You'd think John Gottman, PhD, who founded the Gottman Institute (otherwise known as the Love Lab) with his wife, Julie, wouldn't make dumb mistakes in his own relationship. But he always remembers the time he harangued his busy wife for neglecting him: "I said, 'You're so emotionally unavailable; everyone else comes first; what is wrong with you?' And I found when I said that, she didn't want to spend time with me." He laughs. "So I learned from the couples we studied to say, 'You know, I'm getting that lonely feeling again. I just need more of you in my day.'" And it worked.
The trick was employing what Gottman calls a soft start-up, which involves telling your partner "what you need and giving them a way to succeed." His team had found that even in happy relationships, partners reciprocate anger with anger, so the easiest way to de-escalate a conflict was not to escalate it in the first place. For instance, instead of saying, "I'm sick to death of cooking dinner, you lazy slob," Gottman suggests telling your spouse, "You know, I'm sick of my own cooking. I think we need to go out to dinner, or have you take charge of dinner for a while."
Many Love Lab participants find it difficult to make themselves that vulnerable. "A lot of people feel shame about having a need," he says. "Our culture tells us that to be needy is to be weak, but it's really a tremendous strength to know what you need and to be able to ask for it." Beginning a conversation with what you need, rather than the more aggressive "You never..." or "You idiot," is a way to complain that's easier for your partner to hear and act on. "You can't listen to somebody if they're attacking you...well, maybe you can if you're the Dalai Lama," Gottman says. "Then again, he's not married."
60 Seconds to a Better Relationship
For the overworked, overcommitted, and all-around overwhelmed couples, Peter Fraenkel, PhD, has one piece of advice: "Don't try to schedule time together. Schedules are more work. And you don't need any more work."
Instead, Fraenkel, the director of the Center for Time, Work, and the Family at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, in New York City, tells couples to come up with a list of things they can enjoy together that can be done in less than a minute: telling a joke, one long kiss, etc. These 60-second pleasure points, as Fraenkel calls them, don't all have to be face-to-face. He even suggests using the tools that make many individuals feel overextended—a BlackBerry or cell phone—for private matters. Couples are encouraged to send a quick text message or e-mail links to a funny website or a restaurant review (and a note: "Let's do takeout from here tonight?").
He asks clients to each initiate three pleasure points a day. Couples report that this practice not only instills a better sense of connection throughout the week but, as Fraenkel says, "also greatly relieves each partner's concern that they could never find any time for the other." And it lowers the couple's expectations for a vacation—suddenly, they don't look at those two weeks in Bermuda as their only chance to connect but rather as a chance to lengthen those pleasure points, stretching that 60-second kiss into something more.
And Baby Makes...Trouble
In a series of studies over 13 years, John Gottman and his researchers observed couples from the first few months of marriage through the birth of a child. This year he announced that 67 percent of the couples in his studies experienced a drop in relationship happiness in the first three years of a baby's life (and were twice as likely to divorce).
Gottman stresses that it's crucial for couples to tackle major marriage problems before the infant arrives. Couples who did well became a team early on, he says. The successful men were easy to spot: They helped with housework and loved the way their pregnant wives looked (whereas supposedly funny comments like "She's a whale" were a warning sign). In his new book, And Baby Makes Three (cowritten with his wife, Julie), Gottman teaches couples ways to improve their teamwork.
Renowned child development expert T. Berry Brazelton, MD, is familiar with times when a child's behavior stresses her parents' relationship—usually when she is moving from one developmental stage to another. When parents prepare for these phases, he says they do better together. He also says that children naturally register their parents' reactions—for instance, Dad doesn't freak when I crawl to the stairs; Mom does—and when those responses contradict each other, children act out. Most parents, though, don't realize that this conflict can start as early as nine months. Like Gottman, Brazelton encourages couples to find a workable, united parenting style early on.