to offer you practical, research-based tools to help fight these two horsemen. 

      So, what causes conflict? A lot of things. As Dr. Gottman's research has shown us, however, most relationship conflict (especially gridlocked conflict) finds its roots in unfulfilled dreams. These are feelings of frustration and resentment that partners feel towards one another when their hopes and goals for the future are not being respected or honored. 

      To ensure that your dreams are being fulfilled, you must first understand what those dreams are. This is self care. Once you have a grasp on what your dreams are, then you are ready to share them with your partner. Take some time this weekend to consider your general "habit of mind." What are your dreams, and what are the stories behind them? Do you feel comfortable sharing your dreams with your partner? What happens when you try to communicate about them? Do you feel heard? Do you truly listen to your partner? Do you talk over each other? Is there room for improvement?

      Try tuning-in and noticing your mindset the next time conflict arises. Consider it in the context of these words from Dr. Gottman: 

      [The] strategy of discussing dreams when you encounter conflict does not come easily to many people. Perhaps that’s because we’re taught to stick to a narrow field of absolute facts when faced with opposition. If you believe there’s got to be a winner and a loser in every conflict, then you try to make your argument as objective and highly accurate as possible: otherwise you’ll be proven wrong. We lose a lot with this narrow approach – namely our ability to find shared meaning and connect emotionally. But once we broaden the landscape of our discussion to include dreams and hopes, we can see where our visions merge! We can find room for compromise. 

      How can you acknowledge the presence of two valid perspectives and identities? What can you do to support each other in following your individual and shared dreams? Here are a few suggestions for showing honor, support, and respect for each other’s dreams when you notice their presence in conversation:

      • Ask questions about the dream. One of our favorites is “What’s the story behind that?” Dreams usually have a history or a narrative behind them – they often come from your partner’s past.
      • Offer empathy. You don’t have to be ecstatic about this dream, but it may be helpful to express: “I understand why that is important to you.”
      • Offer emotional support and validation. Even if you can’t directly help them to achieve their dreams, communicate: “I am behind you 100%”
      • Participate in the other’s dream – read about the issue, help to make plans, offer advice if it is desired.
      • Give support – child-care, transportation, whatever you feel able to offer.
      • Join the dream on a trial basis – if it works well, consider joining it entirely – make it a part of your own vision.

      Understanding the basis of each other’s dreams, each other’s most deeply felt hopes and desires for the future, is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in a relationship. But it can’t happen overnight. To open up to each other requires trust, and building trust with yourself is the prerequisite. Keep these things in mind as you encounter opportunities to connect with your partner this weekend!

      Have a great weekend,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

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    • 02/12/14--17:18: Self Care: Criticism

    • As we mentioned last Friday on The Gottman Relationship Blog, learning to manage conflict is critical to effective self care. If conflict in your relationship is a constant source of stress, be sure to follow our next few blog postings as we will be discussing Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen and their Antidotes! We begin this week with the first horseman & its antidote pair: Criticism and Gentle Start-up. 

      Most of us become critical when we are totally overwhelmed. When we are frustrated by a problem we want solved now, and the last straw was a number of straws ago, and we’ve just about had it. As our tempers flare, tension rises, and self-awareness goes out the window.

      In this frenzied state, we are unlikely to use a particularly gentle startup. We are likely to begin conversations on a sour note and, as Dr. Gottman explains, conversations invariably end on the same note that they begin. In fact, they do so 96% of the time.

      In The Relationship Cure, he describes this idea in the context of harsh start-up:

      You want to connect with somebody, so you make a bid for that connection. But because your bid begins in such a negative, blaming, or critical way, you get just the opposite of what you’re after: You drive the person away.

      You lose the chance to connect. Or you find yourself suddenly and alarmingly connected – in a fight. The problem you wanted to discuss is eclipsed by a new one (or two, or three). 

      The injustice! Identifying and addressing issues with your partner is a great idea, but the following distinction is important to keep in mind. According to Dr. Gottman:

      A complaint focuses on a specific problem, addressing the other person’s behavior, not his or her perceived character flaws.

      Criticism on the other hand, is more judgmental and global: it frequently includes such phrases as “you always” or “you never” ... often with negative labels or name-calling … frequently [assigning] blame.

      Distinguishing between the two is pretty important. Criticism is a great way to initiate or escalate conflict. There is a difference between expressing feelings/drawing boundaries and attacking.

      As usual, all of this makes sense on paper, but can be tricky in practice! To avoid saying things we don’t mean and hurting each other in the heat of the moment, it’s a good idea to go in with a game plan:

      First, we have to internalize something important: Many of us have been brought up to interpret “Honesty is the best policy” to mean that we can say whatever we want … and yet following this rule often leads to mutual distress. Self care involves behaving in a way that aligns with our values – and most people feel good about themselves when they treat others with kindness. Criticism is unkind. When we are critical, we are often cruel, and end up hurting not only the other, but also ourselves.

      Second, we have to understand the alternative: 
      Criticism often erupts when suppression of negative emotions takes the place of communication. In a healthy relationship, partners are able to talk effectively about problems by identifying their feelings, recognizing what they need and want, and then approaching each other in a respectful and loving way. 

      Their self-awareness determines their ability to assert themselves with compassion and to eliminate problems through mutual understanding and teamwork. Each partner must check in with themselves, making sure that they are getting their needs met, rather than waiting for the dam to break! 

      In doing so, they build greater trust, a stronger bond, and reduce collective number of gray hairs. (We’re pretty sure about the last one, but haven’t had a chance to do the research yet).

      How do the "Masters" of relationships get there? Look forward to some answers in this Friday’s Weekend Homework Assignment!

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa

      TGI Staff

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      The Gottman Institute would like to wish you all a very Happy Valentine's Day! In the holiday spirit, we've posted 20 short and sweet Love Map Questions on our Facebook page. Don't hesitate to check them out, and see how many you can get right. Expert Tip: print them out and use them as conversation starters with your love at dinner tonight!

      Enjoying a happy relationship depends not only on having fun together, but also on knowing how to handle conflict. Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we deliver on Wednesday's promise and answer some of your questions about the conflict management and self care habits of relationship "Masters." See tips from Dr. Gottman* below:

      "Masters" of relationships use a gentle start-up:

      • Begin with something positive. 
        • Don’t start like this:"We literally never do anything fun anymore. I feel like you don’t care about having adventures with me like you used to.” 
        • Start like this:"Remember when we went on that trip to the peninsula last summer? I’d love for us to do that again soon. What do you think?
      • Express appreciation and gratitude. 
        • Don’t start like this: “You haven’t helped me with the housework for weeks. I’m exhausted and you don’t even notice.”  
        • Start like this: “It was so great to have your help clearing out the garage a few weeks ago – I’m wondering if you could help me organize the den this weekend?”
      • Start with “I” instead of “You.” 
        • Don’t start like this: “You don’t pick up the phone when I call. It’s so stressful when I can’t get in touch with you for long periods of time.”  
        • Start like this: “I get so worried when you disappear. Would you mind keeping your cell-phone on you and checking it every once in a while?”
      • Don’t stockpile complaints. 
        • Don’t start like this: “You don’t show up on time to meet me, you’ve been late to the kids’ soccer games, and you’re always out. Do you even care?” 
        • Start like this: “I’ve been missing you lately – it seems like you’re so distracted by your schedule at work – can we talk about it?” 

      "Masters" of relationships also replace their criticism with a complaint: 

      • Rather than using the criticism, “You always talk about yourself. Do you even care about my day?” try the complaint, “I feel like I’m not being heard. Can we talk about my day?”
      • Rather than using the criticism, “You never pick up the kids from school. Why is it always my responsibility?” try, “I feel exhausted. I need you to pick up the kids from school this afternoon.”

      Remember to be assertiveYou can imagine being assertive as a middle ground between two extremes: aggression and submissionScreams, whispers, manipulations, and passivity are all less practical (both in terms getting you what you want and nurturing a healthy relationship with your partner) than proactive and considerate communication. 

      Asserting yourself from this middle ground tends to be productive, while acting from either of the extremes tends to create tension and conflict– whether through neglecting and denying your own needs or by forcefully discounting the needs of others.

      Being assertive involves self-awareness and confident communication – expressing yourself in a way that shows respect for everyone involved.

      Steps to Asserting Yourself: 

      1.  Clarify what you are feeling (and be aware that your feelings result from your subjective perception of the situation, acknowledging responsibility for them).

      2.  Figure out exactly what you want or don’t want, (and frame it as an “I-statement” to show that you own it, rather than inviting defensiveness: “I would like…” “I want to…” “I would appreciate it if…”)

      3.  Choose a convenient time to address the problem (that works for both of you).

      4.  Express yourself clearly, being explicit about specifics in your request – (your partner is not a mind-reader). This means identifying a particular behavior or circumstance you object to, not critiquing or expressing a problem with someone’s personality or identity! 

      By working on these skills, you implicitly communicate respect for partner, for yourself, and for your bond. It might take some time and effort to get in the habit, but practice in applying what you’ve learned here can lead to an incredibly satisfying pay-off: less stress and more fun; the growth of trust and romance; a more satisfying and fulfilling relationship!

      With love,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

      *For much more, check out Dr. Gottman's highly acclaimed and insightful book, The Relationship Cure!

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      D is for Defensiveness 
      Zach Brittle, LMHC 

      The bride of my youth is delighted that I’m writing about defensiveness. She’s been chuckling under her breath at me all week. “How’s your article coming?” she asks. “I’m not exactly sure what to write,” I say. “Just write about yourself,” she teases. You see, I get defensiveness. Which is to say, I get defensive. Often.

      Defensiveness, defined as any attempt to defend oneself from perceived attack, is the third of Dr. Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Over the years, I’ve developed a special kind of expertise in all of its manifestations: righteous indignation, counterattack and whining.

      Yesterday, we went to Costco to stock up for the week. When we got home, the family scattered. The kids were folding some laundry. My wife was tying up some loose ends around the house. I put the groceries away. Soup in the pantry. Milk in the fridge. Chicken in the freezer. 

      The family later decided that we would have the chicken for dinner and, upon discovering that I hadn’t left it sitting on the counter, my wife said, “’re always in such a hurry to put stuff in the freezer!” (Which was a ridiculous but sort of charming thing to say.) But then I said, “Don’t you mean, ‘Thanks for shopping for, buying, carrying and putting away all the groceries?’” (Also ridiculous but less charming.)

      In case you didn’t recognize it, that’s righteous indignation, which are the ten-dollar words for getting pissy in response to someone’s perceived attack. I’m generally pretty sure that my wife is not trying to attack me, yet even her good-natured ribbing triggers something defensive in me. My indignant responses are truly unconscious. Impulsive. The impulse is to immediately refute or rebut whatever is coming my way.

      As fun as righteous indignation is, my favorite way to get defensive is through counterattack. Counterattack is one step beyond indignation. It’s an escalation of conflict through scorekeeping. Whenever I feel attacked - literally every single time - I start planning my response. Again, it’s an impulse, designed to protect me from the next attack. If I can somehow escalate more than my opponent (i.e. score more points), I win.

      I cannot tell you the number of times that this has happened: An argument starts...maybe over spilled milk. I feel attacked. I counterattack. She says, “Don’t get defensive.” I get more defensive. I yell. She yells. I yell louder. She cries. I win. We both lose. In the end, we have no idea what we were arguing about and there is still milk on the floor.

      A third manifestation of defensiveness is acting like the innocent victim, often by whining. This is the sneaky one. I believe that most people who default to victimization don’t realize they’re doing it. Or they’ve disguised their whining as sacrifice. My wife calls it “swinging the door” when I do it. I totally abandon my position in the hopes that she will feel terrible and give me what I want. “Okay fine. I promise I will never ever put the chicken in the freezer before I get permission from you.” She’s smarter than me though and usually just ignores me.

      I really think the tendency towards victimization is more of an unconscious posture than a specific behavior, but even that posture is subject to triggers. I see it all the time with my clients. He may express a concern, legitimate or otherwise. Then she will explain, often through tears why his concern isn’t her fault. Just as often, she’ll end up explaining why everything is probably her fault. Once again, it’s an impulse, in this case to make sure that someone else can’t shame us more than we can shame ourselves.

      Defensiveness is a wicked game. But it’s winnable. If betrayal is about the question of trust and contempt is about the question of respect, then defensiveness is about the question of responsibility. That’s the antidote: accepting responsibility for your role in the issue. Think about the word ‘responsibility’ for a second.

      Response. Ability.

      You have that. You are not subject to the whims of your impulses. You have the ability to respond with patience, grace and even strength. The key is for you to be aware of your triggers. And to understand the difference between a perceived attack and an actual one. Let that awareness inform your response ability.

      Within the context of your relationship, it’s also a good idea to be aware of your partner’s triggers. This awareness goes a long way towards addressing conflict in a responsible manner. (Note to my bride: Telling me not to get defensive triggers my defensiveness.)

      I’ve covered three of the 4 Horsemen this month. I won’t get to stonewalling until September, but by then I may decide to write about sex or sensitivity or something. (See what I did there?) But I encourage you to pay attention. I’ve found that couples can typically identify that two of the horsemen are more present than the others in their relationship. Simple math suggests that each partner has a special connection to a single horseman. Mine is defensiveness. What’s yours?


      This is Zach's fourth posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed it, you can read "A is for Arguments"here, "B is for Betrayal"here, and "C is for Contempt and Criticism"here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at

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