The eight deep discussions that can save a dying relationship
John and Julie Gottman have devised dates for ailing couples – but how many are ready for this level of openness and sincerity?
By Emine Saner
How often do we really talk to our partners? About the big stuff, not about childcare arrangements, or what the funny noise coming from the fridge means? According to a study at the University of California, Los Angeles, couples with small children, and who both have careers, talk for just 35 minutes a week, and mainly about errands. That study, says John Gottman, “alarmed” him and his wife, Julie. “It seemed like couples who had been together a long time were not taking care of the relationship – their curiosity in one another had died,” he says.
Gottman, the renowned relationships researcher known for his work on divorce predictors, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, a psychologist, have been married for 32 years. They founded the Gottman Institute, which conducts research and trains therapists. Their Gottman method is an approach designed to repair and deepen relationships, concentrating on three main areas – “friendship, conflict management and creation of shared meaning”. They have also written many books, together and separately. Their latest book, which they wrote as a couple, is Eight Dates. It guides couples through eight conversations – to have on dedicated dates – on the big issues such as sex, parenting and how to handle conflict. It was partly sparked by the rise of online dating and to provide new couples with a roadmap to navigate tricky subjects, but mainly to give long-term couples a project to steer their relationship to a better place. “Couples who have been together for quite a long time create a relationship that grows stale with time, and they lose track of one another,” says Julie. “People evolve over time. They change.”
The categories – trust, conflict, sex, money, family, fun, spirituality and dreams – came out of the Gottmans’ years of observing the flashpoints in relationships, and they sent 300 heterosexual and same-sex couples out to test the dates. The dates have suggestions of places to go that fit the category – for instance, for the trust and commitment date, choose somewhere that is meaningful to your relationship – though they also have suggestions for meaningful dates at home, and open-ended questions to ask each other. Amazingly, they report that only one couple had an argument on one of their dates. But might disagreement be a danger for readers of the book? “It’s possible, but what we like to do is give people preparation in case conflict arises, so each chapter includes a bit of that,” says Julie. “But also we very carefully tailored the questions so that people were encouraged to self-disclose as opposed to comment on each other’s thoughts. And when you self-disclose, that’s really the antidote to creating conflict as opposed to judging the other person for their point of view.”
Each category has exercises and prompts to think about before the date – for instance, in the money and work section, you are encouraged to think about your family history with money, and complete a questionnaire on what money means to you, then bring these to the date to share, along with suggestions for discussion including: “What do you appreciate about your partner’s contribution to the wealth of the relationship?” and: “What is your biggest fear around money?”
Many of the questions will encourage you to confront your own prejudices and ideas of what a relationship should look like, probably influenced (for good or bad) by your parents’ relationship. “People tend to role-model after their caretakers,” says Julie. “Those are hard to step out of. It takes knowing what the alternative is and then practising it, making repairs when you do make a mistake and trying again.”
I can see the point of all of the dates, but some fill me with horror (talking about sex, mainly – I am British, after all). And my boyfriend would probably rather abandon his family, change his name and leave the country than have a date during which we try to have a serious conversation about growth and spirituality (sample question: “What do you consider sacred?”). How can you get your partner on board if they’re resisting? “Start with the chapter on sex,” says Julie. “I think it depends on what the objections are. If somebody is afraid of having a deeper conversation, you could say this is not about being judged. This is not meant as a sadistic torture for your partner, it’s about having a fun conversation and being able to have a jumping-off point. People are so caught up in the day-to-day tasks, they rarely have time to sit and reflect on: ‘What do I not know about my partner that I want to know?’” So many people in our culture are “broadcasters”, says John. “They think the important thing in a relationship is to be interesting, rather than to be interested.”
Which are the most important dates? Julie chooses trust and commitment, and dreams and ambitions. “When people talk about that, they have a chance to plumb their own depths, to see what really matters to them and what they really value, and how they want to give their lives meaning. Those are things that change and evolve over time.” She turns to John: “How about you, honey?” He smiles and says: “Fun and adventure, and sex.” They laugh and Julie says something about him being a typical man and kisses him on the cheek. “It was really sad that more than 70% of couples said that their lives had deteriorated in the bedroom,” says John, of his research. “They weren’t having much fun with one another. The things that really draw people together, that enhance living, wind up being put on the garbage heap. It’s certainly easy for relationships to become drudgery.”
John and Julie met in a coffee house in Seattle in 1986. John had recently moved to the city and was getting to know his new home: mainly, he says, by answering personals ads in the newspaper. “I dated 60 women. In three months.” Julie laughs and says: “He made a job of it.” Julie walked into the cafe and he invited her to join him: “Julie was number 61.” They were married within a year. How did they know each other was the right person? “We’d had other relationships so we had a lot of negative comparisons,” says Julie. “We’d made so many mistakes, and you really learn from your mistakes. Lo and behold, here’s this beautiful person who thinks you’re funny and cute, and whose eyes light up, and with whom you know you’ll never be bored.” They have worked together for much of that time. Even when they were newly married, they would go out “and we would ask each other these big open-ended questions, just like the ones in the book”, says Julie. John would bring a notebook on their nights out and make notes.
Both agree on the most productive category for them – dreams. Each year they take a holiday together (they call it a honeymoon) and discuss three things: what was bad about the previous year, what was good, and what they hope for the year ahead. “We really take some time to take a look at our lives and figure out how to make it better,” says John. Julie adds: “That’s where the dreaming comes in.”
They seem happy and connected. What do they wish all couples knew? “If your partner is having one of the negative emotions – fear, anger, sadness – you approach it with interest and curiosity and really communicate: ‘I want to know what you’re feeling, I want to know what’s going on with you,’” says John. Julie laughs and says it says a lot about their relationship that John focuses on listening when she chooses the opposite. “My thought is related to the speaker – there’s a lot of responsibility for the health of the relationship from how you bring up issues,” she says. “What I wish all couples knew is, when they have a concern or complaint, they need to describe themselves, not their partner.” It’s the difference between “I’m feeling hurt” and “you’ve hurt me”.
They both still get it wrong, says John. “We’re all facing the same kinds of problems and we need these blueprints,” he says. “We’re not experts on relationships, we’ve taken these ideas from real couples that we’ve done research on. It’s the data that’s informing us, not our own expertise: we don’t really have that, we’re like any other couple, we struggle with the same things.”
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