Relationship Minute: Emotion Coaching at every age

What do you feel when you think about emotions?

It might be avoidance, revulsion, discomfort, longing, enthusiasm, confusion, some combination or none of the above.

Meta-emotions or, “how you feel about feelings,” are often a result of what your caregiver(s) taught you, intentionally or unintentionally. But your meta-emotions have lasting effects on your adult relationships.

So when we say that Emotion Coaching is for every age, we mean it.

The five steps of Emotion Coaching can also apply in your relationship:

1. Be aware of emotions (your own and your partner’s).
2. Recognize an expression of emotion as an opportunity for connection.
3. Listen with empathy and validate your partner’s feelings.
4. Label emotions with words.
5. Set limits (“It’s okay that you are angry but it is not okay to yell at me.” “I need 20 minutes to cool down.”)

How do you feel about emotions? Are there some emotions that are less comfortable than others? Do you always know what you’re feeling as you feel it or do you need time to process? What were you taught about emotions growing up? 

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Feelings and facts

Feelings aren’t facts, but they do matter.

Let’s say it’s 68°F (20°C) outside. To some, that temperature may feel cold. To others, this is warm. And for some maybe this is the perfect temperature and they’re comfortable.

No one is wrong. How they experience that fact (the temperature) is likely informed by numerous factors (resting body temperature, what they’re already wearing, where they’re from, and what type of climate they’ve acclimated to, for example).

Similarly, an individual’s feelings about the facts of a situation are subjective.

Try to note the difference between facts and feelings and acknowledge that your partner has a right to feel however they do, even if it’s different from how you feel. This is also a good opportunity to acknowledge your own feelings.

Let’s look at this example. Fact: the door made a sound when your partner closed it. To you, that sound was loud and unexpected. Which of these responses owns your feelings as yours? Which is more likely to make your partner defensive?

“You scared me when you slammed the door!”
Or
“I felt scared when the door slammed.”

Locating your own feelings, and acknowledging that they’re subjective in doing so, gives your partner the opportunity to address that feeling, rather than get into litigating the perceived facts (“I didn’t slam the door.”) How can you separate facts from feelings?

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Self-soothing

Are you stressed out? Maybe your resting state just has a layer of anxiety on top of it now, making it easier for you to become flooded.

Flooding is another word for physiological overwhelm, which you may or may not even be aware of as it is happening. Flooding can lead to blowing up or shutting down. And shutting down—stonewalling—is one of the Four Horsemen.

Like the other three Horsemen, stonewalling has an antidote. The cure for stonewalling is self-soothing.

If you find yourself stonewalling, listen up! This antidote is on you to practice and employ. You can’t make your partner self-soothe, and vice versa.

What you can collaborate on with your partner is a signal that either of you can use to let them know you need to take a break to reset. It can be a code word, a hand signal, anything you agree on that means “I’m getting overwhelmed. I need at least 20 minutes.”

Then, take that break and breathe, walk it off, or listen to some music. Just avoid teetering into righteous indignation (ruminating on the conflict that overwhelmed you in the first place) or innocent victimhood (“I can’t believe they did this to me. This is all their fault.”)

After taking the time to wind down, you can engage with your partner again. You don’t even have to be ready to apologize (if that’s what’s in order). But once you’re no longer flooded, you’ll be in a better place to listen and empathize.

Related blog posts

The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Stonewalling

You may already be familiar with The Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) but now that our context has shifted on a global scale, it’s worth taking a closer look at each and how they might show up at home. 

What does it feel like when you’re flooded? We know the signs of DPA (Diffuse Physiological Arousal) on paper, but feeling them in your own body is something else entirely. Most people don’t know the moment their heart rate exceeds 99 BPM.

But you might be more familiar with what it feels like to stonewall, or what it feels like when your partner is stonewalling.

Stonewalling is the last of the Four Horsemen and it is what happens when one partner’s flooding causes them to withdraw from interaction (verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically).

As you become increasingly overwhelmed, your body is building that wall, stone by stone. Often, it’s a protective measure but it plays as a power move. It stops dialogue dead in its tracks.

On the receiving end, you might feel the frustration of hitting that metaphorical wall. Maybe becoming louder is a way to get through? Or maybe you retreat. Either way, the devastation stonewalling creates in a relationship earns it a spot as one of the Four Horsemen.

But the good news about each of the Four Horsemen is that they have antidotes! The antidote to stonewalling is to practice self-soothing. Can you feel your body starting to build the wall? Do you have a code word or signal to ask for a break?

Pay attention to the whole system—what are your thought patterns like when you’re overwhelmed? What are the physical sensations? What emotions lead to shutting down?

Related blog posts

The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Appreciation

Contempt is the most toxic of the Four Horsemen, and perhaps the most insidious. It creeps in over time until one day, you find yourself consistently viewing your partner as inferior. Negative Sentiment Override is a mindset, which makes it challenging to overcome. But it can be done.

The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation. Replace contemptuous thoughts with positive regard.

Contempt:
“Look at them over there, speaking too loudly. They’re so embarrassing.”

Appreciation:
“Look at them over there, telling such an animated story. I love to see my partner having so much fun!”

The way your partner interacts with and views the world is probably different from your approach, but that doesn’t make it less valid. Differences aren’t bad—they add flavor, create necessary friction, and challenge you.

What differences can you appreciate? How can you view your partner in a more positive light?

Related blog posts

The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Contempt

You may already be familiar with The Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) but now that our context has shifted on a global scale, it’s worth taking a closer look at each and how they might show up at home. 

Though all of the four horsemen are damaging, Contempt is perhaps the most destructive. John Gottman describes contempt as “sulfuric acid for love.” Yikes.

So what is contempt? At its core, contempt is holding on to the negative belief that your partner is inferior or “less than.” It may manifest as sarcasm, hostile remarks, eye-rolling, mockery or mimicking, or sneering directed at your partner.

“Oh you’re so smart, huh?”
“You’re embarrassing yourself and me.”
“You just don’t know any better.”
“You don’t ‘feel like’ making love tonight? Big surprise!”

It conveys disgust. Ouch.

It’s a mean one, but it can be reversed. The antidote to contempt is building a culture of appreciation.

Cure nastiness with fondness and admiration. Appreciate the ways your partner is different, and that they have their own subjective, individual experience of things. Regard them as an equal.

Related blog posts

The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Take responsibility

The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility, which may be one of the most challenging antidotes to adopt.

In fact, John Gottman says this:

“Down-regulating one’s own defensiveness is the ‘work’ in Making Relationships Work. It is always the challenge. It is important to note that [people in] all unhappy relationships have left a partner in pain and just gone on with life.

Instead, couples who make relationships work well adopt the motto that, ‘If you’re hurting baby, the world stops, and I listen. I’m with you.’ To summarize: Seeing our partner’s pain and getting in touch with our love is the way to down-regulate defensiveness and think that we might have some (even a smidgen) of responsibility!” 

Julie Gottman adds:

“When we take responsibility for words or actions that have caused distress, we are opening the door to changes we need to make in order to be our best selves. Defensiveness keeps the door slammed shut.”

So how can we take responsibility? Remember that you love your partner and use that to inform how you respond. Choose to try to see things from your partner’s perspective.

It’s a difficult skill to master but the conversation that follows will be your reward. You can even start by noticing when you’re feeling defensive and call it out: “I’m feeling defensive.”

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The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute, dated 23 April 2020. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Defensiveness

You may already be familiar with The Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) but now that our context has shifted on a global scale, it’s worth taking a closer look at each and how they might show up at home. 

Let’s dig into Defensiveness. At its most opaque, defensiveness presents like so many playground retorts:
“I know you are but what am I!”
“No, I’m not!”
“I didn’t!”

When employed more subtly, it might sound like:
“You know how busy I’ve been! I’d do the dishes if I had time.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth. What I actually said was…”
“I wouldn’t have been too tired for our date night if I didn’t have to pick up after you all day.”

That last example is defensiveness when it starts interacting with criticism to get into the verbal tennis match of the attack-defend pattern. It’s a great way to get into an argument that goes nowhere.

It’s challenging not to be defensive. The impulse to defend your position, especially if you’re feeling wrongly accused, is natural. But defensiveness misses the point.

Defensiveness can quickly get you into a conversation aimed at seeking blame. And once blame is assigned, there are often feelings of someone “winning” and someone “losing,” which doesn’t serve your relationship. Understanding each other’s experiences and accepting responsibility will be much more fruitful.

The next time you’re feeling defensive, instead of investigating who’s to blame, challenge yourself to investigate your partner’s point of view.

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The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute, dated 28 April 2020. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: The Softened Start-Up

In the last Relationship Minute, we talked about Criticism, the first of the Four Horsemen. To review, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character or personality, often starting with “you always” or “you never.” Or you can be more direct with criticism: “You are so lazy,” or, “That’s just like you, finding any excuse not to spend time with me.”

Fortunately, it’s reversible.

The antidote to Criticism is what we call The Softened Start-Up.

To soften your start-up means to approach a conversation with how you’re feeling about the situation, not your perception of your partner’s flaws or behavior. There’s a difference between complaints and criticism. A complaint addresses a specific instance or action and acknowledges how it made you feel.

A good formula to remember is:
I feel [your feeling]” 

  • hurt 
  • abandoned 
  • attacked 
  • left out 
  • etc. 

About [the specific behavior, not a pattern of behavior]” 

  • “when I’m not invited to virtual happy hours with your friends,”
  • “when you don’t read the articles I send you,” 
  • “when we don’t have dinner together.” 

And I need [state the positive need].” 

  • “to know what your preferred evening schedule looks like and how I can be a part of it,” 
  • “to feel like you’re interested in the things I care about,” 
  • “to spend some quality time together this week.”

Practice softening your start-up.

You can even practice together with your partner, giving advice to an imaginary couple who struggles with criticism. For example, how would you soften “You always leave dirty dishes in the sink”?

You can also apply this formula to positive things—”I feel cared for when you check in to see how my day is going!”

Related blog posts

The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute, dated 23 April 2020. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Criticism

You may already be familiar with The Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) but now that our context has shifted on a global scale, it’s worth taking a closer look at each and how they might show up at home.

First up is Criticism. Culturally, we are taught to be critical—to scan our environment for flaws and errors, to assign blame, and to exercise “critical thinking.” But criticism, when directed at your partner, can strain love over time.

Some hallmarks of criticism are the phrases “you always” or “you never.” They are a generalized, sweeping attack at your partner’s character, rather than pinpointing a specific incident or behavior.

For example, “You always leave dirty dishes in the sink,” or, “You never tell me when you’re on a call. It’s so inconsiderate.”

Statements like these prime your partner to be defensive. Their first response may be to come up with a time when they didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink, told you they were on a call, or to defend their behavior (“I’m busy! I’ll get to them later” or “I didn’t think you cared!”).

Ultimately, this is counterproductive. In the next Marriage Minute, we’ll go over the antidote to Criticism: the Softened Start-Up. But for now, reflect on the story you tell yourself about criticism.

Where does criticism show up in your life and how might you be able to transform it? What is it accomplishing? Do you tell yourself it’s useful? How might it be detrimental?

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The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute, dated 21 April 2020. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning.