In 2009, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles put cameras and microphones into the homes of 30 couples, tracking their interactions.
The finding: The couples only talked for a total of 35 minutes a week.
“It was mostly about errands,” said John Gottman who, with his wife, Julie, founded the groundbreaking Gottman Institute, a relationship research lab, in 1996. “This long, infinite, to-do list and not encountering each other. They spend much of the evening in the same room. That’s what is happening in American marriages.”
The advent of texting has only made things worse.
“A lot of couples refer to texting or email to discuss difficult things,” said Julie Gottman. “If they have a fight, they text their apologies or defenses. If they are feeling distance, they text love notes. You lose so much communication through black and white words on the screen.”
In the hope of turning things around, the Gottmans have just released “Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,” which guides new and noncommunicative couples through a series of themed dates, with accompanying, open-ended questions aimed at digging deeper and growing closer.
The Gottmans call this book — their fourth together — “a tested program of eight fun, conversation-based dates that will result in a lifetime of understanding and commitment, whether a couple is newly in love or has been together for decades.”
Start by making the time. Then commit to listening to each other. Find the right words for how you’re feeling and ask your partner questions about how they are (the book provides a list of options for both). Make exploratory statements, such as “Tell me what you’re most concerned about” and express tolerance and empathy, which is as simple as saying, “I understand how you feel.”
The book’s chapters are themed, as are the dates. They start with trust and commitment and move through how to address conflict; sex and intimacy; work and money; family; fun and adventure; growth and spirituality; and dreams.
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Each chapter has conversation topics, preparation (read: homework, in the form of questions) and includes suggestions on where to have the dates, what to wear and what to bring (“An open mind and a willingness to be vulnerable with your partner,” they write on the sex and intimacy date).
In order to write the book, the Gottmans enlisted 300 couples who had attended their Love Lab to record their dates. Thirty-seven percent were new couples, trying to determine if this person was The One, and the rest had known each other for a long time.
The questions lack boundaries on purpose, Julie Gottman said: “They are an invitation to dialogue, for couples to plunge deeper into themselves, their history and their experience, and to share that with an individual.”
When people are newly dating, they are in a mode of “image management,” she continued. They are giving the best self they can, wearing just the right clothes and saying just the right thing. But it’s superficial.
“When you go deep, it becomes a whole different level of conversation that transcends image and goes into the substance of who you really are,” she said. “And that’s how folks can connect with one another and know that this is someone they can respect and care about and maybe trust later and commit to, despite their differences.”
The Gottmans hugely respect the late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” and believed that humans are “meaning makers.” While imprisoned in a concentration camp, Frankl saw that people survived more if they had a sense of purpose and meaning that mandated they stay alive.
“We believe that as well,” Julie Gottman said. “That every single person is a philosopher, has some kind of belief system. And if they dig deep enough they will see it and be able to articulate it in time. So the questions in the book are designed to take people into that realm.”
Here is the inevitable question, though: How are things in the Gottman marriage?
“They’re so wonderful,” Julie Gottman said. “They are so incredibly wonderful. It’s been about 32 years and every day, we love each other more.”
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They didn’t come into this marriage as marriage gurus, she was quick to add. They learned a lot from the couples who were generous and open in participating in their research.
“They have been our teachers,” she said. “So we have gained wisdom from them and applied it to ourselves.”
They’ve also gained an inability to ignore the couples they see bickering at Target, or sitting in a restaurant in stony silence.
“We can’t help ourselves,” Julie Gottman said. “I will want to race over and hand them one of our booklets. John has to hold me back.”
“It’s an occupational hazard,” he said.
The Gottmans also go on an annual honeymoon. They rent the same room at the same bed-and-breakfast, and over the course of a week, ask each other three questions: What sucked about last year? What was good about last year? What do you want next year to be like?
“We have a chance to listen and connect and find out ways we can be better partners to each other, and have our lives be more meaningful and fun,” John Gottman said. “We course correct every year.”
Listen to the doctor. Better yet, listen to the one you love.