WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

This article is an overview of what I have noticed works and does not work in relationships. It is not meant to be an exhaustive review, but instead a summary of what I see are the most important things to pay attentions to if you want to have a healthy, connected relationship. 

I feel that, as a couples therapist, my training and education never end. This is because so much theory behind couples therapy is influenced by current science of the human brain in relationship. This is good news! But it also reminds me that the choices I help couples make during conflict sometimes go against their natural responses. 

Bonding with others is hard-wired into our brain and evolved from our need to be inter-dependent in order to survive and propagate.  Therefore, much of what we do with our partners feels natural and easy–this is not what couples come to therapy for help with. The part that does not feel natural and easy usually centers around conflict, or difficult conversations, that every couple runs into in the course of being together.

What I have learned from the experts is that couples need to attend to not only how to have healthy conflict that results in understanding and connection, but also how to keep doing the things that are easy and natural. Attending to the latter makes it easier to attend to the former.

So let’s look at a round-up of the best tips I have learned from the experts in couples therapy, and why you need to know them if you want to be successful in relationship.

For this article, I pull from the following experts in couples therapy. I encourage you to subscribe to their newsletters if available as a way to get regular reminders of what works:

THE BREAKUP PREDICTORS: Couples will regularly act as though their relationship path is out of their control, asking, “”How did we get here?” The truth is that they got there together, by making conscious and non-conscious choices, but they may not have had their eyes open while driving, so to speak. Terry Real says that his first step with couples is to find out “Who’s doing what?” I use this question with my couples as a way to bring awareness to each individual’s contribution to the couple dynamic. If you don’t know what you are doing, how can you change it?

So what is most important to look out for? According to the Gottmans, who have 40 years of research on couples to draw from, contempt is the number-one predictor of divorce when it shows up between couples. What is contempt? In The Marriage Clinic, contempt is defined as: “Any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than one’s partner.”

Contempt is looking down at your partner, judging them as less than, specifically less than you. It can show up as disgust, disrespect, disregard, insults, eye-rolling, and ignoring, just to list a few. John Gottman calls it “psychological abuse” and that is exactly what it feels like. It makes the other feel as though there is something wrong with them, that they are not on the same plane as you–not as smart, not as young, not as attractive, not from as good a family, etc.

Contempt is so damaging because it is difficult if not impossible to repair, unlike other forms of conflict or differences. Contempt sticks and is hard to forget or excuse. There is a big difference between someone saying: “Since you have gained weight I find it harder to become sexually aroused with you”, and “You’re so fat you disgust me and I don’t even want to touch you half the time”.  The first one hurts, but can lead to a deeper conversation, while the second one damages trust, safety, and connection, pretty much ensuring that a deeper conversation will not happen.

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Another main predictor of breakup or divorce? Again, the Gottmans have a corner on this, sharing that the stories we have of one another are critical in shaping our responses in conflict. And negative stories of our partners over time lead to less successful conflict, less trust and connection, and often the end of the relationship. In The Marriage Clinic John Gottman calls these negative stories negative sentiment override, meaning the [negative] “affect around which the problems do not get solved”.

In layman’s terms, if you begin most difficult conversations not giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, you are likely to have gridlock, or higher levels of aggression. If you think about it, when you head into conversations with your partner with suspicion or negativity, your relationship will feel like you are living with a threat that is always trying to sabotage your well-being!

When this happens, I often look for experiences in one’s history that have negatively colored how they experience others in the world. Individual therapy can greatly help to deconstruct and dismantle some of these responses and make the person more adaptive to what is really going on with their partner.

WHAT DOES NOT WORK: Nearly all couples enter into couples therapy telling me that the biggest problem is their “communication”, but that is usually not the actual issue. Couples are communicating just fine, all the time, even when that communication is via the “silent treatment”. What the issue usually is is their difficulty in having difficult conversations. Conflict can fall into this category, to be sure, but other difficult conversations could involve changing values, problem-solving, or expressing needs.

The truth is that difficult conversations may remain difficult, but that does not mean they can’t be successful. What is success in a difficult conversation? Understanding and Connection. This is because the root of the difficulty in these talks stems from one person’s vulnerabilities being hurt. A successful difficult conversation is when one person expresses that hurt in a way that is not critical of the other, and the other then responds in a caring and empathic manner, avoiding problem-solving.

Since this is easier said than done, here are a couple of tips from the experts on what to avoid in these conversations and what to do to make them easier:

The Four Taboos: Dr. Walter Brackelmanns developed the idea of the Four Taboos during his many years working with couples, and he incorporated them into his own modality, Inter-Analytic Couples Therapy, which is what I practice. These actions became taboo primarily because they will completely derail a conversation two people are having about feelings, and they will also turn healthy conflict into a fight.

The Four Taboos are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Demands
  4. Dysregulation, either up or down

The reason he identified these as dangerous is because when they are used, they result in disconnection, not connection. They are protective or aggressive responses to the others upset. In a nutshell, they don’t work! 

Criticism is when one makes judgements or interpretations about the other rather than talking about how they feel (“I feel you are a jerk” is not a feeling, it is a criticism.). Defensiveness is difficult to avoid, because that is a natural brain response to feeling attacked, but it does not work because it is a justification for the triggering behavior. Demands are when you tell the other what to do or not do rather than making a request. And dysregulation happens when our rational brain gets shut down and we are running on emotions that respond to a real or perceived threat by either ramping up to attack, or shutting down to protect.

Avoiding the four taboos during conflict requires making conscious choices in the moment, as well as having a commitment to building trust and safety in the relationship during non-conflict times. Additionally, one must be able to regulate oneself, and/or be co-regulated by the other, so that they have access to conscious choice. Regulation does not mean that you are perfectly calm, it just means that you can have your feelings and still talk about them–that your right and left brain are both still online. (In dysregulation, our left brains go offline!)

These four taboos may remind you of the Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that is because they are very similar. However, the similarities between them does not invalidate either, rather it reinforces the notion that in order to connect during conflict, you better avoid dis-connective actions.

Turning Against Bids: John Gottman has identified three possible responses to what he calls “bids”, which are simply attempts to connect with another. Bids can be direct or indirect, they can be a question or a comment, they can be verbal or non-verbal, but in all cases the health of a relationship can be measured by the most common response of the other.

For this article, I am highlighting turning against, because this is the most damaging of the responses and clearly belongs in the “What Does Not Work” category. Turning against a partner’s bid is not a passive act–it is often hostile or aggressive.

(To read a brief article about all three responses to bids, click HERE.)

It is usually not the intent of the responder to come across this way–perhaps this is how they learned to be in their family of origin or from previous relationships. Nevertheless, as described in The Relationship Cure by Gottman and DeClaire, it is received as contemptuous and critical, setting a pattern of rejection and hurt feelings and ultimately, disconnection.  A relationship has little chance of succeeding if this is the go-to response to bids, so I recommend avoiding it!

It is important to note that turning against happens even in healthy, stable relationships. We all have bad days, lose our patience, get frustrated, and feel interrupted at times. That is when it is vital that we stay regulated so that we can express what is going on with us rather than punish our partner. If you say to your partner, “I just can’t think about that right now because my brain is fried, can we talk about it in the morning?”, you are assured a more compassionate reaction than if you turn against their bid for connection.

WHAT WORKS BEST: So what does work, according to the experts? Happily, there are many things we can do that require minimum effort and deliver big rewards. This is because our needs in relationship are relatively simple. Everybody wants to feel respected, loved, important, and desired. Though there are deeper needs that can be met, I have found that attending to these four sets a couple up for smoother sailing.

Below I have listed just a few of the most effective actions that partners can do for one another, but they all have a similar positive affect on relationships in that they reinforce positive stories about the other–they lead us to give one another the benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to a negative conclusion.

Having Shared Dreams/Celebrating Each Other’s Wins: Why be in a relationship? The reasons for committing to another person have changed somewhat over the years. During hunter-gatherer times, relationships offered safety and security, as well as companionship and someone who could help with work and children. We are “hard-wired” to gather with others since that is how we have stayed alive, being ill-equipped to survive on our own.

Things have changed, and I notice that in Los Angeles it can feel safer to be alone and away from others than in the middle of a group. If a person could do fine interacting with others only online and living alone, why bother with the messiness of living with someone who is not you?

Many of the experts, including the Gottmans and Stan Tatkin, talk about the necessity of having shared dreams, meaning, or purpose. If a couple is going to take on the challenging work of navigating differences and building a life together, then they are best served agreeing on what that life will look like. That is the shared dream–and it can serve as the motivation to do the difficult parts of relationship maintenance.

(Click HERE to access the Gottman’s Shared Meaning Questionnaire.)

Without a shared dream, purpose, meaning, or vision, a couple is essentially two individuals moving in different directions. This can undercut any efforts to join them or create a “team” mentality from which to solve problems, because they are both operating from individual agendas.

Shared dreams are critical to relationships much as they are to businesses–you can’t imagine a business where each employee has a different goal or path to success–this is why so many successful businesses have Mission Statements. They are written declarations of where they want to go.

Relationships will also benefit by agreeing on where they want to go.

Turning Toward Bids: One of my favorite Gottman concepts is the idea that we are always making or responding to bids in relationships. Bids made in relationships are specifically invitations to connect, and they can be verbal or non-verbal, direct or inferred, specific or general.

A bid can be anything from a comment about the weather to a specific question or request. In all cases they are attempts to connect with the other in some way. Connection is important to human beings because it reminds us that we are not alone, that we are safe, that we are important and have value. It also feels good!

I wrote earlier about how turning against creates disconnection and ultimately resentment, so you can think of turning towards as the opposite of that. But what does it look like? In simplest terms, the act of turning towards is any response that is shows that you are paying attention to the other. That could be a nod, a grunt, a question, an acknowledgement, or any number of responses at our disposal. This simple act can have a powerful positive affect on your partner and your relationship, and create a “cushion” for the more challenging and difficult interactions.

I have included turning towards in this article because I am a big fan of using skills that prevent disconnection while making conflict more productive.

(Click HERE for a short article detailing the different ways we can turn towards.)

The Dialogue of Intimacy: I have left this skill for last, mostly because it it the tool I use with couples in the therapy room and the tool I give them to take home and practice. It is also the tool that I have found creates the most change for the least amount of effort, if done consistently and with intention.

As I was taught, a Dialogue of Intimacy is a conversation that connects two people through empathy. Everything else is a dialogue of distance! It works because it moves beyond the surface issue of a conflict to reveal the underlying feelings of hurt, sadness, rejection, betrayal, and more. Unless these feelings are expressed, the Listener will likely miss the target with their response, aiming instead for the problem rather than the effects of the problem.

There are two roles in a Dialogue of Intimacy: a Talker and a Listener. The Talker is the one initiating the dialogue, bringing up something they are bothered by. Ideally, the Talker uses the formula “an emotion tied to a person and an event” to express what is bothering them, avoiding criticism in the process. The Talker should learn how speak about what is going on in their inner world from a subjective perspective–feeling the feelings and not just talking about them. Vulnerability is essential for the Talker in this task–because vulnerability is what draws in the listener.

The Listener has the harder job of the two, because they have to “set aside” what they may be feeling at the moment. The Listener is in charge of the process, leading the Talker down the road into their inner world, asking questions that illuminate why this issue was so triggering to the Talker. Without this information the Listener has to guess at what is going on, increasing the chances that their response will not work.

The Listener uses open-ended questions based on what their curiosity wants them to know more about. I always encourage listeners to look in the eyes of the Talker–this is where your questions will come from!

There is but one reason to have a Dialogue of Intimacy–to gain greater understanding. You are not trying to solve the problem here–understanding must precede problem-solving! This understanding comes from empathy–the experience of feeling and seeing the others’ perspective, which then leads to connection. This is why conflict, when done well, is not something to be avoided.

A couple of tips: both partners must be able to self-regulate and co-regulate or else the process will go off the rails; and you must stay in the role you have chosen until a full understanding is achieved. The good news is that this understanding often take much less time than most couples conversations–you just have to know where you are headed and how to get there!

(For therapists who want to study the Dialogue of Intimacy in a formal setting, click HERE for information on the trainings.) 

WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THIS INFORMATION: In this article I have shared just a snippet of offerings from the experts in couples therapy, with the hope that you will seek out more information yourself. The benefits of learning new skills are boundless, and those benefits improve the one thing that most of us value more than anything else–our relationships with loved ones.

The goal of learning these skills, and the goal of the experts who do this work, is not to create problem-free or conflict-free relationships because there is no such thing! Rather, the goal is to make difficult conversations easier by having couples connect during conflict instead of protect against one another.

Conflict and difficult conversations are inevitable due to the simple fact that we are different from one another. Learning how to talk about these differences is a powerful step toward greater closeness. Who couldn’t use a bit more of that these days?

ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

Valentine’s Day is a celebration associated with romance, but it is often fraught with anxiety. Why is that? Why is a day that celebrates love sometimes problematic? As a narrative couples therapist, I look to the discourses and stories in the culture that contribute to how things are thought about and defined. When it comes to the discourses about love, I could be unpacking these all day and not even scratch the surface!

The odd thing is that even though love is complicated, it is not nearly as complicated as we make it. The problem is that, culturally, we have taken the icing and made it the cake. What I mean by this is that we have decided that romance, a prominent feature of infatuation (what we call falling “in love”), is the lead actor in the play, rather than an important, but only supporting, character. 

So how do we correct this particular troublesome narrative? We don’t want to get rid of the icing–I like icing! The value of deconstructing a discourse is in concluding that not all of it needs to go. The component parts can be examined and an evaluation made regarding their current value toward living a better life. 

So that’s what I want to do in this essay–examine our current story about romance, its relationship to love, and sift through what is troublesome and what is not. 

ROMANCE IS NOT LOVE: When I was a young man, I lived, like many others, for the thrill of romance. I looked around every corner for this feeling, knowing that an encounter with it would lift my day from the ordinary to the extraordinary. What I did not realize at the time was that I needed romance in order to feel good about myself–that without it I felt more or less flawed and unlovable. 

This was not true of me, of course, any more than it is true for any other person, but this is one of the ways that romance has turned into a “drug” of sorts–making the trip down a difficult path so much easier. The problem is that romance doesn’t really move us down the path. It creates the illusion of movement, but eventually we wake up at the same starting point. 

“Real love” is what gets us down the path of personal development, not romance. Romance is just one of the many doorways into real love. So why do we linger in the doorway instead of going all the way in? Well, because moving toward real love is not always fun–it can require hard work and a degree of vulnerability that feels unfamiliar. The main reason for the strong emphasis on romance in the narrative of love is because it feels so good.

But it is not love. Romance, clinically speaking, is more accurately described as bonding, an important and powerful part of the process of two people coming together, and it often leads to, and is strengthened by, sex. When we meet someone we are attracted to, our brains work overtime to build a connection with them because we are hard-wired to do so. As mammals, we thrive as social creatures who seek the company of others for safety and security, and pair-bonds are one way to not only achieve that, but also a way to build families. Romance is not the only draw toward this goal, but in modern times it has emerged as the dominant motivator. 

(Watch “Your Brain Wants You To Have Sex. Here’s How That Works”)

REAL LOVE IS ABOUT THE PERSON, NOT AN IDEAL: Let’s talk more about real love, shall we? Why should we work hard to achieve it when romance is such a great “quick fix”? Well, as great as romance is, it does not and cannot last. Our bodies could not handle eternal infatuation, because when we are in it our brain is in somewhat of a psychotic state! The chemicals that are required to feel infatuation are not sustainable in the body, in the same way that we would rapidly break down physically if we were angry all the time–the chemical process is meant for short bursts, not long term! 

Additionally, though romance is not love itself, it can be an effect of love. Without love, romance is about the person feeling it, not the person triggering it. Real love, by contrast, is about the person receiving it, and this is why it takes time to develop–we have to know about another’s inner emotional life before we can truly care about them. Real love grows out of empathy for another’s vulnerabilities–that is what connects us to them emotionally, not just physically. This ability to empathize also helps real love last over time, because it can override surface changes in a person that we might not like or agree with.

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

Real love is a smooth calm feeling, not anxious or urgent. It is the feeling of caring for someone’s welfare and well-being–we feel sad when they are sad because there is an empathetic connection, not just sexual attraction. Real love takes time because it is sparked by vulnerability and pain–human elements, not ideals, that are not usually shown in the beginning of a dating experience (we only want to show our strengths!). 

REAL LOVE CAN INCLUDE ROMANCE: There is a myth about long-term relationships that romance and sex “die” over time; the day-to-day familiarity of being around each other stamps out the mystery and excitement that are the basis of romantic feelings. While this certainly can happen, it is not a given! Familiarity can interfere with seeing your partner romantically or sexually, but we can choose actions that re-introduce mystery and excitement if that is important to us. 

The problem is that most couples don’t know that it requires choosing these actions. We have been led to believe that “love is enough” and that romance should happen organically and spontaneously, and that if effort is required then it is not longer romantic. I push back against this way of thinking. I often tell couples that what they considered to be spontaneous romance during courtship was in fact the result of hours of preparation!

Anything worth maintaining requires some effort to do so, whether it is your physical fitness, your home, your career, or your friendships. The effort to maintain the things that are important to us is not always “fun”, but it is also not necessarily painful. It is just effort. Sometimes it is as simple as “setting the stage” for romance: dimming the lights, clearing the calendar, putting on soft music, making sure the kids are asleep. Sometimes it means doing little things for each other throughout the day, every day. If scheduling romantic or sexual time feels unnatural to you, then just schedule “time together” and see what happens once you set the stage. That is the organic part, and the preparation makes it possible for “spontaneous” romance to happen within a scheduled time period. 

(Watch “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship”, by Esther Perel) 

When romance is a part of real love, it has a different quality to it than early infatuation. It is both more secure and more liberating, because there is trust established–something that is still forming in the beginning of a relationship. It can also be more playful and more erotic, because you know enough about each other’s boundaries and triggers that you can experiment with confidence. Most of all, it can feel joyful, more complete, and more creative, because it allows room for both or all partners compared to the individual self-focus of the infatuation stage.  

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Most of us love the excitement of romance–our bodies and brains feel like they are firing all cylinders. In today’s challenging world, who can blame someone for wanting that feeling? My goal in the work I do with individuals and couples is to make sure that the feeling of romance, or the desire to have it, does not end in malnourishment–that an understanding of how romance operates in the brain will open up a more mindful enjoyment of the experience, recognizing that it is the icing, not the cake. 

It can be liberating to know that there are many different ways to “do” a long-term relationship, and that you can both take advantage of the science that is available concerning love, and allow yourself to make it up as you go along. There is much to be said for developing romance without the usual anxiety, so if that is something that you strive for in your relationship, learn what it is, and what it is not. Then go in the kitchen and bake your cake!

ROMANCE THAT WORKS

February is a month that one either dreads or dreads more, from what I hear–and yet it does not have to be so! I notice that the dread affects both those who are in relationships and those who are not–with just slight differences:

    • dread for those in relationship can include anxiety
    • dread for those who are single can include depression

The source of this dread just one day in the month–you guessed it–February 14th, Valentine’s Day. What is currently an opportunity to celebrate love and romance has turned into a day where love is often tested and romance is bought.

But it does not have to be this way.

The power we have as humans is the ability to make choices that align with our values–regardless of what others are doing! This includes our choices about love, sex, dating, and romance.

In this Special February Issue, we will take a look specifically at romance, and how to make choices about it that work–meaning less dread, anxiety, and depression–leaving you to experience more fun and love.

THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT ROMANCE: Here is what needs to be understood about romance: it was never intended to be mixed up with love. There are many theories of where romantic love began. In Medieval times, for example, it was something of a social ritual that bolstered the public status of those involved–who most often were not in an actual relationship with each other! Romantic love was more of an ideal to pursue for personal and social gain, not something to actually achieve–it was a motivational tool of sorts!

Over time, as marriage became an act of choice for many, “dating” began and romance became the primary fuel for relationship building. This would have been fine except for one problematic influence from previous times: people equated feelings of romance with actual love. Rather than differentiating passion, or sexual chemistry, from real love, modern dating culture fused them, resulting in a misunderstanding of what we feel towards our object(s) of desire.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE: Have you ever eaten a slice of chocolate cake? If you have, and you liked it, then you will remember how you were able to enjoy it even while knowing that it had nearly zero nutritional value. And yet despite this ability to reason intelligently about what we enjoy, we regularly abandon reason to experience infatuation with someone, thinking we are “in love”. Just as chocolate cake is not broccoli, infatuation is not love!

The distinction between initial passion and time-developed love does not have to be bad news. Just as you can enjoy chocolate cake while recognizing it has zero nutritional value, you can enjoy infatuation (and the romantic feelings that come with it) without thinking that it is love (yet). In fact, if you do so, you may enjoy it more because there will be less anxiety about it.

So why isn’t romance love? Because it is based on an ideal rather than a reality. Romance is about the one feeling it–how it makes them feel interesting, sexy, young, and alive. It is about perfection and fantasy. It is not about the other person–the other is just the catalyst for feelings that make us feel better about ourselves.

On the other hand, real love is about the other person, not about you! Romance during infatuation is about bonding and attachment–real processes that brings people together–but they are not love. Love takes time to form because it cannot happen until there is an empathetic and caring understanding of the other person and an interest in their inner emotional world.

The biggest mistake one can make when seeking love is to assume that if you feel romantic toward someone, you are “in” love. This assumption will actually prevent you from moving toward real love, because romance has you see the other as you want them to be, instead of as they are. Preferably, romance is an ingredient of loving relationships, not the container. So how do you make it work well?

HOW TO MAKE ROMANCE WORK: Let’s go back to the chocolate cake for a minute. Remember that there is nothing wrong with enjoying cake, as long as you don’t kid yourself into thinking you are eating broccoli. This is how you make romance work for your relationships. You enjoy it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. 

Many people think that romance is something you either feel or don’t feel–but actually it is something that we can (and often do) choose to feel toward another. Just because you choose to feel it does not mean that it is not authentic. And in relationships of a year or more, choosing romance is a smart decision because the closer you get intimately, the less romantic you may feel towards each other–the elements that fuel intimacy and romance are oppositional.

So you make romance work by choosing it and then allowing the brain and body to follow your intention. Why do so many suggestions for building romance include soft lighting, sexy music, and candles? Because that helps put us in a romantic mood–you are setting the stage for romance! This seemed to be the idea behind Valentine’s Day at one time, but somewhere along the way romance became an expectation of love rather than a desired and chosen effect of it.  Romance is an element of love, not the proof of love.

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Just as you would never dream of eating only chocolate cake (or would you?), you would not want a relationship to only be romance–that won’t get you very far. At some point, all our partners will “let us down”–they’ll get sick or have a blemish, they get impatient with us or become depressed. This is all part of life, and it is not very romantic. But as a team you can both choose romance whenever you want to experience it together, in the same way you can choose to have a slice of cake when you desire something sweet.

It’s great when romance comes “naturally”, but when it doesn’t, chosen romance is still romantic. Why not take advantage of both options?