This week I talk about collective decision making, The 4 Horseman from The Gottman Institute, and wanting desperately to feel closer to someone and not knowing how to do it. MAKE IT TO THE END: I found what I want to hear from Elizabeth Gilbert. Please ignore typos if you can. I didn’t have time to proof this today.
My theory on couples therapy has always been that we don’t exist in a vacuum. That being in therapy with your family, partner, co-workers, etc. would be a beneficial thing to do. Perhaps maybe more than with individual therapy? IDK. Like if we just had this time together, where we could learn and grow together, things would naturally over time get better.
We started couples therapy before M was born to cope with the life changes that having a child would bring. I was scared to have a child. I think rightly so. In some ways, it was like I wanted to prepare for the impending doom, or breakage from the cracks that were already present. I also wanted to be understood and taken care of. If I am being honest. I longed for Josh to tell me the things I needed to hear to feel safe. Basically, I just wanted to feel close. Like we had the sort of bond that could withstand the stress of life.
That didn’t work. We stopped. With M’s diagnosis, we both needed our own help just to get through the days. But for months, perhaps years, I would process my issues with Josh with my therapist and not him. On a weekly basis, she would ask me why I had not made an appointment with a couples therapist.
I would say things like, “It is just too much. Like we have so many things to manage. I cannot handle one more weekly appointment.” To her, it was telling that I was not making the appointment. The nice thing about seeing a therapist, for me at least, is that I can temper my worry over disappointing them. I would dread telling her every week that I still had not made the appointment. BUT I told her. And she was ok with it. She didn’t stop seeing me. She may have judged me, she is human after all.
It took over 2 years for me to make an appointment. To prioritize our relationship over everything else, despite the fact that Josh and I spend a large portion of our lives together. We had to get to a breaking point.
Ours was a numb break. It happened over time. Time spent just getting by and doing the things that we thought had deadlines: work. Our relationship didn’t have a fixed deadline per se, but it had a very real breaking point.
I cannot remember exactly when, but I do recall in some psych class, coming across The Gottman Institute’s research. The fuzzy memory I have is that there was this researcher, let’s call him John Gottman, who recorded couples talking and working through their shit looking painstakingly for signals. Or signs that a couple would make it through the hard stuff.
They could at the end of the study predict with surprising accuracy if a couple would stay together or if they would separate. The patterns that they would see that they said would ultimately break a couple up fell into these four behaviors: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.
It is my understanding that they would watch the couples talk things out and then rate how many times they saw the signs of the above four communication habits. I don’t know how I learned my communication habits (I don’t want to always blame my parents) but they probably came from watching how things worked in my family.
Do you think that there might be some truth to the idea that people from divorced homes might be more likely to get divorced? I don’t know if this is true, but I do think I learned some ineffective communication modalities from watching my parents. I also learned some really positive things. When I listen to how Josh reflects on growing up with his parents, I am not sure that there is one right way. Or if his family’s success (there are no divorces in his family) is based on a value of “blooming where you are planted.” In my family, the value was if you are stuck, change things. Both families valued each other. Just through different methods. If we were to judge a family’s success on some other metric would they still come out on top? This question becomes problematic pretty quickly…
In both families, people were happy and miserable. Such as life.
I seriously question my decisions all the time. It makes sense to me, that we don’t actually have control over what we choose; that we are in a system of people, a community that is making collective choices above our consciousness. Or something we have been trained to not think about when we conceptualize why we do the things we do. Like our input of all our current senses, past experiences, and predictions for the future all co-mingle just beyond our understandings. For us not to be overwhelmed with options, our brains neatly make things into digestible “decisions” for us to believe in (or this theory seems to explain my reality at the moment).
When I finally got around to making a therapist appointment, I would argue that it was a combo platter of getting to a really hard spot, but also there were things going on around me that were also helping nudge me into that decision. There were several shows both “reality” and fiction that tackled couples in therapy. I got this message on IG:
I also had friends in it. My sister and her partner were doing it. So was it really a choice? Or just enough people in my community were talking about it and doing it so my brain finally filed it under something that had value.
I love our therapist. I don’t know why, but I am pretty predisposed to like therapists that are warm regardless if it is actually effective. But week after week, Josh and I would go into therapy with the goal of feeling connected and closer, only to be caught in a “loop of despair.”
Our loop consists of both of us doing this same thing where we try to reconcile both our realities while using our individual communication styles and love languages. They don’t match. And it spirals into something like a hopeless abyss. And our connection needs are left unmet.
As far as I can tell, from my perspective, this loop involves 3 out of Gottman’s 4 horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. In both of our respective family cultures, critical thinking is a value. Thus, it is no surprise to me that we both are critical of ourselves along with each other. We also both grew up in a time period where defensiveness was needed. The example that comes to mind is that following critique, one always has to explain. One wants to explain in a way that absolves themselves of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame exist to curb undesirable behaviors. One wants to be a good person, thus being defensive so as to not be guilty seems natural.
Then there is stonewalling. This is my favorite. Actually my least favorite. Recently, I was talking to Paul Bloom and he asked the question: would you rather be stonewalled for a week or punched in the face? And I really don’t know. That is beside the point, the point is I tend to use this ineffective communication style to make my partner “want” to give me more attention, or the attention I want. IT NEVER WORKS.
It’s like my silence will shame them into doing what I need to feel better. This just pushes us in opposite directions. I remember watching my mother do this when we were young. I am not sure where she learned it from. When something was not working for her, she would just mope. And say things were “fine.” That was this weird system of punishment that was akin to being grounded or whatever.
In our family culture, this was a way of taking the “high” road. You didn’t say mean things. You didn’t get physical. BUT people still knew you were upset. It was an acceptable way to show that you were pissed. An acceptable form of punishment through manipulation just below the surface.
In Josh’s family, a similar trait to “moping” is a furrowed brow or disapproving stare. A look of disappointment that can crush you without a word. Expressing a moral high ground producing shame immediately.
We are working on reconciling both our styles. I desperately want to feel closer. But my styles of getting this: critique, divisiveness, and the cold shoulder are not effective. They are my tools.
This week, we talked about our loop. That we didn’t want to spend our only (literally) hour alone together in this loop. How could we break the cycle? Our goal is to do 5 nice things for the other person. By Thursday. It is Monday and we are both batting zero.
I will say tho, the idea of going on a reality TV show to test if the grass is actually greener is still not tempting in the least…
Elizabeth Gilbert shares her daily practice for feeling better:
Well, my foremost daily practice is something that was born out of emergency in my life. And I feel like I’ve spoken with you about this before, but I’ll share it again, which is that I write to love, every day, and I ask love to write back to me. And so this is actually really simple, [laughs] and anybody can do it. I’ve been doing it off and on for the last 20 years, and for the last two years, I would say religiously, I’ve been doing this, because I realized that I’m really not OK without it.
And where it was born was that I was in the middle of my divorce. I was in great despair. I was in hell and in loneliness and sorrow and terror, in the middle of the night. And I don’t know where the inspiration came from, but I thought, what would — if I could generate somebody who would say to me the things that I’ve always needed to have somebody say to me, what would those things be? And I grabbed a notebook, and I wrote a letter to myself from that.
You know, and at the time, I didn’t know what it was. But now I — for shorthand, I call it “Love” — capital “l,” Love — really, divine love. And I just — it was such an easy exercise to do, because it didn’t take me very long to know what it is I’ve always wanted to hear somebody else say to me. And it is: I love you. I am with you. I will never leave you. You are not alone. I’ve got you. You are my precious. You are my beloved. You are my child. There’s nothing you can do or not do that could cost you this great love that I have for you. You — I don’t need anything from you in return. I don’t need you to provide anything for me; I don’t need you to prove anything to me. You don’t have to feel better, for me to love you. You don’t have to stop crying, for me to love you. You don’t have to be successful at anything, for me to love you. Nothing is owed, nothing is earned, nothing is asked.
And even though I was the one technically writing these words, it worked to settle my nervous system. I don’t think my brain was — I don’t think the fear part of my brain was sophisticated enough to notice that I was the one writing it. All it heard was, You are safe, you are loved, you are mine. You can’t fail. You can’t disappoint me.
And I remember beginning to do that practice, and there were times when I would say — I would do a dialogue with that voice. And I would say, What should I do? I am so frightened. What should I do? And it’s funny that you mention, get up and get a glass of water, eat a grape. Very seldom does love have anything for me but the most simple, what you can do in the next five minutes advice. And when I ask love what’s going to happen, what’s going to come of us, what’s going to come of the world, what’s going to come to me, love always says, I don’t know. That’s not my department. [laughs]
Beyond my paygrade. I’m not — I am not God. I’m included in God, I’m part of God, but I’m not God. I don’t have access to that. But I’ll tell you this — I’ll be with you. I’ll be with you no matter what it is. You can’t lose me. And we’ll do it together, as I’ve done everything with you, together. But in the meantime, I would suggest getting up and getting a glass of water.
Listen to her entire talk here.