Not really. Not entirely. Fear was taken from the reality of Merriam-Webster. Intimacy was taken from the reality of human relationships. Ultimately, when we are afraid of the possible consequences, we cannot trust our partners to listen and fully support us – especially not when it comes to our deepest feelings, hopes, or dreams. And why should we? Our internal wiring prevents us from opening our hearts to those we fear will hurt us emotionally, from worries that they will let us down, to terror and anxiety about their potential to leave us. This is, in the language of evolutionary psychology, called an adaptive trait. It’s healthy. We need to protect ourselves!
Dr. Gottman understands this. His book on trust tells us to listen to these feelings, but also provides incredibly important methods for discerning how trust functions (or malfunctions) in our relationships. He doesn’t waste any time in getting to the core of the issue: trust begins in emotional attunement. Emotional attunement is often rooted in the ways in which we speak to each other – trust is built and broken in our everyday conversation.
In today’s crazy world of technology, high-speed jobs, and overstimulation, we are culturally forced into a seemingly limitless barrage of superficial chatter. While small talk is harmless and often incredibly effective in maintaining an amicable work environment at the water-cooler, constant superficial conversation is toxic to any intimate relationship. Dr. Gottman finds irony and a cause for concern in the bizarre applicability of Jean Piaget’s findings on “collective monologue” to our everyday conversations. Originally found in preschoolers, the effect is visible in adults these days: around the dinner table, we often alienate each other without even realizing what we are doing. We behave like toddlers. We somehow forget to leave our meaningless chattering water-cooler selves at the office, and wonder how it is that we end up missing each other entirely. Consider the following example between Mia and Jesse at the dinner table, when she has come back from a long day at work and night school, and he has spent all day dragging the kids around to various activities:
Mia: “Augh, I can’t believe how much stuff I have to do these days, it’s insane! I don’t understand how these classes can assign so much homework, don’t they realize we have jobs?!”
Jesse: “The kids were crazy today, Bobby didn’t want to go to swimming lessons, and he keeps talking about being a lifeguard. Maybe we should stop sending him, they’re not cheap.”
Mia: “And I have such a stupid boss. He doesn’t even get it – I keep having to work overtime shifts!”
Jesse: “It’s not as if he even talks about life-guarding that much anymore – these days it’s all about dinosaurs. Sometimes it all feels so ridiculous…”
Mia: “What if I get laid off?!”
Jesse: “WHAT? What are you even talking about?”
They are talking past each other. Examine your recent conversations. Sound familiar?
When we are stressed out or feel that we are unable to share our feelings with our partners, we risk sending the wrong messages to each other. These days, we seem to need to re-learn what an intimate conversation even looks like. According to Dr. Gottman, many of us have severe misconceptions on the subject, which understandably provokes anxiety in some for legitimate reasons. Intimate conversation is not about constant headlong plunges into touchy subjects and conflict discussions – a behavior which has the potential to tear you and your partner apart. Intimate conversation is about Sliding Door Moments. Intimate conversation is about sharing closeness and solidifying your bond with your loved ones.
This week, in the Gottman Relationship Blog, we will teach you the basics of intimate conversation. For far more detail, we encourage you to explore Dr. Gottman’s new book What Makes Love Last when it becomes available to the public on September 4th. Until then, look forward to posts on Wednesday and Friday sharing the fundamental skills he teaches in his chapter on The Art of Intimate Conversation.
Also, if you missed our first promo for Dr. Gottman’s new book, here it is again: