‘My 6-year-old told his acting teacher his parents were dead and he’s home-schooled.’
A lot of parenting questions boil down to: Is this a thing, or is something wrong? We’re doing an occasional series explaining why certain things seem to happen to your kid (or to your body or to your relationships) as your child grows. This week, we’re talking about why children lie. Read previous “Is this a thing?” newsletters here. If you have a question for a future “Is this a thing?” email us.
Q: My 6-year-old told his acting teacher his parents were dead and he’s home-schooled. All lies. Is this a thing?
— Megan Kilb, Charleston, S.C.
A: First, let me congratulate you on your magnificently creative lil’ liar. But to answer your question, yes: This is regular kid behavior, according to the four psychologists I spoke to for this column. Almost all children in all cultures lie by the age of 7.
Neurotypical children develop the cognitive ability to tell lies in preschool. That’s when they establish something called “theory of mind,” which has come up in previous columns — it’s the concept that other people have thoughts that are separate from your own thoughts. To lie, children also need to develop executive function, said Kang Lee, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, which means they have the ability to hold back the truth, and then tell a lie instead.
However, a child is not lying because he is “morally corrupt and will grow up to be a criminal,” Dr. Lee said. He is probably lying for a concrete reason, and the most common motivations are to get out of trouble, to make himself look better or to make someone else feel good (known as a “pro-social lie”), Dr. Lee said. The only time you should be concerned about a child under 7 lying is if it is clustered with other issues, like oppositional, defiant or aggressive behavior, said Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal; if you see lying along with those other behaviors, you should seek professional advice.
So, what should you do if your child tells the occasional whopper?
Don’t overreact. “Responding angrily, or even with shock, isn’t the answer,” said Dunya Poltorak, Ph.D., a pediatric medical psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Mich. Jumping straight to condemnation or punishment may make your little one lie even more, because he feels guilty — and is afraid of you.
Label the truth. If your child is still in preschool, it’s best to respond to him plainly with the inconsistencies in his story, said Sally Beville Hunter, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. So for example, if your child is telling you he did not eat that cookie and you see the chocolate ringing his mouth, you can say something like, “Oh, that’s strange, you have chocolate around your mouth. How did that get there? Let’s go to the mirror and look at your face.” You can keep it lighthearted, Dr. Hunter said.
Dr. Hunter cautioned that if your child is particularly anxious in temperament and would melt down at this kind of questioning, you might want to say something like: “I want to know the truth about the cookie, let’s figure this out together.”
Get to the bottom of the lie. As children reach kindergarten age, their verbal abilities increase, Dr. Poltorak said, so you want to explore why they told the lie in the first place. In the case of your child’s gothic story about his dead parents, you should ask him why he said it, and in listening to his explanation, try to pinpoint the motivation behind the lie — he could simply be craving extra attention from his teacher, but you won’t know until you have the conversation.
Once you figure out the reason, work with your child to come up with different responses to his issue that don’t involve lying. Instead of punishing the child, teaching him skills to deal with uncomfortable feelings will do more to prevent lying down the road, Dr. Poltorak said.
Researchers left children alone in a room and told them not to peek at a toy. After the researchers returned, they read the children one of three stories: “Pinocchio,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” (The control group was read “The Tortoise and the Hare.”) The only story that got children to be honest about peeking at the toy was “George Washington and the Cherry Tree,” wherein George admits to cutting down a cherry tree, and his father forgives him because he tells the truth when confronted. Stories showing that lying makes your nose grow (“Pinocchio”) or leads to being eaten by wolves (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) did not motivate truth-telling in the same way.
The moral of this story is that your kid is in the right place — acting class. His natural storytelling ability will serve him well onstage.
WHAT IS A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP? 16 SIGNS TO RECOGNIZE IT AND GET OUT
The person you thought would be your partner is slowly becoming your worst nightmare. It is time to stop wondering what a toxic relationship is and get out.
I would love to say
that I’ve no personal experience to answer the ‘what is a toxic relationship’
question and that all my previous dating experiences have been a walk in the
park. Of course, that would be lying. In reality, I come from a long history of
failed relationships—most of them toxic.
Either the guy was
using me, manipulating or degrading me, or my self-esteem was so low that I
chose to stick around. Those were definitely dark times.
In those moments, it’s
hard to think about what you deserve and how to get it. If anything, you assume
this is the best you’re going to get. That’s really the saddest part. You
16 answers to the
question: What is a toxic relationship?
In my first serious
relationship, I dated someone who you would call a verbally abusive alcoholic.
In the beginning, it was fun, but there were clear warning signs I ignored. And
trust me, there are always signs. The only difference is
whether you’re paying attention to them or not. And this just gets worse if
you’re not sure what a toxic relationship is in the first place.
No matter how much you
love your partner, keep your eyes open for the signs. If not, you run the risk
of losing yourself. Coming back to your normal self isn’t easy. If you’re not
sure what is a toxic relationship or what it looks like, well, here are the
signs to help you figure it out.
Not all relationships
are healthy ones.
aggressive. I think we’re all
guilty of being passive-aggressive at times. It’s not easy talking openly about
your feelings and emotions. But if passive-aggression is their middle name,
it’s time to take a second look at your relationship. Not talking about your
feelings is a sign of immaturity, and can lead down a dangerous road.
#2 Jealousy. A little bit of jealousy isn’t necessarily
bad. Unfortunately, the line is very thin, and people assume excessive jealousy
as a positive trait. If you can’t leave the house without them becoming
jealous, or if they’re searching your phone for an incriminating text or
picture, you’re in trouble.
#3 The blame
game. I’m all too familiar
with the blame game. My ex would give me percentages of how
much I’m to blame versus him. Can you believe it? Natasha, in this
fight, you’re 80% to blame; I’m 20%. If your partner never takes
responsibility for their actions and blames everything on you, that’s toxicity
at its best.
#4 Avoidance. You basically tolerate each other’s presence,
which is pretty messed up considering you’re in a relationship. What will
happen if you get married? You won’t spend time with your spouse? Avoidance is
the first sign that the relationship has run its course.
#5 You don’t feel like
yourself. You can’t make the
jokes you’d normally make or watch TV without feeling like you’re doing
something wrong. And you’re not doing anything wrong; you’re yourself. But if
your partner doesn’t appreciate who you are, they’ll try to change you. And
this is what’s happening.
#6 Arguing. It’s normal for couples to argue. Don’t think
because you argue you’re in a toxic relationship. But there’s a difference
between arguing and communicating and straight-up yelling
without any resolution. If they’re just yelling at you, it’s not going to get
vibes. People underestimate
the power of energy. Every animal on this earth is made up of energy. If you’re
constantly feeling uncomfortable or anxious around your partner, there’s a
reason why. You’re reacting to the energy they’re giving out. Negative energy
emotionally drains you and breaks you down.
#8 You only make them happy. When you’re with your partner, they don’t care
about your happiness. Instead, you spend most of your time trying to please
them. You eat what they want, do what they want; you’re basically their
personal slave. They don’t ask you how your day was or what you’d like
#9 You can’t
grow. When someone grows in
a relationship, that’s a positive thing. You want your partner to grow and
develop, and you want to do the same. If you want more, but your partner likes
things the way they are, well, that’s not good. They’re holding you back from
achieving your life goals because they don’t want to develop.
#10 You don’t feel
like fighting for the relationship. When two people love each other, they’ll go above and beyond to
make things work. They will fight as hard as they can for the relationship. But
with you, you stopped caring a long time ago and so did your partner. You feel
like there’s no point; the relationship isn’t going anywhere.
#11 You’re not
happy. When was the last time
you laughed with your partner? When was the last time you felt really happy
by their side? You’ll know when you’re in a toxic relationship because you
won’t be happy anymore. Something inside of you is telling you to move on for a
#12 The drama never
ends. But really, it never
ends. Every day there’s something wrong in their life, and it’s usually around
something you did wrong, even if you did nothing! They live for the drama
because it distracts them from their own failures.
#13 You never do
anything right. At least in their eyes.
Everything you do comes with criticism and loads of it. At the end of the day,
you feel like a complete failure and unworthy of their love. But that’s not
true. They’re not worthy of your love and affection since they don’t appreciate
#14 You feel like the
worst version of you. When
you’re with someone you love, they usually bring out the best in you. And
that’s when you know you’re with the right person. But if you’re becoming
someone you don’t recognize, you need to think hard about your relationship. Is
this really someone you want to be with?
#15 Your friends and
family don’t like them. Listen, I know you don’t want people to dislike someone you
chose to be with, but sometimes your friends and family are right. If they tell
you that you’ve changed and your partner is toxic, listen. Your friends and
family love you and want the best for you.
#16 They’re stuck in
the past. Instead of thinking
about their future with you, they constantly remind you about the past. “The
good times you had,” runs out of their mouth often, and it makes you wonder if
they’re enjoying the relationship now. But they’re not; they’re stuck in the
After reading the
signs, what do you think? Can you answer what is a toxic relationship? If you
feel that you are in one, it’s time for you to make a change.
As children, many of us were encouraged to play and create as we took in the novel world around us with a sense of wonder and awe. Our playful and frolicsome spirits were often celebrated, delighting caregivers and strangers alike and bringing a bit more joy into their worlds.
As we grow older, more often than not, we are encouraged to subdue playful tendencies and to replace them with a more serious and professional air, as we strive to have it all figured out. We are discouraged from climbing trees, swinging on monkey bars, building sand castles, messily finger painting nonsensical artwork, or dancing freely when the music moves us. Our culture conditions us that publicly pursuing childlike activities may run the risk of appearing foolish or unprofessional. We are taught that you only dance when it is appropriate, like during dance classes, in a club, or at a wedding.
And yet, deep down, I believe we all yearn to experience that deep sense of joy and delight we often see on the faces of young children, when they are creatively playing, or dancing freely anywhere they hear music.
I can’t help but to think back to a conversation I had with my dad as a senior in high school, as I was preparing to leave for college the following year. “Life will be really difficult at times,” he said, “which is why it is so important to choose a partner who can be playful with you, and will make you laugh. This element of our marriage has brought your mother and me through some difficult seasons.” While my life had not been all that difficult up to that point, I was fully aware that my father had experienced many family tragedies, so I must have ingrained these words deep into my subconscious.
As an “adult,” I have been fortunate to find a partner who embraces this sense of playfulness in our relationship. Through the inevitable ups and downs of our relationship thus far, we have understood the value of pursuing some “childlike” characteristics. We seek to see the world with a beginner’s mind, delighting together in the novelties of everyday life. We pursue activities that are playful and nourishing to our minds, bodies, and spirits, deliberately encouraging one another that “it doesn’t matter if people give us weird looks.” We support one another by fostering the artists within each other, even if that involves exploring means of creative expression which don’t fit the traditional box of “art.”
Dancing together has been one such powerful means to help cultivate this culture of novelty, play, and creativity in our marriage.
Novelty, or the Beginner’s Mind
In going through the grinds of daily life and the inevitable high and low seasons, it is healthy and nourishing to find new, shared activities as a couple. As children, there is excitement in the abundant novelties we are surrounded by, but as we get older and may feel we have a better understanding of the world around us, we may lose some of our ability to see the world and our experiences from a beginner’s mind.
However, there is great power and potential in strengthening your beginner’s mind as you seek out novel experiences as a couple, or engage in familiar experiences with a fresh set of eyes. Dancing can do this naturally, as every step is a new, endless opportunity.
Research has shown that engaging in novel experiences as a couple activates the brain’s reward system, which can produce favorable benefits for couples. Dr. Arthur Aron and his colleagues conducted experiments and revealed that couples who go on “exciting” and novel date nights, or engage in fun and challenging activities, have higher relationship satisfaction. Such novel experiences release dopamine and norepinephrine, the same chemicals which are released during early romantic courtship.
As a couple, one of the beautiful and powerful elements of dancing with your partner is that you have the opportunity to continually experience novelty together as you learn more about dance in general, and your unique dance as partners. This process can help deepen your friendship and sense of shared meaning, both of which Drs. John and Julie Gottman indicate are key to happy and healthy relationships.
Play, or Twistin’ and Groovin’
As you engage in new experiences or forms of dance as a couple, it gives you abundant opportunities to play and explore with a sense of wonder. During our dance lessons at Flow Studios, we learn new techniques or concepts each week, and then we are given the freedom to play with the ideas and one another as we make the dance our own.
During a recent lesson, our dance teacher, Michael, encouraged us to bring out more of our playful sides. “I want to see you flirting with each other more!” he shouted over the music.
After a long, somewhat stressful day, this type of playful connection is just what I needed. As we began to “flirt” and playfully explore our movements together, I could feel any remaining stress and worries melt away.
Throughout our dance, we continued to make bids for this type of playful and joyful connection, and we had abundant opportunities to choose to turn toward one another in a spirit of childlike play. We may have looked somewhat foolish as we giggled and ruthlessly spun one another in circles, but these types of playful interactions are endlessly freeing.
In recognizing the joy and freedom that comes from dancing, we have been purposeful to take this type of playful connection outside of the dance studio and to move together wherever the music moves us. While our bodies may feel the urge to dance when we hear fun music, we have had to train our brains to let them know that it’s okay, and actually liberating, to dance like children in public at city parks or on the beach.
Creativity, or the Blank Canvas
Dancing as a couple also opens you to a world of endless creative possibilities. Your dance, like your relationship, is unique and an ever-unfolding artistic process. The dance floor is your blank canvas, and you, as a couple, are artists purposefully collaborating and creating something that has never been done before.
This creative process is one you can choose to explore and embrace as a couple. It does not have to be perfect, flashy, or entirely graceful like the dancers we see on “So You Think You Can Dance,” or “Dancing with the Stars.” In fact, your dance may never be so polished. But if you can let go of the notion that art is “over there” (in museums, on TV, on stages), you may begin to see yourself and your partner in this artistic light.
Instead, you can choose to recognize that moving together through space, moment by moment, is a continuously exploratory form of artistic expression as a couple. You can purposefully move across the dance floor or in public parks or, really, anywhere for the sake of creating and pursuing beauty together.
When we shift our perception of art, we have limitless opportunities to create together.
Since we have been taking dance lessons, it has provided us the weekly opportunity to pursue and strengthen a culture of novelty, play, and creativity in our marriage. We eagerly look forward to those evenings where we purposefully let go of the expectations and pressures, learn new tools to navigate life together with creative beauty, and literally alter our brain chemistry for the better.
Play makes emotional connection easy
and enjoyable. It invites both partners to open up emotionally. Play is a form
of intimacy, because it requires an intimate knowledge of your partner’s inner world. A playful friendship with one another creates a
Maybe you grew up struggling with the
concept of play. I know I did. I always felt that it came second to winning
prizes or achievements.
Your play style is a reflection of the
emotional security you were offered as a kid. It remains true for adults.
Couples who create an emotionally secure relationship are often more playful
than insecure couples.
Learning to play well with each other
is also what helps us fight well. Stan Tatkin, PsyD states that “secure couples know
that a good fight stays within the play zone.” In other words, the conflict
isn’t allowed to get nasty. Since both partners are committed to each other for
the long haul, they are able to keep their walls down.
Part of cultivating an Intentionally
Intimate Relationship is creating a culture of play.
Here are 3 Ways to Increase Play in
#1 Try New and Unfamiliar
Arthur Aron recruited 53 middle-aged couples to study novelty and boredom in
long-term relationships. The couples were asked to do one of three things: (1)
engage in activities that were familiar and enjoyable, (2) change nothing about
their routine, or (3) to find something new to do together.
After ten weeks, who do you think had a
The couples who did new and unfamiliar
activities had a much higher satisfaction in their relationship than the
couples who spent their time doing familiar things.
Here are some ideas for you:
Take a walk in a
different part of town or venture to a new park together.
Visit a new restaurant
Try a new activity
such as indoor rock climbing, roller skating, bowling, or mini golf.
Take a day trip. Get
in the car and drive. Stop whenever you feel like getting out and exploring.
#2 Reinvent Date Night: My partner and I
recently tried a date night box called “Night in Boxes.” The theme was called “blind date.” We were
asked to create an obstacle course, and then lead our blindfolded partner
through the course using only verbal instructions.
It was a great way to connect and be
playful with one another without leaving the comfort of our home. I highly recommend it!
Here are some other ideas:
Get dressed up and
take a class together, such as salsa dancing, or a paint and wine workshop
Bike to a coffee shop
to sip warm drinks and chat
Take a tour in your
hometown that you’ve never been on
#3 Participate in the 7-Day Emotional Connection Challenge: I’m taking a
select group of couples on an exciting seven-day virtual adventure—but in the
comfort of their own home. Get ready to reconnect with your partner in a very
playful way! Check your email tomorrow for more details.
Play is essential to making love last.
It is created by both partners and requires intentionality as an adult, since
it might not come as naturally as it once did when we were children. Like scheduling sex and date night, we need to schedule time for play, exploration,
and adventures. These activities revitalize our love life and deepen our
Without play, partners tend to drift
apart from each other, making it impossible to sustain emotional intimacy.
To prevent this, Mr. Rubber Ducky and
Mrs. Fabulous Flamingo tether to each other with a long rope. That way if they
drift too far apart, they can intentionally pull each other closer and
reconnect through playful activities and adventures. Shouldn’t you do the same?
7 ASSUMPTIONS WE NEED TO STOP MAKING ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE
Never underestimate a person’s challenges. Everyone is struggling. Some are just better at hiding it than others.
Too often we judge people too quickly, or too subjectively. We tell ourselves stories about them without thinking it through—our perceptions and biases get the best of us. I was reminded of this today when I received the following in an email (I’m sharing this with permission):
“…I learned the hard way that a smile can hide so much—that when you look at a person you never know what their story is or what’s truly going on in their life. This harsh reality became evident to me this morning when I found out one of my top students—always straight A’s, a positive attitude, and a smile on her face—died by suicide last night. Why? Nobody seems to know. And it’s killing me inside.”
Talk about a reality check, right?
What we tell ourselves about others—what we think we know—is often far from the truth.
And with that in mind, I’m sitting here reflecting on all the little things we have to stop assuming about other people, for their sake and ours…
We need to stop assuming that the happiest people are simply the ones who smile the most. – Behind the polite smiles and greetings people give you, some are hurting and lonely. Don’t just come and go. See them. Care. Share. Listen. Love. We can’t always see people’s pain, but they can always feel our kindness. So be kinder than necessary.
We need to stop assuming that the people we love and respect won’t disappoint us. – When we expect perfection we tend to overlook goodness. And the truth is, no one is perfect. At times, the confident lose confidence, the patient misplace their patience, the generous act selfish, and the informed second-guess what they know. It happens to all of us too. We make mistakes, we lose our tempers, and we get caught off guard. We stumble, we slip, and we fall sometimes. But that’s the worst of it… we have our moments. Most of the time we’re pretty darn good, despite our flaws. So treat the people you love accordingly—give them the space to be human.
We need to stop assuming that the people who are doing things differently are doing things wrong. – We all take different roads seeking fulfillment, joy, and success. Just because someone isn’t on your road, doesn’t mean they are lost.
We need to stop assuming that the people we disagree with don’t deserve our compassion and kindness. – The exact opposite is true. The way we treat people we strongly disagree with is a report card on what we’ve learned about love, compassion, kindness and humility.
We need to stop assuming that we can’t trust people we don’t know. – Some people build too many walls in their lives and not enough bridges. Don’t be one of them. Open yourself up. Take small chances on people. Let them prove your doubts wrong, gradually, over time.
We need to stop assuming that the rude people of the world are personally targeting us. – We can’t take things too personally, even if it seems personal. Rarely do people do things because of us. They do things because of them. And there is a huge amount of freedom that comes to us when we detach from other people’s behaviors. So just remember, the way others treat you is their problem, how you react is yours.
We need to stop assuming that other people are our reason for being unhappy, unsuccessful, etc. – We may not be able control all the things people say and do to us, but we can decide not to be reduced by them. We can choose to forgive, or we can choose to forget. We can choose to stay, or we can choose to go. We can choose whatever helps us grow. There’s always a positive choice to make. Thus, the only real, lasting conflict you will ever have in your life won’t be with others, but with yourself… and how you choose to respond… and the daily rituals you choose to follow.
Dealing with People Who Deeply Offend Us
Some of the points above (like numbers 4 and 6 for example) potentially require a willingness to cordially deal with people who yell at us, interrupt us, cut us off in traffic, talk about terribly distasteful things, and so forth.
These people violate the way we think people should behave. And sometimes their behavior deeply offends us.
But if we let these people get to us, again and again, we will be upset and offended far too often.
So what can we do?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but here are two strategies Angel and I often recommend:
Be bigger, think bigger. – Imagine a two-year-old who doesn’t get what she wants at this moment. She throws a temper tantrum! This small, momentary problem is enormous in her little mind because she lacks perspective on the situation. But as adults, we know better. We realize that there are dozens of other things that 2-year-old could do to be happy. Sure, that’s easy for us to say—we have a bigger perspective, right? But when someone offends us, we suddenly have a little perspective again—this small, momentary offense seems enormous, and it makes us want to scream. We throw the equivalent of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum. However, if we think bigger, we can see that this small thing matters very little in the grand scheme of things. It’s not worth our energy. So always remind yourself to be bigger, think bigger, and broaden your perspective.
Mentally hug them and wish them better days. – This little trick can positively change the way we see people who offend us. Let’s say someone has just said something unpleasant to us. How dare they! Who do they think they are? They have no consideration for our feelings! But of course, with a heated reaction like this, we’re not having any consideration for their feelings either—they may be suffering inside in unimaginable ways. By remembering this, we can try to show them empathy, and realize that their behavior is likely driven by some kind of inner pain. They are being unpleasant as a coping mechanism for their pain. And so, mentally, we can give them a hug. We can have compassion for this broken person, because we all have been broken and in pain at some point too. We’re the same in many ways. Sometimes we need a hug, some extra compassion, and a little unexpected love.
Try one of these strategies the next time someone offends you. And then smile and breathe, armed with the comforting knowledge that there’s no reason to let someone else’s behavior turn you into someone you aren’t.
How have your judgments and expectations of others affected your life and relationships?
HOW WE USED THE AFTERMATH OF A FIGHT TO REPAIR OUR RELATIONSHIP
My partner and I got into a huge fight about our cat’s litter box.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but hear me out.
We both said things we didn’t mean. She told me I didn’t care about our cat and that my work mattered more to me than the well-being of Miss Rexy. I told her she was irresponsible for sleeping in and leaving the litter box to me as she bolted out the door late for work.
How could we get mad at that face, right?
As John Gottman’s research has shown, it’s not what you fight about that matters, but how you repair when your inevitable differences in personality, perspective, and needs collide.
If you don’t process these conflicts, then you may both find yourselves feeling disrespected, lonely, and neglected—drifting away from each other like two ships without anchors.
According to Julie Gottman, when couples come to therapy, partners “often sit side-by-side like enemy ships, war-torn but still afloat. Many have fired rounds at each other, and there’s been damage done.”
Often these wounds are left open. They’re so painful that we tell ourselves “never again will I let my partner see that vulnerable side of me.”
The problem is no matter how much we want to suppress our hurt feelings, they don’t go away. The avoidant strategy of “just get over it and move on” only works temporarily, at best. In fact, this approach to conflict is often a learned response from the internalized belief that no one will ever be there for you when you need them, so it’s better not to even attempt to discuss things.
As humans, we struggle to let go of a memory until we’ve emotionally digested it. It’s likely this has led to our survival as a species. Our brains remain hypervigilant to the things we deem unsafe.
According to neuroscientist Evan Gordan, our brain is constantly scanning the world around us, asking: Is it safe or dangerous right now?
With significant unresolved problems, it becomes nearly impossible to make the safe emotional connection necessary for a secure relationship.
As a result, we often perpetuate insecurity in our relationship, even over things like a cat’s litter box, because we don’t feel safe enough to express our deeper, more vulnerable emotions like sadness, hurt, loneliness, fear of abandonment or rejection, and shame of not being “enough” or being “too much.”
Instead, our partners see a different side of us. They see our anger, jealousy, resentment, and frustration. We hide our softer emotions behind a mask of the harder, more reactive emotions as our poor communication habits continue to wreak havoc on our emotional connection, making it harder for our partner to hear our longing for love and connection.
The good news is learning how to process regrettable incidents makes it easier for us to reconnect and ultimately grow.
In the Love Lab, John Gottman noticed that couples who were able to process past hurtful events were able to build a relationship as strong as steel. Discussing the regrettable incident became the fire through which they forged a stronger bond.
Am I ready to process this regrettable incident? According to Julie Gottman, “processing” means that you can talk about the incident without getting back into it again.
Have my emotions been calm today and can I have a calm conversation about this incident? It’s helpful to think of watching this incident on your TV. This can help create some emotional distance necessary to discuss what occurred.
Am I willing to speak from my experience without trying to persuade my partner?
Am I willing to ATTUNE to my partner’s feelings and what the event meant to them?
Are we in a distraction free space where we can be fully present with each other?
When my partner and I are both able to respond yes to all of these questions, we begin processing our regrettable incident using the five steps outlined below. For a more detailed version, purchase your copy of The Aftermath of a Fight Guide here.
Step 1: Express How You Felt During This Event
The goal of this step is to only list the feelings you felt during this event. Do not share why you felt this way and do not comment on your partner’s feelings.
My partner went first and explained that when we fought over the litter box, she felt angry, unloved, not cared about, and overwhelmed.
I shared that I felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and taken for granted, and that these feelings had made me stubborn.
For a list of feelings, you can use the “I Feel…” deck in the Gottman Card Decks App here or The Aftermath of a Fight Guide here.
Step 2: Share Your Realities and Validate Each Other
The next step is to choose a speaker and a listener. As the speaker, your goal is to share your own reality of what occurred during the regrettable event. Focus on using “I” statements and what you noticed (“I heard…,” not “you told me”) and what you needed during the event. Avoid criticizing your partner.
As the listener, focus on seeking to understand your partner’s unique experience. Then summarize what you heard them say, not what you believed they meant, and validate their experience by saying things like, “When I see things from your perspective, it makes perfect sense why you were so upset.”
After you validate your partner’s experience, ask them, “Did I get it right?”
If not, ask them to share what you’re not understanding and continue to validate until they say yes. As Julie Gottman reminds us, “Validation doesn’t mean you agree, but that you can understand even a part of your partner’s experience of the incident.”
It’s also important to ask, “Is there more to this for you?” This may uncover deeper meanings or other aspects of this event that they have yet to discuss. Remember, the goal is to make your partner feel completely understood. This makes them feel safe and loved, which makes it easier for you to repair and build a stronger connection.
Then switch roles. Do not move onto the next step until both partners feel understood.
My partner started as the speaker and shared that she felt overwhelmed because her cat who had been in her family for 13 years was dying, and she was probably going to have to put her down soon. She also felt unloved and angry because, from her perspective, I had refused to clean the litter box and instead chose finishing work over caring for our cat.
Even though I really wanted to defend myself as my partner was sharing, I bit my tongue and focused on truly understanding her experience. I reflected what I heard back to her: “So you felt overwhelmed because you are facing the tough decision of when to put your beloved cat down after so many years. I also hear that you noticed I was working and telling you I did not have time to clean the litter box, which caused you to feel like I didn’t care about Rexy. Is that correct?”
After my partner agreed that I had it right, I asked her, “Is there more to this?” After a few more exchanges, she felt like I completely understood her experience and we switched roles.
I shared how I felt unappreciated because I had done many other things to help with Rexy, including taking her to the vet while my partner was at work. I also felt my “working hours” were taken for granted since my office is in our home and that I was expected to drop everything I was doing to do what my partner wanted in that moment. I also mentioned to my partner that she probably was unaware that I had 15-minutes to finish two important emails before I needed to leave for my personal therapy session across town.
My partner validated my experience and I felt she completely understood me.
Step 3: Disclose Your Triggers
Beneath difficult conflicts, even silly things like a litter box, are emotional triggers. These sensitivities stem from personal histories and often make minor events quickly transform into major blowups.
During this step, take turns as a speaker and listener and disclose what triggered a big reaction in you. Add any previous experiences of when you felt similar in the past, including during your early history or childhood, and share that with your partner, so your partner can understand this sensitivity.
My partner shared that she felt helpless and alone, something she knows all too well. Ever since high school, she’s been one of the primary caregivers for her father who has severe Parkinson’s disease. With her mother and brother on the other side of the country, she has felt alone and abandoned in the moments when she needed her family most. She shared that the idea of losing our cat and not caring for her well during these last days of her life stirred up these deeper feelings.
I validated her triggers, and since I’ve sat next to my partner while she has cried over this very thing many times before. I understood what she meant and shared that understanding with her.
I then shared my triggers, which include a sensitivity to feeling disrespected or like my needs don’t matter. As an anxious lover, I’ve often neglected my personal needs over the needs of others. Because of this, I have often ended up feeling inadequate and like my needs don’t matter. Over time, this has made me wary. When my partner requested that I stop working and instantly take care of our cat, I felt like my needs didn’t matter.
My partner asked more questions about this sensitivity and learned more about my history of not asking for what I need and the difficulty I’ve had in asserting my boundaries. She came to understand that this is something I’ve spent years of therapy working on.
Step 4: Take Ownership for Your Role
If we lived in a perfect world, it’s unlikely this regrettable incident would have even occurred because we would have already felt emotionally calm, connected to each other, and fully accepted and loved.
Unfortunately, we get stressed and feel unappreciated by our partner, which makes it easier for us to have regrettable incidents. It’s helpful to acknowledge the things that set us up for miscommunicating with each other, take ownership, and apologize.
This step is about taking responsibility for your part in the conflict. My partner shared that she had been stressed, irritable, and overly sensitive lately. She then mentioned that she regretted how critical she was of me and how she spoke to me. She then apologized for overreacting and attacking me.
I shared that I had been turning away more and had been very preoccupied with work and running on empty lately. I regretted responding defensively and accusing my partner of being lazy. I then apologized for being defensive and attacking my partner’s character.
We both accepted each other’s apologies and acknowledged that things got out of hand.
If the apologies are not accepted when you are doing this with your partner, each of you should say what you still need.
Step 5: Preventative Planning
Have an open conversation with your partner and share one thing you could do to make discussing this issue better next time, and then share one thing you think your partner can do to make it better. Remember to make this a positive and actionable request, such as “I need to know more about what has been stressing you out lately,” not “I need you to stop being a jerk.”
It’s important to ask, “What do we need to do to put this incident to rest so we can move on?”
Focus on what you can agree on together.
My partner and I agreed to get back in the habit of our stress reducing conversation, so we can continue to check in with each other about our cat and the stress we’ve both been holding inside recently.
Conflict as an Opportunity for Intimacy
Every conflict, even the regrettable ones, offers an opportunity for a deeper understanding of each other. While this fight about a litter box seems silly, it highlights how often little things can become big things because of the underlying feelings and meanings beneath.
The problem with these incidents is that we do not repair or take proactive steps to prevent them from escalating in the future. Going through The Aftermath of a Fight Guide has been something my partner and I have had to do time and time again.
Even Julie Gottman admits that she and her husband, John Gottman, have “been married for nearly 30 years with too many [regrettable incidents] to count!”
Constructing a great relationship is hard work and requires growth from both partners. At times this will mean processing difficult events and tolerating discomfort. The good news is these regrettable incidents, when processed, can be used to build a stronger and more meaningful relationship.
A primary school teacher asked her pupils to write an essay on ‘A
wish you want from God?’ At the end of the day, the teacher collected all the
essays written by her pupils. She took them to her house, sat down and started
While marking the essays, she sees a strange essay written by
one of her pupils. That essay made her very emotional. Her husband came and sat
beside her and saw her crying.
The husband asked her, “What happened? What’s making you
She answered, “Read this. It is an essay written by one of my
The pupil had written: “Oh God, make me a television. I
want to live like the TV in my house. In my house, the TV is very valuable. All
of my family members sit around it. They are very interested in it. When the TV
is talking, my parents listen to it very happily. They don’t shout at the TV.
They don’t quarrel with the TV. They don’t slap the TV. So I want to become a
TV. The TV is the center of attraction in my house. I want to receive the same
special care that the TV receives from my parents.
“Even when it is not working, the TV has a lot of value.
When my dad and mom come home, they immediately sit in front of the TV, switch
it on and spend hours watching it. The TV is stealing the time of my dad and my
mom. If I become a TV, then they will spend their time with me.
“While watching the TV, my parents laugh a lot and they
smile many times. But I want my parents to laugh and smile with me also. So
please God make me a TV.
“And last but not the least, if I become a TV, surely I can
make my parents happy and entertain them. Lord I won’t ask you for anything
more. I just want to live like a TV. Please turn me to a TV.”
The husband completed reading the essay and said, “My God,
poor kid. He feels lonely. He does not receive enough love and care from his
parents. His parents are horrible!”
The eyes of the primary school teacher filled with tears. She
looked at her husband and said, “Our son wrote that essay!”
Relationships often start with plenty of demonstrations of affection and appreciation for one another. There is a sense of “this person gets me and accepts me for who I am”. The infatuation makes you want to attend to even the silliest requests from your partner. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, your partners request feels like demands that can’t be met. You feel confused and hurt that no matter what you do it’s never good enough to please them.
At first you chalk it up to some stress that has been going on in your lives. Soon you realize that your partner is constantly criticizing and blaming you. And things like this happen:
5 Things a Hard to Please Person Does
There is always an “if you just…then I would…” bargaining/ blaming statement happening. The bargaining portion serves the purpose of pretending you have a choice in behavior – you can do this or have the consequences. The blaming serves to keep you responsible for their behavior and entitlement. Their frustration that something isn’t to their liking is usually your fault for not following “the correct steps”. It is a trap that you constantly fall into because you want to “get it right”.
Their expectation can’t ever be achieved. Even when you do what they want the response is that you didn’t do exactly how they wanted, you took too long or you have to do more now. The standards are constantly changing. They might take over the task without letting you try, which causes insecurity and resentment for you.
You feel invalidated in your feelings and needs. If you express disagreement or disappointment you are met with “I didn’t mean it that way, so you shouldn’t feel that way.”
Every argument ends with you giving up and letting them have their way as if it was a game they need to win.
They compare the relationship and/or you to their ideal model. This idealization might come from someone in their lives (parents, former partner) or from beliefs about relationships. In any case you always lose since you’ll never be as good as their vision.
Now that you can safely identify that your partner can’t be pleased you are left with a question: Why? You have been blamed for their dissatisfaction for so long that it is hard to imagine other reasons for such mind games and control. Before you lose all hope of happiness it can be helpful to understand why.
The possible reasons:
High anxiety: Your partner could have a high level of anxiety that is alleviated through taking control of situations and people – especially you. Notice that you are not the only target of their criticism. There is a constant hyper-vigilance about what is going on around them and how they need to make it right. People with high anxiety are very critical of themselves as well as others. The dissatisfaction is due to a high standard that basically no one can achieve for being so idealized. There is a belief that anything and everything can always be better than it is.
“Your partner could have a high level of anxiety that is alleviated through taking control of situations and people – especially you.”
The world is unsafe: Critical people might have learned that the world is unsafe and you must be always on the offense and defense to not get hurt. The critical and controlling behaviors are to keep them with the upper hand in life. In this case you will notice a “winning behavior” – a need to be always right and “win” arguments no matter what.
Resentment: Something might have happened in the relationship that triggered the dissatisfaction. Your partner has resentments towards you that they neither express nor let go. This is a passive-aggressive (though it feels very aggressive to you) way of dealing with conflict that has to be addressed.
Role models: Dysfunctional role models of what a relationship looks like can cause your spouse to not know how else to interact with you. Experiencing negative role models also has a side-effect of leading him or her to try and maintain control of the relationship so they are not hurt like their parents.
Finally, we get to the part that concerns you: What can you do about it? Resolving conflict always takes both partners engaging in the work. You also have responsibility to change the situation.
What you can do about it:
Accept that you have responsibility: You have been reinforcing this behavior by trying to please your spouse at any cost. Every time you give in and do what they want you are sending the message that it is OK to hurt you that way. However, responsibility doesn’t mean blame. It is not your fault that your partner became critical and possibly abusive. Accept that you have been enabling the behavior and use the knowledge to change interactions.
Set reasonable boundaries: It is OK for partners to make requests, but not demands. Set a boundary of what you are willing to work with your partner and how you expect to be asked to attend to their needs. Don’t allow name calling, shaming or invalidation of your feelings. If needed take time out to cool off and re-engage in discussion later.
THE COUPLE’S GUIDE TO FIGHTING BETTER: FOCUS ON THE ISSUE
Love can be a battleground of mistakes, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Oftentimes when we want to discuss a specific conflict with our partners, we also want the floor to discuss EVERY conflict with our partner; every one of their 617 boneheaded mistakes. After all, we are an “expert” analyst of our partner’s behavior and personality disorders.
Meet Jasmine. Jasmine is a full-time employed mother of two. She’s married to Brian, a hard working business owner with 64 employees. Jasmine and Brian strive to be a super couple; the kind of couple that exhausts themselves trying to do it all.
Their childhood upbringing has taught both of them to be overachieving perfectionists who put a lot of pressure on themselves to be “happily married.”
Most of this pressure comes from Jasmine. She wants the best orgasms, a passionate sex life, millions in the bank account, and two adorable and successful kids. All this weight causes a lot of problems with Brian.
In her mind, Brian doesn’t help out with the children or house nearly enough. He doesn’t dedicate enough time to their relationship and he isn’t making enough money. Needless to say, Jasmine’s Love Laws puts Brian in Relationship Jail pretty frequently. As a result, she shames him. She makes him feel inadequate. She treats him this way so much that he has started to spend more time working than he does at home.
For Brian, work is a safe haven from the war at home. As Jasmine starts to realize their relationship is in trouble, she devours books on healthy relationships like a fat kid at a cupcake store. She heard about John Gottman’s famous State of the Union meeting that was created to resolve relationship conflicts. So she schedules a meeting to “talk” with Brian about their current conflicts.
Because she’s so eager to start the meeting, Jasmine takes the lead as the speaker. She tells Brian the role of the listener according to what she can remember: “just listen to me and don’t get defensive.”
Unfortunately Jasmine hits Brian so hard with criticism that his helmet in the football game of love pops right off. This leaves him vulnerable to a siege of attacks from his lover, who brings up every issue under the sun. His lack of help with the children. His lack of effort in keeping the house clean. His routine sexual performance that feels more like clockwork and less like lovemaking.
Hearing all this makes Brian feel inadequate. Something back in his childhood made him sensitive about that feeling. His body floods with negative emotions. Despite trying to do his best to “listen,” he emotionally shuts down to calm his anxiety.
Jasmine notices this and hits him even harder. “You never listen to me.” “What is wrong with you?”
By now, this relationship is on the road to the Hell, whether it be divorce or infidelity. But there are many lessons we can learn from this.
Pick One Issue and Be Specific
Instead of bringing up every issue under the sun, focus on one particular issue and stay on topic. Be detailed. Instead of saying, “you never help out around the house,” say, “It makes me feel abandoned when I feel like it is my responsibility to vacuum the house every week. On top of that, I have other chores I feel like I have to do to keep this house running. Would you be able to vacuum every other week for me?”
Telling someone they make you feel insecure gives them no feedback to change their behavior. However, telling your partner that you feel insecure when they make fun of you in front of your friends will allow them to fix that specific situation.
By focusing on one issue and the specific emotions it causes you (not your partner’s flaws), both of you can come together to fix that specific situation by changing both the meaning of the situation and each other’s behavior.
Avoid Your Partner’s Triggers
Lastly, be aware of your partner’s triggers. No one grows up without emotional scars. These lasting flaws can escalate conflict quickly. Tom Bradbury, a UCLA psychologist, calls these enduring vulnerabilities.
Imagine your partner’s weaknesses are tattooed on their forehead. What might your partner’s weaknesses and insecurities be? When they get blamed, do they immediately become defensive? Do they hate being lectured because it makes them feel inadequate?
Brian’s vulnerabilities of not providing enough make him feel inadequate. It causes him to close off from his relationship and the things he cares about. When his trigger is hit, it’s easier to become numb than to feel the pain of all his past traumas rising in the present.
Your partner’s childhood baggage may be a source of problems in your relationship but it is unrealistic to expect that he or she will fix them immediately. Prodding or insisting them to “change” will only worsen the situation.
What you can do is prevent a particular vulnerability from causing friction by acknowledging it and working around it with compassion. If you know your boyfriend is sensitive about feeling left out, be kind when suggesting that he should stay at home so you can go out with your friends for a girl’s night. You could say something like “I love going out with my friends and you because we always have a good time. But would it be okay if I just went out with them tonight? I’d like to catch up with them on a more intimate level.”
Or maybe your girlfriend is a tad messy, and resents her childhood upbringing of rigid house rules. She may even appreciate a break when it comes to her messy clothes on the chair in the bedroom.
During my own relationship conflicts, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that my partner is learning to work with my insecurities, just like I am with hers. Love isn’t always a comfortable ride. But having a partner who will drive around your potholes, while still addressing the underlying issues, is a partner you should keep.
Unsolvable conflict doesn’t necessarily mean
that your relationship is doomed to fail though.
It actually means the opposite. That is, if
you manage conflict constructively.
Unsolvable conflict is defined as conflict
between partners that is reoccurring with no long-term resolution. These
unsolvable conflicts are rooted in fundamental differences or needs of the
partners in the couple.
Couples who fail to build a bridge between
these differences tend to attack the core of who each partner is.
On the other hand, couples who use humor,
clear communication, and affection to navigate their unsolvable conflict often
leave the conflict feeling closer and more emotionally connected to one
another, despite not having a resolution.
“You don’t have to
resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.” – Dr.
Here’s an example:
Susanne and Kit have reoccurring conflicts
over how much time to spend together. Susanne would complain about not being
loved or cared for because Kit wouldn’t spend more time with her and Kit would
whine about being smothered by how much time they already spent together. This
fundamental difference in closeness and autonomy collided like tectonic plates.
As they each fought for what they needed and dismissed what their partner
needed, the foundation of their relationship became shaky.
When they were given the tools to explore this
challenging topic, Susanne and Kit truly listened to each other and began to
honor their unique differences. They learned how to manage this unsolvable
problem by proactively discussing it in their weekly relationship meeting. They
began to intentionally make space for we-time and me-time.
With the right tools, they were able to
transform a problem that led to fights that got out of control into something
that was manageable and honored both their needs. Not to mention, both partners
have a deeper felt sense of being known.
Sadly we are often taught that if there is
unsolvable conflict in our relationship that it isn’t going to work.
To change this message and teach you the
skills to healthily navigate conflict, even the unsolvable ones, I decided to
be part of Briana MacWilliam’s Relationship Rescue course.
Briana and I spent an hour talking deeply
about unsolvable conflict, but we also tackle a ton of other important conflict
topics, such as:
Four Horsemen of relationship conflict
to approach conflict in a healthy and effective way
importance of being mindful of the way you navigate conflict conversations
techniques you can use for effective conflict management
main differences seen between happy vs unhappy couples and how they
so much more!
Briana’s course is available for enrollment until Dec. 1, and believe me when I say that
there is a bunch of helpful information in there for couples (and individuals)
when it comes to really enhancing and healing your relationship.