Couple Tips

Your Love Map l May/June 2017

It's the part of your brain where you store everything you know about your partner's life. Created by marriage researcher John Gottmani, the principle behind love maps is that knowing the big -- and the little -- things about your partner's life is part of building a foundation of connection between the two of you. Couples with rich love maps know about one another's moments of great challenge, distress, and victory, moments of blushed embarrassment and times when things went really well. These couples keep updating their love maps as lives shift and change, as new people, jobs, and challenges come into the picture. 
We build our love maps by being always a kind of Sherlock, asking questions and listening closely to understand what's going on in a partner's life. He could tell you how she's feeling about the difficult sister who recently moved in just a mile away. She knows how afraid he is of growing cranky like his father, or retiring too early and finding himself bored. He knows what his partner thinks about their son's demanding piano teacher. She knows what her partner usually orders at their favorite restaurants. Both can describe one another's worries, disappointments, and dreams for the future. All of this is part of the love map.
We tend to be curious about one another in our earliest days of dating and courtship. We ask questions, we talk about life plans and goals, we meet one another's friends. Yet there's much we still don't know by the time we make a commitment. Is there something about wearing a wedding ring that we take one another for granted and our curiosity ebbs, familiarity promoting the illusion that we know all there is to know? There's still so much to uncover and learn, whether together two years or twenty.
Gottman asserts that couples who enjoy deep knowledge of one another are better prepared to cope with the inevitable challenges of married life, and are less unsettled by the upheavals large and small that come their way. So stay curious and probe. Pull out school yearbooks or photo albums and exchange stories from your pasts. Agree to build your love maps not only by asking How was your day? but also How's your life lately? And finish sentences that begin with, Something I never told you about me is...

 i Gottman, John M. The seven principles for making marriage work. (Crown Publishing, New York), 1999.


Circular Stories l April 2017

During (and after) moments of conflict, we tend to create, for ourselves and others, linear stories that focus on cause and effect, good and bad, winner and loser. "You showed up late for our dinner reservation and ruined my evening." It's a simplistic approach, black and white in its thinking. Our linear stories have good guys and bad guys...someone at fault and someone who's been injured (and we're rarely the person at fault).

In her book Loving Bravely, psychologist Alexandra Solomon offers an example of a linear story.iMarius says to Scarlett: "I cannot believe you went into my email to find out if I sent my resume to that job posting! How could you do this to me? You are nosy and you betrayed my trust big-time." His is a blaming, one-sided, simplistic storyline: Scarlett bad, Marius good.

Far more conducive to relationship harmony is circular storytellingii, in which the storyline circles back and forth between both spouses' roles and contributions. Rather than emphasizing who started the conflict, circular stories make room for "my stuff," "your stuff," and "our stuff." Because most couples, according to research, argue about recurring (and usually unfixable) problemsiii, the goal during and after conflict shouldn't be fixing what happens, but "skillfully and lovingly moving through [it] in a way that minimizes damage"iv. Circular storytelling is the best way to reach that end. Circular stories acknowledge both partner's contributions and both partner's emotions, while eschewing a black/white, good guy/bad guy version of events.

If Marius were able to resist the urge to blame and scold, and instead looked at both his and Scarlett's contributions, his circular story might sound like this: "I feel embarrassed about my current unemployment, which leads me to withdraw, avoiding your questions. The more I withdraw, the more you feel alone. The more you feel abandoned by me, the more you pester me or resort to searching my email in order to get information. The more you dig for information, the more I feel embarrassed, and round and round we go."v
Resisting the urge to tell linear, blaming stories frees us to tell more helpful circular stories that acknowledge it takes two to tango. Circular stories call up our best and most generous self, conveying: We're a team and we're in this together.

i Solomon, Alexandra. Loving bravely: 20 lessons of self-discovery to help you get the love you want. (Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.) 2017.
ii Circular storytelling is sometimes referred to as systemic storytelling.
iii Gottman, J.M. The science of trust: emotional attunement for couples. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 2011.
iv Solomon, A. op. cit.
v ibid.

Technoference l Feb/March 2017

The title refers to a relatively recent cultural phenomenon: the interruptions and intrusions into our everyday lives by technology devices -- devices that are always on and always present. When it comes to our primary relationships, technoference seems an insidious problem...and one that's affecting more and more couples. 

According to the researchers who coined the word technoference: "By allowing technology to interfere with or interrupt conversations, activities, and time with romantic partners -- even when unintentional or for brief moments -- individuals may be sending implicit messages about what they value most, leading to conflict and negative outcomes in personal life and relationships."[i]

In a 2014 study, 75% of 140 women reported that smartphone use significantly undermined the ease of connecting with their partner. It's not a surprising statistic, given the ubiquitous use of phones and other devices nowadays. According to a Harris Interactive poll entitled "Americans Can't Put Down Their Phones Even During Sex," one third of adults reported using their phones during dinner dates, and 20% of respondents between 18 and 34 even reported using their phones during sex.[ii]

It's hard to escape the cultural influences encouraging constant smartphone use. When most people in our social and professional networks operate with the expectation that they and others need to be available all the time, it's hard not to conform. Many of us have bought into the myth that some emergency -- be it with our children, spouse, or clients -- awaits at any moment, necessitating answering our phones or reading text messages whenever we hear the ding. Primary partners in particular often desire our instant responsiveness, which ironically conditions us to always reach for the phone...except of course when we're with that partner and we're expected to not allow texts or calls or the allure of checking email to interrupt partnership time.

Consider establishing protective boundaries around designated relationship moments, whether it be dinner, chatting over coffee in the morning, or enjoying a TV show or movie together at night. Have a conversation about the realistic risks in letting calls roll into voicemail, and allowing emails or texts to go unread or unchecked for 30 minutes (or longer) while you protect relationship time from technoference. Nowadays, it sends a powerful message to a loved one when we refuse to let our devices steal our focus from shared moments together.

[i] McDaniel, Brandon T.; Coyne, Sarah M. "Technoference: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women's personal and relational well-being." Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Vol 5(1), Jan 2016, 85-98.



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