Still in the throes of the start of the fall semester – after Oct 12, I’ll post more often.
In the meantime:
In preparation for a talk I’m giving on Friday (From Family Tree to Love Nest: Relationship skills for real life)*, I’m reading John Gottman’s new book, The Science of Trust: Emotional attunement for couples.
It is AWESOME and you should all read it.
Boiling down the richly complex body of work described in the book to one sentence, Gottman’s point is that trust is made of people believing that their partners will be nice, that the partner will make an effort to make life better for you.
Like, duh, right?
So the interesting question is, why is it ever hard to be nice?
Maybe you plain old don’t know how to be nice. Maybe in your family of origin, people just weren’t nice to each other, so you never learned that skill. (“Nice,” here, technically refers to the skill of taking another person’s feelings seriously, without taking them personally.)
Or maybe you didn’t learn rules of Being Nice that are compatible with the rules your partner learned. Your meta-feelings – your feelings about feelings – might be too different from your partners (see p. 179).
Or the hardest possibility is that you are your partner have been sucked into a dynamic of retaliation – you’re like Israel and Palestine, where neither one can be the first NOT to retaliate.
The deal in that scenario is that when people are angry and hurt, they get into a different physiological state, with heightened awareness of potential threats and diminished capacity for empathy and creative problem solving. They stop seeing the positive and start attributing negative personality traits to our partner, to explain the problems in the relationship. In their minds, their partner develops a reputation as untrustworthy. Contempt builds. And the whole thing spirals.
And it all came from people trying to solve problems or manage conflict when they were not in a good state of mind to pay empathic attention to their partner.
In other words, it’s hard to be nice when you’re stressed.
Um, is anyone here ever stressed? At all?
Oh wait, EVERYONE (in contemporary western culture) is massively stressed most of the time.
That stress PHYSIOLOGICALLY shuts down our capacity for attunement and empathy, it makes it impossible for us to engage mindfully with our partner.
The best thing about Gottman’s book is that Phase 1 of his Flowchart for Building Trust (p. 206) is “S#!T HAppENS.” Seriously.
Phase 1: shit happens.
Phase 2: attune to your partner.
Phase 3: manage your stress (keep your heartrate below 100).
Phase 4: Process unfortunate incidents conclusively and positively.
Phase 5: Grow a positive “story-of-us.”
Incidentally, this is good for my ego, since the first of my Top 3 Sex Tips is “Pay attention to your partner.” (The other two are: it’s not about orgasm; and enjoy the sex you are having.)
Schnarch says the same thing: Be nice to your partner. The Dalai Lama says it too: Do good things for other people. “Kindness is my religion,” he says.
There are times when it’s difficult to be kind, difficult to be nice. When you are stressed out from other aspects of your life, when you feel attacked or criticized by your partner, when you’re in the middle of life changes.
If you find yourself unable to be kind, ask yourself what stands between you and kindness. Hint: it’s never your partner. There’s another post to be written about why it’s never your partner’s fault that you can’t be nice to them.
*If you’re a student of mine, you should SO come to this talk. I’ve been working on the PPT slides for weeks now, and even *I* am impressed with how good this talk is.