Just like we can hold onto physical items that clutter our life, so can we hold onto relationship clutter.
A common reason why individuals, families, and couples seek counseling is to “fix” a problem. Imagine if you only had one tool in your toolbox. Would that tool be effective?
Being an attorney can be an extremely demanding job at times and can easily cause strain on your relationships with partners, families, or friends. Continue reading for some tips on how to foster those relationships.
Our culture tends to struggle with instant gratification (SWIPE), wanting our needs met immediately or relying on a partner for our own happiness or fulfillment of sexual needs and fantasies. Relationship issues are a very common presenting concern in therapy and dating is often included as a significant source of stress.
A diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes can affect the whole family. It’s important to listen to, and communicate with, all members of your family – especially any other children – and get help and support if you or anyone else needs it.
While you’re getting to grips with your child’s diabetes, it’s easy to forget about the needs of your other children. But, they, too, will be affected by their sibling’s diagnosis. They may feel that their brother or sister is getting special treatment, worry that their sibling will get really sick or be scared that they’ll develop diabetes themselves.
Rivalry and jealousy are common in most families, and a child with diabetes can cause upset between siblings. In the early days, after diagnosis, it’s only natural for you to be anxious and focus your attention and care on your child with diabetes. But, regular hospital visits, attention to diet and everything else that goes with diabetes has a longer-term impact on all the family.
Advice for coping with sibling rivalry
- Try to listen to both sides equally and be sensitive to their claims that it’s ‘not fair’.
- Be clear about what you expect from each of them.
- Try to give them the same amount of attention.
- If you feel it’s appropriate, get siblings involved with diabetes management, so that they feel part of it.
- Try not to put family life on hold.
It can be a challenge to manage a child’s diabetes when they go from one home to another. Whatever your feelings about your ex, the two of you need to work together to make sure your child’s diabetes is well managed.
- making sure both of you learn about managing your child’s diabetes from your paediatric diabetes team – second-hand information can be confusing or inaccurate
- how you’ll keep each other updated about any changes to your child’s treatment or routine
- how you’ll involve new partners.
As a lone parent, you may have particular difficulties because all the pressures fall on you alone.
- who you can call if you need help
- who can help you in an emergency
- who can support you when you’re struggling emotionally
- who can babysit when you need time off
- involving siblings in your child’s care, being careful not to give them too much responsibility.
When your child is diagnosed with diabetes, it’s natural for grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc to be as upset and worried as you are. They may be in constant contact, asking for updates or how they can help – or they may leave you alone to concentrate on your child.
Advice for dealing with extended family:
- Keep one person up to date. This person can then update everyone else: group texts and emails work well for this.
- Ask for the help you need. Perhaps you’d like someone to look after your other children, do a bit of shopping for you or walk the dog? People often want to help, but don’t know what to do.
- Think about the future. Your family will be living with Type 1 diabetes from now on, so how can your extended family best support you? If your child is used to staying over with relatives, it’s important that they still do so. If grandparents and other family members are worried about looking after them, try involving them in your child’s diabetes care. You could also bring them to clinic appointments to help them learn more about diabetes and ask questions for themselves. Most of all, be honest with them, tell them how you feel and ask them to help you keep your child’s life as normal as possible.
Is Type 1 diabetes hereditary? Will my other children get it?
Research has shown that Type 1 diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. If one family member has Type 1 diabetes, there’s a slightly increased risk of another family member developing it, too. But, many people diagnosed have no family history of diabetes. It’s natural to worry that your other children will also develop Type 1 diabetes, but try not to let this worry affect you too much. Talk to your diabetes team or contact theDiabetes UK Carelinefor support.
Diabetes support for you and your family
If you’d like some diabetes help, you can:
- ask your diabetes team for advice
- contact theDiabetes UK Careline
- connect with other parents on theDiabetes UK Facebook page
- Visit theDiabetes Support Forum
- join aDiabetes UK group
- contactDiabetes UK’s Peer Support serviceto talk to specially trained volunteers with first-hand experience of living with diabetes (including parents)
We’re taught a lot of myths when we’re children: “If you cross your eyes, they’ll get stuck!” “You can’t go swimming for 30 minutes after eating!” “If you touch a toad, you’ll get warts!” We’re also taught myths about relationships, like: “Compromise is key!” “Just be yourself!” “There is a ‘right’ person out there for everyone.”
We practice these myths from the time we first wink at, message or talk to someone. And by trying to fit our relationships into these myths, we create exactly the kinds of relationships we don’t want. Then we sit back and wonder, “Why am I always drawn to unhealthy relationships?”
Because relationships are so important to our well-being, keeping these myths alive can worsen depression, anxiety or other conditions and symptoms we may have. So, let’s look at five common relationship myths and how we have the power to break out of them.
Myth #1 – Healthy Relationships Aren’t Possible When Mental Illness Is Present
Connection is an essential part of mental health and can improve mental illness symptoms. The key is keeping up with your own treatment and letting the other person know how they can support your efforts.
While it is true that certain symptoms can add challenges when it comes to creating healthy relationships, thinking “I can’t be in a relationship because I’m depressed” is what might keep a person isolated and alone. If depression is interfering with your ability to create new and healthy relationships, then prioritize your mental health. Seek help and find coping mechanisms that work for you, putting you on the path to getting the healthy relationships we all need.
Myth #2 – Compromise Is 50/50
Compromise is when I give up something I don’t want to give up, and you give up something you don’t want to give up in the name of cooperation. In reality, compromise is a shortcut to working out conflict. Instead, explain why you want what you want and listen to what the other person is saying. Enter a dialogue and work out your differences together. Your relationship will be healthier and will evolve, and through that evolution, you’ll feel closer.
For example, if you’re experiencing symptoms of mental illness, rather than “give up” a much-needed yoga session for your household responsibilities, ask your loved one what you want and need from them while you’re taking care of your symptoms. Be clear on what’s going on for you. Instead of wanting to hide what you’re going through or compromising on your recovery, be clear and follow through on what is important to you.
Myth #3 – Being Loving Creates A Healthy Relationship
Being loving towards your significant other is important, yes, but love presents itself in a multitude of ways. Sometimes “being loving” means being more assertive, quieter, more giving or less giving. Sometimes it means setting limits, creating boundaries or stepping back from the relationship. Whatever it is, healthy behavior leads to healthier relationships.
Caregivers walk this fine line every day. The personal story “How To Love Someone With A Mental Illness” gives good, practical advice on walking this line, like use empathy and validation; learn about the symptoms and stop taking them personally; learn treatment options, and share them in a way that doesn’t try to persuade or have the other person follow your agenda; do not try to “fix” your loved one; build a community of supportive people around you; and, remember, healing is a process that takes time.
Myth #4 – Relationships Are How To Find Yourself
Relationships are not about being yourself or finding yourself—they’re about developing yourself. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that in order to be happy, one has to learn how to develop different sensibilities to different situations. For example, if you live with mental illness, and your symptoms are flaring, it’s important to learn what you need to develop about yourself so you can cope or manage them in a way that doesn’t significantly impact the people around you, or yourself. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can develop these skills through healthy communication and counseling. You don’t need to be perfect by any means, but there’s always room for growth.
Myth #5 – There Is A “Right Person” For Everyone
When we spend our energy looking for Mr./Mrs. Right, we give up our power to create what we want. The power to create the world we want is contained in the many relationships we have. Even if we’re depressed or anxious, experience mood swings or other symptoms, we have the power to shape the relationships in our lives to increase our well-being.
And we do this by making the decision to do so and then “leading” others into healthier ways of interacting. Not in a controlling or domineering way, but by example—by showing, “This is the kind of relationship I want in my life, and I’m going to act in ways that make it happen.”
So, take a step back from whatever relationship you’re in and clear all the “noise” out of your head. Then define the kind of relationship you want—not the kind of relationship that looks nice on television or the kind of relationship your parents or friends want you to have. After you do that, decide what you might need to develop about yourself to achieve that relationship and start doing it. It won’t be long before the kinds of relationships you want start to manifest in your life.
We can all take a lesson from Gloria Steinem who said, “Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to bethe right person.”
Larry Shushansky has seen thousands of individuals, couples and families over 35 years as a counselor. Through this and the process he used to get clean from his alcohol and drug addiction, Larry has developed the concept of Independent Enough. Follow him on Facebook here. You can also access his blog through his website at Independentenough.com
Becoming close to another person is one of the most thrilling experiences in the human repertoire, both the bedrock of emotional security and a passport to self-expansion. If the relationship is a romantic one—and intimacy is as much the essence of deep friendship as of lasting love—it carries the added charge of desire. Although the term intimacy is often used as a euphemism for sex, anyone with a dear friend knows that physical attraction is not essential for any two people to create a true bond. Intimacy is what you share with another human being who truly “gets” you.
With its inherent expectation of responsiveness, intimacy keeps open a channel for sharing the moments that are too saturated to contain—unburdening ourselves when distressed or disappointed, exulting when joys and triumphs swell our hearts. The antithesis of intimacy—social isolation—bodes badly for us. Science has long established that the lack of close relationships is as much a risk factor for mortality as smoking. The wider our social circle, the better our chances of warding off obesity, high blood pressure, and other corrosive conditions. The depth and nature of our ties to one another matter, too: The degree of support people feel they have from family, friends, and significant others counteracts serious health risks.
Small wonder the quest for intimacy is everywhere, from earnest online dating profiles to bursts of social media confessionalism meant to elicit a long line of supportive affirmations and emojis. While such missives may, in the short term, assuage the yearning to connect that most humans harbor, real intimacy can seem elusive in a world where quick text exchanges and apologies for being too busy to get together often supplant real-time, real-space interactions.
Intimacy is our emotional slow food, the lovingly home-cooked meal in a world of drive-thru orders. One of the most basic facts of intimacy is that it takes time to achieve. The process of opening to another, of self-revelation, takes patience as well as bravery, and the unhurried pace is a necessity for the creation of trust.
Friendships hold just as much capacity for intimacy as romantic relationships. It’s why people who often start out as friends wind up as lovers and why lovers seek friends to confide in when romance falters. As one new groom recently told a New York Timeswedding reporter, being friends first with his bride allowed him “to be more vulnerable in conversation than if I had approached her in a romantic way.”
Typically, we expect more intimacy from a romantic partner than from a friend, physically as well as emotionally, but intimacy threads through both types of bonds in shared secrets, caring touch, moments of laughter and tears, knowing silences. It’s not only about how two people act together, it’s how they make each other feel: connected and understood. Intimacy is what we’re after when we’re stressed or sick and need comfort, yet it’s also the reason why we value being with loved ones in easier times. Intimacy is “what most people want in their social life—it’s what people search for,” says psychologist Harry Reis of the University of Rochester, a key thinker about the nature of intimacy and the processes that underlie it.
What does it take to truly become close to another human being, whether in love or friendship? And what does it take to maintain the vitality of intimacy over the long haul?
Intimacy begins when a person shares something emotionally meaningful with someone else. Risk is at the heart of the matter. The person is taking a chance on a hunch that the listener could be trustworthy—but there’s always the possibility the emotional import will be missed, ignored, unreciprocated. As a result, the first steps of intimacy tend to be cautious ones. Social penetration theory, which defines the processes of relationships, holds that in building intimacy, whether with a friend or a romantic prospect, we engage in exploration. We venture forth with impersonal and superficial information to gauge the reaction of the other. A supportive response encourages an advance in self-disclosure, the proffering of more emotionally significant substance.
Researchers liken the process to peeling an onion, removing the layers of our selves and offering attention and support as the person we’re getting close to does the same. As exchanges become ongoing, the two people alternating between confessor and confidant, they build trust, affection, and, at some point, identity as a pair.
The process feels emotionally edgy because we’re gradually letting down defenses we may have maintained since childhood or adolescence, when we learn to hide those aspects of ourselves that trigger social rejection. You can’t really get serious about a love relationship or call someone a close confidant until you’re ready to tell the person about the darkest moments of your life. Indeed, every step forward in intimacy is a gamble. The information you’re revealing could be used to hurt you.
But you’re betting on the sweetness of the payoff. In addition to the catharsis that self-disclosure carries, “if someone responds positively, there’s a feeling of delighted relief,” says James Cordova, a professor of psychology at Clark University. Listening with an open heart and responding with tenderness proves you worthy of the faith placed in you.
Dating is nothing if not a process of gradual and—here’s the important part—reciprocal self-disclosure, and the risks of self-disclosure can feel particularly acute during dating. While establishing closeness in friendship often happens in fits and starts and hews to no blueprint, dating, perhaps more than any other activity in our culture, is encumbered with expectations and entangled with issues of identity, commitment, and time: What do I want out of this? What are we as a couple? Do we have a future?
If you try sharing something personal and it doesn’t go over well, you may feel the sting of judgment, says Steen Halling, a professor of psychology at Seattle University and the author of Intimacy, Transcendence, and Psychology. It’s easy to make a misstep in the pace of intimacy building: A person probes too soon for your deepest secrets or unloads too many of his or her own. In rushing to get to know you, the person fails to truly see you. “You’re on the receiving end of an agenda and become one of that person’s projects,” Halling explains. “That makes you think, ‘Do I have any say in this?'” There’s a difference between being willing to build intimacy and being willful about it, determined to make a relationship happen.
Not everyone in the dating game is seeking intimacy. The traditional notion of romance emphasizes trust, honesty, connection, and other markers of closeness. But people may date for many reasons: to ease feelings of social isolation, to have fun, or to build their own self-esteem, finds Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College. They may prioritize other goals, such as career, over a close relationship, which takes an investment of time. Having goals that are self-serving doesn’t mean a person is wrong or has intractable “intimacy issues”—even if those goals clash with your own. Better to seek an intimacy-focused relationship elsewhere.
Too, there are people who seem chronically unable to get close to others, routinely dodging opportunities for intimacy. They may have acquired an avoidant attachment style through early life experiences with caretakers who rebuffed them or ignored their needs. Research led by psychologist Phillip Shaver shows that the risks inherent in building intimacy are particularly threatening to such people; the process stirs their vulnerability to rejection, punishment, and loss of control. Evading closeness “comes from a long history of difficulties and the need to protect oneself,” says Debra Mashek, a psychologist at Harvey Mudd College who researches close relationships. “It’s an adaptive response.”
Even when two people are open to establishing romantic intimacy, being too purposeful can be counterproductive. That’s when the classic date scenario—eating dinner out together—can get awkward, says Halling. The set-up applies pressure to share information and scrutinize each other’s verbal and nonverbal responses, whereas a less stilted act, like taking a walk or doing something entertaining together, could ease self-consciousness while still allowing the opportunity to connect.
Online dating seems to offer an end run around some of the awkwardness of meeting face-to-face. Online exchange allows—even encourages—prospective partners to make intimate disclosures. But extended messaging can dull the thrill of exchange without hinting at the kind of rapport two people will have, says Paul W. Eastwick of the Attraction and Relationships Research Lab at the University of California, Davis. Let the messaging go on too long and expectations rise unrealistically. “Once a face-to-face meeting occurs, those expectations can be violated, which can be distressing,” he says. Cyberspace simply can’t deliver up the whole person, the “warm complex animal gestalt,” as one online dater puts it.
Does Sex Improve Intimacy?
Short answer as of 2017: Yes.
When two people start dating, the question of when to have sex seems pivotal, in part because there’s a widespread expectation that sex brings partners closer together. Desire for emotional closeness and feelings of connection are among the top reasons both men and women cite for having sex, report psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss. Women are no more likely than men to be motivated by a need for closeness, and men are no more in it for pure pleasure than women, the University of Texas researchers find.
Getting physical certainly stirs up the neurochemistry of attachment, mobilizing oxytocinand opioids that generate positive feelings and encourage more of the same. Once we link those feelings with a particular person, we want to stay with that person. Clinch and repeat.
The sheer presence of sexual desire, even when triggered by someone completely unknown, in fact pushes people to do the work of intimacy, says Omri Gillath. He and colleagues at the University of Kansas exposed a bevy of participants to erotic photographs, a known sexual stimulus. Some groups knew what they were looking at. Others were exposed to the images subliminally—flashed so briefly before them that the photographs didn’t register consciously. In both cases, exposure to the images made participants—particularly the ones who didn’t “notice” the photographs—more willing to disclose personal information, make sacrifices to benefit their current romantic partner, and work out conflicts effectively. All those effects are markers of intimacy building.
Sex really does send us down the path of emotional closeness, Gillath contends. He even conjectures that pornography, often assumed to interfere with real connection, might actually play a role in fostering it. “The studies suggest that when we’re sexually aroused, or when our sexual system is activated, we’re more open to intimacy.”
Intimacy in Passionate Love
When romantic intimacy is in full bloom, the intoxication of what happens in bed is rivaled by the charge it gives our lives. The pace of self-disclosure quickens. The drive to connect feels all-consuming. New lovers will stay up until 4 a.m. telling each other everything about their parents, their favorite elementary school teacher, the places they’ve lived, their likes and dislikes. The risk of disclosing every detail of their lives is more than offset by hitting the emotional jackpot of a partner’s interest, attention, and affection. The shared information nudges them down the path of seeing the world through each other’s eyes, abetting the merger into a “we,” the formation of a shared identity. A couple.
Two people essentially enter a zone of shared selves, a willing emotional nakedness. From their joint research on relationships, Karen Prager of the University of Texas at Dallas and Linda Roberts of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have identified three components of deeply intimate connection: self-revealing behavior, unwavering supportive attention, and a sense of exceptional knowingness as partners immerse themselves in each other’s lives, feelings, and routines.
Intimacy changes us. Getting close to someone else enhances our sense of our own abilities and possibilities; it enlarges us. The self-expansion model of close relationships, developed by husband-and-wife psychology researchers Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron, maintains that in becoming close to someone else, we fold his or her identity and resources in our own self. We gain from the availability of the other’s point of view and skills as we sort through a problem. We gain experiences—such as shared meals and outings, especially in the early stages of passionate love—and, later, resources, such as a shared home and bank account. Not least among the additional resources is a long-term commitment to the relationship. Closeness with a significant other also increases our belief in our ability to reach goals and helps us feel more in control of our lives.
“We take on the resources, perspective, and identities of another,” says Mashek, who studies self-expansion. “Your partner becomes a part of you, and you become part of your partner. You and me becomes we.” The rapid expansion that marks the initial rush of intimacy building is an unforgettable time. Getting close can seem enchanted, magical—particularly because staying close, for many couples, is anything but.
Men, Women, and the Work of Intimacy
Intimacy can be challenging to maintain over time. The reasons are rooted in the way closeness begins. Two people come together loving each other’s strengths and quirks. Each promises to be the person the other can confide uncertainties and weaknesses to, and each has permission to let his or her guard down in turn. But having stripped off all emotional armor leaves partners particularly vulnerable to perceived slights from each other, as, over time, the supportive focus on each other competes with the demands of daily life. That means that a grouchy comment or a bout of moodiness from a mate, however normal, can really sting. It takes restraint not to reply in kind or emotionally withdraw.
As a result, closeness tends to diminish over time, which Cordova sees as a normal process of decay. Parenting responsibilities or other everyday stresses exhaust a pair’s emotional resources and lead them down a path of least emotional resistance.
Once that process sets in, reversing its course can feel daunting. Couples often believe that they have to fix all their problems in order to feel close again. In fact, Cordova finds, simply paying more attention to each other is the best salve.
Figuring out how to enhance intimacy takes time, effort, and no small dose of what University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotion work”: managing or even suppressing your own feelings so that you can provide emotional support to others. In committed heterosexual relationships, emotion work is itself often a source of stress because men and women tend to have different ideas about the optimal level of closeness and amount of “emotional space,” says University of Texas sociologist Debra Umberson. She finds that same-sex couples share more similar ideas about intimacy and personal boundaries, and consequently share emotion work more equitably.
Friendship: Are Men Missing Out?
At first glance, the research on friendship seems to confirm traditional gender stereotypes about intimacy—that women value emotional closeness more than men. Male buddies tend to spend time together doing things—playing sports, listening to music—while female friends place talk, often of personal matters, at the center of their time together. Women say that intimate conversation is the most important facet of friendship, helping them understand who they are, improve their sense of self, and solve problems with other loved ones.
But men are not born to shun deep intimacy. In fact, studies show, both men and women value friendships with women—precisely because those relationships tend to be especially emotionally intimate. Outside the Western world, male-male friendships tend to be highly intimate and expressive.
North American men are well aware that sharing personal information will bring them closer to a friend than will doing an activity together, finds Beverley Fehr, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg and the author of Friendship Processes. What stops them from engaging more often in self-disclosure with other men, she says, is fear of rejection. Sharing makes men feel too vulnerable, perhaps because it conflicts with another value men hold—competitiveness.
What would happen if men were put in a situation where they were expected to share private information with other men? Fehr wondered. Would they benefit the way women do?
She turned to a tool widely used by relationship researchers: “36 Questions,” developed by Arthur and Elaine Aron. The questions, which couples ask each other, are designed to create a temporary feeling of closeness, even between strangers, in an experimental setting. Beginning with “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” the questions gradually escalate in emotional intensity. Question 18, at the halfway mark, gets highly personal: “What is your most terrible memory?” The final question puts interlocutors in intimacy central: They’re asked to share a personal problem and get the other’s insights into how to handle it. By the time they finish their questioning, lab partners are not only sharing emotionally fraught information, they’re essentially acting just as people in real relationships do—being responsive to each other’s needs.
Fehr brought into her lab pairs of men who were already friends and launched them on the 36 Questions. As the conversations progressed to a pointedly personal question, she observed a common response. “Typically, the men looked stunned,” she reports. “Then they fell silent. Then they uttered either the ‘f’ word or commented, ‘That’s deep.'” But to her amazement, they all really opened up in their answers.
So far, Fehr has found that the prompted self-disclosures have increased feelings of closeness between friends as well as boosted satisfaction with the friendship. Time will tell whether the men reap the same lasting benefits women do from friendships— heightened self-understanding and self-worth, an added sense of meaning.
Keeping It Going
Maintaining intimacy in a friendship is not a topic that gets a lot of attention, in part because our society tends to value friendship less than romance. Counseling services abound for committed couples on the rocks, and family and friends rally around them to help them stay together. But faltering friendships trigger neither the same mobilization of resources nor efforts to shore them up. And friends themselves seem to have absorbed the message; they tend to be more passive than couples about resolving conflicts. Friendships can end dramatically through betrayals of trust or an act of disloyalty. But most often they wither from neglect.
Yet they are remarkably responsive to resuscitation—by picking up a phone or meeting for coffee. The way friends stay close, says Fehr, is by going back to what drew them together in the first place: sharing information about their lives, offering support, and spending some time together.
Sometimes, though, intimacy between friends is revived in unexpected ways. Halling finds that experiences of reunification can be startlingly significant, often so profound they deliver transcendence. “You feel close to a person because you are truly open to them, and the feeling of being alone in the world is suspended for a time,” he says.
Murray Suid, a 74-year-old screenwriter, met Bryan, a charismatic professor, when the two were in a Bay Area men’s group in the 1970s. They became friends, then they lost touch. Two decades later, Suid was living in Los Angeles, and Bryan began making regular trips there for cancer treatment. Suid volunteered to ferry him from airport to clinic and back again. The prognosis for Bryan was grim, and he often talked about how scared he was. Suid, in turn, confided that his old friend’s ordeal was stirring up his own fears of death.
Suid had always thought of dying as something that created a wall between people. But “I found that instead it was a door, enabling two men to feel close to each other in a way that hadn’t happened before,” he says. Twenty years after Bryan’s death, Suid still treasures the drives back and forth to the clinic for their otherworldliness. “The intimacy wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had the chance to talk, with me in the role of just being his driver,” he says.
That’s the thing about intimacy. It can offer up otherwordliness without fanfare, although Halling finds that moments of deepest connection tend to spring from a shift in circumstances. Going on a trip, being in nature, even working on a project together can pave the way for unselfconscious union, when time falls away and the present moment shines in sharp focus. “We’re open to the person, and touched and surprised by who we see,” Halling says. “It’s an experience of awakening.”
When Intimacy Is Imbalanced
Sometimes, the slow dance of self-revelation—the core of intimacy—becomes a bit lopsided. One partner may be more forthcoming or attached than the other. That doesn’t mean the relationship has to be scuttled. It is possible to help a skittish partner open up..
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
Self-disclosure is a process not an all-or-nothing proposition. Intimacy takes time. “The more comfortable partner should positively reinforce any attempts,” says psychologist Catherine Sanderson.
SEEK OTHER CONFIDANTS.
Don’t expect your partner to fulfill all of your intimacy needs. “Nurture connection in friendships by being genuinely interested in your friends’ worlds,” psychologist Debra Mashek advises.
SHIFT THE FOCUS. The direct gaze can be intimate—but also daunting, especially for people who struggle with opening up. Spend time side-by-side instead. “Some intimate conversations occur when driving and the focus is not directly on each other,” psychologist Steen Halling says.
NURTURE YOUR SOLO SELF.
If you’re inclined to want to do everything with your partner, try some adventures on your own, suggests Mashek. Go to the movies or take a fun weekend trip alone.
OPEN UP ABOUT OPENING UP. Don’t hide your interest in how your partner is feeling. If your partner seems to be shutting down, let yourself wonder out loud about the reason, Halling recommends.
BE COMPASSIONATE. People who are reluctant to self-disclose may have been, early in life, punished for talking about emotions or expressing vulnerability. “We have to be kind, encouraging, and full of care for the genuinely fragile heart that we have invited into an intimate relationship,” psychologist James Córdova says. “We have to use our imagination to empathize with what it must be like to be afraid.”
By Lisa A. Phillips
Have you ever felt hesitant about approaching someone you met eyes with? Or felt nervous talking to someone you’re interested in? Or felt a knot in your stomach while finding the courage to ask someone on a date? Most likely, you’ve experienced at least one—or maybe all—of these feelings, because anxiety and dating are a difficult pair to separate.
Dating enhances several of our deepest fears: rejection, being judged, getting emotionally wounded. It can be challenging to overcome these fears and put yourself out there. In fact, our dating culture has shaped itself around these fears in an attempt to make the process of dating “easier.” But in many ways, this evolution has made dating more complicated and anxiety-inducing than ever. Take, for example:
Meeting People Online
Many online websites and apps have been created so people can screen potential suitors before ever having to physically meet them. For those who engage in online dating, there is a multitude of new concerns to contend with: Is this person real or are they just “catfishing” (using a fake profile)? How are they going to perceive me based on my profile? What questions can I ask to get to know them? This is all before the anxiety of actually meeting the person.
Knowing “The Rules”
It has become the norm to refrain from showing too much interest in someone you’re getting to know. This standard has produced a set of unspoken “rules” for any person engaging in modern dating culture. Some of these rules include:
- Don’t double text (i.e. send an additional text before the person responds to your first text). This makes you seem too eager.
- Don’t call someone. This will likely be met with distaste and confusion because phone calls are essentially obsolete.
- Don’t respond immediately to a text message. This makes it seem like you were sitting around waiting for them to text you.
- Don’t “like” any old posts or photos on their social media. Otherwise, they will know you were “Facebook stalking” them, or intently monitoring or looking through their Facebook updates or history.
- Don’t let them see you typing for too long on systems that show the other person when you are typing a message (e.g. iMessage, Facebook Messenger, etc.). Then they will know you were putting a lot of thought into saying the perfect thing.
If someone breaks these rules, they are typically perceived as desperate and unattractive. So if we like someone, we have to bury it away. It’s almost a competition of who can be less interested. How can our pride be hurt if our attitude is: “Oh I wasn’t really that into you anyway”?
Dealing With “Trendy” Rejections
The way people reject those they are casually dating is constantly changing based on what’s “in.” For a while, the trend was “ghosting,” or abruptly ignoring the person on every channel of communication. This causes the person rejected to anxiously wonder when the other person will respond and what they did so wrong. Similarly, there is also the “slow fade,” which is the same thing, except more drawn-out.
As if those trends weren’t bad enough, there’s a new one coined “breadcrumbing,” which is not being interested in someone, but continuing to lead them on. People who do this are trying to keep a person interested while they seek out other options.
How Can We Make This Easier?
With all these challenges (and more), it’s important to maintain your mental health when trying to connect with someone. And it’s important to remember that dating isn’t hopeless—even if you experience a mental health condition that makes it even harder. Here are a few things you can do to reduce your anxiety while dating:
❤️ Accept Yourself First
As cliché as it sounds, it is essential to love yourself and be happy with who you are before you add another person to the mix. A lot of dating anxiety happens because of insecurities within ourselves. Learning to be content and fulfilled while single before looking for a relationship is extremely helpful towards dating in a healthy way. When your happiness isn’t dependent on your search, you won’t put as much pressure on the situation or feel as anxious about every person you meet.
“Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have.” – Robert Holden
❤️ Be You Always
Once you have accepted yourself, you will feel comfortable being open and honest about who you are. You will respect yourself and won’t waste your time playing the usual games to pique someone’s interest. If someone doesn’t like you or the fact that you are open with your feelings, then they’re not the type of person you should be with anyways.
❤️ Dismiss Exaggerated Thoughts
Thoughts that rev up anxious thoughts need to be either ignored or thought through in a logical way. For example: “I’ll be alone forever” is not a rational thought. Yes, you may have to wait to find someone, but most likely, you will not be alone for the entirety of your life. Being able to recognize that a thought is exaggerated can be helpful in minimizing your anxiety.
❤️ Know It’s Okay to Feel Anxious
It’s okay to feel nervous, awkward and uncomfortable when first meeting someone. And it’s also okay to tell them that when you meet them—chances are they feel the same way. After all, it’s human nature to feel nervous at the prospect of finding a partner.
Laura Greenstein is a communications coordinator at NAMI.
When John Gottman talks, I listen.
Actually I’ve never heard him talk, but when he writes, I read.
So when a newly revised edition of his best-selling “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” (Harmony Books) hit my desk this week, I cracked it open immediately.
Gottman is a psychology professor at the University of Washington and the founder/director of The Gottman Institute, a marital research and counseling center in Seattle.
Maybe you’ve read about his theory on “master couples” versus “disaster couples.”
Co-authored with Nan Silver, “Seven Principles,” which has sold a million-plus copies, was first released in 1999 — before Tinder, before Facebook — heck, before some of us even had cellphones.
The updated version (out next week) offers tips for dealing with digital distractions, including Gottman’s suggestion to agree on rules of tech etiquette: How much are you comfortable with your partner sharing on social media? When is texting/posting off-limits (mealtimes, date nights)? Do you create cyber-free zones in your home?
Most compelling of all, though, is Gottman’s “magic six hours” theory, based on interviews with couples who attended marital workshops at The Gottman Institute.
“We wondered what would distinguish those couples whose marriages continued to improve from those whose marriages did not,” Gottman writes. “To our surprise, we discovered that they were devoting only an extra six hours a week to their marriage.”
If your first thought is, “Only? Where am I going to find an extra six hours in my week?” — I hear you.
If that was not your first thought, forget I said anything.
Anyway, back to the winning formula.
Couples who saw their relationships improve devoted extra time each week to six categories.
First up: Partings
“Make sure that before you say goodbye in the morning you’ve learned about one thing that is happening in your spouse’s life that day,” Gottman writes. “From lunch with the boss to a doctor’s appointment to a scheduled phone call with an old friend.”
(Two minutes per day for five days, for a grand total of 10 minutes per week.)
Gottman recommends greeting your partner each day with a hug and kiss that last at least six seconds and ending each workday with stress-reducing conversation that lasts at least 20 minutes. (About 1 hour and 40 minutes per week.)
Third: Admiration and appreciation
Spend five minutes every day finding a new way to communicate genuine appreciation for your spouse, he says. (35 minutes per week.)
“Show each other physical affection when you’re together during the day, and make sure to always embrace before going to sleep,” he writes. (Five minutes per day, seven days a week: 35 minutes.)
Fifth: Weekly date
For two hours once a week, Gottman recommends one-on-one time, during which you ask each other open-ended questions. “Think of questions to ask your spouse, like, ‘Are you still thinking about redecorating the bedroom?’ ‘Where should we take our next vacation?’ or ‘How are you feeling about your boss these days?'” (2 hours per week.)
Sixth: State of the union meeting
Spend one hour a week talking about what went right that week, discussing what went wrong and expressing appreciation for each other. “End by each of you asking and answering, ‘What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?'” he writes. (1 hour per week.)
All of it adds up to six hours per week.
Some of these suggestions sound a tad awkward. “What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?” reminds me a little too much of the last time I bought a car. (“What can I do to earn your business today?”)
But I like to think of marital advice like the food pyramid: You’re not going to adhere to it every day, but it’s an instructive guide to shape your habits around.
Once upon a time, in the Pony Expresso cafe in Seattle, a man and a woman began to experience the long-mysterious but increasingly scientifically investigated thing we call love. The first stage is called “limerence.” This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can’t-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing. The man, a then-44-year-old University of Washington research psychologist named John Gottman, was drawn to the woman’s wild mane of black curly hair and her creativity: She was an amateur musician and painter as well as a psychologist like himself. The woman, a then-35-year-old named Julie Schwartz, who’d placed a personal ad in the Seattle Weekly that John had answered, was turned on by John’s humble little car—voted the ugliest vehicle in the University of Washington faculty parking lot—and his expansive curiosity. He read physics and math and history and kept a little spiral-bound notebook in his pocket that he used to jot down things his companions said that captivated him.
We’d come to see the Gottmans because the pair has spent the last 20 years refining a science-based method to build a beautiful love partnership yourself. They reveal it over a two-day, $750-per-pair workshop called “The Art and Science of Love.” “It turns out Tolstoy was wrong,” John told the crowd in an opening lecture. “All happy relationships are similar and all unhappy relationships are also similar. … Is there a secret? It turns out, empirically, yes, there is a secret.”
Over decades, John has observed more than 3,000 couples longitudinally, discovering patterns of argument and subtle behaviors that can predict whether a couple would be happily partnered years later or unhappy or divorced. He has won awards from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Council of Family Relations and has become the subject of increasing public fascination. He went on Oprah and the “Today” show. A book he co-authored that summarizes his findings, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is a New York Times best-seller.
His work took off because the consistency of his predictions is astonishing. One 1992 experiment found that certain indicators in how couples talked about their relationship could forecast–with 94 percent accuracy–which pairs would stay together. This was magic–a virtually foolproof way of distinguishing toxic partnerships from healthy ones even before the couples knew themselves–but it was also science, so it appealed to our contemporary desire to use empirical data to better our lives. Walk by any newsstand, or trawl the Internet for three minutes, and you’ll find data-driven methods to improve everything we do. “Is This the Ultimate Healthy Meal?” “The Best Workout Ever, According to Science.”
You might expect love to be the last frontier breached by data. It is the Antarctic of the human experience, richly feeding the oceans of our emotions, yet somehow remaining elusive and unknown. Philosophers have argued over it for millennia without arriving at a satisfactory definition. Poets like Erich Fried capture its strange mix of pleasure and pain, the sense of its essential ungovernability: “It is foolish, says caution / It is impossible, says experience / It is what it is, says love.”
I first encountered Gottman’s research last year in an Atlantic article called “Masters of Love.” It went viral; my own friends posted it on Facebook saying, “This is what it comes down to.” Finally, love had been harnessed in the laboratory, seen, understood and broken into building blocks we could all apply to our lives.
The article proposes a recipe for becoming a love “master” instead of a love “disaster” by responding the right way to what Gottman calls your partner’s “bids for connection.” A “bid” is when your lover points out your kitchen window and marvels, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” You could go “Wow!” and get binoculars (an active “turn-towards”); mumble “Huh,” and keep reading your newspaper (a passive reaction, less good); or say, “I’m sick of your fucking birds. What about the broken garage door?” Gottman found that masters turn towards their partners’ bids 87 percent of the time. Love, he concluded, comes down to “a habit of mind.”
And habits of mind take work to instill. Everyone at the workshop was given a kit in a box with a handle. Inside were decks of cards proposing questions to help us learn about our partners (“how are you feeling now about being a mother?”) or offering ways to connect erotically (“when you return home tonight, greet each other with a kiss that lasts at least six seconds”). A manual provided us with a vocabulary to demystify and contain some of the scary things that go on in love: fights are “regrettable incidents,” the things that make us feel good together are our “rituals of connection,” the dark inner chasms that regrettable incidents seem to reveal are our “enduring vulnerabilities.”
One of the Gottmans’ employees, Kendra Han, estimated that a quarter of the couples in attendance were the kind of ickily self-aware duos who try this kind of thing for “fun and enrichment” while the majority were in some state of “relational distress.” The prevailing mood was a mix of hope and fragility. “This is already not going well,” I overheard one woman say, laughing a little. “My husband’s late.”
As I watched the Gottmans from my own seat two rows from the stage, I felt anxious, too. I had come with my own love problem to solve.
Some traditional Arab cultures believed that when you fall in love, your lover steals your liver. The ancient Chinese told their children that love could take out your heart. Romantic love, in older human cultures, was often something dark. It involved physical dissolution, the sense of falling apart. It made us act irrationally and tore a hole into the neatly woven fabric of our lives, beckoning us to step through it into a land of terrors. “You get lots of stories of getting tricked,” William Jankowiak, an anthropologist who has extensively studied love in folktales, told me.
Simon May, a British philosopher who has studied the development of beliefs about love over two millennia of Western culture, suggests that we’ve placed vastly more importance on finding love since the retreat of Christianity and the rise of relativism. “Human love,” he writes in his magisterial Love: A History, “is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.” The grounding we used to find in devotion to ideals like nationalism or communism, or in our faith in an ever-caring Shepherd, we now seek from individual, fickle human beings.
After I read May’s theory that love “is now the West’s undeclared religion,” I began to see evidence of it everywhere. “When you get down to it … [love is] the only purpose grand enough for a human life,” writes Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees. At funerals, we praise the way the deceased person loved as the ultimate sign that his life had meaning. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his Supreme Court opinion legalizing gay marriage nationally, identified marriage as the ultimate wellspring of all the other essential human joys, from “expression” to “spirituality,” while Sheryl Sandberg counsels young women that their choice of a mate is the most important decision of their lives. According to May, we no longer view love as “the rarest of exceptions,” as older cultures did, “but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it.”
These expectations are crazy-making, and it’s no wonder scientists have jumped in to try to save us. In the 1930s, sociologists began to generate charts to try to predict what kinds of love marriages would last a lifetime. You could take your own personality traits—loves sewing circles?—and plot them against your beau’s to forecast the happiness and stability of your match.
Starting the ’70s, with divorce on the rise, social psychologists got into the mix. Recognizing the apparently opaque character of marital happiness but optimistic about science’s capacity to investigate it, they pioneered a huge array of inventive techniques to study what things seemed to make marriages succeed or fail. They had partners write down everything they hated or loved about each other and then studied how close the pair subsequently sat together on a couch. They even generated fights, instructing couples to argue over how to pack the car for a vacation while each partner twiddled dials under the laboratory table assessing their mate’s helpfulness. One study showed that couples who did novel things together fared better; another revealed that intense emotions, once believed to be a sign of immaturity in love, could be worked with to create very deep intimacy. Given how central our love partner had become to our well-being—research had begun to show a good marriage was more predictive of long-term health than eating right or not smoking—Sue Johnson of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute told me she felt like she was “in the most exciting revolution that’s happened in the 20th century for human beings.”
“Imagine proving all those poets and philosophers from way back wrong!” she said. “Finally, we can make sense of love and actually shape it with deliberation.”
“Oh, yeah,” John deferred. “I forgot about that.”
Seeing the Gottmans’ marital interaction up close is almost alarming at first. Most couples tone down the perpetual spats, adjustments, sideways glances and hopeful asides that constitute one-on-one intimacy when they’re in public. The Gottmans don’t. Sitting across from them at a conference table, you feel as though you’ve come upon them tucked into bed, working it out with each other. They exchange constant meaningful looks. They interrupt each other, or Julie mostly interrupts John, correcting his behavior and memory. John accepts it. They use couples-therapy language. (“Boundaries!” Julie reminds John, when he starts speaking about his ex-wife.) They openly refer to deep wounds in their relationship. They also snuggle. John puts his arm around Julie, she arches into him and they wrinkle their noses at each other. In my presence, Julie wept twice, once recounting a time John had made her feel like a bad mother and once when John said she had been “the answer to my prayers.”
They started their parenting support group in 1989–just 10 couples, once a week, talking about the ups and downs of having children at the Seattle Jewish Community Center. John approached it like a lab. “He was all about observing and learning,” Julie said. “And I would jump in and talk about their emotions, looking for ways to try to help these parents. We’d have these great discussions afterwards and laugh about it. ‘Why are you trying to help these people?’ John would say. And I’d say, ‘Honey, why are you not trying to help?'”
When John got his start researching couples in the mid-1970s, he was the one who needed help. He’d grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey a diminutive nerd with few friends. As an adult, his love life felt perpetually unstable and unhappy. He found it hard to be satisfied with the woman he was with. In one two-year relationship, he and a girlfriend argued so much he ended up with stress-induced pneumonia.
Psychology, which he studied at the University of Wisconsin, gave him a way to use his problem-solving mind to attack the question of his own loneliness. Like a science-fiction android who pins electrodes on his human subjects to try to figure out where their emotions come from, John set about creating experiments that were as broad as possible: What does a good relationship look like? What does it feel like to be in it?
His career took off when he met a psychologist named Robert Levenson. Each man turned out to be exactly what the other had needed. Levenson was investigating the remarkable variance in how different people react to stress by testing their heart rates and sweat-gland activity after receiving a jolt. By teaming up with John, he says he finally felt as if he was working on something more “personally relevant and emotionally rich” than administering electric shocks. Meanwhile, by joining with Levenson, John thought he might uncover a way to measure marital happiness that was more “real” than people’s self-reporting on surveys.
Their collaboration led John to create an actual mock apartment where couples could do “ordinary” things like cook and watch TV together. “It was just like being at a bed and breakfast,” he said, “except you were hooked up to electrodes … and there were surveillance cameras hanging from the ceiling.” Then, he harnessed the emerging power of computers to analyze a vast amount of data from the interactions. Professionals trained in interpreting facial expressions evaluated hours of video, rating the couples for emotions like delight, disgust and fear; assistants coded questionnaires the partners filled out about their relationship history for positive and negative feelings; and machines took constant measures of the couples’ heart rates and vascular tone while they flirted and fought.
Years afterwards, the psychologists followed up to see which couples were happy and which had split up. They plugged that information into a computer, along with all the data they’d previously gathered, and asked the machine to create equations that associated certain behaviors and physiology with long-term happiness. What emerged were fascinating and often surprising observations on lasting love. They found that couples that stay happy used a lot of “we,” whereas couples that turned out unhappy used “I,” “me” and “mine.” They also discovered that when partners with a good long-term outlook argued, they somehow managed to maintain a ratio of five positive comments to one negative one. “At the time, everybody was enamored with this idea that romantic relationships were full of fireworks,” Levenson remembered. “Well, that was not the finding. It is the capacity of couples to calm down, to soothe, to sort of reduce the level of arousal for each other, that is the most important factor in predicting whether the marriage will last.”
In the beginning, the two men’s techniques were viewed as dangerously iconoclastic. “When Bob and I were assistant professors getting evaluated for tenure our committee said, ‘Look, you guys are crazy. We can’t predict one person’s behavior. How are we going to predict two people’s behavior? You’ll never find anything. You’ll never get a grant,’” John recalled. But as the astoundingly robust predictions started rolling in, all that changed. John got elected to chair the family psychology research unit of the American Psychological Association. The New York Times profiled his findings. Where John had once felt hopelessly bewildered by love, he began to feel as if he could eavesdrop on a couple sitting across from him in a restaurant and get a pretty good sense of their chances of divorce.
“John had these brilliant insights,” Julie told me, “but nothing was being done with them.”
Canoeing together on the Salish Sea outside Seattle, Julie remembers saying to John, “Why don’t we try to help couples with what you know?” They spent the next year creating a master theory of good relationships based on John’s research. He sat in his red chair, she sat on an ottoman. “We argued a lot,” John remembered.
“Oh, God, we argued a lot,” Julie said.
In the beginning, John was hesitant to embrace some of the ideas about love that Julie had picked up from her decades of practice as a therapist. “I thought, if there wasn’t solid evidence, we wouldn’t put it into the theory,” he recalled. Always formula-driven, he imagined the Gottman Method would comprise a rigid set of 14 well-structured sessions. Julie wanted a looser set of guidelines. “I was tearing my hair out because I had worked with people for 20, 25 years, and I knew that there’s huge variation in how people react to therapy,” she said. She threw John a teasing smile. “He had to learn how to respect my knowledge. Finally.”
They imagined that a happy relationship was built consecutively in seven layers. The foundation was a strong friendship, based on John’s laboratory findings that couples who spoke more fluidly and in more detail about each other and their pasts were more likely to stay together. Then came sharing admiration, “turning towards” each others’ bids and developing positive feelings about the coupling. Once that had all clicked into place, a pair could proceed through learning to manage their fights with, among other techniques, a process they dubbed “dreams within conflict,” whereby people try to see the positive dream inside what looks like a partner’s negative position. At the top–the pinnacle of a great relationship–came helping each others’ dreams come true and building a shared sense of purpose, like volunteering or traveling the world.
The “dreams with conflict” technique was inspired by the Gottmans’ own marital strife. One fight involved Julie’s wish, for her 50th birthday, to climb above Mount Everest’s base camp with 10 female friends. “John gets altitude sick on a ladder,” Julie said. He didn’t want her to go. In bed at night, he’d pepper her with questions: “What if you get caught in a blizzard? What if you fall in a glacier? What if you get altitude sick?”
“What if you get hit by a bus?” she’d reply.
Julie invited a sherpa to their house to give a presentation on the trip. The sherpa stood in the living room, 6 feet tall, dark and sexy, and showed slides of fabulous rope bridges snaking over river chasms as her friends ooh-ed and aah-ed. Afterwards, Julie asked John what he thought of the evening. “I don’t trust that sherpa. I think he just wants to have sex with you 10 women,” John recalled saying. “I was right about that, by the way.” But he came to realize what seemed like Julie’s peculiar urge to “sleep on rocks where there’s no air” stemmed from her yearning for far-flung adventure born from her difficult childhood.
They also fought over whether to buy a second home. It was a priority for Julie to return to living in the forest, her childhood safe space. John initially refused. Over many “dreams within conflict” discussions, they discovered that John’s intransigence came from his own upbringing. His father, a rabbi, fled Vienna shortly before World War Two with “only some sugar and a lemon.” He counseled his son about the power of feeling free of possessions, including real estate, saying, “The only possessions you can count on are the ones inside your mind.”
Finally, after a year of bickering and breakthroughs, the Gottmans felt as if they’d perfected their method, and they took on a partner to help them turn it into a business. At first, they recruited participants to their workshops by posting fliers and placing pamphlets in therapists’ waiting rooms. But within a few years, such aggressive flogging wasn’t needed anymore. Crowds flocked to the workshops and, later, to the Gottmans’ online store, which offers products like a board game that takes you and your partner, represented by little plastic pieces, on a journey across painted cardboard through the steps to building a fulfilling relationship.
“There’s so much more of a burden placed on marriage now to be your social support system,” Julie reflected. “People turned out to be starving for this knowledge.”
And yet as fervently as I hoped one of these recipes would make my confused love life resolve itself, deep down I wasn’t sure love could or should be built out of a manual, like something you assemble from IKEA. We live in an age that generally denies the possibility of the unpredictable. My and all my friends’ unspoken goal is to live flawlessly plotted lives based on perfect self-knowledge. We have to-do lists and bucket lists and two-year, five-year and 20-year plans created with the help of therapists. One of my friends has jiggered his iPhone to blink him reminders of his “core values” all day long, so he won’t even briefly swerve astray.
For me, though, love has been the thing that has broken me out of this dreary quest for perfection. We can only consciously construct what we can already imagine, which is very little. When I was 19 and living in Belgium, I happened to fall in love with a completely inappropriate man, a 33-year-old German pastor who wore white cigarette jeans like a ’70s sitcom hustler and had spent his twenties bicycling around Europe. I never could have dreamed him up with the help of a therapist. That’s what made loving him so life-altering. He was wild, irreverent, given to reading the Song of Solomon in bed and playing hooky from his internship at a theological seminary to take the train to a town he’d never heard of–in other words, nothing like the driven, well-scheduled East Coasters I’d grown up with. And he touched those dormant qualities in myself. At the time, I wrote in a journal that being loved by him felt as if I’d been living in only three cramped rooms of the mansion that was my spirit, and then he came in with a big flashlight and led me by the hand through a warren of never-seen halls, laughing and tearing the sheets off the furniture while I trailed behind him, mouth agape.
Of course, his alluring differences also bashed painfully up against my longing for a partner with whom I felt comfortable all the time. He was too old, he was too odd, he smoked too much; I agonized over the thought of introducing him to my parents. I felt at the time that forcing our relationship to “work” according to some norm would shatter it; it only worked insofar as it was broken, a queer, misshapen thing that just happened to rest beautifully atop the equally queer, misshapen circumstances that constituted our lives at 19 and 33.
Likewise, surfing the web for the solution that would bring my more recent relationship to heel, I feared we couldn’t make it conform to an ideal template. A recent Quartz article insists that when choosing a life partner, we have to search for the right “eating companion for about 20,000 meals,” “travel companion for about 100 vacations,” “parenting partner” and “career therapist”–all while admitting that contemplating such a project “is like thinking about how huge the universe really is or how terrifying death really is.” The author assures you, though, that using a spreadsheet will help you feel as if it’s “fully in your control.” I guess this is supposed to be empowering; I suspect it actually puts relationships under a kind of pressure beneath which many would crumble. My boyfriend and I came from very different countries, from different kinds of families. That we managed to love each other at all was already a miracle.
When we imagine that every human life and every complex love can be molded to fit a scientifically derived ideal, we cover our eyes to the realities of circumstance–and shame people who can’t manage to twist their circumstances to that ideal. Simon May, the philosopher who writes on love, told me that he’s known people who were accused of basic psychological failings when they couldn’t make their relationships work out. “But we have to take into account all the literature on unhappy love,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just people getting it wrong or not trying hard enough.” He called love an “earthy emotion” that often provokes restless feelings like tension and guilt, and suggested the assumption that every love affair can be managed denies the full humanity of our partners, their own “inscrutable and uncontrollable” natures. They aren’t things we can program for maximum impact like a FitBit.
As I dug a little deeper into the work behind the love articles, I found that some of the people responsible for the science felt it held fewer definitive answers than we want to believe. One of them was Arthur Aron, the Stony Brook research psychologist whose work the Times glossed in “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” He was working at his second home in California when I called him. He laughed when I mentioned the Times story. He’d designed the 36 questions, he said, to artificially “create closeness” in a laboratory setting between same-sex heterosexual strangers, not lovers. One of his grad students had also tried the method on some heterosexual opposite-sex pairs, and one pair had, funny enough, fallen in love, but the lab hadn’t followed up with the others.
Aron has studied love in many other experiments, and he’s been struck by how contextual factors influence relationships. “Unfortunately the single biggest [factor], if you look across the world, is stress,” he said. “If you’re very poor, if you’re in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it’s hard for any relationship to work out very well. That’s not one we can do much about as individuals.”
Aron also pointed out that a lot of the science on happy love was based on averages, creating a norm away from which couples can stray very, very far and still be happy. Take a recent study claiming the ideal age to marry is between 25 and 34. The study reflects the center hump of a scattered group of dots representing pairs older and younger that all work in their own way. And the reporting on it outrageously inverts causation. The study’s authors mused that people who married younger might have been less settled, and those who waited until later might have been be more “congenitally cantankerous,” upping their divorce rates. That doesn’t mean arbitrarily marrying in your late twenties would do anything whatsoever to improve your chances. And yet, I still read a story on Vox headlined, “Want to Avoid Divorce? Here’s the Best Age to Get Married.”
John Gottman designed his experiments to allow numerous variables to emerge, creating a much richer formula. But his findings were limited by the pool from which he drew his test subjects, communities in Illinois, Washington, Indiana and the San Francisco Bay Area with their own local habits. “There’s this sort of big mystery at the heart of things,” another psychologist told me.
That psychologist was Robert Levenson–the same man with whom John had pioneered his work. I reached him on the phone at Berkeley, where he now teaches. He and John are still close, and Levenson praised John’s “fierce interest” in what makes marriages last. “It’s not surprising that at the end of the day, after our research, he spent a significant part of his life working on interventions,” Levenson reflected.
But he wasn’t so sure the actions he and John had observed happy couples performing could be turned into a do-it-at-home blueprint. “We actually don’t know what got the happy couples to that point,” he said. What makes two human beings want to turn towards each others’ bids 87 percent of the time, give a shit about the fragile dreams hiding behind each others’ most intransigent and frustrating opinions and have that magical effect on each other like a powerful chemical tranquilizer in the first place? This, he said, still “requires scientific study.”
Kendra Han, the workshop employee, admitted she doesn’t follow up after couples leave the conference to see whether the method made them happier. Two studies conducted by the Gottmans show that the method really can move people along a happiness spectrum: A 2000 intervention given to already-healthy couples expecting a child revealed that it helped them weather the difficulties of becoming parents, and a 2013 Journal of Family Therapy study of 80 couples showed that most maintained gains in marital satisfaction a year after “The Art and Science of Love” workshop.
This is less definitive than the promise to transform disasters into masters, though, and the method wasn’t directly compared to other therapies. Robert Levenson told me couples-therapy purveyors can be reluctant to do comparative studies, and gave a hypothetical example of why based on the finding that happy couples use “we” a lot.
“What if I have the Levenson ‘We’ Therapy, where people come to my ‘We’ training and learn how to use ‘We’?” he asked me. “Then I do a study and compare it with the Gottman approach and it turns out the Gottman approach does much better. But what about my ‘We’ building and my ‘We’ weekends and my ‘We Retreat’ at Club Med?”
In their lectures, the Gottmans performed the same quirky, vulnerable marital dynamic that I observed in my interview. In one memorable hour, they role-played a past “regrettable incident,” first handling it in a bad way, then in a good way. As we all watched, John harshly criticized Julie for being too worried about their daughter’s health. Julie slumped over the podium and actually cried. Then he started over with empathy, gently teasing out the issue from her personal history–the polio she contracted as a child due to her parents’ neglect. As we saw the change on Julie’s face, we all drew a breath. Suddenly, altering the trajectory of those terrible fights, the ones that can feel as though they’re breaking our partnerships apart, seemed possible. We saw it happen.
It’s not hard to find people who vow that the Gottman Method completely transformed their relationships. Last month, I called one of the thousands of couples-therapy practices that use the Gottman Method, BestMarriages in southern British Columbia, and asked for referrals to couples who were willing to talk. Several pairs emailed me, eagerly requesting to be interviewed.
Bonnie, 49, told me that she and her husband Brian, “definitely a disaster couple,” were going to end their union, but a year of biweekly counseling in the Gottman Method “completely turned things around.” Donald, 50, said he’d also given up on his 24-year marriage to Donna. There had been affairs; the two had drifted apart.
But encountering the Gottmans’ lingo—the “enduring vulnerabilities,” the “rituals of connection,” the “turning towards”—suddenly put meaning to the language-less, mysterious eddy of emotions that had been the relationship. It gave them things to do. Donald started sending Donna text messages every afternoon: “How was your day?” When he had a difficult encounter with a testy colleague, Donna shared her admiration for him, telling him how proud she was of him for handling it well. When Donna had a cold and snored, the “old Don,” she said, would have roused her by “huffing and puffing with annoyance.” Instead, he employed the Gottmans’ patented “softened start-up,” waking her gently, expressing concern for her sore throat, and later sending her a note from work thanking her for rolling over to the other side of the bed.
Talking to them by video Skype, I never would have known the two had struggled. They cuddled up to one another in the frame and giggled like smitten high-schoolers as they retold the story of how they met.
“We spotted each other,” Donna grinned, sticking her tongue out at Don.
“She was on a balcony,” Donald said, smiling back. “It was like Romeo and Juliet.”
I also got to watch Julie counsel a couple, Shantel and Paul, using the Gottman Method. The pair comes from a poorer neighborhood in Seattle, and they got free therapy in 2007 in exchange for agreeing to be filmed to help train other Gottman Method counselors. I’d intended to dip in just for a few minutes to get a sense of how Julie worked. But I ended up viewing six hours of the counseling in one afternoon, transfixed. Though Paul and Shantel could hardly have seemed less like me and my partner in their particulars–they had children; a low ebb in their relationship occurred after Paul got shot–so much of the by-turns-playful-and-reproachful dance that they did with each other on Julie’s couch reminded me of my own relationships: the flirty exchanges, the deep concern for each other, the subtle digs at each others’ flaws, the sudden flares of anger as they touched each other on open wounds. Shantel wept as she recounted how Paul criticized her; Paul cried himself as he recalled being abandoned by his godmother and how he fears Shantel’s rejection.
I called Shantel in late July. Like the other couples I spoke to, she reckoned the Gottman Method “kept us married.” Since they’d met as young teens, she and Paul had basically been each other’s only ports in an incredibly stormy world. In his teens, Paul got involved in the drug trade; later, the pair got caught up in the predatory lending crisis and briefly became homeless. Add to that the fact that they had not selected each other to ride out this turmoil on the basis of a problem-solving-compatibility survey but on love, which often, like a trickster determined to upend our tidy plans, draws opposites together and, by reminding us of our emotionally fraught childhood bonds with our parents, brutally reveals just how vulnerable and childlike we really still are. Add to that the fact that our culture teaches us to expect love to “feel right,” to feel like a peaceful resolution rather than an adventure, to feel as calm as faith.
“Every time we got into a huge argument, we thought it must not be ‘meant to be,’” Shantel said. Julie’s techniques gave them a way to navigate the astounding complexity that is a marriage based on love. “One of the biggest things is being able to notice when we are ‘flooded’ and when we are at a place we can’t even engage and giving each other that space,” she told me. “We love telling each other when we’re ‘turning towards’ each other. ‘Hey, I’m making an attempt here to turn towards you. What I did was wrong. It was unfair.’ And the other person is receptive to that because we both have an understanding of what it means.”
In private, the Gottmans are much more nuanced on the impossibility of healing some relationships than they are in public. “Sometimes, really, people’s dreams don’t mesh,” John reflected. “There are all kinds of reasons why therapy can fail.” I got the sense they deeply care about couples in pain—they asked me several times about my own relationship. Their promise that mastering love is possible is, in part, an effort to comfort couples enmeshed in terrifying complexity. “Even if you can give somebody one little nugget of something they can take in, it’s helpful,” Julie said.
I still don’t quite know what’s going to happen with my relationship. But I left the workshop wanting to try the Gottmans’ techniques. They brought to mind a line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. … Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.” The new love science may be just a string in the increasingly huge and windy maze that is contemporary love, no more absolute than all the other ways of thinking about love we’ve invented over 50,000 years—but we need that string.
“It’s mostly Julie,” John said proudly as we tucked our feet into sheepskin slippers. “She’s a frustrated architect.” He stopped in front of a huge oil portrait just off the foyer depicting the two Gottmans together, smiling and leaning into each other. A friend had painted it. “I love this because it really captures our relationship,” he said. He paused for a moment before the painting as if to take it in anew.
Settling into their brown couches, I asked John and Julie if they felt the pain depicted in the millennia of literature on love, the ups and downs and the sense of bewilderment we now try to manage, was somehow necessary, or if better science could increase our skill at love such that we wouldn’t have to go through such torment anymore.
Both fell silent for 20 seconds. “I think the pain has to do with balance, and how difficult it is to balance between attending to your partner’s needs and staying true to who you are,” Julie said.
“I have a different answer,” John said. “I don’t think it’s necessary. When you haven’t been able to build trust, there’s the constant sense that this person isn’t there for you. They’re there for themselves but not for you. But we now know that there are really systematic processes through which people build trust and commitment.” Recently, he’d been working on the mathematics of building trust in relationships based on John Nash’s concept of the cooperative equilibrium, where two players in a game seek the best possible outcome for both of them.
But he also acknowledged that his painful younger relationships were steps on the path to Julie, showing him what he really wanted and how he needed to change. Julie said the same of her first marriage.
If everybody involved had known then what you know now about how to build a good relationship, I asked, could you have made your earlier marriages work?
“No,” Julie said.
“I don’t think so,” John said.
There’s another way to tell the story of how John and Julie fell in love, one that brings to the fore not the scientifically based steps by which they built their coupledom but rather the awesome workings of destiny. I got the sense this story was more important to them than the other one. Revealing it, they curled closer together on the couch, Julie nestling her head into the crook of John’s neck, John massaging her leg.
Two years before she met John, Julie said, she’d had a vision of the man she would spend her life with. Her vision had shown the man from behind. When John got up from the table to pay the bill on their first date at the Pony Expresso, and turned around, she felt a shock so sudden it left her trembling: It was him, the man from her vision. Later, she came to believe fate had brought them together for the higher purpose of helping couples: “I see our predestiny, the sacred holiness, as to do this little tiny bit of healing as tikkun olam”–Jews’ duty to repair the world.
Julie’s scientist brain knows that feelings of intense attraction come down to hormones and pheromones, but, she said, “I don’t know how to put that together with the fact that I had this vision of him.”
Perhaps, someday, a scientifically observable process will allow us to understand exactly what it is, that sense of mysterious destiny we can find in other people, not created but seemingly sent from on high. But is that a world in which we’d actually want to live?
John smiled as he recounted the puzzling sensation he experienced that evening in the Pony Expresso, similar to Julie’s. He’d been unhappy for decades. In the months before that encounter, he said he’d gone on 60 dates, trying to establish a “database” of women to choose from. And then he met Julie and felt unaccountably whole. “I’ve never felt alone since,” he said.
“Oh, sweetie,” Julie murmured. “You’re going to make me cry.”