THE 9 SECRETS OF HAPPY, HEALTHY, AND EMOTIONALLY COMMITTED RELATIONSHIP
This weekend, I attempted to bake gluten-free muffins.
It got me thinking… if lasting love had specific ingredients, what would need to be mixed together?
What would make it delicious year after year?
100% Emotionally Invested: Caryl Rusbult is a social psychologist who studied commitment in marriages over a 30-year period. This is not a “one foot in, one foot out” type of investment. This is an all-in investment, and it is required by both partners.
Responsiveness: Dr. Gottman’s research highlights that successful couples turn towards each other’s bids for connection 86% of the time. Couples who separate only do so 33% of the time. In order to last, tune into what your partner is saying or doing. Additional research highlighted that it wasn’t how often a couple fought, but how little affection and emotional responsiveness they offered one another that caused a relationship to deteriorate. Responsiveness is the cornerstone of trust and connection
Cherish Each Other: Partners who are 100% emotionally invested and responsive have positive views of each other. Whether they are together or separate, they think of their lover’s positive attributes and express what they admire to one another.
Put the Relationship First: This means putting your partner’s needs on par with your own. This doesn’t mean neglecting your needs in favor of your partners. Doing this requires a willingness to kindly express your needs to your partner in a way they can understand because you know those needs are core to your own happiness.
Nurture Love and Respect: Happy couples nurture gratitude for the partner they have. They honor each other and display respect, even during conflict.
Best Friends Forever: If the above ingredients are available, it’s easy to see why committed lovers feel that there is no better partner in the world than the one that they have. A strong friendship makes it easy to weather relationship storms. Couples who have cultivated a deeply connected friendship are affectionate and even laugh together during conflict.
Seek to Gain a Greater Understanding during Conflict: Before happy couples come to an agreement on how to resolve their issues, they first focus on understanding each partner’s perspective. They focus on reconnecting emotionally before trying to resolve their issues.
Interdependent: Each partner is connected and dependent on the other for closeness and comfort, but independent enough to pursue self-interest and share their perspectives openly, gently, and honestly. Even if the issue causes tension or a conflict in the relationship.
Calm, Stable, and Safe: A secure romantic relationship is as smooth as a calm body of water. An insecure relationship feels as unstable as a roller coaster.
By the way, to answer your most important question: No, my muffins were not good. I burnt them. 🙁
I guess following directions is pretty important in making something delicious!
I’m taking off my “Kiss The Baker” apron, and I’m going to eat my burnt muffins…
The first step toward improving or enhancing your marriage is to understand what happens when relationships fail. This has been well documented by extensive research into couples that were not able to save their marriages. Learning about their failures can prevent your relationship from making the same mistakes — or rescue it if it already has.
In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, I list the six things that predict divorce. This ability to predict divorce is based in part on my analysis of the 130 newlywed couples who were observed at the “Love Lab” apartment at the University of Washington.
During our research study, my team and I asked these couples to spend fifteen minutes in the lab trying to resolve an ongoing disagreement they were having while we videotaped them. As they spoke, sensors attached to their bodies gauged their stress levels based on various measurements of their circulatory system. Here is what I discovered.
1. Harsh Startup
The most obvious indicator that a conflict discussion (and marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins. When a discussion leads off with criticism and/or sarcasm (a form of contempt), it has begun with a “harsh startup.” My research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note. Statistics tell the story: 96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction.
2. The Four Horsemen
Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that we call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Read more about The Four Horsemen and their antidotes here.
Flooding means that your partner’s negativity – whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness – is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted, then, by habitual harsh startup and frequent flooding brought on by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during disagreements. Although each of these factors alone can predict a divorce, they usually coexist in an unhappy marriage. Read more about flooding here.
4. Body Language
When my team monitored couples for bodily changes during a conflict discussion, we could see just how physically distressing flooding was. One of the most apparent of these physical reactions is that the heart speeds up – pounding away at more than 100 beats per minute – even as high as 165. Hormonal changes occur, too, including the secretion of adrenaline. Blood pressure also mounts. The physical sensations of feeling flooded make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.
5. Failed Repair Attempts
It takes time for the four horsemen and flooding that comes in their wake to overrun a marriage. And yet, divorce can so often be predicted by listening to a single conversation. How can this be?
The answer is that by analyzing any disagreement a couple has, you get a good sense of the pattern they tend to follow. A crucial part of that pattern is whether their repair attempts succeed or fail.
Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes to deescalate the tension during a discussion. The failure of these attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future. Read more about repair attempts here.
6. Bad Memories
When I interview couples, I always ask them about the history of their relationship. In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together. Conduct your own Oral History Interview here.
A SIMPLE THING YOU CAN DO TO INSURE A HEALTHY MARRIAGE…
Check out this amazing statistic: “While 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, and 78 percent of second marriages end in divorce, less than 1 percent of couples who pray together daily end their marriages.
My wife and I have been married 3 ½ years. I am thankful that my wife has a passion for God and has a powerful prayer life every day in her life. She starts her day at 5AM. We meet together at 7 to read a devotional book together and then Proverbs and a few other things I pick out. Then we pray together and we always pray the Jabez prayer and the Lord’s Prayer.
Taking that time together shuts out the devil from our relationship and allows us to focus on what is important.
The devotional book we read was written by my good friends, David and Teresa Ferguson. The book is called Never Alone: devotions for couples. It is one of the best books for couples I have ever read.
Each day they cover 52 topics to cover an entire year. Topics like acceptance, admonition, appreciation, sex, forgiveness, trust, faith, honor and so on. It’s amazing how often God speaks to us about issues we struggle with in our marriage. It seems that David and Teresa struggled with the same issues. I often hear that same comment about my TGIF devotional.
So, if you are married, I encourage you to get this book. When you order it, you will also get a free download of an interview I did with David and Teresa. Click here to learn more.
That blond princess whose miserable life was instantly transformed by her gorgeous-smooth-move-well-dressed-billionaire prince charming.
Well, I never knew her. She sounds like an evil step-daughter.
But I do know Cindy.
Cindy’s friends were telling her about this guy she might like. His name was Ryan, and he looked like David Beckham.
The next night Cindy and her friends went to one of his professional games. Her friends introduced them afterwards..
He took her hand, kissed it, and looked into her eyes.
“Next time we meet, it will be just you and me,” he said.
That did it. She was swept off her feet.
As they got to know each other, the intensity grew. They seemed to deeply understand one another. They enjoyed the same things; food, working out, and exotic beach towns. They both thought, the slipper fits!
It was like a damn Disney movie.
After a few months, Ryan became moody. Actually, he had always been moody, but it didn’t show at first. This bothered Cindy. She wanted to talk about what was bothering him, but he got irritated when she tried.
“Just leave me alone.”
Cindy felt shut out.
Once in awhile they planned a romantic night on the town. Sometimes Ryan didn’t want to go. Other times, Cindy would endure his silence over the candlelit dinner. Anytime she would say something, he would show his disappointment by saying something like, “I thought you knew me.”
Their friends, knowing how much they cared about each other, urged them to work on this problem. But the couple felt sad and frustrated.
“Every [relationship] demands an effort to keep it on the right track; there is constant tension…between forces that hold you together and those that tear you apart.” – John Gottman
The belief that relationship success should not need effort robs relationships of the fire they need to burn. So many relationships turn their hot and passionate fire of love into ashes, just because the couple believes that being in love means never having to do anything demanding.
This toxic belief shows up in two different ways:
Part of the no-effort relationship fairytale is the belief that couples can read each other’s minds.
My partner knows what I think, feel, and need, and I know the same for them.
The truth is, all couples are incapable of reading minds. Just the other day, my girlfriend said, “Kyle, I need more space.”
I’ve heard that before.
My heart dropped. I went into shock. Was our relationship doomed? I couldn’t believe it. I thought everything was going so well. We were laughing until our stomachs hurt, kissing all the time…. what did I do wrong?
Finally I summoned the courage to ask, “What do you mean?”
“Your fat ass is taking up too much of our chair,” she said as she kissed me.
Oh. I’m so glad I asked.
In Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise, he asked couples to guess their partner’s self-worth, abilities, and preferences on house chores on a scale from 1-5. He found that couples were accurate 44% of the time, despite believing they were right 82% of the time.
Even more time together doesn’t help. Rather, longer term relationships “create an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.”
The quality of your relationship depends on your ability to understand your partner, and vice versa. The secret to understanding each other better seems not to come from mind reading, but through the hard work of putting our partners in a position where they can tell us their minds openly and honestly.
It’s quite delusional to believe in mind reading. But it makes sense when many couples who believe this also believe that a couple should share 100% of each other’s view on everything.
We Agree on Everything
This belief ties well with reading minds. If you can read each other’s mind, then you don’t need communication; you can just assume your partner sees the world the way you do.
Even though you two speak the same language, you both grew up in a sea of different experiences. You were given separate dictionaries on life. This makes it impossible to share ALL of each other’s assumptions and expectations.
Take Leah and David, for instance. Leah and David had just finished undergrad and were planning on getting married. David, a minimalist, went and signed a lease for a small apartment outside of Portland. He thought she’d be delighted.
When he opened the door, she flipped.
Leah had been living in tiny-ass apartments her entire life. Married couples were supposed to live in nice houses with new cars in the garage.
She felt betrayed. He felt confused. The relationship didn’t last much longer.
A couple may agree on traditional roles or have similar views, but that’s very different from assuming it as an entitlement.
Love Requires Effort
A no-effort relationship is not a great relationship; it’s a doomed relationship. It takes effort to communicate and understand each other. Love takes work. It takes work to expose and resolve conflicting beliefs and expectations.
However, that doesn’t mean there is no “happily ever after.”
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as
I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that
you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
─ John 13:34-35
God is love. His grace,
an overflow of His love for us, is what makes God desirable to those that don’t
Sadly, we’ve all met
people who claimed to be Christians, but the outflow of their life didn’t
represent the attributes and character of God. Perhaps you’ve even sat in a
church that criticized and judged you because you didn’t conform to their
specific list of rules, definitions of what a Christian should be, or even what
a Christian should act like.
Our own negative words
and actions can push others away rather than compel them to experience the
love, grace and mercy of God. Jesus said everyone can recognize someone who
follows Him simply by the fact that they have love. True Christ followers obey
the Lord’s commandment to follow His example and love first, above all
When we demonstrate His love to others, they gain insight with a glimpse of the
grace and mercy He’s made available to them. That’s why love should go first in
all we do. That’s why our responses to everything in our relationships should
flow out of God’s love for us and for others.
Today’s One Thing
Here are four ways to
demonstrate God’s love. Set a goal to do all of these at least once today.
an act of service for someone with no strings attached.
smile to everyone you see today.
conversations away from negativity – encouraging positive topics.
Love is a dance of connection and disconnection. Some of us need more connection, others need independence. What if I told you there were only two roads to making a toxic relationship healthier?
Road One is breaking up and finding a more secure partner.
Road Two means viewing the problems in the relationship as a slingshot for growth.
Even if you fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, the relationship can work!
But the only way it can work is if you both see problems as a catalyst to understanding and respecting each other’s differences.
If you don’t, holding hands quickly turns to pointing fingers.
If your partner’s idea of closeness makes you feel like you’re suffocating, or if you feel like your partner intentionally ignores you, the best thing you can do for your relationship is to talk about it.
By examining moments of disconnection, both partners will gain profound insight so they can begin learning how to give each other what they need.
I’ve put together these four exercises to help turn your toxic relationship into a healthy one.
Exercise 1: Talk about it.
If one of you is feeling ignored or overwhelmed by your partner’s needs, use the exercise below to understand each other better.
Instructions: Think of the last argument you had. Rate the following feelings on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way).
During our fight I felt:
Like my opinions don’t matter
Now explore what triggered those feelings.
Rate what triggered those feelings on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way)
I felt unimportant to my partner
I felt cold toward my partner
I felt rejected
I felt overwhelmed by demands
I felt excluded
I didn’t feel attraction
I didn’t feel affection
My sense of dignity was compromised
I couldn’t get my partner’s attention
My partner was dominating
Answers: There are no right or wrong answers here.
Each answer depends on your reality.
The goal of the exercise is for both partners to understand each other. The only way to do that is to recognize one vital element that makes relationships last.
That vital element is…
Both points of view are valid.
When partners believe there is only one truth, they fight for their own position. That belief is a dead-end.
There is only one assumption that will make the conversation about disconnection or too much closeness beneficial: that in every fight, there are always two points of view, and both are valid.
Once you and your partner accept that idea, it’s no longer necessary to argue for your own position.
Now you can focus on understanding your partner’s position, and work together to find a mutual solution thereby creating a less toxic relationship.
There are always two sides to every conflict.
Once you understand and acknowledge this, you’ll quickly find that reconnecting comes naturally.
Exercise 2: Revisit the past.
Now that we’ve identified your emotional reaction, it’s time to get in a time machine and revisit your past.
See if you can find a relationship between earlier traumas or behavior and your current reaction.
Note: If you’ve been sexually harassed, raped, or experienced any other trauma your partner is unaware of, now is the time to bring it up. In my work with others, I’ve found that sharing our deepest pain with our partners truly helps them understand us. It also gives them the ability to gently work with us on traumas so we can begin to heal together.
This list will help guide you.
When I (or my partner) turned away, it reminded me of:
An earlier relationship.
Past traumas or hard times I’ve had.
The way my family treated me growing up.
My deepest fears and insecurities.
Unaccomplished dreams I have.
Events I have not emotionally dealt with yet.
Ways other people have treated me.
Things I always believed about myself.
Nightmares that keep me up at night.
Take time to discuss each other’s answers.
Ask open-ended questions so you can understand each other better.
This isn’t about who feels worse or who is more right. It’s about taking the time to truly understand each other’s insecurities and deepest fears.
When your partner tells you something that shocks or surprises you, say, “tell me more about that.”
Today’s kids are immersed in media. More than ever before, tweens and teens are watching, reading, listening, creating, and communicating throughout their entire day. It’s become harder to distinguish between screen time and just … time. The Common Sense Census found that American teens average about nine hours of media per day and tweens about six per day. This doesn’t include time spent doing homework on a computer or tablet or reading books for school.
Parents should feel empowered to set limits on screens of all sizes. Devices are a huge part of screen time, and kids need support in establishing balance and setting limits. Depending on your family, these rules can be as simple as “no phones at the dinner table” or “no texting after 9 p.m.”
Encourage your kids to be creative, responsible consumers, not just passive users. Media can be incredibly productive, educational, and empowering. Helping younger kids find great content and get access to quality books, complex movies, challenging games, and safe apps and websites fosters a positive relationship with media.
Help kids understand the effects of multitasking. Our research shows tweens and teens think multitasking has no impact on the quality of their homework. As parents, we know that helping kids stay focused will only strengthen interpersonal skills and school performance. Encourage them to manage one task at a time, shutting down social media while working online for homework or engaging in conversation.
Talk the talk, walk the walk. Lead by example by putting your own devices away during family time. Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home. Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.
When it comes to screen time, every family will have different amounts of time that they think is “enough.” What’s important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you’re comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids. Try these age-based guidelines to create screen rules that stick.
Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen can interfere with activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.
Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called “brain-builder,” but there’s a difference between mindless and mindfulentertainment. Our reviews can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so try to establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say “one show.”
Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it’s crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.
Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have — your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand — to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won’t flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don’t have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says “time to stop.”
Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ worksheets to create a family media plan.
Practice what you preach. It’s tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not “walking the talk.” Plus, they’ll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.
Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who’ve discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once — especially when they’re supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
Find ways to say “yes.” Look for movies they can watch. Find games you’re OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don’t approve of, help them find alternatives.
Take it from a middle school teacher and mom: Kids need to
manage their online activities — and parents need to help them do it.
This article is part of Common Sense
Media’s Parent Voices series, which provides a platform for opinions about
parenting in the digital age. All ideas expressed are the writer’s own.
Last year Fortnite invaded
my middle school classroom — as I believe it did to middle school classrooms
across the country. Students who were usually on task and high-performing were
nodding off and “forgetting”
to do their homework. The morning conversations about how late they stayed up or
who was the last man
standing became part of our early morning check-ins. Then the
phone calls with parents started: Over several months, I had numerous telephone
and after-school meetings with parents concerned about their kids’ performance.
When I brought up screen time,
there were a range of reactions. Some parents seemed oblivious as
to what their children were doing after hours, some didn’t know how to rein in
screen time, and some thought they had it all under control — but clearly did
I get it. I’m not just a teacher: I’m
a mom who struggles with screen time, too. I spent last summer trying
to keep my own middle school daughter unplugged in the rural English
countryside. After the first week, when the iPad started appearing little by
little, I tried to use my own advice — “However much you read
is how much screen time you get” — and reasoning, “Make sure you
balance your learning games with your other games.” But then I’d hear my
daughter yelling at a friend who’d just left her online game, and I’d feel like
I’d lost the battle.
The thing is, I’m not anti-screen.
I’ve seen technology bring some amazing teaching
momentsto my classroom — and to my own life. One student, whom I
could never get to write a complete sentence on paper, wrote the most heartfelt
poem about how he “nearly won” in Fortnite.
It became his breakthrough,
and he hasn’t stopped writing since. Other kids made parallels to the dystopian books they
were reading and wrote very poignant compare-and-contrast papers to prove their
points. And, far away from her friends in the United States, my daughter was
able to stay in touch with her friends online, keep herself occupied with Roblox,
and feel a part of pop culture by watching every Miranda Sings video
Those breakthrough moments of
connection, creativity, and critical thinking are what I strive for as a
teacher and a mother. What it tells me is that however parents handle the
management of their kids’ screen time, it really does have to be a balance. And
knowing middle school kids as well as I do, I know that they aren’t always able
to shut downFortnite or YouTube without the
guidance and support of their
parents. I’ve also discovered that tech is never going to be a
one-size-fits-all thing. What works for some kids will not work for others.
Finding what is best for your family can involve a bit of trial and error.
These are the strategies that worked
for many of my parents last year and that I’m sure I will be trying with my
middle schooler this year:
Be present. Know
what your child is playing and when. That seems simple, but it is so important.
So many of my parents last year had no idea that their child was staying up
until all hours in the morning playing games. I heard more than once, “I
have never had to worry about their screen use. They have been so good up until
now.” I remind them that this is middle school, they are not bad kids, and
they are just testing the boundaries — so set them!
Control the Wi-Fi. I touched base with some of my parents after their children made
improvements in class, and I found that they had put in place simple household
internet controls. The kids had passwords to access the internet, and the
parents put a time limit on when the password could be used. Please note that a
few of my tech-savvy kids confided that they were able to “override”
Remove the temptation. Some families took all screens out of the children’s
bedrooms and stored cellphones in a locked charging box until morning. This
might seem extreme, but I know for at least one of my students this worked. He
was struggling socially and trying so hard to fit in with a certain crowd. He
later acknowledged that he needed help — beyond the gaming community.
Parental-control apps. I’ve had students tell their parents that they have online
homework to do and then end up playing a game instead. Parental-control apps
can help, but it takes some research to find the right one for your needs. Making
the homework space at the dining room table or another central location can
make it easier to keep an eye on kids, too.
need downtime. I have these hormonal, opinionated, stressed-out middle
schoolers for two hours a day, and I push them. I know that the other teachers
at my school also carry high expectations. Finding time to completely unplug is
important. One parent told me today that they have a hard rule of no screen
time except for homework on weekdays, and the way to lose weekend play time is
by breaking that rule. I personally allow weekday screen time, but I reserve
the right to change my mind.
JOHN GOTTMAN AND BRENÉ BROWN ON RUNNING HEADLONG INTO HEARTBREAK
To a seasoned couples
therapist, the telltale signs of a relationship in crisis are universal. While
every marriage is unique, with distinct memories and stories that capture its
essence, how it looks at its core, the anatomy so-to-speak, adheres to certain
truths. The bones of love, what builds trust (and breaks it), what fosters
connection (and disconnection) we have widely come to understand through the
work of Dr. John Gottman.
Gottman, renowned for
his research on marital stability and demise,
and recognized as one of the ten most influential psychotherapists of the past
quarter-century, has at this stage of his career amassed over 40 years of
research with 3,000 participants. The quality and breadth of his studies are
recognized as some of the finest and most exemplary data we have to date, and
serve as an underpinning for how we understand what makes love work.
Enter Brené Brown, a
self-described researcher, storyteller, and Texan. She’s gritty and funny, and
like Gottman, a formidable researcher. Over the past two decades, Brown has
studied shame, vulnerability, courage, and empathy. She’s published five New
York Times #1 bestsellers, and over 40 million people have viewed
her TED Talk on vulnerability. Her passion
for living a wholehearted life is contagious and convincing. Her research has
confirmed a core human need to belong and connect, and at a time when many of
us are feeling the absence of such, she’s tapping a deep well—inspiring a tribe
of the wholehearted, people committed to practicing shame-resilience, Daring Greatly, and embracing vulnerability.
Gottman coined the term
“Masters of marriage” to describe the couples in his research whose
relationships not only endure, but thrive. These are people who cultivate
trust, commitment, responsiveness, and an ability to cherish their partner’s
feelings throughout a lifetime. Brown speaks of the “wholehearted” individuals
who engage their lives from a place of worthiness. They cultivate courage,
compassion, and connection. Both groups, the masters of marriage and the
wholehearted, display a host of traits that we now know are associated with
health and thriving.
Having had the good
fortune to train in both the Gottman Method and The Daring Way® (an
experiential methodology based on the research of Brené Brown), I cannot help
but wonder, what life would be like if we could take our cues from the masters
of marriage and the wholehearted? How might this shape who we
are as individuals in a partnership? What might the ripple effects be to our
children and society at large if we aspire to love as Gottman and Brown are
The implications of
following in the footsteps of the masters and the wholehearted are huge. The
Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most extensive study of its
kind, has taught us three things. First, that loneliness can kill as surely as
smoking or alcoholism, and that when we are connected, we live longer and
healthier lives. Second, the quality of our relationships matter. It’s not the
number of friends we have, or whether or not we are in a committed relationship
that predicts thriving. Being in a high-conflict marriage is bad for one’s
health. It is worse than divorce. Third, good relationships don’t just protect
our health. They protect our mind. Memory loss and cognitive decline are more
prevalent in lives permeated by conflict and disconnection.
And if that is not
compelling enough, Brown’s research on the implications of shame paints a
similarly grim picture, depicting shame as correlated with loneliness,
depression, suicidality, abuse, trauma, bullying, addiction, and anxiety.
So while love may not
heal all wounds, it is undoubtedly a panacea for preventing them.
Gottman and Brown give us
a map—a macro perspective of the wilderness of our hearts, and the wildness of
love. It’s a rocky path, fraught with challenges and risk. But vulnerability is
inherent in any stance that places courage above comfort. And should we decide
to follow it, the destination it promises to take us to is nothing short of
paradox of trust
Gottman, in his
book The Science of
Trust, astutely asserts that loneliness is (in part) the
inability to trust. And sadly, the failure to trust tends to perpetuate itself.
For when we don’t trust, over time, we become less able to read other people
and deficient in empathy. He states, “Lonely people are caught in a spiral that
keeps them away from others, partly because they withdraw to avoid the
potential hurt that could occur from trusting the wrong person. So they trust
nobody, even the trustworthy.”
According to both
researchers, it’s the small interactions rather than grand gestures that build
trust and break it. “Sliding door moments,” as Gottman calls them, are the
seemingly inconsequential day-to-day interactions we have over breakfast, while
riding in the car, or standing in the kitchen at 9 p.m. Within each act of
communication, there is an opportunity to build a connection. And when we don’t
seize it, an insidious erosion of trust ensues, slowly overtime.
Our relationships do not
die from one swift blow. They die from the thousand tiny cuts that precede it.
But choosing to trust is
all about tolerance for risk, and our histories (both in childhood and with our
partners) can inform how much we are willing to gamble. Brown speaks to the
paradox of trust: we must risk vulnerability in order to build trust, and
simultaneously, it is the building of trust that inspires vulnerability. And
she recommends cultivating a delicate balance, one where we are generous in our
assumptions of others and simultaneously able to set firm boundaries as a means
to afford such generosity—being soft and tough at the same time, no small
our stories write us
According to Gottman, the
final harbinger of a relationship ending is in how couples recall memories and
the stories they tell. Memories, it turns out, are not static. They evolve,
change, and are a living work-in-progress. When a relationship is nearing its
end, at least one person is likely to carry a story inside themselves that no
longer recollects the warm feelings they once had for their partner.
Instead, a new narrative
evolves, maximizing their partner’s negative traits, and quite likely,
minimizing their own. “Self-righteous indignation” as Gottman aptly refers to
it is a subtle form of contempt and is sulfuric acid for love. This story,
laced with blame and bad memories, is the strongest indicator of an impending
breakup or divorce.
But, as Brown cautions,
“We are meaning-making machines wired for survival. Anytime something bad
happens, we scramble to make up a story, and our brain does not care if the
story is right or wrong, and most likely, it is wrong.” She points out that in
research when a story has limited data points, it is a conspiracy, and a lie
told honestly is a confabulation.
In social psychology,
this pre-wired bias is referred to as the fundamental attribution error (FAE).
The FAE speaks to our tendency to believe that others do bad things because
they are bad people, and to ignore evidence to the contrary while
simultaneously having a blind spot that allows us to minimize or overlook what
our behaviors say about our character. In short, we are partial to giving
ourselves a pass while not extending the same generosity to others.
When our minds trick us
into believing we know what our partner’s intentions, feelings, and motives are
we enter a very dark wood—one where we truly can no longer see the forest for
the trees. The ramifications of this are significant because the stories we
tell ourselves dictate how we treat people.
In portraying ourselves
as a hero or victim, we no longer ally with the relationship, but rather, armor
up and see our partner as the enemy. And if memory is malleable, and we’re
prone to spinning conspiracies and confabulations, there is a strong likelihood
that we run the risk of hurting ourselves and those we love in assuming this
tendencies towards mishaps and misperceptions is not easy. It requires a
certain humility, grace, and intentionality. But as Stan Tatkin points out in
his TED talk, Relationships are Hard, “We are mostly
misunderstanding each other much of the time, and if we assume our
communication, memory, and perception is the real truth, that is hubris.”
The wholehearted and
masters of marriage bypass such hubris and navigate the terrain of
relationships differently than those who get lost in the wood. If we want our
relationships and quality of life to thrive, it’s essential we take our cues
from them and cultivate new habits.
emotions (and the suck)
To do so, we must first
expand our emotional repertoire to include a wide range of feelings, not just
our go-to ones. “Emotion-embracing,” as Gottman calls it, is a central building
block for healthy relationships. We are aiming for what Pixar’s Inside Out so
brilliantly depicts: inviting sadness, joy, anger, disgust, and fear all to the
Put simply, Brown
suggests we “embrace the suck,” stating that the wholehearted demonstrate a
capacity to recognize when they’re emotionally ensnared and get curious about
their feelings and perceptions.
Both Gottman and Brown
draw on the Stone Center’s Strategies of Disconnection, which
propose that people respond in one of three ways when hurt: by moving away,
moving toward, or moving against that which feels painful. And what I find
interesting is that while Gottman advocates for turning toward your partner
when injured, and Brown speaks more to leaning into (and getting curious about)
our own uncomfortable emotions, both are emotion-embracing and courageous
stances that emphasize mutuality over individualism.
Unfortunately, most of us
are not taught as children to embrace painful feelings. It’s counterintuitive
and goes against our neurobiological wiring. If we have a traumatic history,
all the more so. And our society by-and-large is an emotion-dismissing culture.
But as Brown cautions, there’s a price to pay when we selectively numb
emotions: when we numb our painful feelings, we also numb our positive ones.
So, if we want the good things in life (and I think most of us want the good
things), then it’s a package deal.
If the most significant
indicator that a relationship has reached a tipping point is a rewritten story
devoid of fond memories, then it stands to reason that a narrative free from
blame, interwoven with curiosity and even goodwill is indicative of love that
will last. Therefore, one of the central tasks of any healthy relationship is
to co-create stories from a lens of “we” versus “me.”
It involves little (and
big) reckonings as Brown calls them, sliding door moments where we pause long
enough to reflect and ask ourselves (and each other), “What is going on right
now?” Together, we cultivate a broader understanding of a disagreement or hurt
feelings, one not possible when left alone in our heads to spin narratives that
defend our most vulnerable parts and simultaneously ensure that we will go to
our grave more swiftly, lonely, and armored.
When I reflect on the
lessons of Gottman and Brown, one concept stands out: we must run headlong into
heartbreak because there are things far worse than having our hearts broken.
Such as the harm we inflict on our loved ones when we disown pain and transmit
it onto them. And the legacy of trauma that ripples into our children’s hearts
and the generations to come—veiling us in a seemingly impermeable barrier to
vulnerability and all the fruits that go with it.
And let us not forget the
Harvard Study of Adult Development and the toll that a conflict-laden life
combined with emotion-dismissing has on our health.
Yes, running headlong
into heartbreak is running directly into vulnerability. It involves
uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But, as Brown reminds us,
vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and
Should we choose this
path, there will be moments (likely many) where we find ourselves facedown in
the dirt because the road to wholeheartedness guarantees we will get our hearts
broken—again and again. But, in choosing to embrace heartbreak, we empower
ourselves to experience the myriad of ways love manifests itself and the beauty
life affords us. In the end, it’s not a question of if we will experience
heartbreak but of how.