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Two Tips on How to Deal with Your Family and Partner During the Holidays

The holiday season brings many joyful times as well as many stressors. Spending time with family is something many of us look forward to enjoying, but depending on our relationship with in-laws and parents, the holidays may not be as rewarding as we hope. Getting married or being in a long-term relationship means you inherit a new set of parents, your partner’s parents, for better or for worse.

Here are two tips that may help you keep your relationship intact when navigating the relationship you have with your in-laws:

1) Discuss holiday schedules ahead of time in a productive way

Figuring out which family you visit or visit first and when should be a decision between the two of you and usually involves a bit of compromising. This is an important step in showing both of your families that you are now separate from them and have formed your own family. John Gottman identified a method called ’the two ovals’ which works well for figuring out holiday schedules.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Draw two ovals, one inside of the other like a donut or a bagel.
  2. In the smaller circle put the family time you are unwilling to compromise on, the things that if you gave up, you’d really regret and feel badly about. Say holiday dinner at your aunt’s house.
  3. In the larger oval put the family time you are more flexible with, like when you visit your grandparents the next town over.
  4. Discuss your ovals with your partner and ask the following questions:
    1. Where you do agree?
    2. What are both of your inflexible areas?
    3. How can you reach a temporary compromise for this holiday season?
  5. Come up with a plan that works for both of you and then tell your families as a united front. 2 Ovals

2) Create a sense of ‘we-ness’ and solidarity with your partner, especially around the holidays.

Tense situations with in-laws and spouses often occur in marriages and sometimes you may wonder where your and your partner’s allegiance lies. You both have been part of another family for a long time; that family has its own holiday traditions and customs. Somewhat of a ’turf war’ between the spouses and in-laws may ignite, both wanting the partner’s attention during the holidays.

One of the main ways to end the war is to create a sense of ‘we-ness’ and solidarity with your partner and side with your partner over your parents. This may mean having to hold your ground and stand up for your spouse and take this or her side over your parents. This may seem harsh, but slowly your parents will adjust to reality and accept that your partner comes first. You are a partner/spouse first and a son/daughter second. Remember which team you are on. 

Here’s a more mild example:

Your father says: “Jane’s mashed potatoes are good, but your mother’s are better aren’t they? I don’t like all of the onions that Jane put in them this year.”

You can say: “Actually, I really like the extra onions, it gives it a more flavorful taste.”

And another example:

Your brother says: “I don’t know why you married Jack, he’s got no personality!”

You can say: “He really opens up once you get to know him. Why don’t you ask him about his fantasy football draft this year?”

This way you are choosing your partner over your parent/relatives. It might seem like a small gesture, but it adds up, especially in the eyes of your partner!

Hopefully these two tips help you navigate the holiday season with your partner.

This Common Behavior Could Easily End Your Marriage

I contributed to the following article for the Huffington Post about ways to avoid criticism, one of John Gottman’s 4 Horsemen:

Couple with back to each other in forest

Erase the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary.

“Saying your partner ‘always’ does something or ‘never’ does something will most likely get them on the defensive quickly. This turns your complaint into a character flaw or defect of theirs. Instead, keep your complaints specific and about a certain incident. That way, your partner is more likely to listen and be responsive.” ― Danielle Kepler, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois 

Read more of the article here.

 

4 Tips To Have A Great Date

I hear these comments fairly often in my practice:  “I’m not good at dating,” “I never know what to say” or “I can’t get past a 2nd or third date.” I also hear from my couples that their date nights are “boring” or “lacking connection.” Dating isn’t so much about what you say, but more about how you listen. Like Dale Carnegie wrote about in his classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, focus on being interested, not interesting. Although this advice was more about being a good salesmen, it can be applied to any relationship you have in your life. Everyone genuinely wants to feel understood and appreciated and nothing makes a person feel more understood than sincerely listening to him or her. If you keep this in mind, it can take some of the pressure off of you to feel like you need to have a bunch of interesting things going on in your life to share with the other person.

Based on John Gottman’s decades of observing people, here are 4 tips on how to have a great date, whether it’s a first date, 10th date, or a date with the spouse you’ve been with for 10 years!

Tip #1 Ask open-ended questions

There is a fine balance between asking a question that is too open such as “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” People tend to give one word responses to those questions, possibly because they aren’t sure you want to know the full answer. Instead ask questions that are still open but more directed, such as “How has your summer been going? Have any plans for vacations?” It might be a good idea to ask questions about goals or visions of the future.  This will allow you to get to know the person’s aspirations and dreams. Be careful to watch your audience and gage if your questions are uncomfortable for the person and find the right level of disclosure.

“How’s your summer going? Have any vacation plans?”

“If you could have a job in another field, what type of job would you want to have?”

Tip #2 Listen to the person’s answers and find commonalities

As you ask open-ended questions, listen to the person’s answers and share something you have in common with what they are saying. People are more attracted to people who can relate to them and to those people with whom they share common ground. After you share a bit about yourself put the conversation back to them. Share enough to establish commonality and then ask a follow-up question to what they said earlier.

“Oh, you’re a teacher? My roommate is a teacher. He’s getting pretty stressed thinking about this upcoming school year. What do you do to prepare for the beginning of the school year? Maybe I could give him some tips from you.”

If your date had said he or she had returned from a vacation in California, a follow-up might be: “I love California, it’s such a diverse state, something for everyone! When I went there a few years ago we saw the Redwoods, I remember they were so tall and majestic. What did you see when you went there?”

Tip #3 Paraphrase what the person said and show non-verbally that you are listening

If you paraphrase what the person said, it shows them that you are listening. This is also helpful when asking questions or when mentioning a commonality.

“You seem to really love your job! How did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian?”

“You used to live in Lincoln Square? I love that neighborhood and spend a lot of time there! Have any gotta-go to places?”

Another helpful thing to do that shows people you are listening is to nod briefly or respond with a verbal cue “uh huh, yeah?, hmm.”

Tip #4 Let go of your own agenda

Try not to focus so much on the outcome of the conversation. It’s hard to focus on listening when you are trying to come up with your next interesting question to ask the person. Instead, focus on what the other person is saying in that moment and ask follow-up questions to further your understanding of what they are saying. Look for those emotional cues where you can empathize with what they are saying.

Above all, just listen to the other person with your full attention. Your ability to draw people out with a general curiosity about them will go further than if you were the most interesting person in the world.

 

4 Things You’re Likely Doing That Will Eventually Kill Your Marriage

I contributed to the following article for the Huffington Post on how to avoid Gottman’s 4 Horsemen patterns that eventually ‘kill’ your marriage:

HP4Predictors

Criticism:

Think about what’s really bothering you before criticizing your spouse. 

“Before approaching your partner, take a few moments to figure out what the issue you need to bring up actually is. Then, take time to change your criticism into a complaint: Instead of saying ‘You always leave your shoes on the floor,’ say, ‘I’d appreciate it if you put your shoes in the closet.’” — Danielle Kepler, a therapist based in Chicago, Illinois

Contempt:

Make a point to show how much you value and appreciate your partner. 

“Contempt develops when either partner feels unvalued. Make it a habit to tell your partner one thing they do each day that you appreciate. It can even be something small, like making you coffee in the morning.” — Danielle Kepler

Defensiveness:

Try to be sympathetic toward your partner. 

“Slow down and listen for something, anything, you can agree with that your partner is saying. Try to take responsibility for a small part of the issue. ‘I see your point’ goes a long way.” — Danielle Kepler

Contempt:

Come up with a safe word that conveys your need for a break.

“When you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, communicate it to your spouse with a signal. Once you are both calm, continue the discussion.” — Danielle Kepler

Read more of the article here.

Four Changes You Can Make To Have More Productive Conversations

Have you ever had a conversation with a significant other, a co-worker or a relative and thought “well, that could have gone better…” I know I have! It’s hard bringing up issues with people; maybe that’s why so many of us keep our feelings to ourselves and do not share them with others.

Based on John Gottman’s 40 years of research with couples, here are 4 changes you can make so that your conversations do not turn into arguments or feelings of ill-will.

Change #1

Before even starting the conversation, think to yourself: “What is the specific behavior I want to see changed?” When you start to think about the issue this way, you are already changing what might come off as a criticism into a complaint. Complaints are about specific issues, not about a person’s character.

 

Change #2

Erase the phrase “I feel like…..” from your vocabulary. What usually comes after this phrase? The word YOU. As soon as you add the word “like” you are describing the other person. Your intentions may have been to describe your own feelings, but you are actually criticizing the other person instead.

Instead use the phrase “I feel/felt ______ (identify a feeling) when you do/did ______ (specific behavior). 

By actually stating how you feel, you are more likely to elicit an apology. And let’s be honest, isn’t that what you want?

 

Change #3

Add the phrase “I see your point” to your vocabulary. If the other person starts to get defensive or critical, it’s very easy to get defensive back–almost too easy! Instead try to pick out small parts from what they are saying that you can understand. Saying “I see your point” goes a LONG way when someone is being critical or defensive and can almost instantly decrease the tension in a conversation.

 

Change #4

Never roll your eyes or smirk when having a conversation. These are both signs of contempt and tell the other person that you do not respect or value what they are saying. Although they might not create a blow-up mid conversation, over time these behaviors will chip away at your relationship with that person. These behaviors might be automatic responses for you depending on the person with whom you are talking, so be mindful of when you do them.

 

And there you have it! Try some of these out and see if your conversations turn out much better than you expected!

The Importance of Emotional Connection During Everyday Activities

It sounds so simple, right? Of course you should spend time with your significant other! You might spend a great deal of time together already! But ask yourself this, is it meaningful? Does it allow you and your partner to emotionally connect? John Gottman calls this “putting deposits in the emotional bank account” and this allows you to bounce back after the next big argument. Think back to the last time you and your partner spent time together. Was your partner emotionally “there” for you during the time? Were you emotionally “there” for your partner?

Take watching your favorite TV show together. Sure, you might both laugh at the same time at something funny that happens or you might both relate to what happened in that episode, but do you take the time to connect during or after the show or do you go your separate ways afterwards?

As people get more comfortable in their relationships and routines are in place, the emotional connection could decrease. I’m not saying that you stop spending time together (although you might!), but you may not be as emotionally present for one another as you were when you were first dating. Instead of reading and discussing the news, you may read the news silently. Instead of talking about the TV episode you watched, you may turn the TV off and go to bed.

To rectify this, in a therapy session I have couples identify what they currently do every day to connect with one another or their “rituals of connection” as John Gottman puts it. These can be simple, everyday occurrences such as making breakfast together, cuddling before waking up, greeting each other when you come home from work, or watching the evening news together. If you and your partner cannot think of any ways you connect throughout the day, you can think about what you used to do when you were first dating and why that was special to you. It is helpful to identify what you are currently doing to connect with one another and why it is meaningful to you. That way your partner knows that you value this activity and you keep doing it! Couples often surprise each other during this exercise. Often, one partner finds a great deal of meaning in something when the other had no idea!

Then the couple identifies activities that they would like to do in the future in which they would like their partner to be more emotionally “there” for them. This is an important activity to do. Even if you have been together for 40 years, your partner cannot read your mind! Keep in mind this is not an activity that allows you to criticize your partner for all of the things you are not doing together; it is one that allows you to say “I love you so much, I want your full emotional presence when we do X” or “I love doing this activity and I really want you emotionally there to share it with me.” It also allows you to know ahead of time what activities are important to your partner and which activities they would be hoping you were more emotionally present for. This allows you to prevent a “withdrawal” from the emotional bank account in the future and could even lead to a deposit!

Remember, every interaction can be made into a way to have a deeper emotional connection with your partner. In doing so, this helps keep the friendship strong, which is the foundation of a supportive and healthy relationship.

Happy connecting, everyone!

What have you done to connect with your partner today?

Tired of Arguing About Nothing in your Relationship?

There are thousands of different ways we ask for attention from our partner or significant other. Some of us may resort to calling each other on the phone or greeting each other with a “Hey, I’m home” when we get home from work. These days it might be through a text message, a “like” on Facebook or a “tweet” on Twitter. No matter how we reach out to our partner, the reason behind it is still the same — we are seeking attention and affirmation.

John Gottman calls these moments “bids for attention.” These little bids might not seem like a big deal, but they add up after a while and can be the difference between feeling supported and cared for by your partner or feeling unhappy and alone in your relationship. In his research, he discusses how arguments or fights are usually started over one person getting upset because the other did not “answer their bid” or give them attention when they reached out for it.

Why do these failed bids result in arguments? Most bids are not delivered overtly;  they are subtle and can often be missed. Bids also may not be delivered so sweetly. A “Hi, I’m home and I want attention after my long day” is more often than not delivered in a “My day at work was horrible! I had back-to-back meetings and am so tired I can’t even think!” If I heard that from my partner, I certainly would not think that my partner wanted my attention!

People also make bids by exhibiting actions or behaviors. These are often very hard to ascertain. They could be made in the presence of a partner with a direct action such as sitting closer to him or her, holding the partner’s hand, hugging him or her or doing something less overt such as sighing. Bids can also be made in advance.  An example would be performing actions that would be helpful for the relationship or partner, such as making dinner, cleaning up, going to the store to get milk, planning a “date night” etc. What results in the arguments is the person that made the bid then gets angry when his or her efforts go unnoticed. Some people make their action bids more well known by throwing a “did you notice I unloaded the dishwasher?” question out there, but usually, nothing is said and those failed bids just keep piling up. These failed bids add up to consequences where the partner who is not getting his or her bids answered becomes more sensitive to the failed bids and usually picks a fight over something they normally wouldn’t pick a fight about. This is when I usually hear the “our fights come out of nowhere” comment from couples.  The fights do not come out of nowhere; they result from one person not getting attention when they bid for it.

An even trickier bid for attention, and in my opinion, the most likely bids to result in an argument, are those bids that we make when we try to get attention by making our partner jealous. If you are not getting attention from your partner, you might be more aware of getting attention elsewhere. Just like the “did you notice I unloaded the dishwasher” comment, one might also point out to a partner “a good-looking woman hit on me today and asked for my number.” What do both of these comments have in common? Both have hidden meanings. Both are saying “I want attention from you.” Why bring up the attention from someone else if you did not want the comment to result in an increase in attention from your partner? Granted, the latter might bring on the emotion of jealousy that clouds the ability to recognize the bid for attention. Just like that bid was not delivered sweetly, the attention from the partner might not be delivered so sweetly either. After all, getting angry at your partner is a form of attention. So the bid did result in attention, but not the kind that was probably wanted.

Why are so many bids (especially bids that involve jealousy) missed? Is it because admitting that we want attention and affirmation from our partners leaves us vulnerable or sounding weak? Is it because simply asking our partner for attention seems silly or childish?

I would argue that if more people started flat out saying to their partners “I want attention” that this would result in the partner answering that bid and giving attention. Try it sometime when you notice your bid is not getting “answered.” Instead of starting an argument, say what you are really desiring, attention.

 

Small things like answering bids make all the difference.

Small things like answering bids make all the difference.