When Elliot got down on the proverbial knee and asked me to marry him, I said, “Yes. Duh.” Then all of a sudden we were officially engaged. Thrilled to call each other fiancé and fiancée we received two very different responses from others:
1.) OH MY GOD CONGRATULATIONS?!?!! When’s the wedding?! Where is it? Who’s your maid of honor? Tell me about your dress. Band or DJ? Where are you getting your flowers? OH MY GOD THE RIIINNNNGGGG!!!
2.) Enjoy this time now, in 30 years you’re going to hate each other! HA HA!
While everyone meant well, I needed insights into marriage – you know, the actual day-to-day, real life stuff. I wanted to understand why older couples said, “Marriage is hard!” and then actually prepare for that.
“Marriage is hard,” isn’t advice.
Telling newly engaged couples who’s brains have turned into wedding cake mush that marriage is hard is patronizing and, frankly, mean.
I was the furthest thing from a bridezilla, and neither of us cared much about fussy wedding frills—we had a small ceremony in someone’s Airbnb, so we researched marriage to death-do-us-part.
Elliot and I were convinced we were the exception (I still think we are), but that didn’t mean we wanted to enter marriage with blinders on. How could we best prepare for this massive life change? There had to be a smarter way.
The problem is, finding resources for newlyweds that aren’t about the wedding day is easier than finding a happily married couple from The Bachelor.
There are two types of pre-marital prep materials:
- Useless checklists with questions like, “Do you want children?” and “Are you a spender or a saver?” (Public safety announcement: Don’t get engaged if you haven’t already addressed these questions.)
- Religious books. Don’t be fooled by what you see on Amazon. Almost all marriage books are religion-based. We’d settle into a promising book until the authors started spewing garbage about traditional gender roles. This was infuriating. And fuel for our viral engagement photos – for real.
Having no one left to turn to, we asked some married couples. They told us, “You’ll never be truly ready.”
To which I would think, “Screw you. I don’t buy it.”
I hate being told I can’t prepare for hard things. I know experience is the best teacher, but I also believe research and preparation give us a toolbox full of titanium-strong tools to fall back on.
Here’s where things get interesting…
Last month, a year and a half into our marriage, Elliot and I got into our first fight. Nothing major, but this one lasted more than our usual 30-minute tiffs. While I now know this is totally normal, it threw us for a loop.
>> What the hell is going on?
>> Why are we talking to each other like this?
>> OH GOD MARRIAGE REALLY IS HARD! ABORT! ABORT!
Because we’re nerdy and actually stay up all night talking about our feelings, we wanted to use this minor hiccup to our advantage and practice better communication, and ultimately, make us happily-ever-stronger.
Enter Dr. John Gottman.
Dr. Gottman is most famous for studying married couples for decades. He’s the grand poobah of marriage counseling and has written a billion books (approximation) on the topic, including a few with his wife, Julie. So, he has some street cred–we should give this guy a shot.
A friend took their Seattle workshop and highly recommended it. Elliot and I couldn’t get to Seattle, but we did find a DIY version called, The Art & Science of Love Home Workshop.
We couldn’t whip out our credit card fast enough.
We bought the workshop because we wanted to:
- Learn better fighting skills so we could argue more productively
- Remember the things we love about each other, especially when we’re angry
- Develop small habits that will keep us from going into “emotional debt” (more on this below)
- Collect an arsenal of tools we can turn to the next time we hit a roadblock
- Understand how happy marriages work (without romanticism or fear mongering)
Was it a raging success?? YES. And so, so much more.
My Favorite Moments From The Art & Science of Love
The Emotional Bank Account
Think of your relationship like a bank account with deposits and withdrawals. Appreciation, compliments, favors, and dates are deposits. Bickering, nagging, and fighting are withdrawals.
When there’s a lot of “money” in your account, withdrawals are no biggie.
But it’s really easy to make unconscious withdrawals—times we snip about the dirty dishes or zone out with our phone in hand while our partner is talking. It’s our job to make conscious, deliberate deposits during the hundreds of daily moments where we can be helpful and kind.
How we’re implementing this IRL:
The bank account visual resonated with us for two reasons: First, the idea that kindness padded our account was a good reminder to make simple gestures. I’ve found myself thanking Elliot for rubbing my feet or making the bed, when before I took it for granted. This is easy.
Second, we realized that withdrawals can come from outside the relationship. Without self-care and regular outings—farmer’s markets, hikes, and dinner with friends—we’re making emotional withdrawals more than we’re making deposits.
We’ve now become more proactive about adding small deposits to our life—weekly runs and device-free Sundays—to combat this, in a way that doesn’t feel combative at all.Small deposits to your life make for a more robust emotional bank account. Click To Tweet
Take 20 Minute Breaks
Turns out, there’s a reason things can quickly spiral during a fight. When our heart rates increase, the empathy parts of our brains shut down.
That means we’re more likely to say stupid shit when we’re fighting. Stuff we don’t mean. According to the Gottmans, one of the best things you can do when you feel flooded by emotion is to call a time out. Just 20 minutes of non-fight-related activity can calm you down enough to resume and be productive. Read a magazine, watch a TV show, go for a walk… just don’t go over the fight in your head. Once your heart rate has stabilized, resume, but this time with a calmer and kinder attitude.
How we’re implementing this IRL:
One of the problems from our Big Fight was that it was 1 am. The other part was that we didn’t want to “go to bed angry,” so we kept talked even though we were too worked up to say anything productive. Had we just agreed on a truce until the morning, we likely wouldn’t have been as unkind. We were tired, it had been a long day and we said things we shouldn’t.
The Gottmans suggest a hand signal to use when you want a time-out. Elliot and I are basically 12-year-old boys, so we ended up making super gross hand signals that wouldn’t work in the moment. To keep it clean and adult-like, we settled on the word, “break.” If we notice ourselves feeling emotionally flooded during a fight and unable to empathize, we’re allowed to call a 20-minute break before giving it another go.If you notice emotional flooding during a fight, take a 20 minute break. Click To Tweet
Rituals of Connection
According to the Gottmans, a healthy marriage isn’t just about date nights, sex, and vacations together. They’re about creating a culture “rich with symbols and rituals.” To understand what it means to be part of a marriage, you need to create small touchpoints that will link you throughout your lives.
Most couples never sit down to create those rituals. We fall into default patterns of daily habits and holidays with alternate in-laws. Instead, we should take time to jointly decide on small traditions that make progress towards your dreams and the life you want.
It’s best explained with examples, so keep reading…
How we’re implementing this IRL:
Every night, for the last three years, as we settle into bed, Elliot and I turn to each other and answer two questions:
- What’s one good thing that happened to you today?
- What are you grateful for?
I love this habit, both as a way to check-in and talk about something other than work, the dog, and chores—snooze. I also love the routine of gratitude, adding to our daily “thank bank”. One of our life goals is to grow old being happy for what we have. This small ritual—even when we’re only grateful for peanut butter—helps support that goal.
Since our Gottman Workshop experience, we’ve also added another routine: a weekly State of the Union—minus the suit, tie and American flag. Every Sunday morning, over coffee in bed, we check-in about what’s going right in our marriage. Here’s a short little Facebook post on how to do this.
Should You Do the Gottman Workshop?
Yes. Seriously. I don’t know a single couple that wouldn’t benefit from this work. Whether you’re perfectly content or at each other’s throats, our two days together doing this workshop was FUN—I think you’ll like it too. I wish we’d known about it sooner, though I am glad we had one Big Fight under our belts to use throughout the exercises.
It’s not cheap, but it’s cheaper than the alternative. (You know, the “BIG D.”) It’s also cheaper than traveling to Seattle for the live workshop. Personally, I preferred doing it at home. The Gottmans allow 20 minutes to complete an exercise and it was nice to just pause the DVD and take as long as we needed. We also ran out of steam halfway through each day so we took long breaks for coffee, banana bread and walks in the park. On the last day, we celebrated with a romantic dinner at a small French restaurant near our house.
Nothing is perfect, and neither is this workshop. My complaints are minor, but it would have been nice to know these ahead of time:
- The audio is gnarly on one disc. It was hard to pay attention to what Dude Gottman was saying because the quality was so horrible. For $175 I expected a super high-quality recording, but disc 3 had some technical difficulties.
- Lady Gottman, while brilliant and lovely, talks suuuuuper slow. Like if you’re an East coaster native like me you’ll want to slit your wrists kind of slow. So slow we’d get distracted and start talking over her. Oops! Sorry, Julie.
Questions? If you’re curious about this workshop or anything else, ask away. I wish more people talked openly about marriage and I’m happy to be as transparent as you can stand. Of, if you’ve been married for awhile and have some amazing resources—books to read, movies to watch, websites to bookmark—please send them my way.
And if you’re now dying to get your hands on the Art & Science of Love, buy it here.