I have noticed there seems to be way too much advice about relationships. If you struggle in your relationship, the conflicting opinions can feel frustrating and overwhelming. John Gottman’s recent article, “Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships,” is a helpful resource in sorting through advice that is actually helpful from the advice that causes harm. Over the past 30 years, John Gottman has studied extensively the practices that actually makes relationships thrive.
“I’ve found many myths about relationships that are not only false but potentially destructive. They are dangerous because they can lead couples down the wrong path, or worse, convince them that their marriage is a hopeless case. The notion that you can save your relationship just by learning to communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held misconception about happy marriages, but it’s hardly the only one.” (John Gottman, Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships)
Check out John Gottman’s article by clicking on this link: Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships
If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?
Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.
What are interactional patterns in relationships?
An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.
What is a bid?
“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)
What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?
According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:
Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?
Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?
Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)
The fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.
Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life. However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.
The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence:
- Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting.
- IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
- Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)
How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?
Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.
I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:
- Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
- Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
- Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
- Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
- One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.
A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:
- What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
- Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
- What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
- Do you exchange passwords or not?
- Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
- When is it okay to be anonymous online?
- What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
- What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
- What are the rules for the car?
- When is it okay to post photos of your children?
- How much checking on each other is okay?
Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
In his recent article, “The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication,” Guy Harris discusses the impact communication has on the health of relationships. He offers helpful insights into the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive styles of communication and to create healthier conversations.
“Communication breakdowns are a common cause for conflict, and poor communication strategies can lead to rapid escalation. Likewise, effective communication strategies can help you correct these miscommunications to move conflicts quickly towards resolution.
One idea that can help you choose the best communication strategy for the situation comes from what I call the communication continuum.” (Guy Harris, The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication) Read more….
I recently wrote a blog post, “Wonder Woman Learns Healthy Boundaries,” about how to create healthy relational boundaries and why it is an essential practice. I planned to write an article on ways to maintain boundaries with difficult people… and then I came across “5 Ways to Maintain Boundaries with Difficult People” By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
She shares several guidelines that provide guidance and support for anyone struggling with a difficult relationship.
Excerpt from 5 Ways to Maintain Boundaries with Difficult People:
“When you doubt your own importance, you’re allowing the manipulations of difficult people to gain a foothold,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. “However, when you understand that your time, money, dignity and needs are vital to your well-being, it’s easier to tune out people who want to break your boundaries.” Read more…»
Communication breakdowns happen so easily in relationships. We often try really hard to be what our partner needs, but our efforts seem to miss the mark:
“Stop trying to fix it, I just need you to listen to me.”
I know a couple that created a plan to address this issue head-on. Whenever “Mary” asks “Sam” if they can talk about something, Sam asks, “Do you want me to fix this, OR do you need me to listen?” Mary lets Sam know exactly what she needs.
Sam can stop guessing and relax. He knows when:
- Mary wants his advice. So, Sam puts on his “fix it” cap and they get to work.
- Mary needs a listening ear. So, Sam can let go of the need to fix and practices listening skills.
This little intervention has done wonders for their relationship. Together Sam and Mary work collaboratively to create the best possible communication between them.
The following video is a humorous account of this common communication struggle. Enjoy!
As the garage door closes, our teenagers start their drive to school and my husband and I sink into our respective chairs with a nice cup of coffee. Catch a breath. Sigh. I smile at this moment, grateful for 25 years, a wild roller coaster of dating and marriage.
Twenty-five years… the exhilaration of falling in love, learning about one another, painful moments, fun moments, intense loss, small children, exhaustion, moving to new places, difficult job situations, and so much more. We are different people than we were on the day we met.
I sit here and wonder, “How do we still love each other after all these years?” As I look back, I know it has taken hard work to build trust that we will continue to be here for each other.
Trust is Built Slowly
Trust is built slowly over time. During those first weeks, months, and years, we did not know each other well enough to be sure. We had hopes, doubts, and experienced concerns that are common for any new couple:
- Can I trust you to be here for me when I am upset?
- Can I trust you to choose me over your family and friends?
- Can I trust you not to take drugs?
- Can I trust you to work and co-support our family?
- Can I trust you to help me around the house?
- Can I trust you to be involved with our children?
We needed to keep showing up for each other. As the years passed, moment-by-moment, trial and error, good times and bad, we built a relationship of trust.
How Do I Build Trust in My Relationship?
The following are four powerful ways to build trust in your relationship. The great thing about relationships is there is always room to experiment and grow.
- Listen – When my husband tries to understand me, I feel loved, seen, and heard. “Tell me more” is another way of saying, “I love you.” When we first got married, we did not have a clue how to listen to each other, so we tried a couple’s workshop and practiced some helpful listening skills. We still use those skills, and it helps. There are a number of great communication exercises to try. One of my personal favorites is “L-O-V-E Conversations.”
- Gratitude – Several years ago, we decided to add the habit of gratitude to our marriage. I am not overstating the case when I say that this practice alone has become one of the major contributors to our level of satisfaction. I began to notice the little things that mean so much: a cuddle before bed, an evening walk, the bristle of my husband’s whiskers on my face, the sound of his laughter, the warmth of his presence when I feel sad, etc. A recent Psychology Today article affirmed my personal experience. Gratitude makes a difference:
“New studies support the idea that gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships. As marriages move past the honeymoon stage, couples go from appreciating and loving every little detail about each other to taking each other for granted. Researchers concluded that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.”
- Turn Toward – In a recent lecture, relationship expert John Gottman shared the most important component of trust, “Turning Toward.” This has been such an important practice in my own marriage. Although, I have occasionally missed my husband’s signals, I really try. When he says, “Look at the beautiful sunset,” it is a cue for me to stop what I am doing for a moment and share something that is meaningful to my husband. Or when I say, “I feel sad today,” he has an opportunity to “turn toward” and comfort me with his presence, or turn away and avoid a potentially uncomfortable conversation.
Gottman explains, “Trust is built in very small moments, which I call sliding door moments. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connection with our partner or turning away from our partner. Trust is a collection of “turning toward” moments: turning toward and connecting with your partner, instead of just thinking about what I want. If you always choose to turn away, trust erodes.”
- Boundaries – Creating boundaries around the marriage is essential for building trust. When you talk openly about potential pitfalls, you can create practices that protect your relationship. Let’s be real. At some point, you might be attracted to someone else. It happens. But that does not mean that your marriage has to be put in danger. Talk openly with your partner and come up with ways to be transparent and accountable. When we were first married, my husband knew that he would sometimes be alone with a woman in his office. He purposefully installed a window in his door and made sure that his assistant was present when he had appointments. Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends,” offers a brief list of suggestions to consider:
- Know that attraction is normal. But just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Being attracted to someone else doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong person. One of the measures of true commitment is that you don’t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.
- Don’t let yourself fantasize about what it would be like to be with that other person.
- Don’t flirt.
- Avoid risky situations. (Glass, 2004)
As I take another sip of coffee, I remind myself that trust is an essential element of a healthy relationship. It takes a lot of work. It does not happen immediately and takes intentionality.
In my next post, I will explore four more practices that have been shown to build trust and have been helpful in my own marriage.
Want to better understand relationships from a man’s perspective? Dan Umphress’ contributed “One Man’s Marriage Advice to Women” for Kim Bowen’s counseling blog, The Marriage Place, gives some great insights:
Excerpt from One Man’s Marriage Advice to Women:
“Ladies, I write to you as a man with the hope of helping you to understand how many men function in relationships, on behalf of men everywhere. We need your patience. We weren’t taught these relationship skills, and most likely, we have not witnessed them in action. This is new to us, but we are willing to learn. So please, if you can, give us a chance to catch up.” Dan Umphress
Trust is an essential ingredient in healthy relationships. But how do we build trust in relationships? In the following videos, John Gottman, one of the foremost relationship experts, shares why trust is so important and gives some practical tools on how to grow trust with one another.
Gratitude is an essential part of healthy relationships. When we practice daily gratitude with our partner, it is less likely that we will take each other for granted.
Psychology Today explores the benefits of gratitude in relationships in the recent article, “Does Gratitude Matter in Marriage?“