The couples who reach out to us in a state of distress almost always have one thing in common: they want to know that everything is okay.
They want to know that they’re not alone, and they want to make things right. Unfortunately, having been raised on a steady diet of fairytale logic, few are equipped with particularly good ideas of what a healthy relationship is—much less how to make contingency plans for when a relationship isn’t.
Operating from a basis of misconceptions about an effortless “happily ever after” can be dangerous. First of all, there’s no such thing as a flawless relationship, simply because there’s no such thing as a flawless person. And who would want this automatic perfection? Who would want to live in a world where everyone is the same? We could never fall in love, because there would be no source of connection such as shared idiosyncrasies, weird inside jokes, or strange habits to bond over.
And yet, it’s true: not all flaws are adorable. Idiosyncrasies that seem cute when falling in love often lose their appeal over time, and come out in fights. These blow-outs occur when people do their best to stay silent, but can’t help keeping a running tally of annoyances or finally exploding at their partners with laundry lists of frustrations.
But here’s the thing. Whether the crisis of the day is minor or more serious, the problems underlying conflict are often the same. They are rooted in issues of trust and communication. Because people aren’t automatons, you can’t read each other’s minds. The root cause of conflict is often simply an inability to adequately express differences, feelings, and needs.
Let’s look at an example:
Jamie sits and stews at a restaurant, waiting for her husband, Joe. She is steaming because she’s been feeling neglected, and now she can see that he doesn’t care about the effort she’s made in planning their date night, booking a reservation, clearing her schedule, or making it to her current steaming position! She doesn’t know that Joe is late because he’s excitedly putting the finishing touches on a mix tape he’s making for her.
Now, imagine what the situation might look like if Jamie trusted Joe:
Rather than immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusion, she might wait patiently, not taking his lateness personally. She knows that Joe loves her and cares very much about spending time with her. She might assume that something has come up, and give him a call. If he doesn’t answer, she might talk to her fellow diners and end up making a friend or two before he arrives. When he comes in with a sheepish smile and her present, all might be forgiven.
Not every scenario plays out this way, and the prerequisite for the alternative is trust, which can’t be conjured up by saying a magic word. And that’s exactly why it’s so important for couples to take care of their connection to build a culture of appreciation, turn towards instead of away, consult with their love maps, etc. Your emotional connection, this ability to see the best in each other and maintain positive expectations, is what helps couples protect their relationships from unnecessary stressors and weather the storms that do come.
In reality, what most distressed couples want is to re-establish a strong and healthy connection. The first step to re-building their bond is intentionally communicating non-defensively and openly. By doing so, couples may come to understand the reasons underlying each other’s choices and behavior patterns, express their frustrations in a gentler, more constructive way, and become aware, perhaps for the first time(!), of the effects they have on each other on a daily basis.
These kinds of conversations are not easy to have. However, like learning to ride a bike, the practice of intimate communication is a difficult one to unlearn. Make it a habit, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how natural healthy strategies begin to feel!
Dr. Gottman’s three skills and one rule for having an intimate conversation.
The rule is that understanding must precede advice. In the Art & Science of Love Workshop, Drs. John and Julie Gottman tell couples that the goal of an intimate conversation is only to understand, not to problem-solve. Premature problem solving tends to shut people down. Problem solving and advice should only begin when both people feel totally understood.
Skill #1: Putting Your Feelings into Words
The first skill is being able to put one’s feelings into words. This skill was called “focusing” by master clinician Eugene Gendlin. He said that when people are able to find the right images, phrases, metaphors, and words to fit our feelings, there is a kind of “resolution” one feels on one’s body, an easing of tension. In intimate conversations, focusing makes conversations about feelings much deeper and more intimate, because the words reveal who we are.
Skill #2: Asking Open-Ended Questions
The second skill of intimate conversations is helping one’s partner explore his or her feelings by asking open-ended questions. This is done by either asking targeted questions, like, “What is your disaster scenario here?” or making specific statements that explore feelings like, “Tell me the story of that!
Skill #3: Expressing Empathy
The third skill is empathy, or validation. Empathy isn’t easy. In an intimate conversation, the first two skills help us sense and explore another person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Empathy is shown by communication that these thoughts, feelings, and needs make sense to you. That you understand why the other person’s experience. That does not mean that you necessarily agree with this person. You might, for example, have an entirely different memory or interpretation of events. Empathy means communicating that, given your partner’s perceptions, these thoughts, feelings, and needs are valid and make sense. You have your own perceptions. Both of your perceptions are valid.