Marriage - P.E.T. Thoughts & More

Marriage - P.E.T. Thoughts & More

This year was our 20th anniversary!  

As part of my own private celebration, I read John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert. I’d been curious how it might mesh (or not) with Parent Effectiveness Training, whose communication skills I credit with greatly enhancing how my husband and I get along.

We started with a strong base. We had crazy chemistry, laughed like fools together and shared our Catholic faith, immigrant family backgrounds and similar values. The icing on the cake was a common set of college friends who could SO see us together. Six weeks after we started dating, at ages 24 and 23, he told me I was the woman he was going to marry. Far from being offended by his cockiness, I knew deeply that that made sense. 

Yet, there were the inevitable struggles and recurring fights that most long term partners have. My inner dialogue usually went something like this:

He’s taking advantage of me. He doesn’t appreciate me. Give him an inch, he’ll take a mile.

The icy chill could last hours, even days.

When I walked into my first parenting course five years ago, I was in a crisis with my 11 year old son. Lo and behold, though, my newfound assertiveness, empathy, and conflict resolution skills helped with my husband who, in turn, responded with his own best efforts.

The wonder of acceptance proved itself time and time again:

 This is my favorite quote from  Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children.

This is my favorite quote from Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children.

Gottman's book likewise espouses acceptance, self-awareness and open sharing as critical to successful relationships. And the writing brims with information gained from tracking 700 couples over seven studies! I didn't know, for example, that biologically, men find it harder to remain calm during conflict and to regain their composure afterwards. I learned also that "harsh start-ups" can doom an interaction; 96% of the time, we can predict the outcome of a 15 minute conversation based on the first three minutes.

It's not a P.E.T. book. Though I did find mention of familiar skills (he even references Dr. Gordon by name with respect to I-Messages), Gottman diverges at points, especially with respect to resolving conflict. His reasoning seems based on the difficulty of emotional self-regulation:

Judy might do her best to listen thoughtfully to Rick’s complaints. But she is not a therapist listening to a patient whine about a third party. The person her husband is trashing behind all of those “I” statements is her! There are some people who can be magnanimous in the face of such criticism — the Dalai Lama comes to mind. But it’s unlikely that you or your spouse is married to one of them. . . Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics even if their relationship can barely walk.
— John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, page 13

(Gosh, I just want to invite him and the people he works with into the practice-intensive P.E.T. course!!! It's hard, but with support, it is possible to deliver I-Messages that are not thinly veiled, blameful You-Messages, and to Shift Gears to extend empathy before reconfronting.)

Still there were many take-aways that resonate with what I teach.

Nurturing Connection as Prevention

After tracking the lives of happily married couples for as long as twenty years, I now know that the key to reviving or divorce-proofing a relationship is not simply how you handle your disagreements but how you engage with each other when you’re not fighting.
— page 51

Gottman notes that individuals are constantly making "bids" for the other's attention; these can be as minor as asking if there is butter at home, or as big as saying you're nervous about a doctor's appointment. Each time we turn toward each other -- texting How are you feeling after seeing Dr. Kim? Call me! [Door Opener] -- rather than away from each other -- "How should I know if we have butter?" -- we are funding an "emotional bank account" that serves as a cushion when major life stress or a big argument hits.  

That's reminiscent of P.E.T.'s Relationship Bank where we invest in each other through the skills. Here are some ways my husband and I make deposits:

  • Positive I-Messages -- "I feel so lucky you're the father of my children."
  • Modifying the Environment -- I try to slip a breakfast smoothie or other snack into his backpack; my husband puts away his cell phone for me and recently polished my ankle boots.
  • Active Listening, Attending and/or Silence when the other is upset. (Hugs especially help.)
  • Modifying Self -- I've worked hard to accept League of Legends and other gaming distractions.

If you're looking for ideas to fill some No Problem, one on one connection time, check out Gottman's questionnaires, Newlywed Game-style conversation topics, Who Am I? exercise and more!

Learning about each other helps couples lower their Lines of Acceptance so that little things appear just that way: little.

And when things do go wrong, partners are much more likely to accept the other's repair attempts because their regard and affection have been strengthened over time.

Looking Beyond Behavior

This book affirms the best in us because, just like P.E.T., it focuses on needs.

Gottman says that one obstacle to closeness is the strong emotions that can sometimes hinder clear, assertive communication. Consider the sarcastic example he provides: "It would never occur to you to clear the table, would it?"

Before you reply defensively to your partner, pause for a moment and search for a bid underneath your partner’s harsh words. Then, focus on the bid, not the delivery. If you find it difficult not to react defensively, first take five really deep breaths, counting slowly from one to six as you inhale and then slowly from seven to fifteen as you exhale.
— page 92

If the partner can maintain composure and say "Oh, you're right, sorry" and help remove the dirty plates, then not only does it defuse the situation but it will "probably earn a sheepish smile from [the] wife, who might then realize that her harsh start-up was uncalled-for." (page 92)

In the course, we strive to see our children as just meeting their own needs, rather than trying to thwart us from meeting ours, and to believe that once they know our feelings and needs they will want to do well by us.

The marriage expert says much the same thing:

Couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice.
— page 94

Adults, like children, benefit when our good intentions are in the forefront of the other person's mind.

Listening with Empathy & What To Do If We Can't

When you are in pain, the world stops and I listen.

Gottman deems this to be a crucial credo for healthy partnerships. 

To build this skill, he shares on page 97 an exercise called The Stress Reducing Conversation. Each person takes a turn discussing what's on his or her mind, apart from relationship woes. Often this pans out as "complaining" about both minor irritants and major struggles.

He offers much P.E.T.-style guidance:

  • "Stay focused on your partner. . . Make eye contact. Nod, say 'Uh-huh,' and so on." (Attending, Acknowledging)
  • He lists possible Door-Openers (he terms them "Exploratory Statements") to conversation, including "Tell me the story of that" and "Nothing is more important to me right now than listening to you."
  • "Don't give unsolicited advice" and "Don't ask 'Why?'" (Roadblocks of Advising and Interrogating)
  • He advises on how to communicate understanding (As a picky P.E.T. practitioner, though, I take issue with some of his suggestions as Agreeing -- "No wonder you're upset." -- or Sympathizing -- "Poor baby!" -- which can be Roadblocks.) 

Importantly, Gottman addresses the fact that an exercise like this, even when the other person is unhappy about a third party, can be highly stressful for the listener. 

He explains this discomfort:

Usually this very common tendency to turn away from negative emotions is rooted in childhood. Clients will tell me that as children they knew their parents loved them but they didn’t SHOW it very often. There were raised in families that frowned on negativity and offered little or no comforting. Feeling or expressing fear or sadness meant you were a ‘wimp.’ A child’s expression of anger was seen as a moral failing, a sign of disrespect, or even an indication of mental illness. Growing up in such an environment can teach you to compartmentalize your emotions so you become a self-reliant problem-solver who avoids ‘feelings.’
— page 103

His sections on self-soothing and soothing each other are instructional in reconnecting with our empathic selves; once our own negative emotions and past experiences are acknowledged we can better show up for someone else.

Choosing Words Carefully

Both Gordon and Gottman agree that we must learn how to communicate acceptance:

Acceptance is crucial. It is virtually impossible for people to heed advice unless they believe the other person understands, respects, and accepts them for who they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, or unappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege, and they dig in . . . Adults could learn something in this regard from research into child development. Children thrive when we express understanding and respect for their emotions . . . When you let children know that all their emotions, including the negative ones, are okay to have, you are also communicating that they themselves are acceptable even when sad, crabby or scared. This helps children feel positive about themselves, which makes growth and change possible. The same is true for adults. In order to improve our relationship, we need to express acceptance of our partner.
— pages 157-158

If blame or sarcasm have slipped out of your mouth, Gottman says to stop talking and take a break for 20 minutes, attempting a reboot with these possible Declarative I-Messages (though he doesn't call them that):

  • "My reactions were too extreme. Sorry."
  • "I want to be gentler toward you right now, and I don't know how."
  • "I can see my part in all this."
  • "I agree with part of what you're saying."
  • "I think your point of view makes sense."

(There are many more on pages 176-178!)

Peppering the day with Positive I-Messages also helps create a culture of acceptance:

[T]he key to invigorating fondness and admiration is to get in the habit of scanning for qualities and actions that you can appreciate. And then, let your partner know what you’ve observed and are grateful for. These everyday thank-yous don’t have to be about momentous acts on your spouse’s part. Search for the small, everyday moments.
— page 71

Gottman generously shares phrases and statements that enhance bonds, including "Thanks for working so hard for our family." That's one I've repeated over the years that I think my husband truly appreciates; funnily, it's the one that means the most to ME when he says it too.

The Role of Self

Modifying Self is an undercurrent of the P.E.T. course starting in the very first session and up until it's addressed head on in the last module on Values Collisions.

When we consider in Session 1 what moves the Line of Acceptance, parents often find that what goes on inside our heads is the primary driver for how we feel about a particular behavior. 

As the course progresses, change happens as we use the skills: parents report feeling calmer and more able to Active Listen; some adopt a favorite mantra; others feel uplifted by a Problem-Solving success at home and thereafter refuse to resort to bribes or threats. 

Finally, we reflect on our stances on issues such as the appropriate length skirt to wear to church, or the decision to take a gap year before starting college. Parents sometimes discover that, up until that moment, they hadn't consciously examined their values and can, in fact, be open to change.

Gottman similarly asks readers to do some internal work. At one point, he even outlines a seven-week course in growing fondness for and admiration of our partner.

Week 1:

Monday -- Thought: I am genuinely fond of my partner. Task: List one characteristic you find endearing or lovable.

Tuesday -- Thought: I can easily speak of the good times in our marriage. Task: Pick one good time and write a sentence about it.

 . . . And so on well into the next month!

Rehearsing these kinds of positive thoughts is an approach found in cognitive behavioral therapy, he says, and "if you do it often enough, the words (and more important, the thoughts) will become second nature." (page 82)

A good partner is a self-aware one. In addition to the Who Am I? activity on page 62, there is an exercise in the section on solving problems called Processing a Previous Emotional Injury which helps us identify and explore our triggers. If we can get out from under these "enduring vulnerabilities" we will have Modified Selves in a big way!

Oh yes, marriage is hard work. Any long-term partnership between loving adults is.

Yet it's worth the effort on so many levels. Did you know that if you can stay married, you can live 4-8 years longer?

Moreover, the state of our relationships affects kids. Marital hostility can lead to chronically high levels of stress, truancy, social issues, aggression, depression and low academic achievement. (page 7) 

Fortunately, Gottman sees a bright future. He has observed growing numbers of men who fit a new profile of husband/father:

He is familiar with his children’s world, including their friends and their fears. Because he is not afraid of emotions, he teaches his children to respect their own feelings — and themselves . . . One great trend among fathers is that more of them are passing on to their children an understanding and respect for one’s own emotions and those of others. We call this approach to parenting ‘emotion coaching.’ Children benefit when mothers AND fathers follow this parenting style. This new type of husband and father leads a meaningful and rich life . . . Because he is so connected to his wife, she will come to him not only when she is troubled but also when she is delighted. When the city awakens to a beautiful fresh snowstorm, his children will come running for him to see it. The people who matter most to him will care about him when he lives and lament his demise.
— pages 124-125

I am blessed to have one of these new-fangled guys.

Thank you Dr. Gordon -- and now you too Dr. Gottman -- for helping us to feel so connected.

Deepest gratitude to you, cherished husband. May we support each other through many more decades together. 

And may you, dear reader, enjoy a close union with your significant other, one full of knowing and caring.