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Even a sexpert like me can never learn too much about romance. So when my fiancé, Fred, and I got a chance to attend an intensive couples-therapy session known as a "Gottman weekend," we jumped at the chance.
Led by well-known psychologists John and Julie Gottman, the "relationship-enrichment workshop" taught us a number of new tricks, including how to communicate emotions without creating a defensive posture in a partner; how to share sexual desires; and how to carve out the time required to develop hopes and dreams for the future. Despite the high number of attendees — some 200 couples, plus about 20 therapists trained in Gottman Method Therapy — and the steep cost (approximately $850), Fred and I felt more connected to each other by Sunday evening.
The takeaways were many, but here are three we've consistently put into play since our Gottman Method weekend — see if they work for you!
1. Soft start-ups
How you begin a tough conversation forecasts not only how it will end, but how the two of you will feel about each other as it unfolds. Yet we often broach important personal topics the same way we might bring up agenda items at a business meeting; we are brusque, efficient and, all too frequently, demanding.
This, of course, is all wrong.
Vital subjects deserve a respectful tone: thoughtful rather than authoritative, and as far from accusatory or guilt-provoking as you can get. At the Gottman weekend Fred and I practiced what John and Julie call "soft start-ups": These are gentle explorations of an issue that begin with (and build on) collaboration, not complaints or ultimatums. And you know what? In the few short months since the seminar, we've gotten pretty good at this.
Rather than surfacing an issue with an announcement of impending doom — "We're going to miss our vacation this year!" — we state our feelings: "I'm worried that if we don't plan ahead, we won't be able to get air tickets in time to go away this summer." It's amazing what a simple and vulnerable statement can do to launch two people into mutual solution mode.
2. Sharing dreams and hopes
The seminar reminded us that the human obsession with the proximal — what happened today, what we're doing this weekend — can eclipse our thoughts about the future. We forget to share our hopes or brainstorm our dreams with the one person they will affect the most.
That's too bad, given the fun — and intimacy! — involved in talking about how to make them come true. Most couples also find it stimulating to contemplate change or adventure, or to anticipate some distant (but delicious) event. So now Fred and I make sure we do just that — together — every so often.
3. Romance rituals
What is it about ritual that makes it such a basic human need? The world's religions use ancient chants, sacred totems and ceremonies that haven't changed in hundreds of years to express reverence for the divine. Relationship rituals show reverence, too — but for an object of devotion much closer at hand.
Doubtless you already have a few relationship rituals of your own. For Fred and me, those had been fairly predictable: We celebrated each other's birthdays and Valentine's Day. But the Gottmans urged us to go further; they suggested we create some unique rituals as well. We liked the idea well enough to initiate an annual over-the-top romantic trip to celebrate the anniversary of our first date seven years ago. Other couples attending the retreat reported that they had scheduled a weekly candlelight dinner or made plans to take a new class together each year.
And now to the question you've probably been wondering: Are there awkward moments in a Gottman Weekend? Well, sure: During the last part of the seminar, for example, the program called for us to apply our new relationship skills to a "gridlock" issue — one that we had tried and failed to resolve. That proved to be uncomfortable, mainly because Fred and I weren't on the same page about dieting and exercise.
Fred is a disciplined athlete — and, more often than not, an abstemious eater. By contrast, I tend to drink more than one glass of wine at dinner, and I admit to carrying around an extra 15 pounds. Fred exercises practically every day: yoga, rowing, weight lifting, skiing, sailing — you get the picture. I'm more of a weekend warrior: working out, riding horses, dabbling in winter sports. Though I'm working on eating less and exercising more, Fred's standards remain much more stringent than mine. So while I'm touched that he wants me to be healthy (so that we both last as long as possible), I also resent the pressure he sometimes puts on me to do better.
After a certain amount of grousing by both parties, the gridlock exercise forced us to reach consensus — or come darn close — about what our meals should look like and what our health regimens should be. Not only were we able to face this thorny issue again, we actually felt good about the conversation. Plus Fred gave me some pats on the back for adding more healthy habits — and I got him to agree to back off a bit.
The rest of the seminar, thankfully and by contrast, we had a real lovefest going — and somehow we've managed to carry that over into the present day. So we're adding one final new ritual: Every two or three years, we plan to reprise our Gottman weekend. Even when you've got a groovy thing goin', we both happen to believe, you can always make it better.