The 6 Types of Relationship-Strengthening Conversations Intentional Couples Have

THE 6 TYPES OF RELATIONSHIP-STRENGTHENING CONVERSATIONS INTENTIONAL COUPLES HAVE

Kyle Benson

“Few dating couples would get married if they had as little focused conversation as most married couples do.” – Dr. Bill Doughty, The Intentional Family

How couples talk to one another and what they discuss determines the way partners stay emotionally connected within their relationship.

For example, dual-income couples with kids, as observed by researchers, focused on mostly talking about household chores, daycare, and groceries.

I don’t know about you, but talking about picking up celery at the grocery store doesn’t make me feel loved.

The key to intentionally creating an intimate relationship is having a variety of conversations, almost like adding different spices to the meals you cook. Each spice offers a new flavor of deliciousness.

Some spices are rather dull but necessary to build baseline substance; some are bitter and are an acquired taste; and others create an indulgent sensation of pleasure.

Type 1: Routine Conversations

Routine conversations include discussions about chores, who’s taking the kids to what, what’s for dinner, and scheduling events, including date night.

These conversations are essential to accomplish practical things and to prevent items from falling through the cracks.

However, most often these conversations do not create a felt sense of emotional connection and intimacy. When Stacy asks Dave to vacuum, it’s unlikely Dave will gaze into her eyes and in a loving voice say, “I am going to vacuum this entire house!”

When couples end up unintentionally devoting the majority of their time and energy to routine conversations, their emotional intimacy will begin to fade, since they end up having nothing left over to energize their relationship.

It’s important to remember to be mindful of your tone of voice and to be conversational, rather than demanding or critical when having these types of conversations. Sometimes the routine conversation about plans can quickly lead to an escalated conflict based on how partners say things.

If household management is a conflict in your relationship, read: 4 Common Solvable Problems in Romantic Relationships

Type 2: Friendship-Strengthening Conversations

Couples often fall in love by getting to know each other. And then they often fall out of love because they forget to continue to get to know each other over the years. They stop asking questions and stop learning about each other and themselves.

“When we are no longer open to getting to know our partners, we are no longer open to a relationship and love.” -Kyle Benson, The Human Heart Was Made To be Known And Loved

Being known by and knowing your partner is what builds a strong friendship in your relationship. In secure, happy, and long-lasting relationships, partners are each other’s best friends.1

They share funny stories about the kids or work and listen to each other. Each one knows their partner’s frustrations, as well as their joys, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams.

Couples heading for trouble allow conflicts to consume friendship conversations—so much so that they stop asking intimate questions.

The good news is the research on relationship workshops 2 indicate that couples cherish the idea of becoming close friends and can do so instantly. Being a friend is less about learning skills and more about shifting your attitude.

Friendship talk is the number one way to make sure that you and your partner remain connected and in-tune with one another. The goal of friendship conversations is to have uninterrupted time to just be together and continue to learn about each other.

Tips for Continuing to Build a Strong Friendship:

  1. Consistently ask open-ended questions that get to the heart of who your partner is in this moment (Hint: The 7-Day Emotional Connection Challenge is a great starting point).
  2. Check in with your partner about upcoming events in your life as individuals and as a family.
  3. Share good news and celebrate, even in small ways, such as giving a high five or big kiss. Or bigger ways, such as with dinner, drinks, and/or dessert.
  4. Share important memories from your childhood when they come to mind.
  5. Talk about personal or life goals and dreams.
  6. Share personal projects you’re working on or interested in. Ask your partner what they love or find pleasurable and meaningful about the project they are working on.
  7. Schedule a playdate with each other and do something exhilarating together.

“A friend is someone who is glad to see you and doesn’t have any immediate plans for your improvement” – Bill Coffin of the U.S. Navy 3

Articles to help you:

If you don’t prioritize having friendship talk, and you eventually stop having them completely, both partners will forget why they fell in love with one another (or even why they like each other) in the first place.

“Enhancing friendship in your marriage is an investment that will pay off over time in happiness and relationship satisfaction.” – Fighting For Your Marriage

Type 3: Support Conversations: “I Have Your Back”

When your partner is hurting what do you do? How do you offer support that your partner needs?

“When you’re hurting, the world stops, and I listen.” – Dr. John Gottman

Research has shown that emotional and physical support from a lover enhances personal well-being, especially under stress. 4 Researchers also discovered that feeling confident you can get the support you need and want from your partner is just as important as receiving that support.

“Although there is some mystery about whom we fall in love with, there is less mystery in what makes for a successful, rewarding relationship…Two of the key elements…are a safe haven and a secure base.” – Wyndol Furman

Dr. Furman 5 advises dating partners not to commit to a relationship unless they have been through a difficult time and each found their partner was supportive in a way that was helpful.

Essentially, relationship security is having faith that your partner will be there for you when you need them. This is the essence of a secure attachment bond.

In attachment world, we evaluate how well partners offer each other a safe haven—a place of emotional and physical refuge—when one of them is hurt, and a secure base from which they can go explore the world with curiosity knowing that they have a person who is cheering them on and will be there if needed.

Making time to give and ask for support is a key way in which you can show your partner that you care for them, understand what they’re going through, and have their back. How we provide that support and what we say is crucial. As much as it might be second nature to offer advice to your partner during their trials, support talk involves listening, validating, and just being there for your partner.

Not only does this help them feel secure in the relationship, but also helps put negative assumptions (“she doesn’t care about me”) at ease, so that feelings of not feeling cared for during small events aren’t triggered during more serious events.

Types of support:

  1. Being there physically (in-person, on the phone, via text, etc.).
  2. Doing things you may not normally do that make life easier for your partner when they are going through a stressful time.
  3. Offering encouragement if your partner is going through something stressful, such as a job interview or something scary to them.
  4. Listening to your partner vent. Don’t try to solve problems for your partner, just listen. A great way to practice this is to have a stress-reducing conversation. “Scheduling formal griping sessions can prevent the spillover of everyday stress into your marriage” – Dr. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
  5. Offer emotional support when your partner is going through a difficult time.
  6. Support goals and dreams. “In a successful relationship, your partner encourages you to develop your interest and talents…[Y]our partner is your number-one fan” – Wyndol Furman
  7. Offer physical touch and support, such as a long hug, cuddling, and hand-holding. This offers your partner a felt sense that you are there for them even without saying a word.

It’s important that partners not only offer support but also talk openly about the types of support they need and how they offer support.

Like love languages, some forms of support are more meaningful to your partner, even ones that you may not find meaningful. Learning to offer support in the way that is most meaningful for your partner can drastically improve how supported your partner feels and vice versa.

Type 4: Conversations Centered on Affection and Appreciation

To build a strong relationship, it’s vital to create a culture of love, respect, and care. You can do this in small ways that can create lasting changes over time.

“Small things often.” – Dr. Gottman’s motto

Make an intentional effort to think relationship-enhancing thoughts and to verbalize or make loving gestures towards your partner.

Saying things even as simple as,

  • “I appreciate that you took the garbage out today. I love how I can count on you to help out around the house.”
  • “I love how you listen to what’s going on in my life. It makes me feel important and I appreciate that I can share that with you.”
  • “I cherish how much you care for our kids. It’s amazing to watch you parent and I truly admire how great of a person you are.”

Can you imagine what your relationship would be like if you and your partner regularly made statements and gestures like this to each other?

Take time to ask your partner what makes them feel most loved:

  • What makes you feel most loved by me?
  • What forms of affection, physical or verbal, help you feel important and loved?

Just as there are two experiences in every relationship, there are at least two different ways of feeling loved. Understanding and loving each other in the way each unique partner feels loved keeps the relationship strong.

Type 5: Relationship Enhancement Conversations (Conflict)

As much as we may hate conflict talk, it is necessary to make sure challenges, disagreements, and conflicts are dealt with constructively.

All relationships have conflict, but how lovers talk to each other about challenges determines how well the couple manages the problems to create win-win solutions.

“Within your conflicts, lies the greatest opportunity for intimacy.” – Dr. John Gottman

For couples, I recommend scheduling a weekly State of the Union meeting because the most effective intervention is prevention.

Here is the State of the Union meeting structure:

  • Set aside 30 minutes to an hour and find a place where both partners can be fully present and engaged. This means no distractions. Finally, check in with yourself to make sure you are ready to talk emotionally and are open to your partner’s experience and perspective.
  • Share five things you love, cherish, and/or appreciate about your partner. This reminds you that you love each other and are allies.
  • Pick a speaker and listener. As the listener, ask the speaker the following: “What went well in our relationship this week?” Listen, summarize what you heard, and validate your partner’s experience. Then switch.
  • Once you both feel like you’ve shared all the positives, then have the listener ask, “What occurred this week that we can improve on?” The goal is just to make a list (if necessary), not to actually start discussing the events or issue. Then switch roles.
  • After you have your improvement items, pick one key topic and choose a speaker and a listener. Switch roles throughout the conversation and focus only on understanding each other completely.
  • After both of you can say, “I feel completely understood,” then work together to find an agreeable win-win solution. Even if it is just something temporary you are trying out for the next week. Sometimes you won’t even need this. Just discussing it may be enough because feeling heard and validated is all partners need.
  • Finish by acknowledging each other for staying engaged and by saying one thing you love about each other. Then ask, “What is one thing I can do to help you feel more loved this week?”

Imagine how much your relationship would improve if you were proactive about what went well and what areas need some adjusting in the relationship?

For those conflict avoiders, doing this actually leads to less “out of nowhere” conflict in the relationship. I know you hate that kind of conflict. Not to mention you might learn a thing or two about what you do well and what your partner cherishes about you.

Do you also notice all the positivity embedded in the conflict conversation?

There is a magic ratio of positive to negative interactions even during the conflict that helps keep the conversation constructive and beneficial.

Remember to speak soften and do your best to listen non-defensively. The articles below will help you with this.

“Whether you are the listener or the speaker, you have equal responsibility for the success of the conversation.” – Patt Hollinger Pickett, PhD

Mindset:

Speaker:

Listener:

Examples:

intimate-relationship-conversations

Type 6: Sensuality & Sexuality Conversations

As I shared in a previous article, Couples That Talk About Sex Have Better Sex. This includes not only sexual acts but also forms of foreplay and romance.

Trying to guess what turns your partner on by the sounds they make in the bedroom is kind of like pinning the tail on the donkey blindfolded. You’re guessing. This is why openly talking about it can be helpful. 6

Furthermore, research has estimated that 85% of sexual challenges can be resolved by giving partners permission to explore their sexuality and having accurate information about desire, arousal, and sex. 7

In long-term relationships, the tendency is to skip the sensual aspects of lovemaking and get to the mechanics of the peak act.

The lack of time and energy spent playfully and curiously exploring each other’s bodies and minds can lead to partners feeling like they are growing apart or that they are used as an object, rather than being relished in as a sexual being.

“There needs to be a place for romance and for sexual talking and touching your relationship – both in and outside the context of making love.” – Fighting for Your Marriage.

Helpful Tips:

  • Create a body map of your partner and while touching all parts of their body they are comfortable with you touching, make a mental note of the areas they find sensitive and pleasurable.
  • Passionately kiss your partner at random times without getting intimate.
  • Take your time exploring each other’s genitals and exploring your own. They’re all beautiful. (Hint: Read Come As You Are to learn more about your body)
  • Try novel places, positions, and ways of touching or being intimate with each other.
  • Ask each other questions to learn about each other’s turn-ons and -offs. (Hint: The Gottman Card App has questions about sex).
  • Make sure your relationship is strong, too. Often it is not having a strong friendship, lacking commitment, feelings of insecurity, or nasty conflict that cause sexual desire to die in a relationship.
  • Read some books and watch videos from certified sex educators, who embody sex positivity, to learn more about yourself and your partner.

Helpful articles:

Reflection

How many of these types of conversations do you have in your relationship? What types of conversations would you like to have more of?

  1. It is my belief that lovers should be each other’s best friends. Research from Gottman, Prep, and other approaches. I think this can also be taken too far if romantic partners expect and sometimes demand their partners to be everything for them. Esther Perel talks more about this in her Ted Talk
  2. (a)Babcock, J. C., Gottman, J. M., Kimberly, D. R., & Gottman, J. S. (2013). A component analysis of a brief psycho-educational couples’ workshop: one-year follow-up results. Journal of Family Therapy35, 252–280. doi: 10.1111/1467-6427.12017. (b)Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723–734. 
  3. This quotation comes from the book Fighting for Your Marriage by Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg, pages 228–229. 
  4. (a)Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S.D. (2004). The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family Relations, 53, 477–484 (b)Johnson S.M., Moser M.B., Beckes L., Smith A., Dalgleish T., et al. (2014) Correction: Soothing the Threatened Brain: Leveraging Contact Comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy. PLOS ONE9(8): 1054-1089. 
  5. Furmen, W. (2001). What should fools find in love? In J. R. Levine & H. J. Markman (Eds.), Why do fools fall in love? San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 67-71 
  6. This can be difficult depending on family, religious, and cultural messaging. If you are open, I would challenge exploring this so you can have a more positive relationship with your sexuality. 
  7. This comes from research on the PLISSIT model of sexual education and therapy. For example, John was sexually frustrated with Jane because she never initiated sex. John’s sex-ed courses never taught him that men, typically, tend to have more spontaneous sexual desire than women. And women typically have a more responsive sexual desire that is context-dependent. By strengthening the romantic relationship and creating an environment for responsive desire in the relationship the sexual frustration was no longer an issue. 

Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder Is Now Officially Recognized

COMPULSIVE SEXUAL BEHAVIOR DISORDER IS NOW OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED

Brad Hambrick

Sexual addiction is becoming an official mental health diagnosis. The World Health Organization (WHO) met in May of this year and adopted the new ICD-11, which includes the diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder (CSBD).

Covenant Eyes users might think, “What does this mean for my struggle with porn? How should we approach this diagnosis?” These are important questions that I want to help you think thoroughly about.

What Is Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder?

If you care to read the official definition for CSBD, here it is. These types of definitions can be technical, but they’re important to understand:

“Compulsive sexual behavior disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense repetitive sexual impulses or urges, resulting in repetitive sexual behavior over an extended period (e.g., six months or more) that causes marked distress or impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”

What are the implications of this that we can clearly affirm?

  • There are good expressions of sexual behavior and bad expressions of sexual behavior. The ICD would say healthy and unhealthy. Christians would add holy and unholy. Healthiness and holiness are not competing concepts, and both should be considered important in this conversation.
  • Sexual behavior has the propensity to be ensnaring and can disrupt many areas of life. This is aligned with the Christian view that sin has a predatory intent to destroy people’s lives.
  • For a habit to become enslaving, an extended period of repetition is required. This is common sense.
  • Pornography is not a victimless activity; many people are negatively affected. This counters one of the most common lies in our culture about the innocence of viewing pornography.
  • There is hope for change. The entire point of placing diagnoses in the ICD is that these diagnoses represent experiences for which some degree of freedom or relief is possible.

Why Was CSBD Included as a Diagnosis?

While it may get a little nerdy, to evaluate the inclusion of CSBD in this diagnostic structure we also need to consider why this diagnosis was added.

“Although this category resembles that of substance dependence, it is included in the ICD‐11 impulse control disorders section in recognition of the lack of definitive information on whether the processes involved in the development and maintenance of the disorder are equivalent to those observed in substance use disorders and behavioral addictions. Its inclusion in the ICD‐11 will help to address unmet needs of treatment seeking patients, as well as possibly reducing the shame and guilt that distressed individuals associate with seeking help.”

So to summarize:

  • Researchers are unsure if CSBD has the same physiological features as substance dependence. Uncertainty on this point is why they don’t use the more common label of sexual addiction to describe this experience.
  • A large number of people struggle with compulsive sexual behavior. Diagnoses are included in the ICD when it becomes common enough that clinicians see an increase in prevalence for an experience.
  • The official diagnosis makes it easier for these individuals to be reimbursed for counseling. Insurance companies require a diagnostic code to reimburse for services, which made it difficult for individuals to receive counseling. Adding a diagnosis to the ICD is as much about third party reimbursement as it about discovering something new.
  • It allows for better research on compulsive sexual behavior. Research helps us to differentiate speculation from empirically verifiable approaches to working with a given life struggle. This kind of research should enrich both professional and lay-based care strategies.

Does This New Recognition Present Any Concerns?

Sexual behavioral can get out of control. When it does, lots of people are affected, and WHO wants insurance companies to reimburse for counseling. If we want people to be free from destructive sexual behavior, this all seems fine. But are there any reasons to be cautious with this new label?

When a pattern of behavior receives a diagnostic label, it often creates an external locus of control. Diagnostic labels lead us to think something is happening to us rather than being done by us. There is some concern that this label could reinforce a sense of passivity towards change and a lack of ownership for one’s choices.

The moral nature of the activity can be lost with a label. Too often we fail to realize that something can be both unhealthy and immoral. We treat it as an either-or instead of a both-and. There is some concern that this diagnostic label could distract from the role of repentance in change.

Also, we often assume the remedy for a diagnosis will be medicinal. Again, this doesn’t need to be either-or. The remedy for diabetes involves both insulin and exercise. If there is a medicine that can help with impulse control, we should be happy. But regardless, the fruit of the Spirit known as “self-control” will be required in both taking the medicine as prescribed and other behavioral choices towards righteous living.

How Should We Approach This New Diagnosis?

The answer to this question will vary from person to person. Diagnostic labels are a tool. Any tool can be used for good purposes. In contrast, any tool can also be used for destructive purposes. The problem with tools is usually not with the tool, but with how a given individual utilizes that tool.

If you serve as an ally for someone who comes across this new diagnosis, affirm the following:

  • Your friend is not alone in their struggle. This can help alleviate some of the stigma associated with sexual sin.
  • Sexual activity has an enslaving tendency. If someone fights a bear and loses, we don’t call them weak. It’s the nature of the bear to be stronger. When someone engages sexual sin and becomes enslaved, it doesn’t mean they’re uniquely weak. It means it’s the nature of this activity to be enslaving.
  • Even secular health experts (meaning, those without the bias of Christian morals) want individuals enslaved to sexual activity to have access to help in the pursuit of freedom. Appealing to secular experts helps reveal the frustration point, “I only need to change because I’m a Christian and God’s hung up about sex,”which is not true.

If you serve as an ally for someone who comes across this new diagnosis, caution the following:

  • Your choices matter. A label can explain why change is hard; it is not a reason to quit trying.
  • Abstinence and repentance are not the same thing. A secular counselor would just want you to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior (abstinence). God invites you to a restored relationship with Him (repentance).
  • No amount of science will make change easy. But the work is worth it. If there is anything we can learn from science to make our efforts at change more effective, we will. But just like science has taught us a great deal about dieting, those advances in science haven’t made losing weight easy. Peer support and wise choices are still the central elements to change. So, let’s keep going together.

If you are interested in history of diagnostics, I would recommend Allen Frances’ book Saving Normal. Dr. Frances is a psychiatrist who loves his profession but is concerned about overmedicating normal physical struggles. Here is a brief excerpt from his book and few reflections to whet your appetite to read more.

John Gottman and Brené Brown on Running Headlong Into Heartbreak

JOHN GOTTMAN AND BRENÉ BROWN ON RUNNING HEADLONG INTO HEARTBREAK

Kerry Lusignan

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 suggesting?

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 awe-inspiring.

The 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 feat. 

When 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 stance.

Acknowledging our 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.

Embracing 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 table. 

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. 

Running toward heartbreak

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 creativity. 

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.

What will you choose?

What the Bible Says About Premarital Sex

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT PREMARITAL SEX

Noah Filipiak

I’ve heard it said that the Bible doesn’t mention premarital sex as a sin. There are major implications to this on two levels. One, there is the simple and important question of knowing what is a sin and what isn’t. Two, and more importantly, if it is a sin (and why) has huge ramifications on God’s overall design for sex and how men are to view women and vice versa.

If you type “premarital sex” or “sex before marriage” into your English Bible concordance, nothing is going to come up. If you search for “adultery,” a married person having sex with someone who is not their spouse, you’ll get all kinds of occurrences. So I suppose this is where some get the idea that maybe sex is okay up until you get married, then you’re locked into that one person from thereafter.

If you’re used to reading the King James Version, you’ll note that it often uses the word fornication, which means sex-before-marriage. The NIV and other translations swap this out for the term sexual immorality, which is quite vague and does not give the surface indication that sex-before-marriage is a sin.

The Greek word used in the original New Testament text for fornication or sexual immorality is porneia (Matthew 5:32, 15:19, 19:9; Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Acts 15:20, 15:29, 21:25; 1 Corinthians 5:1, 6:13, 6:18, 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Revelation 2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2; 17:4; 18:3; 19:2). Porneia is a separate Greek word from adultery, so we know it doesn’t mean the exact same thing. Hence, it makes some sense why the KJV translators would use the word fornication.

We also know that porneia brings about children outside of wedlock (John 8:41), so it is sex. Porneia is also the word used to describe the acts of the great prostitute in Revelation 17, and is the root for the word prostitute itself (1 Corinthians 6:15). These uses are a pretty open-and-shut case that porneia means sex-before-marriage.

But porneia can also be done by a married person (Matthew 5:32; 19:19). A man sleeping with his mother or step-mother is considered a type of porneia (1 Corinthians 5:1). So from these two examples, we see that porneia doesn’t exclusively mean sex-before-marriage. It’s safe to say that adultery is the sin of when a married person has sex with someone who is not their spouse. And that porneia (KJV: fornication, NIV: sexual immorality) is the sin of any type of sex outside of marriage, which would obviously include sex-before-marriage, as well as prostitution and adultery.

More Than A Rulebook

Porneia is anything that goes against God’s design for sex. And it’s crucial that we get back to the point about God’s design. While there is value in analyzing the text to determine what is a sin and what isn’t, it has the feeling of etching out a rule book for the sake of a rule book. Like telling a teenager not to have sex before marriage, “because it’s bad,” without giving any further explanation. To approach any of God’s commands in this way doesn’t do justice to why a loving God would give them to us in the first place, nor do they provide much intrinsic motivation to follow them. We must always go back to the design, which thankfully Scripture does with crystal clarity on the matter of premarital sex.

God’s design for sex is laid out in the creation blueprint of Genesis 2:24: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Some will say that this verse is only referring to marriage—that when a man and woman become married, they become one flesh. The apostle Paul disagrees. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul says that anyone who has sex with a prostitute has become one flesh with her. You become one flesh with someone when you have sex with them.

This is why premarital sex is a sin. It’s also why so many find their hearts so broken and battered.

Play-Doh Lessons

What “one flesh” means is that a whole person accepts all that makes someone else a human. It’s like taking a yellow piece of Play-Doh and mixing it together with a piece of blue Play-Doh. What happens? You get green Play-Doh, never able to distinguish or remove the yellow from the blue again. One flesh is not just about body parts, it’s about one’s entire being. It’s why we say the vows we say at a wedding…for better or worse…for richer or poorer…in sickness and in health. No matter what comes our way, I have accepted you and will protect you and be here for you. All of you. Not just the good parts. But also the annoying parts. The things I’d like to change. The weaknesses. The quirks. All of that becoming one with all of that in me, for a lifetime. That’s the environment God designed sex to create between two people. It coincidentally is also the perfect environment for raising children.

Sex was designed by God to be a part of the greatest self-sacrificing relationship possible. The byproduct of one-flesh-marital-sex was to be a strong society where children are loved and married adults are accepted and protected by their spouses. Sin has turned sex into an act of selfishness. The consequences on our society couldn’t be any clearer. This of course doesn’t end with premarital sex. Once sex becomes selfish, people are simply objects to be consumed. This objectification provides the booming demand for pornography, a sex-addicted Hollywood, and uncontrollable lust.

If you do the math, you can’t have multiple one fleshes with people. That’s why premarital sex does such damage to our souls, and to our society. You are sharing intimacy that can’t hold its own weight. You are doing a trust fall with no one to catch you. Sin and our culture have taught us sex is about us and getting our desires met. God’s word tells us sex is about a lifelong commitment of accepting and supporting all of someone else. No matter how unpopular it gets, God’s word will remain our guide for finding true life and true freedom in understanding how we are to view sex, ourselves, and the men and women we share this world with.

Why There Is No Sex in Heaven

WHY THERE IS NO SEX IN HEAVEN

Noah Filipiak

Here are two contrasting cultural beliefs for you to consider:

  1. Sex is the best thing on the planet
  2. Heaven is full of the best things we can imagine

So if both of these things are true, why does the Bible tell us there won’t be any sex in heaven?

No Sex in Heaven?

In Matthew 22:30, Jesus says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

I’ve expounded elsewhere how God designed sex to happen within marriage only, so we can naturally deduce here, as the original listeners would have automatically, that if there is no marriage in heaven, there is also no sex.

No sex in heaven? Many might ask what the other options are at this point!

One of the reasons this news shocks us is because we view sex and heaven selfishly. Culturally, sex has become a selfish act of consumption. And our view of heaven is typically a place of self-centered utopia. We picture beaches and paradise and all the pleasure for ourselves that we can dream of, often not with much thought about God being around at all. This me-centered paradise is a great match for lots of sex for all of eternity. In fact, several of the main world religions promise this (maybe a clue that those religions were made up by a man? But I digress…)

But thank goodness that’s not what heaven, or sex, is meant to be according to the Bible.

Sex is a one-flesh relationship that bonds a man and a woman together in every way possible. It’s why this one-flesh relationship can only function healthily within marriage. The one-flesh bond includes full acceptance and commitment to all a person is, not simply their body parts (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, 1 Corinthians 6:15-16). You are one flesh, at all times, in all ways, which can’t be undone.

This sounds pretty amazing, and deep, and night-and-day different from what our culture calls “sex” today. But there’s more. This sex and this one flesh don’t exist for their own end. They aren’t the destination, they are simply another sign post. A sign post pointing to where?

What Sex Really Points To

After giving a treatise on marriage and sex, Ephesians 5 concludes with the following:

“’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Heyo! The whole time Paul was talking about husbands and wives and marriage and sex in Ephesians 5, it says here he was actually talking about Jesus and us! Marriage and sex are metaphors for the relationship we have with Jesus.

What is a metaphor? It is a sign post. It points to the real thing. It’s something tangible we can look at in order to understand something else. It’s a symbol we can learn from in order to understand and experience the real thing.

The real thing is the one-flesh relationship Jesus desires to have with each of us. It’s the relationship he has with those who call themselves Christians. It’s a relationship of intimate love and acceptance and support and trust, where Jesus is the groom and we are the bride. Earthly marriage and sex are symbols that can help point us toward the real thing.

This is why there is no sex in heaven. You don’t need sign posts when you’ve arrived at the destination!

It’d be like driving to Disney World and parking the car at the green highway sign with the white text of “DISNEY WORLD” and the white arrow pointing to the off ramp. Imagine parking your car there, taking a selfie with the family, and then driving home, telling everyone you’d been to Disney World!

The destination is always better than the sign post.

Heaven Is Not a Perpetual Fast

Some might disagree!  But the reason for the disagreement is because we’ve been worshiping the sign post for far too long and we simply don’t have the full experience of the real thing yet. In talking of the perspective that heaven would be a “perpetual fast” from sex in the minds of some, C.S. Lewis had this to say:

“…or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it.

We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.”

-C.S. Lewis, as quoted in a 1947 Time Magazine article

A boy can’t understand if you try to tell him sex is the highest bodily pleasure, because he is convinced chocolate is and isn’t ready to understand sex. We can’t understand that pure intimacy with God in his direct presence is what makes heaven, Heaven, not that it’s some me-centered place where we eat Bons Bons on the beach, while watching Netflix, and of course, having sex. Nor can we fully grasp that intimacy with God is better than sex, both now and for all eternity. But the truth remains, which we are exhorted to believe and live by.

This is fantastic news. We worship sex on earth, but it’s also our place of deepest longing and brokenness. A single person feels unloved because they don’t have a sexual partner. A married person goes to pornography, an affair, or fantasy, because the sexual partner they do have isn’t satisfying them.

The Answer to Our Longing for Sex

The answer to our longing for sex is not sex! It’s intimacy with Jesus. We get to experience this intimacy on earth. This unconditional love where God adopts us as his sons and daughters and is well-pleased with us and we are fully accepted into his arms because of what Jesus did on the cross for us.  But imagine this experience in a fully direct, physical way. Wow! That is heaven.

This gives us reason to not worship sex and it also reminds us we don’t need sex. Whether we experience the sign post or not is somewhat irrelevant. What is relevant is that we take God at his word that the destination will be much better, attuning all of our navigational tools toward that destination, not any metaphor, imitation, or sign post along the way.

The Apostle Paul: His Secret to Fighting Sexual Sin

THE APOSTLE PAUL: HIS SECRET TO FIGHTING SEXUAL SIN

Luke Gilkerson

Hugh Hefner didn’t invent sexual sin. It is a problem that has been around since our ancestors walked east of Eden, and it will be around until the new Jerusalem descends upon us. The good news is that the Bible promises that we can experience foretastes of that coming freedom in the here and now. But how?

The Apostle Paul commands the Christians at Colossae, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). But how do we do this? If we rip this verse away from the letter, we’re likely to apply it the wrong way, so we need to look closely to understand what Paul is talking about.

1. Fighting Sexual Sin Is Not About “Do More, Try Harder”

A dangerous philosophy was circulating in the church at Colossae that was championing asceticism: if you want to remain pure, then separate yourself from the pleasures of the body that are so often a source of temptation. This philosophy said if you really want the fullness of divine life within you, then insulate your life.

But Paul delivers a crushing blow to this philosophy:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)

No value. That is Paul’s verdict on asceticism. It simply doesn’t work. Yes, there is a grain of truth in the philosophy—all popular philosophies contain at least some wisdom in them. If you are tempted to sin sexually then it makes sense to get away from sexual temptations. This will keep sin at bay—but ultimately the flesh remains unsatiated.

This false philosophy is still circulating in the church today. When the best advice we can give people is better Internet filters, cold showers, more hours in prayer, and trying harder, we have given into this philosophy that Paul says is of no value.

This false philosophy either totally underestimates the power of sin, or it sets the benchmark of holiness too low. It either doesn’t get just how ingrained sexual sin is in us, or it thinks that merely getting rid of outward, blatant sexual sin is the goal. Neither is accurate.

2. Fighting Sexual Sin Starts with a New Identity

Paul offers his readers another approach to fighting sin, and it starts with these core identity statements:

  • “With Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world” (2:20)
  • “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3)
  • “You have been raised with Christ” (3:1)
  • “You were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12)
  • “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self” (3:9-10)
  • “The riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27)

This is where a lot of modern readers check out. “Don’t give me these abstract theological ideas. I need something practical,” they think. But for Paul, there was nothing more practical, nothing more life-changing, than these ideas.

We are united to the risen Christ by faith. His resurrection life flows in our veins now. The Spirit of the living Christ lives inside us, so we no longer belong to this world and the rules it plays by—we belong to Christ and the age to come. In order to have the power to fight lust, we first have to understand this: we no longer belong to sin. We belong to God who has accepted us and forgiven us, not because we purified ourselves first, but because we are united by faith to the Pure One, Jesus Christ.

In order to fight lust, we must understand that we no longer belong to lust.

3. Fighting Sexual Sin Continues by Kindling New Desires

Knowing we are united to the living Christ, Paul writes, “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:1-2). The terms Paul uses here mean to center one’s interests, focus, and passions on something—to savor something. Now that God has united us to the risen Christ, we savor that reality, and this kindles new desires in us that displace a desire for sin.

What are these “things” above that we should savor?

  • First, we are to savor Christ himself. This is one of the reasons why Paul spills a lot of ink in this letter describing who Christ is. He is the beloved Son of God (1:13), the image of the invisible God (1:15), creator and sustainer of all things (1:16-17), the one whose blood reconciles us to the Father (1:20), the firstborn from the dead (1:18), and the one seated at God’s right hand (3:1). In him all the riches of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (2:3). The fullness of deity dwells in Him (1:19; 2:9).
  • Second, we are to savor our new position before God. Christ is seated at God’s right hand and we are seated with Him (Ephesians 2:6). To be seated at a ruler’s right hand meant to be in the position of greatest authority, honor, and delight. Because Christ is in us, we share in the favor He has with the Father.
  • Third, we are to savor the hope that someday we will see and experience these realities. Someday, Christ Himself will appear and we will appear with Him in glory (1:4). It is our destiny to be like the holy, pure Son of God. Someday our eyes will see the one who died for us and rose again, the one who is God in the flesh, and God will honor us as his royal children before every creature, every human soul, every angelic being in the universe.

How does this practically help us to fight sexual sin? The reason why sexual sin can have such a grip on us is because of its power to define us and what is most valuable, how sexual pleasure makes us feel about ourselves. Sexual fantasy, pornography, or pursuing illicit sex makes us feel desired; it makes us feel valued and validated; it gives us a refuge; it gives us connection; it can even make us feel powerful. This is why setting our affections on things above is so important: it gives us a new center to our lives and gives us a completely new sense of value—not based in our worthiness but based on the love God has for Christ that overflows to us.

4. Fighting Sexual Sin Is About Fighting For Our New Desires

Finally we come to Colossians 3:5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

Paul here is not endorsing asceticism—something he has already refuted. Asceticism is about fighting to get rid of something we think is unholy, but mortifying sin is about fighting for the new affections that God is giving to us.

We can construct helpful boundaries in our lives that keeps sexual sin out of reach, but we should do so standing on our identity as God’s beloved children, standing satisfied in Christ and God’s love. When sexual temptation comes knocking, we can say to it, “No, sin. That’s not who I am anymore. You do not define what life is to me anymore. You do not define me anymore. Christ is in me. I am a child of the king, and one day the whole world will know it.”

5. Fighting Sexual Sin Is Sustained by Relationships that Remind Us of Our New Identity

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

This is the essence of real accountability in the body of Christ. Yes, accountability involves confessing our temptations, sins, and the state of our heart, but it also involves godly encouragement. Accountability is not just about someone calling you out on your sin, but someone calling you up to the person you already are in Christ. Accountability is about surrounding yourself with the kind of Christian friendships that teach and admonish you, that inspire thankfulness, and that help us unpack all the wisdom contained in the great mystery that Paul called “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (1:27).

Accountability is like stoking the embers of the fire. It does not add energy to the embers. It only exposes those embers to the air so new reactions can happen. When we engage in the disciplines of confession, encouragement, and mutual prayer we expose our souls again to the life-changing gospel, and God’s power is released again and again.

The 4 Types of Premarital Couples & The Relationship Roller Coaster

THE 4 TYPES OF PREMARITAL COUPLES & THE RELATIONSHIP ROLLER COASTER

Kyle Benson

Have you ever fallen head over heels in love for someone?

When you first meet them you couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their smile, how they talked, their passions, the way they looked at you.

In the early stages of a relationship, reality goes out the window and the honeymoon effect influences you to feel that nothing could ever go wrong.

It’s almost like you’re the star of your own love movie. Kissing in the rain and all that jazz.

But then you have fights and breakup, shortly followed by passionately making up.

Believe it or not, these “Hollywood” romances are like a rollercoaster where you experience an emotional high of passionate love followed by a drop of emotional isolation.

Many of these toxic relationships can be prevented if we are more honest with the reality of who are partner is and who we are. Numerous research studies indicate that idealizing our partner in the bliss of love can lead us to ignore red flags. I know I’ve ignored red flags in past relationships.

During my interview with Mike, I talk more about how to prevent yourself from falling prey to this: How to Avoid Unavailable Partners and Have an Emotionally Connected Relationship

I’m not making this up. In fact, a researcher followed 168 couples from dating through 13-years of marriage.

He discovered that the happily married couples who were “very” in love and affectionate were 100% committed to each other, expressed less negative feelings and lots of positive feelings, and viewed their lovers as better than all alternatives. Their relationship was like calm waters.

Here are the four types of relationships Dr. Ted Houston discovered during his 13-year study:

  1. Rollercoaster Romances – these couples had emotionally draining breakups followed by passionate making up. Do you think these couples divorced? They did.
  2. Firework Romances – these couples fell madly in love with each other and like a firework, their passion lit up the sky but quickly disappeared when the reality of their ignored differences and unrealistic expectations darkened the sky of their relationship. Divorce was inevitable.
  3. Status Quo Partners – these couples stayed married but unhappily so. They didn’t have a blissful start (like the couples above) and there were some red flags that were clear in the dating portion of the relationship that got swept under the rug. These problems got worse the longer the marriage lasted.
  4. Stably Affectionate Investors – these couples did not have a dramatic dating period. Rather their relationship was like rowing a boat in a calm lake. They took their time investing in each other and intentionally built a warm and cooperative partnership. Almost all of these couples were very happily married at the end of 13-years. They had lasting and satisfying relationships because they fell in love and became experts on each other over time, not instantly. Both partners were 100% invested in each other. In the first two years of their relationship, they focused on creating healthy patterns of being with each other such as communicating, managing conflict, and intentionally building a culture of love, respect, and admiration. Essentially the quality of their relationship was built on a secure friendship.

Dramatic love may create passionate and blissful moments, but they also tend to come with hurtful and painful conflicts. Take your time falling in love and use the first few years of dating to build a strong culture of love, affection, and secure connection that will make your marriage last a lifetime.

A Letter to My Younger Self on My Wedding Day

A LETTER TO MY YOUNGER SELF ON MY WEDDING DAY

Shantel Patu

Dear younger self, 

I’m writing to explain what marriage really means because I remember all too well your fairytale ideology that marriage is about a beautiful wedding, then fast forward to your happily ever after

With that said, I’m not writing as a warning. I’m writing more as an opportunity—merely think of me as your sponsor – because you’re definitely a hopeless romantic. 

Your dreams of a man riding in on a white horse, or a knight in shining armor, are figments of an animated imagination and I just want to take some time to talk to you about what’s real.

I want to let you in on a secret, if you will. A moment in time, to give you a gift, the gift of a second chance. 

You are still so young, at only 22 years old. And here you already have a small beautiful child, own your home, and you have a wonderful man who hasn’t quite discovered how great either of you are just yet. You should feel proud and accomplished. I know when I look back I’m definitely proud of you. 

Nevertheless, I specifically want to talk about fear. You see, although you survived a lot of abuse and neglect, you’re traumatized. Your traumas have caused significant damage and created a space for constant anxieties to thrive. Anxieties like your fear of being a victim, a fear of someone thinking they can take you away, and other fears, like your fear of intimacy, of getting in trouble or making mistakes, of not knowing enough information or being looked at as incompetent. And mainly, your fear of simply not being good enough to be loved.

I know you. Probably better than anyone really knows you. I know how hard you try to be perfect. I know how hard you work to be accepted. How much you feel you don’t and can’t possibly fit in anywhere, with anyone. And I know you think that if you achieve genuine happiness it means that you have reached the end of your life. But you don’t have to be afraid. I’ve begun to discover that you can be accepted and you are more than lovable. 

As I write this, I realize now that you are just starting out on the first path of many that will lead you on a journey into a life that brims with love and hardship, joy and sadness, peace and war, as well as abundance and strife. Your life will be wrought with moments of destitution and incredible successes. And I wouldn’t have you change any of it (except please buy Amazon stock and change your Sam’s Club membership to Costco, trust me, Sam’s Club will fail us). You will learn so much from the experiences that living this life will teach you. 

I would also encourage you, as your sponsor, to ditch your unhealthy addictions earlier.  You should see life through the eyes of someone who chooses to actually live. Find life in every breath. Leave behind the acts of fear that cause you to bury yourself and hide away all that is great in you. 

Now, about the young man you have chosen. He is going to be amazing. You were right to be attracted to his high levels of intelligence, and his cautious, careful approach to tasks. And that great sense of humor. You will laugh every day of your life. He will hold you close when you feel lost and afraid. He will trust your guidance and seek your counsel. He will treasure you. 

But it will take some time. You will both have to learn to grow up and embrace the art of communication. You will find an amazing woman, Julie Gottman, who will introduce you to techniques that will enable you to overcome so many marital obstacles. You’ll learn principles about communicating and methods for dealing with conflict that you’ll even align with your body of work. Trust me, these tools will prove invaluable. 

Your marriage will become a beacon of hope for couples around the world. But it will take time. Time that can be shortened if you heed many words and remember this letter, starting today, your wedding day. You can be so much more if you start by shedding the heavy, unsightly cloak of fear. 

Your story needs to be heard through the ears of faith and not through fear. Fear prematurely ends stories. It changes the narrative and demands surrender. It turns heroes into cowards and strength into weakness. It both clouds and casts judgment. It slowly takes away the essence of who you really are. It highlights scarcity and inflates the balloon of false pride. You are not what you’ve been through. Your truth and destiny lie in the places you will go and the people whose lives you will touch. So continue to go far and shine bright. Dream often. And fear not.

In this letter, I want you to recognize that you are going to have a beautiful family, a legacy of serving others, and a connection to your husband that’s absolutely unbreakable. But your life will really begin when you can begin to see yourself as a whole. Know that life is not just about what you know or have learned, it’s about how well you learn how to live. Do it fearlessly, for there is life in every breath.

So with that said, here are a few things I’ve learned about love and life over the last 23 years of marriage. 

Never stop dreaming together
Talk openly about your goals for the future, and always support your husband’s dreams. Be curious, creative, and explore your entrepreneurial spirit. 

Take better care of your health
Eat better and get into a fitness program or routine. Stop complaining and taking your amazing body for granted. Spend less time worrying about how you wish you looked and spend more time loving yourself. 

Spend less time yelling
You can be heard the loudest in moments of silence.

Enjoy spending time with yourself
I didn’t discover this until I was in my forties. I missed all that time just enjoying who I was and dreaming about who I’d be.

Keep your childlike twinkle in your eye
It will serve you well and keep you and others laughing. You are funny—stay that way. 

Spend more time in the moment with your children
They really do grow up fast. Parenting isn’t a race, it’s a journey. It doesn’t end when they’re 18. It will challenge you in different ways, but you’ll never get their little inquisitive minds back, so enjoy it while you can. 

Always spend time talking to your husband
It gives you both so much life. Have patience for teachable moments and keep laughing, it really is medicine for the heart.

Keep making space for passion and intimacy
Keep being intriguing and spontaneous. These moments keep you both connected.

Challenge yourself often
Don’t sit in the same place, be different, choose different. Regular is your enemy. 

Trust the process
Everything good and bad happens for a reason, even when you don’t understand why. Keep believing and trusting in the process. There’s always another side and a way to go through. 

Please take these words with you, always. And, I love you. 

Why Conventional Marriage Wisdom Is Wrong

WHY CONVENTIONAL MARRIAGE WISDOM IS WRONG

Christopher Dollard & John Gottman

Marriage is one of the oldest social, economic, religious and legal institutions in the world, and there’s no shortage of opinions on what makes it work. But much of the conventional wisdom is not based on evidence, and some is flat-out wrong. After researching thousands of couples for more than 40 years at The Gottman Institute, these are some of the myths we’ve encountered most often.

MYTH NO. 1

Common interests keep you together.

Some dating sites, like Match.com, ask users to list their interests to help attract potential mates, and LoveFlutter matches users solely based on shared hobbies and activities. In a Pew survey, 64 percent of respondents said “having shared interests” is “very important” to their marriages — beating out having a satisfying sexual relationship and agreeing on politics.

But the important thing is not what you do together; it’s how you interact while doing it. Any activity can drive a wedge between two partners if they’re negative toward each other. It doesn’t matter whether two people both enjoy kayaking if, when they head out on the lake, one says, “That’s not how you do a J-stroke, you idiot!” Our research has shown that criticism, even of paddling skills, is one of the four destructive behaviors that indicate a couple will eventually divorce. A stronger predictor of compatibility than shared interests is the ratio of positive to negative interactions, which should be 20-to-1 in everyday situations, whether a couple is doing something they both enjoy or not.

MYTH NO. 2

Never go to bed angry.

It’s one of the most cliched pieces of relationship advice, immortalized in Etsy signage and a ’90s R&B ballad by Silk: Don’t allow an argument to go unresolved — even overnight. No less an authority than the Bible agrees: “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26).

This advice pushes couples to solve their problems right away. Yet everyone has their own methods of dealing with disagreements, and research indicates that about two-thirds of recurring issues in marriage are never resolved because of personality differences — you’re unlikely to work out that fight about the dishes no matter how late you stay up.

In our “Love Lab,” where we studied physiological reactions of couples during arguments (including coding of facial muscles related to specific emotions), we found that when couples fight, they are so physiologically stressed — increased heart rate, cortisol in the bloodstream, perspiring, etc. — that it is impossible for them to have a rational discussion. With one couple, we intentionally stopped their argument about a recurring issue by saying we needed to adjust some of our equipment. We asked them to read magazines for 30 minutes before resuming the conversation. When they did so, their bodies had physiologically calmed down, which allowed them to communicate rationally and respectfully. We now teach that method to couples — if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed during a fight, take a break and come back to it later, even if that means sleeping on it.

MYTH NO. 3

Couples therapy is for fixing a broken marriage.

This is a common misconception. A 2014 New York Post story on “the crumbling marriage of Jay Z and Beyoncé” noted grimly that “they’re allegedly traveling with marriage counselors.” Seeking help early in or even before marriage is often seen as a red flag. As one skeptic noted in New York magazine, “If you need couples therapy before you’re married — when it’s supposed to be fun and easy, before the pressures of children, family, and combined financials — then it’s the wrong relationship.”

This idea often keeps spouses from seeking the sort of regular maintenance that would benefit almost any relationship. The average couple waits six years after serious issues arise before getting help with their marital problems, and by then it’s often too late: Half of all divorces occur within the first seven years of marriage. In a therapist’s office, spouses can learn conflict-management skills (like the Gottman-Rapoport intervention, based on a method used to increase understanding between nations during the Cold War) and ways to connect and understand each other.

The point of counseling is not to salvage a bad marriage or sort out trauma. It’s about revealing the truth about a relationship. As Jay-Z told David Letterman, he gained “emotional tools ” in counseling to help him maintain his marriage.

MYTH NO. 4

Affairs are the main cause of divorce.

An affair is traumatic for any monogamous relationship. “Extra-marital affairs are responsible for the breakdown of most marriages that end in divorce,” an article on Marriage.com reads. Today.com offers a similar analysis: “Cheating is one of the main drivers of divorce.”

While affairs can destroy the foundation of trust upon which a marriage is built, the cause of divorce typically precedes the affair. In a study from the Divorce Mediation Project, 80 percent of divorced men and women cited growing apart and loss of a sense of closeness to their partner as the reason for divorce. Only 20 to 27 percent blamed their separation on an extramarital affair. In their clinical work, John and Julie Gottman learned that partners who have affairs are usually driven to them not because of a forbidden attraction but because of loneliness. There were already serious, if subtle, problems in the marriage before the affair occurred.

MYTH NO. 5

Marriages benefit from a ‘relationship contract.’

It’s important to do nice things for your partner and to do your fair share around the house, principles that an increasing number of couples have decided to formalize with a contract. One essayist explained in the New York Times how hers “spells out everything from sex to chores to finances to our expectations for the future.” Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan also hashed out some rather specific details in their contract, such as: “One date per week, a minimum of a hundred minutes of alone time, not in his apartment and definitely not at Facebook.” Far more couples opt for informal agreements, written or verbal, delineating who’s responsible for what.

The concept, though, has no basis in science. In 1977, researcher Bernard Murstein found that marriages oriented around reciprocity were less successful. And from what we’ve seen in our clinical work, keeping track can cause couples to keep score, which can lead to resentment. Dealmaking, contracts and quid pro quo mostly operate in unhappy marriages. Criticism and contempt can arise from unfulfilled expectations, especially if those expectations are quantified. And when one partner does something nice for the other and there is a contract in place, they may expect something equally nice in return. That response may not happen for any reason — a busy week, forgetfulness — which can create resentment and an environment of trying to “win.”

Consider one thing nearly all couples fight about: housework. A couple wants to have an even division of chores and responsibilities, so they make a contract. But a few months later, there’s a pile of dishes in the sink, and they’re fighting again. According to a study of 3,000 couples by Harvard Business School, the solution is to ditch the contract and spend money on a cleaning service. Why? So the couple can spend more time together having positive interactions and fewer arguments. Instead of a contract, it’s a compromise.

Couples need to act in kind and loving ways, intentionally and attentively, as often as they can. Some things simply cannot be mandated, not even by contract.

Do You Bottle Your Emotions? Susan David, Ph.D. Describes How It Hurts Your Relationship

DO YOU BOTTLE YOUR EMOTIONS? SUSAN DAVID, Ph.D. DESCRIBES HOW IT HURTS YOUR RELATIONSHIP

Interviewed by Kyle Benson For  The Gottman Relationship Blog

Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. Her new book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life teaches a counterintuitive approach to achieving your true potential, which was heralded by the Harvard Business Review as a groundbreaking idea of the year in 2016.

Part one of the interview is here.

Kyle: I love your book, especially the part about bottling and brooding. Can you speak about those two terms and how those might show up in a relationship? In particular, can you speak to how to use either self-compassion or other techniques to stop holding our emotions hostage in a way that it harms our relationships?

Susan: Yes. Effectively bottling or brooding are characteristic of ways that people deal with difficult emotions and difficult experiences. We often default to one of these positions.

Bottling is essentially pushing the emotion down. For example, you’re upset with a person. You’re feeling angry because you feel exploited, and what you do is you tell yourself, “I’m just not going to go there, and I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got all this other stuff to do.”

And what you are doing is pushing the emotions down. Often you do this with very good intentions. You feel at some level that emotions are locked up in a bottle, and you have all of this other stuff that you can’t do, so you continue to push the emotions into a bottle, per say.

Brooding is when you are so consumed with the emotions you’re feeling that it becomes difficult to do anything else. When you’re brooding, you’re dwelling on the emotions, you’re analyzing hurt. You’re thinking, Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? It’s like you can’t let go and you obsess over the hurt, a perceived failure, or a shortcoming.

Brooding has some very good intentions—one of which is to try to deal with emotions effectively. So both bottling and brooding are done with good intentions.

Kyle: Fascinating. I believe you had a really good example of bottling and brooding in your book about holding books. Could you explain that?

Susan: Of course. For instance: If someone said to you, “You have this big pile of books, and I want you to carry these books away from you.” That’s what bottling looks like. It’s where you have these emotions and thoughts and you try to hold them at an arm’s length in a very almost white-knuckled way. You’re trying to push them aside, and what happens over time is your arms get weak and they start shaking and you are likely to drop the load. The same happens when you are brooding.

When you are brooding, what you are doing is you are holding all those books—and we say each of the books is like an emotion or a thought. You are holding the books so close to you and gripping them so tightly that it impacts your ability to be in the world, your ability to see the other person and to respect them, to love and to see your children, to laugh, and, again, at some point you drop that heavy load.

Kyle: I love that visual. It makes a lot of sense. Can you take a moment to explain why we bottle or brood and how it impacts our partners?

Susan: Well… What’s really interesting is that while people use bottling and brooding with good intentions, we know from the research that it tends not to work.

When people characteristically bottle their emotions or brood, even though they look so different, those patterns of emotions are actually associated with lower levels of well-being and high levels of depression and anxiety. We also know that it impacts the quality of the relationship.

When people bottle, they are pushing aside their emotions, and their partner can often feel that they aren’t present—that they aren’t being authentic or vulnerable in the relationship.

When people are brooding, their partner can often feel that there is no space for anyone else in the conversation because they are so self-focused that it becomes difficult to enter into the space in a way that they feel seen.

And, also, people can switch from one to the other. Sometimes someone will bottle, bottle, bottle, and then they start brooding, and feel bad for brooding, so they push emotions aside and they bottle again.

It’s a really interesting way of being. One of the things that I talk about in Emotional Agility is creating a relationship with our emotions by making room in our hearts for our emotions and our thoughts.

Kyle: So it sounds like you’re trying to create space between the emotions rather than react to them. How do we stop the cycle of brooding and bottling?

Susan: The best way is to stop trying to engage in a struggle of whether you should or shouldn’t be feeling something, but rather just notice those thoughts and emotions, and do so with compassion and curiosity and courage because sometimes they are difficult emotions.

A very important piece of research has shown us that when people try to push emotion aside what happens is there’s emotional leakage. You don’t want to tell the person you are upset and keep it in you, so you keep it in you, and then you completely lose sense and flip out.

We know these things don’t work. What I talk about in Emotional Agility is ways to start being healthier with our thoughts and emotions. That way we do not struggle with them and rather recognize that your thoughts, your emotions, and your stories have evolved in us as human beings to help us to feel protected, to help us to survive, and to help us to communicate with ourselves.

It’s important to extend compassion to yourself, recognizing that you are trying to do the best that you can with the circumstances that you face. That doesn’t mean you are self-excusing. It doesn’t mean you are being lazy. It just means you are choosing to befriend yourself.

Kyle: That’s such an important statement. I often say beating yourself up is never a fair fight and talk about the importance of being your best friend in your own struggles.

Susan: I love that. I want to note that there are a couple of really important, practical aspects to this. One of the things that I talk about is the importance of recognizing that often when we brood about something or when we bottle something what we are trying to do is we are trying to manage away those emotions in very different ways. But often underneath those emotions is a value. We talked about values earlier in the interview.

We tend not to get upset about things that we don’t care about. Often under our bottling or brooding of emotions is a sign post of something that’s important to us.

It’s a signpost to a particular need we have as a human being or it’s a signpost to something that we hold dear in our relationship. Maybe we are feeling we aren’t getting enough of a need.

Befriending yourself is a really important aspect because instead of treating your emotions and thoughts as the enemy, you’re able to treat them as data. The directions and data often enable us to perceive these values—these things that are important to us.

Kyle: Finding the hidden meaning in the emotion is important. Do you have some suggestions for how we can do this?

Susan: I do! A practical strategy that I talk about is to ask yourself, “What is the func?” Which is short for “What is the function of the emotion? What is the emotion trying to tell me about what is important to me?”

Another aspect that helps people to be effective with their emotions is to try to nail your emotion accurately. Often when people are in stress in relationships they’ll say things like “I’m just stressed” or “I’m just angry.” Very often beneath that emotion is a more nuanced emotion, and I can give you an example.

I spoke with a client many years ago who used to label everything as anger. He would say to himself, “Look, I’m so angry. I’m so angry,” and he would do this with his wife. He would get so angry so quickly, so I started to say to him, “Let’s try to see one or two other options.Yes, you must be angry, and, yes, your wife might be angry, but what are two other emotions that might be hidden underneath that anger?” It was so interesting.

His wife actually came to me two months later and said, “I don’t know what you said to my husband, but it has completely changed the relationship,” and, when I spoke to him about it, he said to me that what has happened is she kept on feeling anger in him, but when he started to say one or two other options that surfaced for him, he expressed disappointment that she was feeling a bit disappointed or that she wasn’t angry.

She was just slightly annoyed, which is very different than anger. If you can start to recognize in a more nuanced way that your partner is disappointed or annoyed, it completely shifts the interaction.

A really important aspect of moving from bottling and brooding effectively is to try to do the “What the Func?”

Another aspect is to try to get to a space to enable the emotion in a way that just feels more accurate and more nuanced because that is just a really critical aspect of being effective in the world.

We know that people who are more nuanced about their emotions actually tend to do better in difficult situations and, again, have better wellbeing. That’s another practical strategy.

A third practical strategy when it comes to moving out of bottling and brooding might be to engage in broader perspective taking. Often when people are stuck in a situation in a relationship they see things from only their perspective. So a critical aspect of any kind of relationship therapy is to start helping to open or widen the telescope lens.

Kyle: This is a huge aspect of the Gottman Method! Our therapists are trained to help couples understand each other’s perspectives before problem-solving. The motto is understanding must precede advice.

Susan: That’s excellent because people often are just seeing a very small perspective, but when they start to see things in a far more panoramic view, things can shift.

You can do this by saying, “This is what I’m feeling. What is my partner feeling?”

Even that question is a really important aspect of a widening perspective. Another example is I think that the person is doing X, but, if I had to ask the wisest person in the world, they would bring in a different perspective. It could also be a fly on the wall or anything that gives you a new way of looking at what’s going on.

Kyle: Lovely. I totally see the power in that. It’s such a powerful way to stop getting hooked on your emotions and to start working with your partner in a way that creates an emotionally-connected relationship—even in conflict. Thank you so much, Susan, for sharing your wisdom.

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part interview with Susan David, Ph.D., author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.

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