What’s the one skill that will benefit couples the most right now? That is, what’s most important to helping you and your partner feel happier, more resilient, less resentful, and better able to endure the many stresses of marriage and raising kids? The answer, according to Dr. John Gottman, is simple: listening. That is, you must know how to listen to your partner with empathy, interest, and, importantly, without offering solutions. Whether your relationship is strong or struggling, he says mastering this communication skill is critical to success.
“Research has shown that if people stay away from problem-solving and are able to listen empathetically and support their partner as they go through this very stressful period, they don’t feel so alone with what they’re experiencing,” says Dr. Gottman. “One of the most powerful things you can do is be a great listener and just be there without trying to be helpful.”
Dr. Gottman is in many ways the father of modern marriage research. For more than 40 years, he and his wife, psychologist Dr. Julie Gottman, have studied thousands of relationships (heterosexual and same-sex) to understand what makes a marriage stable, what behaviors are predictive of divorce, and what couples can do to ensure their partnership is kind, happy, and fulfilling. Through the Gottman Institute and their breakthrough research at the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington, they’ve shaped much of modern marriage therapy, and are responsible for such findings as the magic formula for a happy marriage and “bids for connection,” among many other insights. Because of them, countless couples understand themselves and their relationships better.
The Drs. Gottman are also authors or co-authors of more than 40 books about relationships, one of the more recent of which is Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. In it, they offer eight topics — from money and adventure to spirituality and sex — and outline a variety of fun, interesting questions for couples to ask about each on a date. The conversations are not about confrontation, but rather curious exploration to help couples of all ages and stages learn more about one another.
Fatherly spoke to Dr. John Gottman about the pandemic’s impact on modern marriages, the conversations couples should be having, and how to truly listen to and validate your partner’s feelings.
COVID and the changes it brought were tough on a lot of marriages. Couples were forced to really rethink and retool their relationships. I’m curious, what are your thoughts on what relationships had to endure during that time?
Well, it seems like couples have gone in two different directions. Those who were distressed before the pandemic hit have gotten a lot worse. The relationships have included a lot more dysfunctional conflict, and we’ve seen a big increase in domestic violence.
And then other couples whose marriages were stronger before the pandemic have gotten stronger through it. They’ve had more time with each other. They’ve had more of a chance to get closer and really rethink their values as a couple and as individuals. And so, we’ve seen this split between relationships that were strong initially and relationships that were challenged initially.
The average has stayed the same really because there’s been this big diversification of these two pathways. It’s been a time of great change. It’s almost like when an earthquake hits, there’s a fault underneath for some people and this really causes a lot of damage. On the other hand, sometimes crisis is opportunity. And for some people it’s really been an opportunity to rethink who they are and who they want to be as a couple. And it’s been very productive for those relationships.
Given what couples are facing, what do you think is the most important skill they need to develop? Is there something that has stuck out to you?
Well, consistent with this finding that there are these two different pathways, the ones that have had the most trouble really need to have a way of dealing with conflict and disagreement and managing their own irritability and stress. For them, our tool, which is called the stress-reducing conversation, is critical.
Research has shown that if people stay away from problem-solving and are able to listen empathetically and support their partner as they go through this very stressful period, so they don’t feel so alone with what they’re experiencing — they really feel that their partner is their ally in going through the stresses and the changes that are happening.
It’s important that people stay away from problem-solving and just listen and ask questions — ask open-ended questions — of their partner and listen empathetically, and use touch and affection as a way of staying close. That’s probably the most important skill for those couples on that trajectory with a relationship that is very stressed.