Relationship Minute: Embracing ambiguity

Some look to psychics, divination, astrology, or even Internet conspiracy theories for answers, or as a fun way to search for certainty. A path forward in the darkness.

But in reality, no one can know the future with 100% certainty. And that can be scary. Ambiguity causes anxiety for many. So how can you reassure your partner, and yourself, when you don’t know what’s going to happen?

Embrace ambiguity. Lean into it, turn towards it, and start sharing about it.

Using Dr. Pauline Boss’s Ambiguous Loss theory, adapted here by Certified Gottman Therapist Michael McNulty, here’s what partners can do to embrace ambiguity.

  • Know that what you’re experiencing is uncertain or ambiguous—label it, and accept it.
  • Normalize ambivalence—it’s okay to have mixed feelings.
  • Share perspectives—there’s a lot of information out there and you and your partner may disagree. Stay open.
  • Be flexible and creative.
  • Reconstruct routines and rituals—try seeing change as an opportunity for a refresh.
  • Find meaning—you are not alone.

As you tighten your grasp holding on to certainty or the way things were, you risk becoming more rigid and tightly wound. Endeavor to hold your perspectives with an open hand, creating the ability to let go of what is no longer serving you.

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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: Make time for date night

2020 has been a weird year so far. Many of your routines, plans, and even concept of time may have gone out the window.

But we’re still going to encourage you to make time to spend together, with intention, even if a “date” doesn’t look the way it used to.

What do you consider a date? It’s probably more than just time spent together in the same room. Make some agreements with your partner around date time. For example, maybe phones and distractions are put aside. Or maybe you agree that some conversation topics (work, the pandemic, or finances) are off-limits.

Set the intention to invest your time in turning toward each other and enjoying each other’s presence, and plan for what that means to you if you can’t physically be together or go out to your favorite date spots right now.

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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: Differentiation

It can be hard not to take things personally, especially within a conflict discussion. The risk of feeling personally wounded may cause some couples to become conflict-avoidant.

As Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., explains in this interview, conflict avoidance is a function of fusion—when one partner attempts to “merge” with the other.

“One way of doing this is becoming more like your partner in hopes of being loved. There’s a deep fear that says, ‘If I express my needs and have different needs than my partner, I’m going to be abandoned.’

The other conflict-avoidant stance is loving your partner at arm’s length. The fear in this stance says, ‘If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.’” 

The opposite of fusion is differentiation— first acknowledging that you and your partner are two, separate individuals with different identities, and then developing a secure way to relate to each other.

The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. You can still empathize, but don’t feel the burden of identifying with your partner’s feelings and can separate how you feel. This also keeps you from expecting your partner to take ownership of your individual feelings.

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: Sharing to heal

Social connection strengthens your resilience, which lowers stress. One way to increase your connections is to share what’s on your mind, even if it’s scary to do that.

To put something out in the open, subject to examination, is to separate it from the power you’ve been giving it in your head. It could be that the thought or feeling itself isn’t so scary, once it’s stripped of the shame it’s been feeding off of.

Maybe you’ve been stewing over something your partner said or did. For example, let’s say they noted that a dish you cooked was too salty. That idea then grew, over the course of several days, into, “my partner thinks I am the worst cook in the world.” It’s an extreme assertion, but one that you can probably rationalize if you don’t release it by sharing it with your partner.

If you keep the damaging, shameful thought inside, you deny your partner the opportunity to shine the light on it with loving truth.

Of course, in order to share you need to feel safe doing so, and that begins with creating a feeling of safety for others. That means listening as non-defensively and non-reactively as possible, and having a shared goal of understanding one another, rather than being “right.”

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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: Bottling or brooding

In this interview with Susan David, Ph.D., David describes two characteristic ways of dealing with difficult emotions or experiences: bottling and brooding.

“Bottling is essentially pushing the emotion down. For example, you’re upset with a person. You’re feeling angry because you feel exploited, and what you do is you tell yourself, ‘I’m just not going to go there, and I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got all this other stuff to do.’

And what you are doing is pushing the emotions down. Often you do this with very good intentions. You feel at some level that emotions are locked up in a bottle, and you have all of this other stuff that you can’t do, so you continue to push the emotions into a bottle, per se.

Brooding is when you are so consumed with the emotions you’re feeling that it becomes difficult to do anything else. When you’re brooding, you’re dwelling on the emotions, you’re analyzing hurt. You’re thinking, Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? It’s like you can’t let go and you obsess over the hurt, a perceived failure, or a shortcoming.

Brooding has some very good intentions—one of which is to try to deal with emotions effectively. So both bottling and brooding are done with good intentions [… but] we know from research that it tends not to work.” 

Avoidance (bottling) and hyperfocus (brooding) can both be damaging to your physical and emotional health. Do you tend to push challenging emotions away, or clutch them too tightly? What would a more balanced approach to your emotions look and feel like?

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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: Disagreements

Sometimes it can be challenging to “agree to disagree,” especially if the disagreement is with your partner or feels fundamental.

Maybe you have held onto the belief that you and your partner need to agree on everything to have a good relationship. Then a disagreement arises and threatens to completely deflate you, leaving you to wonder if you have any shared values at all.

But this is your partner, not your clone, and you’re bound to see the world differently from time to time. What’s important is separating your self from your views.

Even if you don’t agree with your partner’s views, can you still see, value, understand, and accept them as a human being? What do you know about your partner that might inform these views?

Let’s use this disagreement as an example: You think Fozzie Bear is the best Muppet; your partner strongly favors Kermit.

What do you know about your partner that could help you understand why they hold this belief? Maybe they have always felt drawn to frogs, or have a special childhood memory attached to “The Rainbow Connection.”

Just because you understand does not mean you have to agree.

You could say, “I can see why you think Kermit is the best Muppet. He has many admirable leadership qualities and he did some good reporting for Sesame Street, so I really understand why he appeals to you. And I still think Fozzie is the best—Wocka Wocka for life. Even though we don’t agree on this, we can agree that we love each other.”

Change the goal from agreement to understanding.

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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: Weekly check-in

Having a meeting once a week for your relationship can make a huge positive impact. Scheduling a conflict conversation may seem absurd at first, but it can prevent minor spats from popping up throughout the week if you have time set aside to be more thoughtful and intentional as you approach what is causing conflict.

We call this weekly constructive conflict hour “The State of the Union Meeting” but if that feels too formal, you can think of it as a weekly check-in.

Agree that the goal of these conversations is to get on the same page and increase the feeling of being each other’s teammate. If it helps, set an agenda.

This meeting has three vital sections: 

  1. Warm-up. Start the conversation with appreciation for each other and celebrations of what’s going well. This sets the tone for the rest of the conversation, which will be about conflict so it’s important to start from a positive place. 
  2. Understanding. Before you come up with solutions, you have to understand each point of view and agree on what problem you’re solving together. Take turns as Speaker and Listener. Resist the urge to persuade your partner of your viewpoint, as it is generally counterproductive. 
  3. Compromise. Now that you understand your partner’s perspective, you can solve the problem together. If you bring a perpetual problem to the meeting, try to find a temporary compromise and agree to revisit it later. 

Important note: Take breaks if you find that you and/or your partner are becoming flooded. A positive (win-win) outcome is much more likely if partners aren’t overwhelmed in the process.

Be gentle with each other and ease into it, especially if you don’t already practice regular check-ins. Start with an approachable issue to build the habit—don’t tackle your biggest, most raw conflict up top.

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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: Is that right?

Listening to your partner, whether it’s during a Stress-Reducing Conversation or any time, is a great opportunity to practice attunement, empathy, and understanding.

The key is to keep yourself from making assumptions. Maintain curiosity.

Let’s say, for example, that your partner says, “I saw the most annoying thing on Facebook today.”

You could make an assumption and interrupt them with, “Oh, did your aunt post another Minions meme? You should unfollow her.”

Or you could get curious: 
You: “What was it?” 
Your partner: “It was a compilation of gender reveal videos.”You: “Oh! What was annoying about that to you?” 

Your partner:“They were all for the same baby.”
 You: “Wow! I could see how that would be annoying. So you saw this video and you felt agitated because multiple gender reveals feels indulgent? Is that right?”

Your partner: “Not quite. I just think you don’t get to call it a ‘reveal’ after the first one. And they were acting surprised every time.” 

You: “Ah, so it was performative and that was annoying?”

Your partner: “Yes, and they were all really elaborate.” 

You: “Do you think it was a waste of money?” 

Your partner: “Yeah! So maybe that’s why it annoyed me, too.” 

Get curious. Dig deeper. Confirm your perceptions with your partner.

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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.