Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D.
President and Co-Founder, The Gottman Institute and Co-Founder, Affective Software, Inc.
Lately life has been no party. In fact, we’re forbidden from partying altogether. A nasty little virus is invading the sanctity of our freedom and fraying our nerves. Our fears are virulent, too, multiplying by the day.
Fears can show up in strange ways. Last night I dreamt I was lost in an alien city. (It happened to be Paris, but still…) My husband had already left for home; my plane was leaving today. Only I couldn’t remember the airline or time of departure. I searched for my passport, money, and plane reservations, but couldn’t find them. Down on all fours searching, I glanced over and saw a spindly but lethal-looking spider darting towards me. It paused. We sized each other up. I was more afraid than it was. I tried to move out of its way but was paralyzed. It kept coming… COVID-19, of course.
This virus has shattered our routines, hobbled our kids, pitched our economic floor into freefall, and left us stunned and homebound. Many of us are jobless or soon to be. Worse still, we’ve been stripped of our social safety nets, those customary conversations with neighbors, friends and family. We’re isolated and split off from each other like fish from water.
Seclusion is punishing. It strips us of our identities, the ways we recognize ourselves. Without our neighborly hellos, chats in the aisles, and Saturday night bridge, it’s hard to say who we are these days. Let alone our losses of jobs, or at least their collegiality, and our usual run of errands to do. No more school drop-offs, baseball car-pools, and dinners out. No more March madness over beer. Spring Break is broken. No more trips or parties. Where does this leave us? Our points of reference are gone. And without those, we float, homebound but nowhere. The only person we dare approach is that spouse of ours who’s stuck at home, too. And sometimes he, she or they annoy the hell out of us.
Many of us have less than ideal intimate relationships. We relate more to “The Marriage Story” than “Sleepless in Seattle.” There may be wars across the water, but we’re fighting one at home, too. A month ago we could escape the bickering and blow-ups and just go to the gym. But now we’re stuck in our four-walled pressure cooker and hot steam is thickening by the day. How do we release it and turn off the heat before our relationship has all but melted down?
My husband, John and I have studied and treated distressed couples for nearly five decades. We’re no gurus. Our couples have taught us everything we know. Perhaps it’s time to apply their lessons again. With COVID-19 shutting off couples’ normal escape valves, what can couples do to cool down the heat, release the lid, and cleanse the air between them?
Here is what successful couples do: 1) They look for what their partner is doing right, not what they’re doing wrong, and they say “thank you” a dozen times daily, even for making the wake-up coffee for the umpteenth time; 2) They look for beauty and positive traits in their partner, and lovingly call them out; 3) They work hard to ban criticism from their vocabulary. Contempt, too. They almost never call their partner bad names or roll their eyes and scoff. Instead, they flip their negativity on its head and think of how their partner can shine for them. They express what they DO need, rather than what they resent; 4) If they’re listening, they first ask questions to plumb the depths of their partner’s needs before responding- questions like “Why is this so important to you?” or “Is there some background or childhood history behind this?” 5) They compromise by initially separating out what they’re inflexible about from what’s more flexible, then yield where there’s some give. And last but not least, 6) They cuddle and touch each other with pure affection, not just eroticism.
In the 1990s a couple’s relationship researcher, Neil Jacobson analyzed his interventions for helping distressed couples. He learned that his treated couples relapsed in no time, except for one strange group that didn’t. These couples maintained a practice different from what he taught them. Every night they had a daily “stress-reducing conversation,” in which each partner downloaded the highlights and lowlights of their day and shared their worries about their external stresses, the ones emanating from outside the marriage. Contrary to the norm, listening partners didn’t try to solve anything. They simply asked for more detail, especially about the speaker’s emotions, while listening and nodding empathetically. These couples avoided relapse through their own inventiveness.
Guy Bodenmann, a Swiss researcher, cultivated another marital therapy from this seed of couple’s talking to reduce stress. It worked beautifully. And no wonder. Biologically, we humans are pack animals. We depend on each other the way wolves and primates do. We cooperate to supply food for each other. We care for each other’s young. We huddle together during a blizzard and escape together from fire. At our best, we collaborate to protect our tribe.
Our research along with Bodenmann’s and Jacobson’s work suggests that couples reduce stress by helping each other feel less alone, not by solving each other’s problems. Unfortunately, we still think there is such a thing as too needy; solo self-reliance is the ideal. Nonsense. In the face of this new pathogen, we need each other more than ever, especially the person we live with.
Who knows how long this virus will last or what will be its lasting impact? Together with Affective Software CEO, Rafael Lisitsa, we are shifting from face-to-face help to technological programming in order to create an application that can bring science-based relationship tools to people at home.
Let’s consider the possibility that perhaps this virus is not all bad. Perhaps our sequestration is a golden opportunity to re-craft ourselves and our relationships, a time to cultivate kindness and to create a little more love in the world. We need it more than ever these days.