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The One Skill All Modern Couples Need to Master, According to Dr. John Gottman

Fatherly spoke to Dr. John Gottman about the pandemic’s impact on modern relationships and how to build a marriage that lasts.

What’s the one skill that will benefit couples the most right now? That is, what’s most important to helping you and your partner feel happier, more resilient, less resentful, and better able to endure the many stresses of marriage and raising kids? The answer, according to Dr. John Gottman, is simple: listening. That is, you must know how to listen to your partner with empathy, interest, and, importantly, without offering solutions. Whether your relationship is strong or struggling, he says mastering this communication skill is critical to success.

“Research has shown that if people stay away from problem-solving and are able to listen empathetically and support their partner as they go through this very stressful period, they don’t feel so alone with what they’re experiencing,” says Dr. Gottman. “One of the most powerful things you can do is be a great listener and just be there without trying to be helpful.”

Dr. Gottman is in many ways the father of modern marriage research. For more than 40 years, he and his wife, psychologist Dr. Julie Gottman, have studied thousands of relationships (heterosexual and same-sex) to understand what makes a marriage stable, what behaviors are predictive of divorce, and what couples can do to ensure their partnership is kind, happy, and fulfilling. Through the Gottman Institute and their breakthrough research at the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington, they’ve shaped much of modern marriage therapy, and are responsible for such findings as the magic formula for a happy marriage and “bids for connection,” among many other insights. Because of them, countless couples understand themselves and their relationships better.

The Drs. Gottman are also authors or co-authors of more than 40 books about relationships, the latest of which is Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. In it, they offer eight topics — from money and adventure to spirituality and sex — and outline a variety of fun, interesting questions for couples to ask about each on a date. The conversations are not about confrontation, but rather curious exploration to help couples of all ages and stages learn more about one another.

Fatherly spoke to Dr. John Gottman about the pandemic’s impact on modern marriages, the conversations couples should be having, and how to truly listen to and validate your partner’s feelings.

COVID and the changes it brought were tough on a lot of marriages. Couples were forced to really rethink and retool their relationships. I’m curious, what are your thoughts on what relationships have had to endure over this past year and a half?

Well, it seems like couples have gone in two different directions. Those who were distressed before the pandemic hit have gotten a lot worse. The relationships have included a lot more dysfunctional conflict, and we’ve seen a big increase in domestic violence.

And then other couples whose marriages were stronger before the pandemic have gotten stronger through it. They’ve had more time with each other. They’ve had more of a chance to get closer and really rethink their values as a couple and as individuals. And so, we’ve seen this split between relationships that were strong initially and relationships that were challenged initially.

The average has stayed the same really because there’s been this big diversification of these two pathways. It’s been a time of great change. It’s almost like when an earthquake hits, there’s a fault underneath for some people and this really causes a lot of damage. On the other hand, sometimes crisis is opportunity. And for some people it’s really been an opportunity to rethink who they are and who they want to be as a couple. And it’s been very productive for those relationships.

Given what couples are facing, what do you think is the most important skill they need to develop? Is there something that has stuck out to you?

Well, consistent with this finding that there are these two different pathways, the ones that have had the most trouble really need to have a way of dealing with conflict and disagreement and managing their own irritability and stress. For them, our tool, which is called the stress-reducing conversation, is critical.

Research has shown that if people stay away from problem-solving and are able to listen empathetically and support their partner as they go through this very stressful period, so they don’t feel so alone with what they’re experiencing — they really feel that their partner is their ally in going through the stresses and the changes that are happening.

It’s important that people stay away from problem-solving and just listen and ask questions — ask open-ended questions — of their partner and listen empathetically, and use touch and affection as a way of staying close. That’s probably the most important skill for those couples on that trajectory with a relationship that is very stressed.

And what about the couples who are doing well?

What they need is really to be able to listen to their partner’s dreams and hopes and aspirations. Asking open-ended questions about your partner can be very powerful.

To your point about listening without solving problems. Men have the tendency to want to fix things and problem-solve. What’s the best way for someone to restrain from doing that, if that’s their nature?

It’s interesting because you’re right about men. But in the world of work, of course, this is true for men and women. We’re taught really to broadcast and be helpful by sharing advice and giving insight and producing. And a lot of men don’t feel like they’re being helpful if they’re just listening. They feel like they’re doing nothing by being a good listener and asking questions and being empathetic and supportive.

But that’s just the opposite of what is true. And one of the things that really helps men, I think, is to realize that one of our strengths as guys, particularly as fathers, is that we’re great at play. And we’re much better than women, generally, at being playful with children and not being teachers, not being problem solvers.

I think if we realize that we make this enormous contribution to our children’s development by being playmates of theirs and interested playmates, then we can see that doing nothing during a conversation but listen is very helpful.

One of the most powerful things you can do is to be a great listener and just be there without trying to be helpful.

Another important skill during conversations is validation, and something you’ve stressed over the years in your research. What does validation look like, and what does it require?

I think that’s a very good question because a lot of times people think they’re being a great listener when they just can say, “Well, this is what you’re saying. I hear what you’re saying,” but adding, “That makes sense to me. I get it. I understand your experience and your experience makes sense to me. And no wonder you’re upset. No wonder you’re angry. No wonder you’re sad. No wonder you feel afraid and worried here in this situation. I get it.”

It’s s really like two instruments in an orchestra that are tuned together and can resonate together, like the cello and the violin, for example. Each one resonates in response to the other. And so, the validation adds that kind of resonance that is not there if you don’t say, “Yeah. That makes sense. I get it. Makes total sense to me.”

That’s a lovely analogy. Often, the person doing the validating might worry that they’re allowing their partner’s worst impulses to take over. What’s the key to validating while also disagreeing or offering a different viewpoint?

Validation isn’t the same as agreement. It is saying, “I can get inside your shoes and see the world the way you see it. And when I do that, I understand your feelings and your needs. I can really get inside your skin. And I’m a different person. I may have different feelings and needs, and I may even disagree with some of your premises or some of your conclusions, but from your point of view, it makes sense to me. You make sense to me.”

So, validation is not agreement. Validation is saying, “From your point of view, what you’re feeling and what you’re needing makes sense.” And I can still say, “Now, can I tell you my point of view, which is very different from yours?”

Thank you for that clarity there. That’s such a small but powerful tweak. And this is nice way to dovetail into Eight Dates because, while it isn’t about confrontation, it is about having eight dates where you have conversations about such topics as money and sex and spirituality. Validating the answers is a big part. 

That’s right. Eight Dates is not designed to get people to face important questions. They’re not about confrontation. They’re about keeping curiosity alive in your partner. The eight dates are designed to really open up the imagination and keep curiosity alive.

Our first date, for instance, is about trust and commitment. It is not about changing trust and commitment in a relationship or confronting it. Some of the questions are, “So, tell me about your family growing up. How did your parents show one another that they were trustworthy, or how did they fail to do that?”  “What’s been your history with people that you trusted. Were there people who let you down? Were there people that really came through for you: friends, lovers?”

So, you’re really asking these questions that open the heart and get people to talk to one another. They’re all about curiosity. We’re not telling people, “Come to a resolution about money and develop a budget.”

If only it were that easy.

Right. We’re only saying “What does money mean to you? What’s been your history with money?” “What does it mean to you when you haven’t had money and what’s been your father and mother’s history with money and working and success?” “What’s your culture around money, and what do you want it to be?” Because most arguments about money are really not about money. They’re about what money means.

A lot of times, people’s relationships devolve into this really long to-do list of getting tasks done and they don’t take the time to ask each other the big questions. These dates are designed to be romantic because opening the heart is the way to opening everything.

To that point, it can be hard for certain people to open up about specific subjects. Sex and money, for instance, are notoriously difficult. What do you think is the key to having an open and honest dialogue? How should couples approach these conversations?

I think the key is to not be judgmental and to really be open-minded. The questions are designed to understand them and their experience. So, you’re really listening and trying to understand your partner’s experience around money and work on that date. You’re not judging it. You’re saying, “That’s really interesting. So tell me, what’s your worst nightmare around money?” You ask a question like that, which is in the book, and then your partner could say, “Well, here’s my nightmare around money,” or, “Here’s nightmare around children,” or, “Here’s my dream about adventure,” or, “Here’s what I’m hoping for in terms of spirituality and growth.” The secret is to not judge, to listen, to be open-minded, to be forever curious about your partner.

Speaking of growth, one of the things I think couples right now might be dealing with is the growing pains of marriage. How does one recognize, acknowledge, and grow into a different stage of marriage? Is it like grief where you can predict a little bit of it or is it more fluid? 

The way my wife and I do it is we have an annual honeymoon. And we take two weeks every year and we go somewhere. And for 22 years, we’ve gone to the same bed and breakfast and rented the same room. We bring our kayak, and we ask each other three questions every year: What did you love about last year? What did you hate about last year? and What do you want next year to be like? It takes us two weeks to answer those questions.

And in that way, we really are able to stay in touch with how we’ve changed over the year and how we want to change in the future so that we’re on the same page. We’re really aligned. And we know what each of us wants that’s different. What kind of adventures we want as individuals, not just together. And so our annual honeymoon is our way to check in with one another and really devote those two weeks just to growth and understanding how we have change and how we want to change.

For folks who are in the thick of it right now with little kids and who might not be able to take that much time off, what might you recommend?

Well, I think you can always do it. And you can do it inexpensively. And you can get grandparents to watch kids or you can exchange with friends, friends that you trust with your kids and they trust you with their kids. But taking time for the relationship and taking time for romance and connection is critical. And it greatly benefits the children when you do this.

Couples need to prioritize their marriage, as much as they prioritize their kids. 

They really do. That’s what we saw in the Sloan study done at UCLA with dual career couples with young children. Researchers put microphones and cameras in people’s homes, and they found that people got too child-centered or work-centered and weren’t really talking to each other. The average amount of time couples talked to each other in that study in Los Angeles was 35 minutes a week. They spent less than 10 percent of an evening in the same room with their partner. And so typically, couples wind up really neglecting their relationship. And what happens when you neglect a relationship is the same thing that happens when you neglect your car: It runs down. You have to keep maintaining a relationship. And I think it’s not either the children or the relationship, it’s both. If you maintain a loving relationship, your children benefit.

Finally, if a couple decides to seek counseling what are some tips that you think they should focus on to get the most out the experience?

In all the couples that I’ve seen in therapy, the one thing that makes couples’ therapy ineffective, is when people refuse to take any responsibility for their part in the miscommunication and just blame their partner for all the problems. And that is going to undermine any kind of therapy. So, enter therapy with the idea that you’re going to discover things about yourself that you need to change in order to make the relationship better. Don’t think of it as bringing your partner there to change them because you are perfect.