Wellness

Elise Loehnen

When Elise and Her Husband Did the Gottman Couples Workshop

Elise Loehnen

Elise Loehnen is our chief content officer and cohost of The goop Podcast.

Everything about the weekend seemed improbable—first, that I had convinced my husband, Rob, to board a flight to Seattle when the forecast called for near-freezing rain, and second, that he had agreed to sit with me, and hundreds of others, in a massive exhibition hall to get collective couples therapy. I cashed in a lot of date nights for the privilege of his presence. Going alone would not have been an option. You spent the majority of your hours in the exhibition hall in folding chairs facing off against each other—at a distance from the other couple capsules dotted across the floor (they call it acoustic privacy).

Let me back up for a second. In 1975, scientist John Gottman, PhD, and his research partner Robert Levenson began studying thousands of couples (some they would follow for twenty years), looking at the ways they interacted and how that ultimately determined the future health of their relationships. It is now the stuff of social science lore, but they were able to predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, whether a couple was likely to get divorced—and, of those who opted to stay together, who would be happily married and who would not. Gottman would eventually found the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington, and he and his wife, therapist and fellow scientist Julie Gottman, have coauthored dozens of books on the subject, along with tons of tools for everything from raising emotionally resilient kids to having better sex.

From his work in the lab, John has perhaps become most famous for defining the “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—i.e., the four traits in relationships that most accurately predict when you’ve become derailed. In short, they’re our crutches when we feel emotionally threatened. The majority of the Gottmans’ work in the intervening decades has been to provide couples with the antidotes, or tools, to prevent the emergence of these horsemen, and also to provide mechanisms for repair in order to get partnerships back on track if the horsemen are already present. The first horseman is criticism, which in this context the Gottmans describe as the tendency to “describe a problem as a flaw in your partner’s personality.” The second, defensiveness, often elicits counterattacking or playing the innocent victim. The third, contempt, is “to put someone down and to take a higher plane—for instance, taking a higher moral ground.” The fourth, stonewalling, is when one partner emotionally withdraws and disconnects from the conversations: “for instance, looking to the side, not maintaining eye contact, or crossing one’s arms are all physical manifestations of stonewalling.” In the research, women overindex in criticism; men overindex in stonewalling. But anyone in a relationship can tell you that simply being aware of the horsemen isn’t always enough to stop them in their tracks.

“When was the last time that you spent two consecutive
eight-hour days with your partner, thinking about,
dissecting, and discussing your relationship?”

While the Gottmans sometimes do small group couples counseling in the San Juan Islands off Seattle, they spend a majority of their time training other therapists and leading occasional weekend workshops called The Art and Science of Love, which you can now do online or via a DVD set. (You can also simply move through the exercises in the kit—the add-on boxed set—that they created to accompany the workshop.) I always like a live show, and when it comes to relationships, there’s certainly a ton of nuance to pick up on, so this is how Rob and I found ourselves drinking boxed coffee and nibbling on fruit salad at a convention center on a cold Saturday morning in December. We collected our kit from check-in and made our way to the seats that would be our home for the next eight hours.

When was the last time that you spent two consecutive eight-hour days with your partner, thinking about, dissecting, and discussing your relationship? With two small kids back home in Los Angeles, that alone felt like a rare gift. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little giddy; Rob was less enthused.

The Gottmans kicked off the workshop by explaining the goals: We would spend the first day getting reacquainted with each other and becoming better friends, all while discussing our shared values. (Everyone left the first day more or less holding hands as they scurried into the night for a romantic dinner.) The second day, we would go into theoretical battle: We would put ourselves into an old, sore, and unresolved conflict in order to build the skills to get out of it. (This day was less rosy; there were many tears, visible emotional standoffs, and even some yelling, though about forty or so Gottman-trained therapists from across the globe wove through the pairs of chairs in response to blue ASSISTANCE PLEASE placards raised by couples in distress.)

First, the pleasant stuff. Over the two days, the Gottmans would role-play the next activity using their own relationship and history as teaching fodder. It was remarkable, as they frequently laid themselves bare in front of a convention hall of strangers. (At several points, I cried, particularly when Julie told the story of having polio as a child and how that experience, specifically her father’s role in it, continued to trigger her throughout her adult life.) After watching their example, we would take out our workbooks, go to our chair pods, and do the accompanying back-and-forth with each other, practicing and refining our skills while also effectively having a marathon of a date.

“The most powerful invocation from the Gottmans that day, though,
was also one of the simplest: Find ways to turn toward your partner.”

The contents of the first day were, quite frankly, magical—and easy to replicate at home. We did a series of exercises to test how well we understood each other’s inner lives and priorities, and then we used a series of decks to ask each other questions. First, we constructed a love map of our partner, using prompts from the corresponding deck, like: “What are two of your partner’s aspirations, hopes, or wishes?” and “Describe in detail your partner’s day, either today or yesterday.” The resulting conversations were rich, surprising, and profound. Similarly, when we moved on to open-ended questions, it became a tool for both reflecting and revealing ourselves to each other in safe and unexpected ways. Some sample questions from that deck: “How have you changed in the last year?” “What kind of person do you think our child(ren) will become? Any fears? Any hopes?” (Several question decks are included in the add-on boxed set and DVD set. These question decks are also available through free Gottman apps, and if your partner is willing, they’re great fodder for date nights.)

We ended the first day establishing ways that we could redo areas in our relationship where we both felt disappointed, typically framed that way because of wounds from childhood. On some of the rituals of connection, we nailed it (getting ready for bed and staying in touch throughout the day); on others we didn’t. We falter on planning and going on dates, celebrating birthdays, and taking care of each other when one of us gets sick, among others. And then we chose a couple of things from the opportunity deck to try to implement at home. Options include: Take a class together, and give your partner a full day off from household chores. The most powerful invocation from the Gottmans that day, though, was also one of the simplest: Find ways to turn toward your partner. When they remark on something, attend to it rather than dismissing it. And when they want to talk, give them the privilege of having a stress-reducing conversation with you. In a stress-reducing conversation, your only role is to listen and commiserate. Not to jump in to solve the problem for them or pass judgment on how they should feel or what they should have said. It’s just an opportunity for your partner to unload while you give them the gift of your attention and hold the trash basket. If you implement it, you will find that it is an incredible gift.

Rob and I left the first day high-fiving. We stayed at the Palihotel in Seattle, in a room directly across the street from the Pike Place Market. After the workshop, we lay in bed for a couple of hours, held hands, drank wine, watched people go about their business at the market, and continued to discuss the events of the day and all the ways we could reinvest in our relationship. Eventually, we shook ourselves loose and headed out for dinner with some close friends. It was honestly one of the more bonding days we have had since the early days of our courtship, when, like everyone else in the early throes of love, we often stayed up all night talking.

There were no fun decks of questions and cards the second day. Instead, it got hard. As the Gottmans explained, conflict is inevitable, but it can be a wildly healthy tool for getting better at loving your partner—avoiding it entirely only sublimates disagreement, setting the stage for major eruptions later. Their goal for the day was to give us the tools for navigating conflict effectively and productively—without creating greater rupture or regrettable harm—and most importantly, to hand us a process for “being able to talk about it without getting back into the original argument.” Here’s a staggering statistic that they offered from their research: Sixty-nine percent of problems in a relationship are perpetual, meaning that they will never be solved. As the Gottmans explain in the workbook, “Perpetual problems are either (1) fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict or (2) fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs.” This does not mean that you pack up your bags and move out. It simply means that you might never be able to transform your partner into the OCD neat freak of your dreams or turn them into a morning person. If it’s a solvable problem, you might be able to demand tweaks; if not, you might need to adjust. Some people’s perpetual problems are solvable for others, and vice versa. During the second day, the Gottmans focused on two things with us. The first was repairing a regrettable incident—i.e., going back into a sore, unresolved one-off fight and using tools to process it without restoking the original pain and anger. The second was helping us navigate perpetual problems that have become “gridlocked,” or so calcified that everyone is entrenched, frustrated, and hurt—and unwilling to put their sword down.

“Conflict is inevitable, but it can be a wildly healthy tool for getting
better at loving your partner—avoiding it entirely only sublimates
disagreement, setting the stage for major eruptions later.”

We spent the first third of the day rehashing a regrettable incident, and the Gottmans encouraged us not to focus on the “facts” but instead to accept that each person has a valid perception of what happened. You can repair a regrettable incident only when you are calm and can work with the goal of understanding your partner’s point of view. Their process is as follows, with one partner going through all the steps before it turns to the other partner:

Step 1: Share how you felt, but not why. (They list a wide array of helpful options, including criticized, unloved, morally justified, lonely, exhausted, out of control, etc.)

Step 2: Share your reality of what happened. “Describe only what YOU saw, heard, and felt, not what you think your partner meant or felt.” Instead of saying things like “You did…” or “You said…,” say, “I heard you say…” or “I saw you….” After your partner is done, summarize and reflect what they said back to them, before validating why they might have felt how they felt. “Validation doesn’t mean you agree, but that you can understand even a part of your partner’s experience of the incident,” the Gottmans explain.

Step 3: Share what it was about the incident that triggered you—and how you felt triggered by other events in the past. Share your story of why this incident brought up so much for you.

Step 4: Take responsibility. Explain what set you up for the conflict (their examples include: “I’d been very preoccupied,” “I’d been getting easily upset,” and “I’d been depressed”), and then express what you regret. Again, they offer some helpful sentence stems, like “I overreacted when…,” “I wasn’t respectful when I…,” and “I attacked you when I….” At that point, accept your partner’s apology if you feel ready; if you don’t, ask them for what you feel you need to close the book.

Step 5: Share a constructive plan for how to avoid this situation in the future. Then swap places and repeat.

Many couples seemed to sail through this exercise, though others had clearly inflamed an old wound, and the anxiety in the room started to become palpable. There were some tears and definitely some crossed arms when we surveyed the crowd. We spent the majority of the day, however, working on perpetual problems, and that’s when things got very real for many of the participants. It became abundantly clear, in fact, that it was primarily gridlocked perpetual problems that had brought many of the couples to the conference hall in the first place. The Gottmans spent a lot of time talking about the physiology of conflict, particularly how it manifests so differently in men and women—and then they traced how the four horsemen are triggered when negative emotions and flooding are not addressed, and how this then creates emotional disengagement and loneliness in partnership. The end result? Parallel lives and, eventually, the dissolution of the relationship. According to Gottman, Bob Levenson, and Laura Carstensen’s research, “When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel like they have to dig in and protect their personality and sense of self from the attack and onslaught they are experiencing. If you feel judged, misunderstood, or rejected by your partner, you will not be able to solve many important problems in your relationship.”

“They preached that the first skill in conflict resolution is self-soothing: In their experience
and research, nothing positive can be accomplished when one person is flooded with
emotions and not able to be objective about how they feel or what’s transpired.”

The antidote to this seems to be friendship—all the skills that we had practiced the first day were brought to bear in moments of conflict. They preached that the first skill in conflict resolution is self-soothing: In their experience and research, nothing positive can be accomplished when one person is flooded with emotions and not able to be objective about how they feel or what’s transpired. And then we spent a good chunk of time practicing the second step, which is the softened start-up. According to their research, women are the ones to raise issues 80 percent of the time—weirdly, even acknowledging that that’s a universal reality (and not specific to my own relationship) was very reassuring, as sometimes I want to fight about the fact that I’m the only one in the relationship who wants to address issues! A soft start-up is precisely what it sounds like. Instead of attacking and criticizing, you start the conversation by stating your own feelings and participation. Use statements that start with I instead of you, and describe what’s happening. For example, if your partner has left the kitchen dirty, you can say something like, “It really stresses me out when I come home to a messy kitchen—it makes me feel overwhelmed. I know you’re also busy and tired, but it would really help me out if you could quickly load the dishwasher the way that you’re normally so good about.”

The third skill is the ability to “repair and de-escalate”—sometimes this means calling for a break to calm down, and sometimes it requires apologizing or acknowledging your partner’s position. The fourth skill is the most beautiful, in my mind, as it can help you, when you are in a gridlocked situation, get a new perspective on why something is so important to your partner. As the Gottmans explain, “Beneath each of your positions on the issue are deeply held feelings and dreams. Take turns asking each other questions to bring these up…avoid persuasion and problem solving.” This is when the revelations come about why you want things a certain way and where other rigidities might come from. It could be that your partner’s compulsive messiness is driven by the fact that he had an OCD mother who wrapped the furniture in plastic and refused to let him touch anything or make himself a snack. Based on what we observed around us, this step brought up a lot. Skill five and skill six are accepting influence and compromising—finding some common ground or a workaround for problems where neither party can “win.”

The perpetual problem session was the most protracted and the most difficult—when they rang the bell and summoned us back to our seats in the main auditorium, many couples lingered in a stalemate, unable to get to steps five and six. As the Gottmans thanked us for our hard work and dismissed us into the raining Seattle night, we wondered about those we’d left behind. Meanwhile, my reticent Rob had been transformed into a Gottman groupie—as we exited through the gift shop, he bought one of everything they had to offer.

When we touched down in Los Angeles, I was both content and curious. On one hand, the weekend had been a reassuring hug, not only because of the intimacy that Rob and I had already built during our nine years of marriage but because the weekend had effectively restoked the affection we have for each other and reminded us how much we enjoy each other’s company. But I wondered whether we’d be able to put what we’d learned into practice during the inevitably tough moments that plague our relationship. We don’t fight much—we bicker like siblings to relieve pressure, and every once in a while we have a blowup. For a good stretch of our relationship, post-blowups, we wouldn’t really speak directly to each other for a day or two, choosing instead to direct our conversation through our kids.

The workshop was four months ago, and we haven’t fought since. Moments of irritation, sure, but they’ve been defused before they’ve picked up enough force to become anything significant—or perpetual. I don’t know whether this marks maturation in our relationship or is a symptom of us embodying the Gottmans’ process, subconsciously or otherwise. At this point, I’m not sure it matters. The kit is on the bookshelf above my desk. It collected dust until I pulled it down to write this, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been in our house together, with our two small kids, for six-plus weeks. As I picked through the decks to pull example questions and prompts for this story, Rob took them from me and flipped through them as well; one night, instead of numbing ourselves with Netflix, we asked each other open-ended questions until bedtime. A good date night indeed.


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