Another influence on how I think about my work is John Gottman’s research on marriage and relationships. Dr. Gottman and his research teams have observed thousands of couples as they have everyday conversations, including conflicts. In several books written for the general public, Dr. Gottman has distilled these observations into a set of principles to help marriages thrive.
Because there’s so much in this research and theory, I’m providing links to read more details below. In this post, I want to highlight a few of the concepts that I have found especially useful.
First, there’s the idea that it’s not arguing that’s the problem, it’s how you argue and just as importantly, how you repair after the argument that predicts relationship success. What Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, these are the ingredients that are toxic to a relationship. Too much of any of these, but especially contempt, predict divorce. Having an effective repair strategy, which is how a couple deescalates the tension during and after a conflict, is another important ingredient in a successful marriage.
A second concept that I like is the importance of being receptive to your partner’s “bids” for your attention. Dr. Gottman describes this as turning toward each other instead of away. Think about the difference in how you feel when your partner turns towards you and is interested in what you are saying and how it feels when your partner continues to look at the television or computer screen when you’re trying to engage them. These failed bids over time chip away at your feelings of connection and good will. Creating a positive climate in the relationship, what Dr. Gottman calls “positive sentiment override”, helps buffer the relationship from the inevitable failed bids and disconnects inherent in any relationship.
A third idea is openness to your partner’s influence. Dr. Gottman found that the happiest marriages were those where the spouses shared decision making and actively searched for common ground. Putting being connected over being right is a key to marital satisfaction.
Of course, all couples have problems/conflicts/points of disagreement. Dr. Gottman suggests that disagreements are either solvable or unresolvable.
What is a solvable issue for one couple is an unresolvable for another. For example, dividing household chores can be a non-issue for some couples, while for others, it’s an ongoing source of difference and tension in the relationship. Solvable issues are dispensed with through respectful negotiation (Dr. Gottman offers clear direction to each partner for increasing your chance of successful resolution) while unresolvable issues need to be accepted as ongoing struggles.
All couples have unresolvables. These issues need extra attention by both partners, especially talking with a respectful tone, accepting that there is no one “right” answer, but that the partners have two contrasting points of view. Keeping the conversation open and ongoing is one key to managing the unresolvable issue. Avoiding the Four Horsemen described above is another.
If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Gottman’s research, click here. For a nice summary article about the principles for making marriage work, click here.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy, DBT, is another theory that serves as a part of the foundation of how I approach my work.
First things first, what’s dialectical? How I think of dialectic is the ability to hold the tension of both sides of something, opposing thoughts, opposing feelings. For example, to hold the tension of seeing an event as being both positive and negative, of a relationship that feels both satisfying and dissatisfying, of being able to accept yourself at the same time you are asking yourself to change. Related to this idea in DBT is the working towards acceptance, of self, of the present moment, of reality, of life. Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement, it does mean you start with what is.
DBT training is divided into several modules, including mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. Threaded throughout the skills is an emphasis on regulation, of feelings, of thoughts, of behaviors. It seems to me that so much of human suffering is based in dis-regulation. Dysregulation of thinking, feeling and behaving.
At the risk of sounding like I’m exaggerating (I’m not), DBT changed my life, personally and professionally. For me, DBT was a missing link in my approach to my work and to my own life. DBT provided me with a rich framework for teaching clients tools and strategies to learn to better manage their thoughts, feelings, behaviors and relationships.
Learning to take into account what DBT calls “reason mind” and “emotion mind” to come to “wise mind”, meaning making the choices and decisions that are not right for everyone but are right for me is such a simplifying framework for how to approach life. Once you identify your core values, your primary goals, what you like and don’t like, what works for you and what doesn’t, figuring out the next steps come more smoothly.
If you want to read more about DBT, Google it. The first articles listed are going to give you a nice overview. One thing before you read, remember that while it was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT principles are applicable to a wide range of behaviors. I teach them to my clients and I personally use these skills every single day!
I thought I’d write the first few posts telling you about a few of the more important influences in how I approach my work as a psychologist. While I (like most therapists) describe my style as “eclectic”, there are several layers of theory that I primarily rely on.
The theory that I think of as the foundation of how I view human behavior and relationships is Murray Bowen’s Structural Family Systems Theory.
According to Bowen, the family, not the individual, is the basic emotional unit. Each family system tends to have its’ own baseline of anxiety.
Anxiety is seen as being triggered by external events or internal states. One example of an external trigger might be the job loss of a family member. The anxiety of the person that lost the job gets added to the collective emotional field. In addition, each family member reacts to this news in some way, adding their own anxiety to the mix.
For the internal state, almost like a set point of anxiety, each person and the entire family system can be influenced by temperament, genetic or biological influences or from events that happened in past generations.
Intense emotions, like anxiety, are highly contagious within the family unit and are also passed down through the generations. The more anxious the system, the more individual family members rely on ineffective ways to manage anxiety, e.g., conflict, cutoffs and triangulating.
What to do?
The general approach from Bowen’s theory is to step back and cultivate objectivity from the system before you plan your action.
The first step is to observe what’s going on, what you’ve gotten tangled up in, therefore gaining objectivity from the emotional field, stepping just enough outside the intensity to allow thoughtfulness to mesh with the emotions to take a more measured position while maintaining the connection to the family unit. This process can be done by any individual in the family system on their own.
The goal is to learn to manage your own anxiety by stepping back a bit from the anxiety field, all the while maintaining the vibrant connection to the rest of the family system.
If you’re interested in reading more about systems theory, check out wikipedia’s entry on Murray Bowen. I would also highly recommend anything written by Harriet Lerner. She starts with Bowen’s framework and, writing in an accepting, nonjudgmental (and female) voice, makes it easy to see how these ideas can work in real relationships.
And stay tuned! I’ll write more in future posts about how I apply this way of thinking to systems in general, not just family systems, but other systems you are a part of, such as your relationship with your partner, your workplace, and other groups you belong to.
My name is Carol J. Tadeusik. I am a licensed psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. I invite you to read my blog and get to know me and a bit about how I think. And by the way, I love comments!
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