Learning that you don't communicate well after 24 years of marriage can be a hard pill to swallow. Realizing you have a tremendous amount to learn when you are already 42 years old is also a little hard to stomach. Being handed a book by a friend that can change your life is a priceless gift.
I’m always looking for books on how to be a better communicator. Books that help not only myself but my coaching clients develop their skills and have them understand why their conversations aren’t producing the results they want.
I chose to write a review on this particular book, The Relationship Cure by Dr. John Gottman, PhD. because it was a catalyst in altering my own communication journey.
In 2010 my husband and I were having a major fight. The 24 year marriage was at a breaking point, this wasn’t a normal argument.
I had gone to stay with a girlfriend to get away from the stress and tension of the situation, to give us both a break. The next day my girlfriend gave me this book.
Reading the first few pages I began to cry as I realized that I was guilty of exactly what the author was writing about. I was a horrendous communicator. I began to see where I had gone wrong in my marriage and thus began my journey to becoming a stronger communicator. Now that I knew how vital communication skills were to sustaining a relationship I chose to focus my coaching practice on helping others develop theirs.
The Relationship Cure is at its core about communication. That is what the “cure” is.
In his work at the University of Washington and at The Gottman Institute, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues had the opportunity to study communication when they created a small apartment where they had couples stay for the weekend and observed them during their regular routine. What they learned was that we all reach out to others in what he calls “bids for connection.”
A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch, any single expression that says, “I want to feel connected to you.” And we all make bids for connection for one or more of these 3 reasons:
To be included
To have a sense of control over our lives
To be liked
And when someone makes a bid for connection with us there are usually only 3 responses:
Turn away from
Here was my “ah ha” moment. For years I had been turning against my spouse’s bids for connection, outright ignoring them. As Dr. Gottman observed, after several attempts of making bids that are either rejected or turned away from the bidder will begin to stop bidding and connection is rarely achieved. Imagine what that would be like after several years with the same person. You can’t make a habit of turning away and expect a relationship to survive.
Sometimes it’s not just about turning away from or against a bid but instead it can also be that the person bidding may be making a “fuzzy bid”. We make unclear or fuzzy bids for any one of the following reasons he says:
- Making an ambiguous bid on purpose to avoid vulnerability or emotional risk.
- Unintentionally poor communication, such as using inexplicit language.
- Framing bids in negative ways that are hard for to hear or hear or accept.
- Failing to acknowledge your needs in the first place.
As a coach I’ve learned that number 4 has a considerable impact on why we make fuzzy bids. So many of us struggle to ask for what we need. It means being vulnerable and that’s sometimes just too darn scary. So our bids often come out as anger or unmet expectations, as explained in the book Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Thus bidding for connection means clearly articulating to others what we need.
The author also shares other reasons behind our unsuccessful bidding. Consider the following in your own life.
The way our brains process feelings
The way emotions were handled at where we grew up.
Your emotional communication skills.
By digging deeper into these three areas we learn how and why we communicate the way we do. Thus creating greater awareness around how we respond to others bids and why we present our bids the way we do. With the goal of course to get the connection we, or the other person, is seeking.
I mentioned that this book was the catalyst for me when it came to how I communicated. These were the big takeaways for me and some of the skills I began to integrate into my relationships as well as my coaching practice.
1. Stop saying “You.”
Don’t begin your sentence with, “You always, you shouldn’t, you need to….” This is the place where I first became aware of the value of not using the word “you” during an argument. It’s a sure fire way to instigate emotion and thus stop the other person from listening to you. It begins the blame game. And once we feel like we are being blamed we will struggle to make an emotional connection.
2. Missing or not recognizing bids.
So many couples at the Gottman Institute said they are lonely in their marriages or intimate relationships. Have you ever felt that way, being in a relationship but still feeling lonely? Gottman say it is because we are not seeing all the missed bids as they can often be so simple and mundane. The book teaches us more about other types of bids, some verbal and some not. It is important that we begin to learn more about other types of communication such as: facial expressions, movement,touch,tone of voice, descriptive words and metaphors. With examples Gottman shows us how to become more aware of these areas. (My recommendation, these pieces of the communication puzzle can all be practiced weekly or learned about more deeply by spending some time at your local Toastmasters club.)
3. Complaint vs. criticism
What’s the difference between a complaint and a criticism? “A complaint focuses on a specific problem, addressing the other person’s behavior, not his or her perceived character flaws. Criticism on the other hand, is more judgemental and global; it can include such phrases as “you always” or “you never…” Criticism attacks the other person’s character, often with negative labels or name-calling. It often assigns blame. “You said you would deliver the package and you didn’t do it” is a complaint. “You forgot to deliver the package! That’s irresponsible!” is a criticism. From a coaching perspective a complaint often means that someone’s values are being compromised. “You’re always late!” “You never remember to do the jobs I ask you to around the house!” We often complain when our values aren’t being honored. In these two examples the first person values being on time and when that doesn’t happen they complain. The second person values organization or a tidy home to help keep their mind or life in order. When it isn’t things are off balance for them.
4. Appreciation vs. acknowledgement
This is a strong aspect of coaching and for good reason. People are often not acknowledged for who they are being. They may get acknowledged for something they did but rarely for who they had to be when they accomplished the task or job you spoke of. Did they have to show courage or knowledge? Did they have to train hard to reach their goal, sacrificing certain things? Did it take commitment to accomplish what they did? This is acknowledgement. Gottman says, “Our research shows that married couples, who regularly express their appreciation for each other have much happier, stronger marriages. Regularly expressing praise and appreciation can change the whole emotional climate of your home, your workplace, and your various circles of family and friends. People grow closer in the knowledge that they can count on one another for support in good times and in bad.”
5. Enduring vulnerabilities
Being able to make a bid for connection means you are going to have to be vulnerable at some point. Gottman talks about what issues in your past may have created an enduring vulnerability. A phrase coined by UCLA psychologist Tom Bradbury meaning “elements in our past that have had such a powerful negative impact on our lives that it’s impossible to shake their influence.”
Examples of enduring vulnerabilities:
Death of a loved one
Being the victim of a robbery or crime
Rape or other form of sexual assault or molestation
Life threatening or serious illness
There is much more to learn by taking the time to read this book. It is a tremendous tool to wake the reader up to the dynamics of a relationship that they have never been aware of.
For me, being lucky enough to find a new partner after my divorce, I am now aware of when my partner puts out a bid for connection. And though I may be in a place of silence, anger or frustration, I know the profound affect it will have on my relationship if I do not push aside my current feelings and in some way respond to his bid. I may not always turn towards it but I do my utmost to not ignore it or reject it. I’ve learned that’s one of the best ways to chip away at the foundation of my relationship.
At its’ core this book is the tool that will help you learn more about your own feelings and how those feelings play into all your relationships. This is why I like the book. If we are better able to understand our feelings and therefore more of our past, then that knowledge will allow us to begin to work on our own bids for connection and to learn the enormous consequences on our relationships when we do.
Are you someone who needs help instilling a new way of being into their life? Someone who wants to work at bringing these new skills into your awareness? Then pick up this book and also consider setting up some coaching time. I would love to work through the process and practices with you.
Dr. John Gottman
World renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. His work on marriage and parenting has earned him numerous major awards, including:
- Four National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Awards
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Distinguished Research Scientist Award
- The American Family Therapy Academy Award for Most Distinguished Contributor to Family Systems Research
- The American Psychological Association Division of Family Psychology, Presidential Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Research Contribution
- The National Council of Family Relations, 1994 Burgess Award for Outstanding Career in Theory and Research
Dr. Gottman was one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker. He is the author or co-author of over 200 published academic articles and more than 40 books, including the bestselling The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work; What Makes Love Last; The Relationship Cure; Why Marriages Succeed or Fail; and Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, among many others. Dr. Gottman’s media appearances include Good Morning America, Today, CBS Morning News, and Oprah, as well articles in The New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Glamour, Woman’s Day, People, Self, Reader’s Digest, and Psychology Today.
Co-founder of the Gottman Institute with his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, John was also the Executive Director of the Relationship Research Institute. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington, where he founded ” The Love Lab” at which much of his research on couples’ interactions was conducted. To read more about Dr Gottman’s Research, check out the ‘Research’ section of our website for interesting questions and citations to his work.
John co-presents with wife Julie Schwartz Gottman The Art and Science of Love workshops five times a year in Seattle. He also co-presents the Level I, Level II and level III clinical training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. His style of presentation is clear, informative and filled with humor, and he is beloved by his audiences everywhere.