How to Listen Without Getting Defensive

Understanding your partner requires the capacity to listen. Really listen. Couples are advised to hear each other’s complaints without feeling attacked. As great as this sounds, it’s often unrealistic.

Understanding your partner requires the capacity to listen. Really listen. Couples are advised to hear each other’s complaints without feeling attacked. As great as this sounds, it’s often unrealistic.
When something you said (or didn’t say) hurts your partner’s feelings, there’s a strong impulse to interrupt with, “That wasn’t my intention. You’re misunderstanding me,” even before your partner is done talking.
Unfortunately, when the listener reacts to what the speaker is saying before the speaker gets the chance to fully explain themselves, both partners are left feeling misunderstood.
This is why the N in Dr. Gottman’s ATTUNE model stands for Non-defensive listening.

The defensive reaction

For most of us, listening without getting defensive is a hard skill to master. This is especially true when our partner is talking about a trigger of ours. A trigger is an issue sensitive to our heart – typically, something from our childhood or a previous relationship.
While the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may have some truth, it doesn’t acknowledge that trauma and regrettable incidents can leave us with scars.
This could be a result of a number of things. Maybe you’ve been repeatedly hurt or have experienced injustice in your relationships. These moments from our past can escalate interactions in the present.
Maybe you feel controlled like Braden does. So when his wife, Suzanne, tells him, “You have to make sure the kids have dinner cooked before you go to the gym,” he responds with, “Stop acting like my mother!”
After a few more defensive statements, Braden shuts down.
Braden’s heart races at the thought of Suzanne bringing up a complaint during their State of the Union meeting (what Dr. Gottman calls a meeting to ensure that both partners feel heard and understood before problem solving together). Any complaint Suzanne expresses that includes a wish for him to change some part of his schedule around, makes Braden feel controlled.

Self-soothe to listen

While it’s important for the speaker to complain without blame and state a positive need to prevent the listener from flooding or responding defensively, it’s also vital for the listener to learn to self-soothe.
If you’re unable to self-soothe, your emotional brain will overpower your rational brain – the part that is designed to self-regulate and communicate – and you’ll “flip your lid” and say or do things you don’t mean.
As Dr. David Schnarch puts it, “Emotionally committed relationships respond better when each partner controls, confronts, soothes, and mobilizes himself/herself.” This is because the more partners can regulate their own emotions, the more stable the relationship becomes.
Self-soothing improves the stability of your relationship by allowing you to maintain yourself and your connection with your partner during a tough conversation.
Here is how Braden did it.
During their State of the Union Meeting, Suzanne started off as the speaker, protecting his triggers by stating her complaint without trying to control him: “When I asked about making sure the kids were taken care of and you responded by telling me I was acting like your mother, I felt hurt because it felt like our kids are not a priority for you. I want to make sure our kids are loved. I need some help.”
While Suzanne expresses her experience using I statements, Braden has a hard time hearing her. He wants to defend himself and tell her how she is bossy and demanding. But he understands that he isn’t supposed to mention any of these feelings until it’s his turn to be the speaker. When that happens, he has to be sensitive to her triggers.
Below are some tools that helped Braden self-soothe during his State of the Union meeting.

Write down what your partner says and any defensiveness you feel

Dr. Gottman suggests using a notepad to write down everything your partner says, which is especially helpful when you’re feeling defensive. This also helps you remember what was said when you reflect back what you hear or it’s your turn to speak. Remind yourself that you’re listening to your partner because you care about their pain.
Lastly, it’s helpful to say to yourself, I’ll get my turn to talk and express my feelings about this.

Be mindful of love and respect

During tough conversations, it’s helpful to focus on your affection and respect for your partner. Recall fond memories and remember the ways your partner has demonstrated their love. Think of how they support you and make you laugh. Remember that the joy you bring each other is more important than this conflict – that working through this together will lead to more joy.
I’ve found it helpful to write a quote or a happy memory in the top right corner of my notepad, reminding me that I love my partner and that this conflict has the potential to bring us closer. In “What Makes Love Last?”, Dr. Gottman suggests saying to yourself, In this relationship, we do not ignore one another’s pain. I have to understand this hurt.
When you self-soothe, you learn to separate your relationship from the anger and hurt you’re feeling over this particular issue.

Slow down and breathe

Slowing down and taking deep breaths is a great way to self-soothe. Focus on relaxing your body. Sometimes doodling helps. When you do this, don’t get lost in the activity or stop listening.
If your partner notices you soothing, just say, “I am trying to stay present as I listen, and stuff is coming up for me, so I am trying to calm myself so I can truly hear you.”
Remember to postpone your agenda and focus on understanding your partner.

Hold on to yourself

In Passionate Marriage, Dr. Schnarch advises partners to create a strong relationship with themselves as individuals by learning how to self-soothe and embrace their own emotions.
Oftentimes, when you feel flooded, it’s not because you are reacting to your partner’s words or behavior. It’s because you assign personal meaning to their statements. Maybe their anger makes you feel like they’re going to leave you. Or maybe it makes you feel like you’re not being a good enough partner.
Look inward and notice what you’re telling yourself about what this conflict means and how it may impact you. Holding onto yourself also means considering that your partner’s complaint may have truth to it. Sometimes we hold onto a distorted self-portrait. I know I have.

Don’t take your partner’s complaint personally

I know this sounds impossible, especially if the complaint is about something you did or didn’t do. If you feel yourself getting defensive, seek to understand why.
Ask yourself, Why am I getting defensive? What am I trying to protect? Your partner’s complaint is about their needs, not yours. Soothe your defensiveness so you can be there for them.

Ask for a reframe

If your partner says something that triggers you, ask them to say it in a different way: “I’m feeling defensive by what you’re saying. Can you please reword your complaint so I can understand your need and explore ways we can meet it?”

Push the pause button

If you notice you’re having trouble focusing as the listener, ask your partner to take a break from the conversation. This is a proactive way to self-soothe and prevents your emotional brain from flipping its lid.
You can say, “I’m trying to listen, but I’m starting to take things personally. Can we take a break and restart this in 20 minutes? Your feelings are important to me, and I want to make sure I understand you.” During this time, focus on the positives of your relationship and do something productive. I prefer to go for a walk.
Once you’ve learned to self-soothe, it becomes a lot easier to ask your partner to help you calm down. If you find yourself struggling, tell your partner what’s on your mind. For example, “Hon, I’m feeling flooded. Can you tell me how much you love me? I need it right now.” vs. “You’re the one with the problems. Fix yourself!”
The latter reaction comes from a place of fear and often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The former gives your relationship a fighting chance and the possibility to create a more secure bond.
Conflict is not only a catalyst for understanding, it’s also a vehicle for personal growth. I like to think of relationship conflict like an oyster. Oysters don’t intend to make beautiful pearls. Instead, pearls are a byproduct of the oyster reducing irritation created by grains of sand. In the same way, conflict can inadvertently create connection and closeness.
After listening to Suzanne, Braden takes a deep breath. “I hear you saying that my reaction to your request for help with the kids made you feel like family doesn’t matter to me. I can see why you’d be so upset with me.”
A tear rolls down Suzanne’s cheek. This is a major breakthrough for their marriage.
Long-lasting love requires courage. The courage to be vulnerable and to listen non-defensively, even in the heat of conflict – especially when we are hurt and angry.
Written by Kyle Benson for The Gottman Relationship Blog.

I Tried to Save My Postpartum Sex-Life With a Sex Subscription Box

This is a submission in our monthly contest. January’s theme is “Wild.” Enter your own here!

It was a rather typical Wednesday night. My husband offered to put our daughter down for bed. The whole routine can take up to an hour so I was happy to sit it out. So I sat, waiting for my husband to give me the thumbs-up that she was asleep. Normally the thumbs-up meant it was safe to proceed with our routine of Netflix and chill. Tonight was different, and I was anxious.

Typically when my daughter was off to bed, we would plop ourselves on the couch and binge a streaming series. We only have an hour or two in which we can barely keep our eyes open. Invariably we are shocked, at 10 pm, that we even stayed up that late.

Even though an hour or two isn’t much, we looked forward to the alone time. Sometimes in between episodes we’d sneak in a “quickie,” because when you become parents it’s kind of how sex just becomes: quick and convenient. It’s either that or it’s nonexistent. But not that night.

That night I had two glass balls in my vagina, black bondage body tape, and a whip, courtesy of a subscription sex fantasy box. I was excited yet nervous. I felt kind of ridiculous, too. What did I get myself into? I waited for my husband to peer his head through the door and let me know that our daughter was asleep and that it was time to go all “50 Shades of Grey.” The minutes ticked away, and I grew more anxious.

Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain how I ended up here.

A few weeks before this particular night, it became increasingly apparent that it was almost that time of year again. Cue the heart-shaped candy, boxes filled with chocolate, and cheesy rom-coms. Yes, Valentine’s Day gift guides were spamming my feed because February 14th was rapidly approaching. I was on a quest to find my husband the perfect gift but stumbled on to so much more.

It was almost Valentine’s Day and, just like the past two years, it also meant “Freed,” the final installment of the “50 Shades of Grey” movie franchise, was set to be released as well. With both so close together, I felt inspired to tap into my inner Anastasia Steele.

I give us kudos for even maintaining an active sex life with a rambunctious toddler and only four hours of sleep a night on average, but to be honest, we could’ve used a change. We’ve fallen into well-planned “sex dates,” which worked for us for a while, but the lack of spontaneity has its drawbacks. It was typical for me to say, “Sex at 9:30 in between episode two and three of Black Mirror?” To which my husband would nod in agreement.

So I Googled gifts for Valentine’s Day with the intention of breaking free of my postpartum sex-life routine. That’s when I discovered what I thought to be my solution: a sex subscription box. With so many different subscription services, offering clothes chosen by a stylist, expertly curated make-up, and even food to suit your taste or interests, it should come as no surprise that there are now subscription boxes catered to couples.

My husband and I tried a date-night subscription box in the past, and that was somewhat of a success, but when I stumbled upon a sex fantasy subscription box, I was immediately curious. Nowadays, I do most of my shopping online, but shopping for a sexual fantasy to play out with my husband? The thought never crossed my mind. Sure, I’ve bought lingerie online but not an entire box filled to the brim with a pre-planned sexual fantasy for my partner and I.

The Fantasy Box is a subscription service that delivers boxes with various themes with everything you’ll need to play out different kinds of sexual fantasies. Each box can include sex toys and even clothing and also comes with notes that guide you in a particular fantasy. Boxes range in size and price.

I decided to try a one-time order and chose the “Grey Area” box ($45 plus $5 for shipping). I’m not sure why I assumed “Grey Area” was the right box for my husband and I. After all, neither of us ever expressed an interest in this particular bondage fantasy, but something about Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey has captured the essence of the ultimate sexual fantasy. As a woman, trying to rev up my sex-life post baby, I was willing to give it a try.

Somewhere between attempting to insert the glass balls and wrapping myself in bondage tape, I felt like I’d gone a little too far. It just didn’t feel the way I expected it to feel. When my husband gave me the long awaited thumbs-up, I nervously walked over to him and asked if he read the instructions. He nodded and we proceeded.

I wish I could say that it was a mind-blowing sexual experience and that channeling “50 Shades of Grey” instantly fixed my sex rut, but it didn’t. It was awkward, like a really bad porno.

“Are you into this?” I asked nervously, my hands and legs bound.

“Not really” my husband replied.

Instead of an exotic night in the Red Room, my face was just red with embarrassment.

There’s this stigma that sex after a baby fails by comparison to sex before kids, and I was afraid we were falling into that category. There’s also this pressure women face to remain sexy and sexual after a baby and to avoid saying things like, “I’m too tired” or “Not tonight.” Although we were having sex regularly, I was afraid it had become too casual and planned.

However, trying to assess what my marriage needed by considering two fictional characters wasn’t the way to go. In fact, it made me realize that lazy, planned, and convenient sex actually really worked for us, at least for right now. This idea that my sex life shouldn’t change just because I’m a mom is ridiculous, because everything else has changed since I’ve become a mom.

The effort I put into my marriage right now may seem minimal but it’s significant considering I never get a full night of rest and I’m always cleaning up after a smaller version of myself. Planned sex isn’t necessarily a rut that I need to get out of, and it was a sex subscription box that helped me realize that.

Self-Interest is Not Selfish in Relationships

It’s hard to fault someone for being selfless. That doesn’t mean that being in a relationship with a supremely selfless person is fundamentally easy.

It’s hard to fault someone for being selfless.
We’re taught to put a high premium on kindness, generosity, and the needs of others. Sharing is one of the first lessons that many of us can remember learning as toddlers.
Making a decision based on our partner’s preference or going out of our way for a significant other – even when we’ve had a difficult day ourselves – is the adult equivalent of letting a classmate borrow the crayon that we really wanted to use, no? At any age, these selfless acts are considered fundamentally good.
That doesn’t mean that being in a relationship with a supremely selfless person is fundamentally easy.
What happens when a spouse’s unflinchingly self-sacrificing behavior is built, brick by brick, into a wall so airtight that it’s no longer possible to understand the interests and desires that they hold near and dear?
Maybe it’s as simple as your partner constantly deferring to you to choose the movie or restaurant, or perhaps they are always willing to talk through the challenges of your day, while never quite opening up about their own. Maybe you feel they are always telling you just what you want to hear.
These selfless acts may feel good in the moment but, over time, they’ll limit your ability to authentically connect in your relationship. You may never learn whether they really like Mexican food and comedies best, and you may always wonder if their political views could actually be so similar to yours.
Finding yourself in a constant state of agreement may grow frustrating – and you’ll likely find yourself questioning if your partner’s selfless behavior is too good to be true. (For your sake we hope it’s not, but your concerns are perfectly valid!)
In extreme cases, you may even feel as if you are being stonewalled, which, according to Dr. John Gottman, happens when a listener withdraws from an interaction. Have you ever felt as if your partner’s conversational generosity was simply a tool to shut down the discussion and avoid becoming more fully engaged?
Jackie: Where should we go this weekend?
Jim: I’m happy to go wherever you want to go!
Jackie: That’s great, but I want us to decide together. What would be your perfect getaway?
Jim: I will go anywhere you want. Just say the word!
Even if this conversation is sealed with a kiss and plans for an amazing weekend trip, the fact remains that Jim’s selflessness comes with a side of disengagement – and there’s no way that this goes unnoticed for Jackie.
If you’re struggling to find a healthy balance of authenticity and honesty with your selfless partner, perhaps you need to consider working toward deeper, more intimate conversations with them – drawing out their core opinions, setting a standard for more intentional, open, engaged, and reciprocal communication. Dr. Gottman has three basic rules for intimate conversations:
1 | Put your feelings into words
2 | Ask open-ended questions
3 | Express empathy
In order to draw your partner further into more connected conversations, I suggest focusing on the latter two tips. Practicing these skills in your day-to-day interactions may help your spouse to communicate more genuinely (dare we say selfishly?) with you. Here’s how you can apply these principles more specifically with your self-sacrificing special someone.

Ask open-ended questions

Start paying closer attention to the way you engage your partner in conversation. If they are more selfless than most, you may need to be especially careful to avoid the use of yes or no questions. After all, what selfless spouse wants to say “no” when their favorite person wants to hear “yes?”
Maximize your partner’s ability to assert their opinions and preferences, in their entirety, by keeping your questions to them wide open. You may need to do it more often than feels natural. Ask “What would you like to have for dinner tonight?” instead of “Should we go out for Mexican for dinner tonight?”
The results may not be immediate, but as you establish a more consistent pattern of open-ended questioning – from restaurant choices to the best way to manage your finances – we’re willing to bet that your partner will begin to realize that you expect them to engage with you at a deeper level.
Reestablishing the ground rules for conversations in your relationship may take time, but it will pay off in the long run in the form of a deeper connection with your partner.

Express empathy

Perhaps your partner struggles with authentic self-expression because their innermost opinions have never been validated with any sort of intentionality. Assuming you’ve started asking your spouse more open-ended questions, they may have begun opening up about their true preferences and desires. The trick now is to turn toward them (as Dr. Gottman always says) by engaging more fully in the conversation.
Show your partner that what they’re saying makes sense to you. If your partner is only taking baby steps away from constant selflessness, take baby steps with them. You can even show empathy for something as simple as your typically-deferential spouse’s admission that they prefer Italian food to Mexican food (bear with us, we know this sounds a little crazy).
“Oh, I totally understand that,” you can say. “I feel like we always get more for our money when we go out to that Italian place down the street. And they have a great bread basket! What’s the best Italian food you’ve ever had?”
Engaging with your partner in this way shows them that you are paying attention to their needs, and that you may be in agreement with them as often as they are in agreement with you! Start small by validating their restaurant preferences, and watch them become more comfortable asserting their input in more consequential situations.
Written by Alli Hoff Kosik for The Gottman Relationship Blog.

The Top 7 Ways to Improve Your Marriage

Seven ideas, drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s four decades of renowned research go a long way toward building the kind of relationship couples can rely on.

Although a marriage in trouble is upsetting, it can often be repaired more easily than you think. The “honeymoon” phase in any committed relationship is not meant to last; eventually it becomes obvious that sharing a life with another person requires a special set of skills. Most couples start to come apart because our culture doesn’t teach us how to maintain and strengthen these bonds.
The seven ideas below, drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s four decades of renowned research put into practice with Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman’s clinical methods, go a long way toward building the kind of relationship couples can rely on.

1 | Seek help early

The average couple waits six years before seeking help for relationship problems (and keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years). This means the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long. If you feel there’s any sign of trouble in your marriage early on, seek help.

2 | Edit yourself

The happiest couples avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics, and they will find ways to express their needs and concerns respectfully without criticizing or blaming their partner.

3 | Soften your “start up”

Arguments often “start up” because one partner escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark. Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better and allows couples to calmly engage in conflict.

4 | Accept influence from your partner

In studying heterosexual marriages, we found that a relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.
For instance, a woman might say to her husband, “Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready.”
He replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them.”
As you might guess, this guy is in a shaky marriage. A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows that women are already well-practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership only occurs when a husband can do the same thing.

5 | Have high standards

Happy couples have high standards for each other. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refuse to accept hurtful behavior from one another. Low levels of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship equals a happier couple down the road.

6 | Learn to repair and exit the argument

Happy couples have learned how to exit an argument, or how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Examples of repair attempts:

  • using humor
  • offering a caring remark (“I understand that this is hard for you”)
  • making it clear you’re on common ground (“We’ll tackle this problem together”)
  •  backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you often have to yield to win)
  • in general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and their feelings along the way

If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break and agree to approach the topic again when you are both calm.

7 | Focus on the positives

In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example, a happy couple will say “We laugh a lot” instead of “We never have any fun.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make regular deposits to your emotional bank accounts!
Written by John Gottman, Ph.D. for The Gottman Relationship Blog.

How to Break the Silence in Your Marriage

The unspoken issues and irritants add up until the tension hits a breaking point. So how do you break the silence in your marriage?

Constant conflict, chronic disrespect, and serious betrayals get a lot of air time when we’re talking about bad relationships. It’s easy to understand that relationships fail when conflict is unrelenting.
However, after working with couples for 15 years, it has become crystal clear that those couples have a leg up on other couples that are struggling. At least they’re talking, even if they’re arguing, because as Lisa Brookes Kift, LMFT explains, not arguing means you’re not communicating.
Some partners avoid conflict because they think they’re keeping the peace. They tell themselves that whatever is bothering them isn’t worth bringing up. It’s no big deal. Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed that for some conflict avoiders, this interaction is good enough for them. It works.
As he details in “Principia Amoris”, however, these couples are at greater risk of “drifting apart with zero interdependence over time, and thus being left with a marriage consisting of two parallel lives, never touching, especially when the children [leave] home.”
The unspoken issues and irritants add up until the tension hits a breaking point.
Eventually partners explode, or worse, shut down. They try to speak up, but by that point, it’s often too late. They don’t have any gas left in the tank to fight for the relationship.
They’re just done.
Maybe at some point, one or both partners did fight. They did try for an improved understanding. They worked for it. But improvements failed to stick, nothing worked, and needs failed to get met until one or both decided it was better to retreat from the relationship emotionally and stop fighting for it.
Sometimes silence is a deliberate choice. No one is yelling or using disrespectful language. However, those on the receiving end of such silence hear the message: You have ceased to matter. You’re not worth my time or my attention.
So how do you break the silence in your marriage? Start by acknowledging it.

Phrases to break the silence

  • Hey, we haven’t really been talking lately. I have been feeling X and just haven’t known how to bring it up.
  • Can we check in? I know I’ve gone radio silent and shut down. I’m not even sure I can explain it all but I’d like to try, if you’re willing to listen to me bumble about a bit while I sort it all out.
  • I’m not sure what’s going here, but I feel like we haven’t really spoken in X amount of time. Do you have time to talk tonight?
  • I miss you. We don’t really talk anymore, and I am not sure why. I haven’t asked because I am afraid you’ll say it’s my fault but I miss you. I miss us.

Partners stop talking because they fear what might happen after the conversation starts. What happens if we start talking and can’t work it out? What happens if I ask my partner what’s bothering him and I can’t handle the answer? What happens if I tell my partner what’s bothering me and she doesn’t care?
Those fears play into why people stay silent. Tell your partner what’s on your heart.

State your fears

If you’re worried about what your spouse might say, think, or do, be transparent about that. Tell your partner what you want them to know:

  • I know I’m not the best communicator, but silence can’t be good. I’m nervous that we’re going to end up in a fighting match. I really don’t want to fight with you. I want us to work this out together.
  • I know we keep trying. I know we keep failing. But silence is giving up, and I don’t want to do that.
  • I know that we haven’t been talking. The truth is, I’m scared because I’m desperate for us to connect. I feel like we are on opposite sides and I want to feel like we’re a team again. I want us to figure out some way to work this out even though neither of us really knows how to start.
  • Hey, I don’t want you to feel under attack here. I know I am to blame, too, but this conversation has to start somewhere. Our relationship is too important to me to not try so, here goes…
  • I caught myself the other day telling a friend about how great you were with X. I realized I never told you that I thought you did that well. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we had a conversation that went beyond our to-do lists. Can we figure out a time to just check in, please?

Now that you’ve broken the silence in your marriage and opened the door to connection, the next step is to walk through it together.
Written by Heather Gray for The Gottman Relationship Blog.

When You and Your Spouse Disagree About How to Raise the Kids

The first year or two was mine to call the shot. But as they became toddlers, I had to cede control.

In the beginning, I didn’t realize how different the parenting styles of my husband and I were. We wanted to imbue our children with the same values (kindness, respect for others, enthusiasm for learning) and had the same goals (getting them out of the house and independent enough to schedule their own doctor’s appointments by the time they graduate).

When your children are babies, let’s face it, there’s not a lot of actual parenting that goes on. Aside from loving them unconditionally, at that stage parenting is mostly care-taking: changing diapers, wiping runny noses, and the like. Yet, at that point, we still had the same values (discussing how our children were the cutest on earth) and goals (getting them to sleep for more than two hours at a time).

The first year or two, we rarely disagreed. We had the same opinions on baby-wearing (great for naps), breastfeeding (free food), and vaccines (as many as advisable, as soon as possible). But as our children grew from babies to toddlers, things began to change.

I sewed the boys handmade stuffed animals. He brought home Hot Wheels with names like “Blade Raider” emblazoned on the sides. I read them “Peter Rabbit.” He introduced them to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When their wrists stretched past their sleeves this fall, we both bought them new shirts. Mine had pictures of polar bears and foxes on them. His were football jerseys.

I’ll give you one guess which ones they preferred.

When I was discussing the idea for this article with my husband (after all, it’s a good idea to check in before writing publicly about disagreeing with your spouse’s parenting style), I tried to give him examples of how we differed.

“You know, things like how I cook them oatmeal for breakfast and you give them Pop-Tarts.”

“But they like Pop-Tarts!” He retorted.

Therein lay the problem. The first year or two was mine to call the shots. I chose who I saw for my pregnancy (midwife), what kind of births to have (one with an epidural, two without), and what baby food to feed them (homemade). But as they became toddlers, I had to cede control.

The kids were growing up. My husband introduced them to baseball, soccer, and basketball. Having been a hopeless athlete as a kid, I preferred our backyard time to be unstructured play. Whereas I had wanted to minimize brand influences to encourage their own creativity, my husband was excited to bring them into the world of Superman and Wonder Woman. While I tried to minimize screen-time (or at least I told myself I did), he bonded with them over Mario Kart.

(“It’s not Mario Kart,” he will tell me upon reading this article. “I don’t know the names of any other video games,” I’ll reply).

The simple, natural childhood I pictured for my children was shifting. The one where they sat peacefully on the floor playing with wooden blocks and listening to indie kids’ music was fading away. The one where they jumped off the couch yelling, “Cowabunga, dude!” was becoming a reality.

(“You’re the one who lets them jump off the couch, not me,” my husband will point out. “I’m trying to illustrate a point,” I’ll say. “Besides, where do you think they got the idea?”)

I couldn’t put my finger on what I found so annoying about this situation. Was I worried about losing my sweet and innocent boys? Hurt that they always seemed to prefer their dad’s interests over mine? Did I truly feel my way was better?

After all, had I been parenting 50 or even 30 years ago, I would’ve had complete say over what my kids wore, ate, and read. He would’ve been in his office, oblivious to what was going on with the kids. They would’ve been completely under my domain, and shouldering that burden alone would have frustrated me even more than having to share it.

Besides, his way isn’t really so objectionable. Sports provided some structure to the boys’ boundless energy. Their love of superheroes gave us the opportunity to discuss the importance of standing up for those who need help. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we could instill the same values and achieve the same goals whether we went with my naturalistic approach or my husband’s more conventional one. Sometimes I even wondered if I truly thought my way was better, or if I simply wanted to fit in with the parenting trends of the moment.

At the end of the day, I think my frustrations might be more centered on them preferring their dad’s world over my own. Every parent dreams of passing on their interests to their child. To see those interests passed over can sting a bit. In all honesty, the more they turn out to be like their dad, the happier I am. He’s a wonderful person and, as far as I’m concerned, the more like him they are, the better.

(“Yeah, I don’t care if you write about that,” he told me. “Just as long as you really emphasize that last part,” he said smiling.)

In the end, we can’t control who our children will become. In a year or two when they enter school, they’ll have a whole new world of influences. All we can do is point them in the direction we want them to go and hope that the path they inevitably choose instead is still a good one.

Choose a Partner You Can Be Playful With

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 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.
Yet, deep down, I believe we all yearn to experience that unfettered 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 his 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 reminding one another that “it doesn’t matter if people give us weird looks.” We support one another by fostering our artists within, 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, we find excitement in the abundant novelties we are surrounded by. But as we get older and assume 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.
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 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 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, joyful connection. 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 interactions are endlessly freeing.
In recognizing the joy and freedom that comes from dancing, we have made a point of taking this type of playful connection outside of the dance studio and to move together in life 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 a unique and 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.
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.
When we shift our perception of art, we have limitless opportunities to create together.
Since my partner and I have been taking dance lessons, it has provided a 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 expectations and pressures, learn new tools to navigate life together, and literally alter our brain chemistry for the better.
And, as a bonus, we get to dance.
Written by Hannah Eaton for The Gottman Relationship Blog.

Dating Your Wife With Kids Under Five

It can be difficult to make time for yourself and for each other when you have children, but it’s also a great time to grow together in a new way.

“She is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen,” you thought when you first laid eyes on that gorgeous woman you now call your wife. She is beautiful, smart, and sophisticated. You pursued her like she was royalty: picking her up for dates, holding doors open, bringing flowers, cooking dinners, the ring, the beautiful wedding. Finally, she became yours.
Fast forward to today. She is still the love of your life, but dating her is like running through an obstacle course, and the babies you had together are both delightful and a terror.
You lean in for a kiss, but you get pushed away by the envious one-year-old in your wife’s arm. You hug her and the toddler clings to your leg because they also want a hug. You try to have a conversation and every 30 seconds you get interrupted with someone wanting milk, apple juice, crackers, Cheerios, and of course the inevitable diaper change. You make plans to go out for dinner and one of the kids gets sick. Perhaps, at last, you decide on an at-home date and she falls asleep during the first 30 minutes of the movie.
But despite this, you, the husband, are her rock star and best friend. Your affirmation and support means the world to her, now more than ever as you raise your children together. In their book “And Baby Makes Three,” Drs. John and Julie Gottman write that “the greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.”
However, with kids around, maintaining that happy and strong relationship isn’t that easy with all the new changes in your lives.

Blame the brain

Research shows that your wife’s brain is changing in pregnancy and motherhood. A study published by Dr. Pilyoung Kim in 2010 shows that her brain is actually growing! Specifically, the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain areas increases, which is associated with a mother’s positive perception of her baby.
A more recent study completed by Dr. Elseline Hoekzema, published in 2016, indicates that the gray matter in areas associated with social cognition (where we store, process, and use information about other people) decreases, creating a “pruning” effect that results in a mother’s focused attunement to her baby.
Furthermore, hormones released when a mother is with her baby, such as dopamine and oxytocin, create an “in love” feeling that keeps her motivated to return and take care of the tiny human who keeps stealing her sleep. While one study suggests that there is diminishing ability in memorizing words (not recognition or working memory), the majority of difficulty concentrating may be attributed to her lack of sleep and increase in responsibilities.
That being said, she may be more forgetful and absent-minded with certain aspects of life, but she is also a mental genius when it comes to your children’s needs, schedules, and even keeping up with the dirty diapers.
But it is up to both of you to continue to devote time to each other and maintain your relationship. Dating is a great way to keep the love alive, and it is essentially spending quality time together, doing something you both enjoy while simply catching up on what’s going on in each other’s lives. Dating will not just keep you both close to each other, but its positive effects will model a strong and healthy relationship for your children, thus creating a happy home.
The amazing thing about parenting is that you are both doing it together. So, naturally, the first ideas for plans are things you can do with your kids. You can go to a petting zoo, have a backyard camp out, or build Lego castles together.

Make time for two

However, spending time together, just the two of you, is just as important as playing with the kids, and going on an actual date together (or having an at-home date) is a great way to maintain the fun and closeness of your relationship. Once the kids are in bed:

  • Hire a sitter and go out for a dinner date. Over dinner, you could talk about your love maps and explore each other’s worlds, or ask each other about highs and lows of parenting, marriage, and how you can support each other.
  • Make a pizza together and watch your favorite show on Netflix.
  • Write each other a poem. (No ideas? Try this.)
  • Create a bucket list.
  • Give each other a massage.
  • Watch a TED talk, then discuss it.
  • Get a deck of Salsa Cards and talk about how you can spice up your sex life. Then try it.
  • Make a time capsule that reflects the current moment in your family.
  • Cook a recipe you’ve never made before.

It can be difficult to make time for yourself and for each other when you have children, but it’s also a great time to grow together in a new way. Make sure to continue building your friendship and keep going on dates, which can be fun, romantic, and will keep your relationship strong. It is, after all, the best gift you can give your children, and also each other.
Written by Tamara Patterson for the Gottman Relationship Blog.

The Little Things That Will Make or Break Your Relationship

He comes home from work exhausted again. After yet another frustrating meeting that could’ve been covered in an email, a tense conversation with a co-worker about the state of the break-room refrigerator, and predictably awful traffic on the way home, he crashes onto the living room sofa, lets out a deep breath, and turns on his favorite show. All he wants to do is decompress in silence.
As if on cue, he hears the back door open. His wife is home, and somehow she’s more chipper than ever. As she enters the room and removes her coat, she takes a moment to pause at the front window, saying, “What beautiful weather, it’s just lovely today.”
What should he do next? The answer may matter more than you think.
John Gottman has spent his career studying what makes relationships work, and what he has discovered is as practical as it’s important. Through his research, he’s been able to identify what qualities and practices make a couple masters of their relationship, as well as what can make a relationship turn into a disaster. He found a subtle but significant difference between the masters and disasters that strongly predicts the future of their relationships: In the small, everyday moments of life together, relationship masters are much more responsive to their partner’s attempts to engage with them.
These attempts at engagement, or emotional bids, are any effort on the part of one partner to connect or get their partner’s attention. These bids can be as glaringly obvious as a direct request for cuddling at bedtime or as subtle as an indirect comment about the weather, addressed to no one in particular.
Gottman found that partners who consistently responded positively – or turned toward – to each other’s emotional bids were significantly more likely to feel satisfied and stay together over time than those who did not. In fact, in a six-year study of newlyweds, Gottman discovered that couples who stayed together turned toward each other’s emotional bids 86 percent of the time, while those who went on to divorce turned toward each other’s bids only 33 percent of the time.
Over time, all of the seemingly insignificant moments of daily life in a relationship turn into something of immense importance. Gottman identified four different responses that people typically utilize when their partner sends an emotional bid in their direction. Each can either support or tear down a relationship’s sense of togetherness and security. We can turn toward our partner; turn enthusiastically toward our partner; turn away from our partner; or turn against our partner.
In the introductory example, a husband worn-out from his day receives an emotional bid from his wife when she comments about the weather. He has a choice: He can turn toward his wife with a short and simple “Yes, it is,” acknowledging her bid; he can turn enthusiastically toward her by engaging her in a longer conversation about the day; turn away from her by ignoring the comment; or turn against her by gruffly asking for some peace and quiet.
Although an enthusiastic response to an emotional bid is almost always appreciated, more often than not a simple acknowledgement of your partner’s bid is enough to deepen your connection. You don’t have to deliver endless energy, attention, and focus to be a relationship master.
How is it that such small moments make such a big difference in our relationships? By consistently turning toward your partner when they reach for you in small ways, you fortify your relationship against the stresses and obstacles of life.
Essentially, an emotional bid is a small way that we daily ask our partners, “Are you here with me?” or, “Do I matter to you?” The answer to these questions becomes even more important if there has been previous infidelity or if either partner has a history of trauma. By receiving a metaphorical “Yes!” to these questions consistently throughout your relationship, you strengthen your trust and connection to each other.
Pay attention to the small ways in which your partner reaches for you and attempts to connect. Intentionally looking for ways to turn toward your partner will help you be more effective in connecting with them. Every time you turn toward your partner in response to an emotional bid, you invest in the health and security of your relationship. This sense of security, of feeling truly able to know and be known by your partner, created by intentionally and consistently turning toward your partner, deepens your shared sense of intimacy and is correlated with increased marital satisfaction.
As John Gottman reminds us in his work, it’s the small things done often that make the biggest difference in relationships. By turning toward your partner’s emotional bids, you safeguard your relationship against disrepair and deepen the love you share.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today and has been republished with permission from the author.

It's Okay to Let Your Partner Be Their Own Parent

There is seldom a right and wrong way of doing things. The spectrum is wide and there’s often plenty of room for grace.

I still remember standing in the hallway, 13 and full of hormones. I had done something wrong and my new stepdad had punished me. I was devastated.

It wasn’t the punishment. It wasn’t the way he did it. It was just that someone else was disciplining me, someone other than my mom. It was different and it felt wrong, yet looking back I know it was right. It wasn’t about what he said or what he did, but just that he was doing it at all.

My mom often says it was one of the hardest things about getting remarried. She needed to let my new dad discipline me, even if he did it differently than she would. That choice allowed us to pave the way to our own relationship.

20 years later and I was changing my daughter’s diaper after work. I unbuttoned her little coat and looked at her outfit. The pink bunny top with the green striped pants…and no socks. Always no socks. I huffed a bit before unsnapping the pants, and then I noticed the diaper. It was nearly falling off. Well, not really, but it wasn’t all snug the way I do it so it stays right to avoid the blowouts up the back. It was all wrong.

My husband had dressed her. I couldn’t believe he would do it like this. I mean, how could anyone put that shirt with those pants? I reached into her drawer to get the pink pants that go with the bunny shirt. Looking at her, I realized the green striped pants weren’t dirty. The thought of one more piece of laundry gave me pause.

Was she dressed? Yup.

Was she comfortable? Seemed like it.

Was she happy? Sure was.

Then I realized that maybe it was okay that the pants and shirt didn’t match. Maybe it was okay that my husband had done it differently than I would. Maybe he had his own way of doing it and neither one of us was right or wrong.

The longer I parent, the more I see that there is seldom a right and wrong way of doing things. The spectrum is wide and there’s often plenty of room for grace, as long as we give it.

I kept those green striped pants on her that day. Walking out of her room, I’m not sure if my husband even noticed the significance of this choice, but it did send a message. He didn’t get it wrong. I could’ve used that moment to change her and explain to him why he can’t dress her that way and why the bunny shirt goes with the pink pants, but the only thing he would’ve heard is that he did it wrong.

Parents need to pave their own way with their kids. Dad may make the mac-and-cheese extra cheesy while Mom tries to sneak carrots in it. Mom may let you stay up late to watch a movie while Dad herds the kids to bed at 8:00. Dad may put the bunny shirt with whatever pants he can find while Mom searches for the matching outfit. It’s all okay.

In fact, it’s more than okay. It teaches kids how to be themselves and how to handle different ways of doing things. It teaches parents how to work together and when to compromise. It teaches us all that we are unique.

Of course, parents should work together and communicate, but the fact is that my husband is going to do things differently than I am. Just like my dad had to find his way with me, we are each parents finding our way, learning as we go, and grateful we don’t get graded on how we do.

The truth is, if my husband picks a mismatched outfit or puts the diaper on differently, it’s one less diaper that I have to put on. That’s a win.