Why Your Child is Good—Even When They Misbehave

The notion of “good” and “bad” children is deeply ingrained in society. People can be quick to name personality traits and behaviors that make a child “good” or “bad.” However, these labels often come as a result of adults not having enough understanding of brain development, how children process information, how they learn, and how they communicate their emotions.

Children perceived as “good kids” and respectful tend to be more sensitive and receptive, which makes them activate responses such as agreeableness and kindness to try to appease the parent. Children who are perceived as acting “bad,” disrespectful, rebellious, or defiant tend to display behaviors such as being opinionated, outspoken, and non-conforming. One is not better than the other, they are simply different ways children express their internal experience.

Understanding Your Child’s Brain Development

The human brain starts development before birth and does not fully develop until age 25. The amygdala, which helps people understand the impact of their actions, is the last part of the brain to develop. Meanwhile, from birth to five, the brain is developing everything from sensory processing to rational thinking. A child’s capacity for more complex thinking doesn’t develop until between the ages of 12 to 18. If it seems like your child cannot think rationally, it’s literally because their brain might not be equipped to do so just yet.

Fight/ Flight Protective Responses 

Another factor that can impact your child’s reasoning is when, as Dr. Daniel Siegel calls it, they “flip their lid.” That is when your child or teen’s emotions get so overwhelming that they lose access to the frontal part of their brain and cannot think or act clearly. In these moments, it’s common for children to kick, scream, become fidgety and restless, throw things, freeze, argue, or even find it difficult to form a coherent sentence or thought. The best thing to do when this happens is pause, take a break, and let the brain engage in other activities so your child’s rational brain can come back online.

It’s much easier to have compassion and be more open to finding solutions when you understand that your child is not being difficult. Rather, they are experiencing difficult moments and overwhelming emotions. 

Even in their Hardest Moments, What Your Child Wants the Most is Connection

Even though it may not feel like it at the moment, what a child wants the most is love and connection. It can be difficult for your child to feel connected to you when they feel misunderstood or unheard. This is why seeing the good in your child, especially in their difficult moments, can be helpful in taming difficult emotions.

Listen attentively

Listen to your children with the intent to understand, not with the intent to respond. Children tend to feel frustrated when they sense that you are not attuning to what they are saying. A child who doesn’t feel heard can raise their voice in the hopes the parent will hear them. This is an intuitive response, not a conscious one.

Reflect back what they said

Explain to your child what you understood. When you reflect back what they said, you show them two things. 1) you are indeed listening. 2) You understand their point and experience, even when you don’t agree with them. 

Validate their experience

People want to know their emotions make sense, and your children are no different. Let them know it makes sense to feel the way they do and that it’s okay for them to feel whatever they are feeling.

Reaffirm your love for them

It’s important for children to know that even in their hardest moments, they are loved. When children know they are loved no matter what, it gives them a sense of safety and unconditional connection. When children value the connection they have with their parents, they are more likely to make attempts at repair and healthy communication.

Model the behavior you want your child to learn

If you ask your child to communicate using their words while you are yelling at them, you are modeling the undesired behavior. Learn to model the way in which you want your child to communicate with you. The more they see it and experience it, the easier it will be for them to learn.

Learn more about helping kids handle big emotions with Emotion CoachingAlso, read Dr. John Gottman’s “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.”

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How I Stopped Trying to Control My Partner and Took Responsibility for My Own Happiness

Have you been attempting to control your partner without realizing it?

Have you ever justified taking on your partner’s emotional, relational, financial, or logistical responsibilities with:

  • “I can do it better and/or more quickly, so I might as well just do it myself.”
  • “They aren’t making it a priority, so I have to do the legwork for them.”
  • “They won’t do it themselves, so I have to do it instead.”
  • “If they don’t do it, they’ll have to face the consequences. I don’t want them to have to deal with that.”
  • “I want to save the relationship but they don’t want to participate, so I’ll do the work for both of us.”

Controlling behavior is a hallmark of codependency, but the first time we come across the idea that we’re controlling, we sputter with indignation. Whether we’re “helping,” “generous,” “saving them from themselves,” or “doing it for our relationships,” many of us don’t realize that we use various tactics to influence our partners’ behaviors and manipulate the outcomes of situations.

How I Was Forced to Deal with My Codependence

As if from a great distance, I could hear my partner saying that he wasn’t happy in our relationship⁠ — and hadn’t been for a while, unbeknownst to me.

“Okay,” I said slowly, my heart racing. “Okay. Let’s talk about how we can work on it.”

My mind was already spinning with tactics and plans. He only stared back.

“I don’t want to work on it,” he responded, shrugging limply.

I had a choice. I could take his words at face value and accept his unwillingness. Or, I could try to fix our broken relationship single-handedly. My fear of loss was so strong that attempting to mend our broken bond felt like the only imaginable option.

And so I did.

Every night, I went to sleep with a highlighter and stack of self-help books beside my bed. I talked about my partner’s fears of intimacy in therapy and then dragged him to therapy along with me. I created a written chart of “argument rules” for us to follow when agitated.

I spent two long months effectively playing God, certain my methods would lead us straight into contented old age.

So when my partner finally broke up with me on the first day of my family’s annual summer vacation, I realized that my sense of control had been nothing but an illusion all along.

“You are afraid to surrender because you don’t want to lose control. But you never had control; all you had was anxiety.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert

This was three years ago. At the time, if you’d asked me what I thought was doing, the answer would have been simple: I’m trying to save our relationship. But the truth was, I was attempting to control my partner’s feelings and choices to get my desired outcome. I was working overtime in the hope that his feelings and behaviors toward me would change.

As my anecdote illustrates, many of us try to control others into meeting our own needs. This is especially true if we grapple with codependency or have an anxious attachment style. Marriage and family therapist and codependency expert Darlene Lancer explains:

“Instead of taking responsibility for their own happiness, which would be empowering, codependents’ focus is external. Rather than attend to their needs directly, they try to exercise power over others and control others to make themselves feel okay on the inside. They think, ‘I’ll change him (or her) to do what I want, and then I’ll be happy.’ This behavior is based on the erroneous belief that we can change others.”

Evaluating Your Controlling Behaviors

You might be subconsciously trying to control your partner if you do any of the following.

Doing for others what they can and should do for themselves

As independent adults, we are singularly responsible for our own physical, emotional, social, and financial well-being:

  • Maintaining physical health.
  • Sticking to routines.
  • Staying in touch with friends and family.
  • Taking financial responsibility for purchases.

If you find yourself regularly taking on responsibility for your partner’s relationships, wellness, finances, or otherwise, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What’s my motive here?

Are you hoping your partner feels dependent on you so that they’ll never leave? Are you trying to protect your partner from facing the consequences of his or her behaviors? Are you trying to make up for what you believe to be your partner’s deficits?

Helping others avoid the negative consequences of their behaviors

When we try to mitigate the negative consequences of others’ irresponsible actions, we rob them of opportunities for growth and learning. Have you ever tried to mitigate the consequences when your partner acted out in addiction, in an angry outburst, or in some other irresponsible behavior? If so, you may think you’re being “helpful” or “kind,” but in reality, you are enabling your partner’s irresponsibility. Without experiencing negative consequences, folks who engage in destructive patterns are far less likely to change.

We also help our partners avoid negative consequences when we refuse to express justified anger, sadness, or discomfort with their actions. When we avoid sharing our feelings for fear of hurting their feelings, we’re really just managing their feelings ⁠ — and that’s not our work to do.

One of my favorite counselors, Jordan Pickell, puts it this way: “When setting a boundary, you don’t need to smooth over the tension. You don’t need to protect people from feeling uncomfortable. It makes sense for people to feel bad and weird when they have crossed a line.”

Making empty threats disguised as boundaries

Boundaries are statements of what we will or will not tolerate. The goal of a boundary isn’t to change another’s behavior, but to create safety and integrity for ourselves. In order for a boundary to be genuine, you must be ready to enforce the boundary when it is not respected. Otherwise, it’s just an empty threat: an attempt to get someone else to act your way on your terms.

For example, you say to your partner, “If you don’t start treating me more kindly, I’m going to leave you.” If your partner continues to treat you poorly, you need to be ready to leave that relationship⁠ — because, if you don’t, your “boundary” was just a tactic to change your partner under false pretenses.

Attempting to “heal” or change others when they have no desire to change themselves

Change is an inside job. We can support or hinder others’ healing journeys, but we cannot take the journey for them. In order to heal, one must be willing to heal.

If someone is not willing to quit an addiction, we cannot educate them into quitting. If someone is not ready to address their trauma, we cannot force them to heal. If someone carries heavy baggage from their past, we cannot pry that baggage from their hands.

We can support their journey and assist along the way if they have the willingness to grow. But we cannot plant a seed of willingness for someone else.

My partner clearly stated his unwillingness to work on fixing the relationship, but that didn’t stop me from buying self-help books, taking him to therapy, and using every tool in my toolbox to make him change on my terms.

Engaging in protest behavior

When our partner is unable or unwilling to give us the depth of connection we seek, we may resort to protest behavior. Protest behaviors are attempts to get reactions from our partner — reactions which, if only momentarily, will create a feeling of connection. Protest behaviors include things like intentionally withholding communication, withholding sex, attempting to make a partner jealous, or threatening to end the relationship.

Protest behaviors are not driven by a genuine desire: we don’t genuinely desire not to be in touch, we don’t genuinely desire to end the relationship, we don’t genuinely want to engage with another person outside of the relationship. What we want is our partner to change how they interact with us, and we believe that these behaviors will facilitate that change.

The book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment is a good resource for reading more on protest behaviors and other issues of attachment that factor into controlling behaviors.

Making others singularly responsible for your emotional state

When my ex and I fought, I became inconsolable. At the conclusion of every argument, I felt certain he would leave me. He needed time and space to re-center, but my anxiety was so strong that I refused to give him that space. With guttural sobs and fearful pleas, I demanded his reassurance, which he begrudgingly gave.

In hindsight, it’s clear to see how I used my emotional outbursts to secure attention from my partner when he was unwilling to voluntarily give it. Instead of understanding that we were both responsible for meeting our own needs in that moment — him taking space, me self-soothing — I created conditions in which he felt pressured to abandon his own needs to prioritize mine.

The Solution Lies Within You

If you’ve used the above tactics consciously or unconsciously, you’re not alone. Many of us have had to release our toxic illusions of control. As we move forward, we must learn what actually lies in our sphere of control — and learn to live strictly within that sphere.

To release my illusion of control and take responsibility for my own happiness, practicing the following habits in my relationships gave me the most relief:

#1. Make a list of the things that are in your control and a list of the things that are not.

In your “I Can Control” list, be sure to include your actions, your reactions, the words you say, the boundaries you set, and the amount of time you spend. In your “I Cannot Control” list, be sure to include others’ actions and reactions, others’ feelings, others’ relationships, and so on.

I found it particularly helpful to include these on my list:

  • I can control whether or not I express my needs and how I express them. I cannot control whether or not others meet my needs.
  • I can control whether or not I set and enforce boundaries around intolerable behavior. I cannot control others’ intolerable behavior.
  • I can control the extent to which I choose to heal from my past. I cannot control others’ willingness or ability to heal and grow.

At first, releasing the illusion of control feels terrifying. After all, control has been our way of managing the world around us and creating a sense of safety for ourselves. When I first reviewed my list, I wondered, What will happen if I’m not controlling this? Will everything collapse around me?

Behind that fear, though, was a freedom I hadn’t predicted. I looked at the column of items I could not control and realized how much time I spent, each and every day, attempting to manage, manipulate, and influence others. I put incredible effort into making others happy when they were sad. I used endless lines of reasoning to alleviate others’ guilt for things they’d said and done. I got blue in the face spouting instructions for how to properly pay a bill, how to stop getting drunk, and how to mend broken relationships with family members. I was utterly convinced that if I just said my piece in a perfectly convincing manner, I could get others to act my way.

When I let go of these fruitless attempts at control, I reclaimed hours of my time. With this newfound time, I was able to…

#2. Refocus on your own needs, desires, and passions.

When in doubt, return home to yourself. By taking responsibility for meeting your own needs and pursuing your own passions, you will find yourself much less likely to attempt to control others.

Not sure where to begin? For every item on your “I Cannot Control” list, come up with an alternative way to spend that energy that centers your own desires and passions. Here are some of the ways my priorities shifted over time, from things that I should not be attempting to control to things that I could:

  • Helping my partner advance his career → advancing my career
  • Trying to get my partner to go to therapy for his baggage → going to therapy for codependency
  • Helping my partner mend his relationship with family members → mending my own relationships with family members
  • Begging my partner to soothe and reassure me → learning cognitive and somatic techniques for soothing myself

As a result of these changes, my career advanced, my resilience grew, my relationships with family members improved, and I accumulated an arsenal of coping mechanisms that I use to this day. It was incredible how much time, space, and energy became available to me when I was no longer spending it trying to change someone else.

#3. Ask before offering help — and accept the answer the first time.

Help can be useful if it is freely given with no strings attached. If you have a tendency toward over-control, though, you may have a history of offering help in order to engender someone’s favor, to get someone to act a certain way, or to manipulate a situation to achieve your desired outcome.

Begin asking before offering help. Keep it simple: “Would you like help with that?” If they don’t want your help, don’t give it. If your offer is rejected, avoid the compulsion to ask, “Are you sure?” Once the question has been asked and answered, it’s time to move on.

It was very hard for me to stop offering my loved ones “help” in the emotional sphere. It might not surprise you to learn that I read a lot of books about psychology and relationships. Historically, when loved ones embodied a behavior that I’d come across in a recent reading, I jumped at the opportunity to psychoanalyze them, dissect their family history, and offer suggestions for healing.

Now, instead of playing therapist without their consent, I say, “What you’re describing sounds like something I’ve been reading about lately. Do you want to hear the connection?” or “I found an article that describes the type of family you grew up in. Do you want me to send it to you?”

To my surprise (the psychology geek that I am), more often than not, the response is either a halfhearted “maybe” or a simple “no.” As it turns out, few folks enjoy being therapized outside the safe confines of a legitimate therapist’s office.

At first, their refusal baffled and insulted me. They have no idea how much this information could help them! I’d fume silently. They must not care about their healing or personal growth. They must not trust that I know what I’m talking about.

This way of thinking imposed my personal value system upon others. I expected them to react the way I would react, and when they didn’t, out poureth my judgments!

Over time, I realized that what to me felt like a fascinating intellectual exercise might have felt overwhelming, painfully vulnerable, or intrusive to my loved ones. Ultimately, accepting others’ refusal of my help meant trusting their own decision-making process and honoring their own autonomy — something that it is notoriously challenging for recovering codependent folks to do.

#4. When in distress, focus on how you can self-soothe.

As my earlier story demonstrated, I tried to control my partner because I made him responsible for my happiness and for soothing my distress. A critical step in breaking the over-control pattern was learning to self-soothe and take responsibility for my own emotional state.

Now when I feel distressed, instead of immediately reaching out to my partner for help, I practice the following self-soothing techniques:

  • When I feel myself teetering on the edge of a powerful emotional reaction, I give myself permission to sit quietly with the feeling. I put my hand directly on my heart, notice where the feeling lives in my body, and wait for my pulse to slow down. “Leaning in” to the physical sensation that accompanies emotional pain is a core tenet of Dr. Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing model, which has been an incredible resource to me in my self-soothing practice.
  • If I’m in the presence of others when a strong emotion comes forth, I take a few minutes or more to be entirely alone. If I need more space⁠ — say, a night to myself⁠ — I take it.
  • Should I need support from someone else, I have a shortlist of trusted friends and family I can call. I know that there are many folks available who can tug me out of a dark emotional place. My partner is not the only one capable of helping me.

These techniques not only decreased my dependence on my partner, but also instilled in me a profound sense of resilience. Instead of feeling like a victim in the face of an emotional typhoon, I knew I had the internal resources I needed to ride out the storm.

#5. When someone tells you that they’re unwilling to work on an issue, believe them.

As Maya Angelou famously said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Had I accepted my ex-partner’s statement that he was unwilling to work on our relationship, I would have saved myself two long months of fruitlessly attempting to change his mind — and two long months of heartache.

I eventually learned that in order for a pair to solve a relationship issue, both parties must be willing to do their partThis requires that both parties acknowledge the role they play in the dysfunction and take concrete steps to change their habits.

Unless a person is adamant that they are willing to change, assume that how they are now is how they will be. That being the case, consider: If this person does not change, is this a relationship I will be happy in?

Remember: You cannot heal another person’s woundedness. You cannot carry another person’s baggage. Your efforts cannot transform an emotionally unavailable person into an emotionally available one.

I have found it helpful to construct a list of non-negotiables that serve as a rubric when I’m debating whether a relationship is healthy enough for me to maintain. My non-negotiables are qualities and behaviors that absolutely must, or absolutely must not, be present in my partner.

Mine include the obvious — no physical violence, no emotional abuse, and no sexual coercion — as well as willingness to work through tough moments, a sense of humor, and regular expressions of love and affection.

#6. Learn to say no. Practice diligently.

Despite our hope that our partners will anticipate our needs intuitively, this is often not the case. Even the fiercest love can’t transform our partners into mind-readers. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries and give others the opportunity to respond accordingly. If we don’t, we may fall into old habits of attempting to control others into meeting our needs.

Boundaries are a form of verbal self-defense. They are protective mechanisms that maintain the integrity of our inner worlds while also blocking out people, places, and things that we find unacceptable. We can set boundaries around our physical bodies, our time, our possessions, our communication with others, and more.

Not sure where you might need to set a boundary? Consider when and where you feel resentful. Literally defined as “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly,” resentment arises when others trespass our spoken or unspoken boundaries.

Once you’ve identified your resentment, you can set a boundary with the person in question. For those of us who are new to communicating our needs directly, finding the right language is often the hardest part. As I describe in my article “How to Set a Challenging Boundary from Start to Finish,” my favorite framework for boundary-setting is the “I-statement” approach developed by clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon in 1970. I appreciate this model because it centers the boundary-setter’s feelings and experiences, reduces the likelihood of defensiveness in the listener, and offers concrete suggestions for change.

The approach includes four simple parts:

  1. I feel _________________________________________.
  2. When you _____________________________________.
  3. Because _______________________________________.
  4. I need ________________________________________.

Boundaries that follow this model might sound like:

  • “Shelley, I feel taken advantage of when you ask me to babysit your kids more than twice a month because it makes it harder for me to prioritize other things I care about. I need you to find additional babysitters because I can’t shoulder this responsibility on my own.”
  • “Steven, I feel overwhelmed when you text me because I don’t have the time or space for this connection right now. I need some space.”
  • “Dad, I feel uncomfortable when you ask me to accompany you to church because it doesn’t align with my spiritual beliefs. Please don’t ask me again so I can make my own decisions without pressure or guilt.”
  • I feel upset when you borrow my tools without asking because I garden on a regular basis. I need you to ask before borrowing my tools in the future.”

You can adapt this language to suit your own conversational style or tone.

At first, the tactics I’ve suggested in this article may feel like heavy burdens. I know they did for me. When I first began recovery from codependency, I was so accustomed to getting my sense of power from controlling others that the idea of taking responsibility for myself felt overwhelming.

In her book The Language of Letting Go, Melody Beattie offers four powerful questions that gave me the inspiration and motivation I needed to get started. I will leave you with them.

She writes:

“If we weren’t trying to control whether a person liked us or her reaction to us, what would we do differently?

If we weren’t trying to control the course of a relationship, what would we do differently?

If we weren’t trying to control another person’s behavior, how would we think, feel, speak, and behave differently than we do now?

What haven’t we been letting ourselves do while hoping that self-denial would influence a particular situation or person?

Make a list, then do it.

Want to master the art of setting boundaries and start saying YES to YOU? Join my group coaching program, The Say No Club: a 25-person, 6-week program that combines education with real life practice and community support. Register here today.

This article originally appeared on the author’s website.

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What are Your Core Beliefs and Needs? (and why it’s important to identify them)

Relationship conflict is complex. Sometimes, conflicts are only about the “here and now” issue. That means that you are truly fighting about what you are fighting about. It’s “I left your favorite creamer out, it spoiled, no coffee, and now you are upset with me.” It doesn’t go much deeper than that.

This type of problem is what we consider a “solvable problem.” When an issue is solvable, you and your partner can quickly and easily move forward because there isn’t anything lurking beneath the surface preventing you from doing that. In this case, someone apologizes, hops into the car, and brings back lattes for you both.

Then you’ve got conflict that seems like it’s about the here and now issue—the creamer spoiling—but it actually connects to some other things too. Sometimes it’s past experiences, belief systems, or deep-seated dreams and goals. And when this is the case, the disagreement will go on and on again. It will resurface in different moments under different guises.

Most couples, though, only know how to talk about how mad they are about the coffee creamer. And they don’t really know how to talk about all of the other complexities wrapped into that very argument.

What follows are repetitive and frustrating conflict loops. We call these “perpetual problems,” and when set in stone, we call them “gridlocked perpetual problems.”  When a perpetual problem becomes gridlocked, it’s likely because there are core beliefs underlying the issues that are being experienced as “under threat.”

Take Kris and Sam, for example, who are fighting over which school to send their five-year-old child to. They’ve been talking about this since they became parents. Sam says private and Kris says public. The fights often go off the rails. Sam becomes critical and Kris goes on the defense. They trail off to different topics and never get anywhere.

That’s because school isn’t actually the issue. Their unspoken core beliefs are. The topic of school threatens their beliefs so they double down.

Identifying core beliefs

When I meet with couples utilizing the Gottman Method, I help them identify which of their arguments are solvable and which are perpetual. If perpetual, I ask them to momentarily stop trying to solve the issue and to lean into understanding each other instead.

To do this, we will have a “Dreams Within Conflict” conversation. It asks couples to talk about the following:

  • What they believe about the issue they are arguing about
  • Which types of feelings come up for them around the issue
  • How their childhood experiences manifest within this current issue
  • What their ideal dream would be here
  • What the worst thing that could happen is if they don’t solve the problem “their way”

When couples explore their differences with these types of questions, they learn more about why the issue is so hard to solve. It’s often because it’s not the issue, it’s the dream or the core belief.

For Kris, he believes they shouldn’t spend money on school when it is free from the state. He also has a core dream of his children going to the same school he went to, where he had wonderful experiences. Sam, on the other hand, believes that academics are an investment and it’s important to spend money on it. Sam also had a bad experience with public school and dreams for different things for their children.

Neither of them is wrong. Both are right and have valid opinions based on their own needs and experiences and beliefs.

Now that they understand each other, they can approach their conversation with more empathy and a willingness to help each other get what the other needs.

What next?

For couples who like to get stuff done, they might worry that leaning into deeper understanding will prevent them from moving forward in their argument. That isn’t the case at all. Couples who understand each other are better equipped to create fair compromise. This means they are more likely to come up with win/win solutions in which each person’s core needs and beliefs are met—even if that means they need to use a bit of curiosity.

Discover more about the Gottman Method and how it can help your relationship by attending the next Art and Science of Love virtual event. This two-day workshop explores how to build a solid foundation using the Sound Relationship House. Enjoy research-based presentations and break-out sessions with therapists. Sign up today!

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Managing Conflict through Friendship

It may surprise you to learn that happier couples do not argue less than unhappy couples. What distinguishes the two groups is that happy couples repair during and after a fight, whereas in unhappy relationships, partners tend to escalate negativity by using criticism, contempt, defensive, and stonewalling (The Four Horsemen). Repairs are ways to tap the brakes and rein in conversations that are going negative. Dr. John Gottman maintains that the ability of a couple to repair is the key to relationship success.

What helps you to repair in a fight?  It’s the quality of your friendship.

Even when couples have calmer, more productive conflict, this doesn’t really cut it in terms of relationship satisfaction.  You need to feel like you’re in a relationship with someone who actually likes you, who is interested in you, notices and expresses appreciation for positive qualities, and is willing to put the needs of the relationship ahead of theirs at times. These are the aspects of friendship that were noted in the research as observable patterns in happy couples. They are also the parts of the relationship that need to be strong for repair attempts to work when in conflict.

Couples in Conflict

Let me explain how that works. Say, for the last month you haven’t asked your partner a question about themself. You focus on the little things that annoy you about your partner. Tired and stressed, you are on your phone in the evenings, ignoring requests to hang out together.

…. And then you forget to pick up your kid’s prescription, after promising you would. How much worse will this fight be after the past month of ignoring, criticizing, and checking out? Do you think you will get the benefit of the doubt or understanding? Probably not.

Rather than focusing on ways to communicate better, sometimes the solution is to work on your connection with each other outside of conflict. Rebuilding the friendship requires partners to look for the good in each other and the relationship. Then verbally express gratitude and appreciation for the things you do like, do admire, and do appreciate. Asking questions, being interested, starting some new Rituals of Connection are powerful ways to rebuild friendship.

Being able to make and receive repair attempts when you’re in a fight requires both partners to feel like they are in an argument with a friend, not someone who is out to get them. If you feel liked, known, and appreciated by your partner, you’re much more likely to accept a repair statement like “can you re-phrase that?” in an argument. If your friendship is rocky, you’re more likely to see that statement as an attempt to control you, the repair will fail, and negativity will escalate.

How to rebuild friendship

Look for the good. Even if it feels forced at first, put effort into looking for what your partner is doing right. Express your gratitude and appreciation, even when it seems trivial. This builds goodwill in your relationship, which helps when you come to deal with the hard stuff.

Ask open-ended questions. Recognize that your partner is changing and evolving, as you are. Stay curious about who your partner is now and is becoming.  Keep asking questions about hopes, dreams, wishes, and longings. Partners who feel known by each other have a stronger friendship.

Turn towards each other. Show up in ways that are meaningful to your partner. That might be emptying the dishwasher. It might be thoughtfully planning a date. It’s easy to miscommunicate and inadvertently miss when your partner is trying to connect. That’s normal. What we know from research is that partners who turn toward each other (enough) outside of conflict tend to be able to make and receive repair attempts much more easily.

Final thought

Restoring friendship is key to reconnecting in positive ways, but it is also essential for building an effective base for repairing the negative moments. Friendship is just as important as conflict management skills, and it’s also a big part of making conflicts go better.

If you want to work further on the friendship in your relationship, attend the next Art and Science of Love virtual event. This two-day workshop explores how to build a solid foundation using the Sound Relationship House. Enjoy research-based presentations and break-out sessions with therapists. Sign up today!

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3 Ways to Invest in Your Relationship

Of all your relationships, the one you have with your romantic partner likely requires more work. To stay happily together long term, you need to put effort into things like attunement and managing conflict—and that’s in addition to handling outside stressors like work and finances as a team. With so much going in the world, it’s easy to let your relationship fall through the cracks and just assume that everything is okay.

If you want your partnership to thrive this year, you both need to be intentional about investing in it. Like a bank account, you need to actively and consistently make deposits to help your relational wealth grow. It won’t happen on its own.

Here are a few ways to invest in your relationship and get intentional about your happily ever after.

Go to Couples Counseling

Therapy isn’t just for people in crisis. Preventative care can go a long way in addressing smaller needs and overcoming everyday obstacles. For example, a counselor can help you manage stress, reignite the spark in your bedroom, or raise children going through difficult stages. Also, a counselor can assess your relationship for areas that may seem insignificant now but could become major issues later on. You can head off conflict before it happens with preemptive inventions learned in the therapy room. Find a couples therapist trained in the Gottman Method or scroll through Psychology Today. You both can see pictures, read profiles, and see if they’re a good fit. Also, you can connect with a therapist about their in-person or telehealth options, rates, and whether or not they take insurance (knowing how to financially budget for routine therapy will help you stick with it longer). With professional help, you can turn any weak spots in your partnership into your strengths as a couple.

Dive into Relationship Self-Help

Let’s say you’re aware of the areas where you and your partner could use some specific help. Maybe conflict spins out of control or you’re wondering how to build a life together. There’s a guide for that, and we have many of them. Thanks to more than 40 years of research into relationships and what makes them work, The Relationship Coach is the at-home, self-paced program your partnership needs.

Want the basics? Check out How to Make Your Relationship Work. Can’t seem to stop arguing? Definitely get into Dealing with Conflict. Or maybe it’s not so heavy, and you just need fresh ideas about sharing fondness and admiration. Go for Loving Out Loud. There’s so much more, and each program includes videos, tips, and exercises by Drs. John and Julie Gottman meant to get your relationship to where you want it to be. Go to Gottman Connect to learn more and see which Coach is right for you.

Find Easy Relationship Boosters

If you and your sweetheart are coasting along fine but just need reminders to connect, there are many low-cost or free options out there to give your love a boost. Sometimes all you need is to commit to regular date nights. For example, every Friday night, you and your partner will enjoy two hours of uninterrupted time alone either at home or out on the town (get some great date ideas here). Don’t forget to take along our free card app to get the conversation going.

Consider getting love advice sent right to your email. You can both sign up for newsletters such as the Marriage Minute, Love Notes, or The Gottman Relationship Blog. Discuss the topics that come up in them and see what you can do to implement the tips and tools in your everyday interactions. If you want a more intensive challenge, sign up for 30 Days to a Better Relationship.

Final Thought

Here at the Gottman Institute, we believe that small things often make a big difference. That goes for investing in your relationship too. So whether it’s a weekly check-in with a couples counselor or date night with a card app, find out how you can make deposits into the wealth of your relationship. You’ll see dividends in love.

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Blame, Resentment, and Negative Sentiment Override

Has this happened to you? You’re enjoying takeout from your favorite place and remark, “This restaurant food is good, isn’t it?” Your partner replies, “You have never appreciated my cooking.” Or you express your opinion like, “We need a vacation. It’s been long since we went out together” and it is met with “What should I do to make you happy? Do you want me to quit my job?” You feel perplexed and try to defend yourself, but it only seems to escalate the conflict. 

Sometimes you wonder what you said wrong? Was it your words or context? Something seems to be upsetting your partner and you don’t know what. Over time, as talking does not lead anywhere other than conflict, you give up. You focus instead on something else, be it work, house chores, or scrolling social media. Though within you crave your partner’s companionship, it seems like it is an impossible feat to achieve.

What happened?

What possibly happened here is your partner has built up resentments and is stuck in negative sentiment override. Couple interactions are influenced by sentiment overrides as theorized by Weiss. In essence, the residual emotions from every interaction (could be words, gestures, facial expression, or body language) accumulate over time, becoming a new dimension of the relationship that derails the objectivity of the current interactions. Your partner silently harbors the emotions of feeling unimportant, unwanted, or uncared for and now perceives everything said with a negative filter. This might come as a shock to many partners as they do not seem to recall anything that they said or done to cause their partner’s underlying wrath.

This resentment, however, happened the times you were late when they eagerly waited for you; you unintentionally exposed their personal information to friends; or, you ignored things and activities that they see as a priority again and again. Your partner may have voiced their concern gently and perhaps you brushed it away as you had your reasons. As time went on, they retreated, feeling their concern is futile, which probably went unchecked as well. Now your partner is resentful and bitter and displays criticism and contempt for everything you say. If the situation persists for long, as multiple attempts to build a normal conversation go nowhere, you may also eventually wind up in negative sentiment override. A vicious cycle results, where any attempt to converse seems a mountainous task.

Research on Sentiment Override

Dr. John Gottman and his team studied 96 newlywed couples and observed this phenomenon where observers coded discussion differently from that of partners in a conflict situation. Partners perceived the interactions negatively though it did not appear negative to the researchers.

However, in some couples, the interaction went another way, where neutral and low-intensity negative messages were interpreted positively. In the above two examples, the partner would have responded positively like “I know you love this restaurant” or “I miss our vacations too, so we should plan one soon.” Here there was a positive sentiment override where the partner attended to the neutral comment positively. 

Negative sentiment override was observed more in distressed couples, while positive sentiment override was predominant in non-distressed couples. The distressed partners perceived the messages negatively even when their partners shared neutral or positive behaviors. These patterns along with other destructive patterns like The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling) and Emotional Disengagement (as observed in other longitudinal studies by Dr. Gottman) continued to keep the couples in the status quo of distress.

How do you break this pattern? 

Here are some ways as suggested by Dr. John and Julie Gottman to get out of this cycle.

Communicate to Listen. Your partner has emotional injuries. “You did not stand up for me with your parents!” “You weren’t there for me when I was sick!” “First year of our marriage you belittled me in front of my parents!” Now, these hurts from the past become a perceptual filter through which your partner evaluates you. Talk about these concerns until your partner feels heard and healed.

Keep the Four Horsemen at bay. The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse are destructive to any relationship. Though these patterns are used as defense mechanisms many times, the words said leave back a deep scar. Rather than the root issues (e.g., feelings of unheard, rejection, loneliness, etc.) that need healing, the words of defense take the center stage in the conflict. The sore root feelings remain unaddressed, while the couples feel lost in endless bouts of arguments. Share these deeper feelings and needs instead of unleashing the Horsemen. 

Accept Responsibility. Focus on the vulnerabilities rather than the logic of the argument. There is no right or wrong in the relationship. It is only the feelings that matter. Hear and understand. Accept responsibility for the part played by you that hurt your partner. Heal their wounds with acceptance and empathy.

Self-Soothe. Take a break for 30 minutes when flooded until you feel calmer. Words said in stress only cause escalation. Even if you walk away to avoid stressing situation, it can be misread as left stranded. Keep your partner informed that you are stressed and need a break and let them know when again you can continue the discussion to give it closure. Let your partner know about your vulnerability so that they can understand it is as important to you as to them. Also, set a time to reconnect.

Final Thought

It can be overwhelming to break through the negative sentiment override and restore a functional conversation with your partner. Let a mental health professional help you.  


Hawkins, M. W., Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (2002). Marital Sentiment Override: Does It Influence Couples’ Perceptions? Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(1), 193–201. https://doi.org/0.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00193.x

Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. W. W. Norton.

Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 47–52. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.57.1.47

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1999). What predicts change in marital interaction over time? A study of alternative models. Family Process, 38(2), 143–158. https://doi.org/10.1111/J.1545-5300.1999.00143.X

National Domestic Violence Hotline

If you’re in an abusive relationship, you are not alone. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. You can also visit the website.

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Alignment vs. Resolutions

There is an urge to make individual changes during this time of year. Part of this urge is natural and other parts are thrust upon us by society. How does this affect romantic relationships? As you start to make resolutions and/or goals for the new year, when and HOW do you include your partner?

Let’s discuss how to start making plans for your relationship in a holistic way. Here’s how to start a conversation with your partner, how to avoid the pitfalls of focusing energies on things that are not important to you, and how to honor the parts of yourself.

Choosing a time to speak with your partner about your future together

First things first. Make sure that all parties are in the right mental space to have this conversation. For example, bringing the topic up during rush hour after a long day of work may not be the best option. Check-in with your partner and ask them if they are in an open and receiving space to chat (be specific about the topic). If they are not, schedule a time that works best for you both.

The conversation

Many people make traditional individual goals like making more money or losing weight. While these are helpful, consider this instead.

Think of your future selves in 20 years. Imagine you live an embodied life. Ask yourselves these three questions:

  • How do you feel about your life together?
  • What brings you joy in your relationship?
  • How are you connecting to the world around you?

Based on the answers to these questions, discuss what your future together looks like. Are your visions in congruency with each other? If not, how can you get everyone’s needs met?

Next, I want you to notice parts of your relationship that are aligned to that future version. Nourish and honor those parts. You will find that there are aspects of your relationship that you already do well, such as sharing fondness and admiration and taking responsibility during conflict. Ask yourselves, what are you pleased with as a couple? Identify these aspects and honor your commitment and hard work to each other.

Honoring your relationship can look like…

  • Taking a quiet moment to acknowledge all your joint accomplishments
  • Making your quality time together a priority
  • Practicing active listening as much as possible
  • Resting when you are tired and not overcommitting yourselves with engagements
  • Taking breaks from everyday tasks to tune into each other

Improving limitations

Lastly, notice every choice that you have from this point forward in your relationship and individually and ask yourself, Is this in alignment with my relationship vision? Knowing where you both want to go makes it easier to stay on course to get there.

When you are aligned with your relationship’s purpose, it is easier to enjoy the journey.

Start the year off right with 30 Days to a Better Relationship! Backed by over 40 years of research, the 30 Days to a Better Relationship challenge will help you reconnect with your partner and bring more positivity into your relationship. The tools and exercises, delivered once a day for 30 days by email, build on one another and take five minutes or less to complete. Ready to take the 30-Day Challenge? Get started today.

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How to Have a Restful Holiday

The holiday season is said to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” But often, it can become the most stressful time, marked by a larger than usual to-do list and a full calendar of events. The rare week off that many finally allow themselves is often consumed with so much activity that people roll right into the new year bleary-eyed and longing for another vacation. There is a better way though. Here is how you can create a restful holiday season for you and your loved ones.

Rest from “Making the Rounds”

The first way to have a restful holiday is to cut out all the extra visits. You can spend so much time traveling to visit friends and extended family that you neglect your own holiday rituals. Sit down with your partner and decide which visits to prioritize, while putting your immediate family first. This may cause friction. However, consider a plan that allows you to connect in a more meaningful way with your closest loved ones.

Rest from cooking 

In addition to making the rounds, another holiday time hogger is cooking. Now, cooking favorite recipes can be a fun tradition and one that connects families to their roots. But, it can often fall disproportionately to one family member. While everyone else enjoys the festivities, they work tirelessly in the kitchen. Keep it simple and order takeout. Maybe a unique non-traditional holiday carryout meal can be a new ritual that allows everyone to relax rather than worry about the menu. 

Rest from rushing gift time

A third highlight of the holiday season is exchanging gifts. So much careful time is spent shopping, wrapping, decorating, and waiting for the time to open them. Yet, in a matter of minutes, wrapping paper is obliterated and all gifts opened in a flurry. Instead, families can consider slowing down the process and opening gifts one by one. That way, everyone takes part in seeing what others gave and received. That level of restraint might take younger family members time to get used to, but it can make such a difference in actually connecting to each other during that sacred time of sharing. 

Rest for rest’s sake 

Another idea for having a restful holiday is to, well, rest. Pick at least one “lazy day” during holiday vacation and try not to lift a finger. Cozy up in your matching family onesies, make hot chocolate and watch a movie marathon of your choosing. Or, immerse yourselves in your individual favorite activities while seated in the same room (such as the kids playing on their tablets while the adults read or take a nap on the couch). The purpose here is to pause from the constant activities that mark the season and actually rest and recharge. Make your holiday feel like an actual holiday.

Rest from the year 

A final suggestion for a restful holiday is to take time to rest from the year. This entails quiet reflection on the highs and lows of the previous twelve months. Think about what challenged you and what changed you. What hopes do you hold for the future? Then, do this individually, with your partner, or with your kids. Get quiet and be still to contemplate where you have been and where you are going.

Final Thought

Don’t let the most wonderful time of the year become overcommitted and overwhelming.  You can do things differently this year. Make an earnest commitment to rest from the traditional holiday stressors by ritualizing rest. In doing so, you can foster a more mindful and meaningful way to observe the season.

Let The Gottman Institute help you connect with your partner. Our 30 Days to a Better Relationship gives you daily email tips to get closer and strengthen your bond. Start the 30-day challenge today!

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How to Create Shared Meaning as Newlyweds or Newly Engaged

The wonders of the holidays feel special for those who are newly engaged or celebrating for the first time as newlyweds. Couples can feel happy and potentially anxious about how to use them as a springboard to make meaningful memories and celebrate them in a way that uniquely defines them as a couple.

Traditions: Past, Present, and Future

Many of us grew up celebrating holidays with our parents or grandparents. They set the tone for behaviors or rituals of connection during this special time of year. Traditions like decorating the tree on Christmas Eve or leaving cookies out for Santa developed as a custom. Usually, they are rooted in the family of origin’s values and beliefs. They are symbols of what they wanted the holidays to signify. 

Now, you and your partner are in the family of your choice versus the one you were born into. What traditions or events will represent who the two of you are and what you want to symbolize moving forward? 

Sometimes anxiety happens for couples when they feel pressure to do what was expected of them when they were single. Newly engaged or married couples often have to give themselves permission to make some changes in traditions this year so as to allow space for new traditions to develop that include building new shared meanings about the holidays. 

This may cause discomfort for parents or extended family members who will be disappointed and have expected their holiday traditions with you to be around forever. However, healthy couples can tolerate their families’ disappointment and will commit to setting boundaries around the needs of their new relationship. The things you did when you were single and the ways you identified with holiday customs created in your original family may need to look different once you commit to another person.

Compromise and Creating Something New

You and your partner will need to find areas of agreement about what traditions you want to incorporate into your holidays as a couple. These negotiations should involve checking in with each other to find out what your dream holiday looks like and what it means to you if you didn’t honor that dream. 

Find ways to compromise on showing the world how your new family celebrates the holidays. For example, if one of you rings in the new year with meditation and quiet reflection and the other partner thinks having a snow-filled adventure is important, then find ways to blend the two. The compromise might be that the two of you rent a cabin where you get away from it all but still go skiing during the day. Another example is that maybe one of you grew up with fresh-cut trees each year and the other grew up with artificial ones.  How about taking turns alternating between fresh and artificial trees—or have one of each. 

The point of this spirit of compromise is to find something that combines the personalities and values of each of you to create new symbols of the holiday.

This doesn’t mean you have to reject your extended family celebrations. Introducing your partner to beloved family traditions from your past is part of building love maps together. You just don’t want to go on auto-pilot expecting your new partner to fall in line with the way you’ve always done things. 

Acknowledging the changes in your family status means incorporating the desires for both of you to feel comfortable and represented.

The Marriage Minute is an email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your relationship in 60 seconds or less. More than 40 years of research with thousands of couples proves a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.

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The Most Popular Blog Posts of 2021

Here at The Gottman Institute, we are proud of the content and resources we provide to help you have a better relationship with your partner and your loved ones. This year millions of you came to The Gottman Relationship Blog to learn more about conflict management, staying connected, having better sex, and looking for the right partner. Check out our most popular blog posts of the year.

Red Flag/Green Flag: What to Look for When You’re Dating

When you’re dating, how can you tell if someone is right for you? In this article, Elizabeth Earnshaw offers the warning signs and positive traits you should look out for. “I believe you can use this… as early as the first date to start paying attention to whether or not you want to continue with the other person.”

How Do Affairs Happen?

Infidelity remains a difficult event to discuss whether you’re impacted by an affair as a couple or you’re the clinician helping them. Certified Gottman Therapist Jinashree Rajendrakumar points to the research to explain the origins of infidelity. If you’ve ever wondered what leads a partner to stray from their relationship, read more about the cascade of an affair.

4 Conflict Styles that Hurt Your Relationship

The Gottmans stand by the truth that conflict is inevitable in any relationship. How you argue is important to the overall health of your partnership. This article breaks down the ways that couples fight that are tell-tale signs of staying together or breaking up. Learn how to navigate conflict in a healthy way.

3 Ways to Make a Better Bid for Connection

Have you heard of “fuzzy bidding?” It’s that attempt to connect with your partner that falls flat because it’s not obvious enough. Don’t let a perfectly good moment to bond go to waste. Here are three simple tips on clear bids that make it easy for your partner to turn towards you.

Three Common Mistakes Couples Make During Conflict

Arguing all the time is exhausting. Often, couples make the same mistakes in conflict over and over again and stay in perpetual gridlock. Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall helps you get to the root of what keeps you and your partner going in circles.

The Deeper Meaning of Trust

We know that trust is one of the pillars of the Sound Relationship House theory. Without it, a relationship is unsteady. But what is trust? How does it function between you and your partner and how does it help you as a couple? Gottman Method-trained therapist Genesis Games discusses what it means to trust each other and how it reinforces your commitment.

The Easiest Way to Improve Your Relationship

Did you know we make videos here at The Gottman Institute? Check out this special feature where you can see bids and “turning towards” illustrated in this popular YouTube clip.

How to Have a State of the Union Meeting

A “State of the Union” is not about politics. The Gottmans use this term to explain the very important conversation you and your partner need to have routinely to stay on track and stay connected every week. Certified Gottman Therapist Kimberly Panganiban explains this core Gottman concept.

How to Get in the Mood for Sex (Even When You Aren’t Feeling It)

When it comes to sex, we love Dr. Cheryl Fraser‘s witty, down-to-earth advice. In this blog post, she tells readers how to create sexual desire no matter how they feel. “One of the many beautiful aspects of long-term love is learning new ways to explore the dance of eroticism together. Don’t wait for passion. Instead, choose to become passion.”

Passion and Romance in Marriage: How It Goes Sour

A popular topic for our readers is what to do when you lose your spark. Certified Gottman Therapist Dr. Susan O’Grady shares ways to bring it back so that you both can feel nourished and refreshed.

We have so much more in store for you in 2022! Sign up for The Gottman Relationship Blog newsletter so you never miss a blog post. Subscribe below to bring the best relationship advice right to your inbox every week.

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