Saving a marriage with the Gottmans, and a review of Eight Dates by Drs. John and Julie Gottman
The most living moment comes when
those who love each other meet each
other’s eyes and in what flows
between them then…
Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks, The Soul of Rumi (1)
The day came in the middle of my life when I found myself lost in a dark wood, and that shadowed place was a marriage torn into shards.
My husband Sabin had made a unilateral decision to travel 9000 miles away for work. He was tired of the arguments — of my demands and my criticisms.
A few months before that, I had briefly filed for separation. I was tired of all the other women, the financial malfeasance, and his collusion with his disapproving parents. They live 17 blocks from us, and had mostly refused to have anything to do with me or our daughter since I got pregnant with her, when they phoned from their summer residence high in the mountains of Italy to demand that I terminate the pregnancy.
Occlusive outside influences worked against our union from the beginning. Still, Sabin has always been the most interesting and the most talented man I’ve ever met. I enjoy his sweet sexiness and his unique artistic perspective on the world. I love to go to museums with him and hold his hand and listen while he talks about sculpture.
Even on the worst days, we could get enrapt in a conversation that lasted for hours.
On our good days, he enveloped me with kindness and generosity. He acknowledged my support and my care for him. He said, “I wouldn’t be where I am without you. Thank you!”
But it wasn’t enough to sustain us when a great opportunity collapsed the center. In 2016, Sabin won a commission that was set to unfold on the world stage. He was instantly obsessed. He stopped taking our daughter out on hikes or out for hot chocolate. He stopped noticing me; he was often not even aware when I stood in the same room with him. He stopped talking about anything whatsoever except this commission.
To be fair, Sabin was determined to change our finances and thus ensure sustainability for our family. He didn’t have the lush trust fund that secured his parents’ lives, nor could I support him as his first wife did.
I’ve always worked, but I was stretched thin as an author with three children and a stepdaughter. I also spend at least 20% of my working hours supporting Sabin’s art business: building his websites, running tech support for his webinars and maintaining them online, writing about his sculptures, and engaging in client outreach, marketing, and promotion. Here, now, was an opportunity for Sabin to elevate his status and his fortunes. He seized it!
Sabin never lets an opportunity pass by. It’s another one of his traits that I admire.
We enjoyed a sweet reconciliation in the spring of 2017. Then he departed for the other side of the world. I was bereft, abandoned. Two men pursued me, one a brilliant writer who was also a raging alcoholic; the other a selfish, manipulative type in a distant city. I was frittering away my time hanging around them, and I knew it.
Over a few months, I stopped speaking to Sabin. I couldn’t articulate the despair and loneliness I felt, nor the sense of betrayal that he had put an art commission ahead of our family. That he had abandoned us. For once, words failed me.
Distressed by my silence, Sabin found a marriage counselor based on the West Coast. My husband scheduled Skype sessions, carefully coordinating between three time zones. I always showed up. I never refused a session. I just never had anything good to say.
The counselor got disgusted with me.
So did Sabin. He complained about me to everyone in the new place. He also complained to his parents, who were ever ready to see the worst in me. It was a two decades long mutual dislike. His parents were academics with secure positions — and they were endowed with a trust fund. They didn’t get it about hustle and enterprise, which are so very necessary for a sculptor and a writer making their way in the world.
His father once actually asked Sabin, “Why do you need to make so much money?”
Sabin replied, “Because I don’t have a trust fund.”
I found their brand of Cadillac-communism sanctimonious and out of touch with reality.
They found me…well, whatever they found me. Disrespectful. Harsh with their son.
I set a high bar for Sabin. His beloved cousin had once remarked, to a friend about her child with disabilities, “Don’t fall into the trap of low expectations.”
His cousin’s words resonated with me. I took them to heart. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of low expectations with an artist, and plenty of people did that with my handsome, charming husband. “He’s an artist, he’s a sculptor, you can’t expect the poor dear to earn a living.”
But I took no stock of that kind of subterfuge, which is, ultimately, condescending. Sabin is the greatest living figurative artist. He’s charismatic, he’s a spell-binding speaker, and he’s an excellent networker. He’s highly intelligent and extremely well educated. It was clear to me that he could make a living. It was clear that he could eventually make a good living. Eventually. If I pushed him and pulled him with my faith in him.
Sometimes Sabin appreciated my faith.
Often Sabin resented it.
I think we both felt that there were other people out there for us, other potential mates who wouldn’t be as difficult and demanding.
In short, we weren’t fully committed to each other. We weren’t fully invested in our marriage.
I’d shown my ambivalence by filing for a separation. Sabin had shown his by taking off for the antipodes. We had a train-wreck on our hands.
Yet I still loved him. He claimed to love me. And we have a wonderful daughter together.
There in that distant land, an artist showed up at Sabin’s door for a job interview, and she did what women without talent do the world over: she dropped her knickers. ‘Panty-fliers’ they’re called.
Sabin had been a long time without a single kind word from me.
He was well supported in his ensuing choice by a group of people who had not heard my side of things. Most were single; almost none could sustain a committed relationship. They all thought they knew Sabin better after a few months than I knew him after nearly twenty years.
A week later, Sabin flew home for Christmas. He walked in the door, hugged our daughter, and turned to me. He said, “I want a divorce.”
I had only a split second to think. And I didn’t think. I just felt. I felt how much I still loved my husband. I said, “No.”
And thus began the most perilous journey.
I went with Sabin back to the other side of the world to be with him while he finished his maquette. It was an experience of profound humiliation. I had to interact every day with people who had cheered on my husband as he betrayed me. I tried to be kind and to take the high road.
Leaving that place, and knowing we would never return, was one of my best days ever.
We tried more sessions with the West Coast marriage counselor. Many of her techniques were useful. Ultimately, I felt she wanted some kind of self-flagellating masochism from me that I couldn’t sustain.
But we needed help. Sabin agreed to stay in the marriage, but he was furious with me. He was angry about two decades of disastrous relationship patterns — none of which were his fault, of course. Fanatically conflict-averse, he’d rarely told me what he needed over the years, and it all erupted in a relentless stream of criticism.
My clothes, my hair, my accomplishments, my character, my past, the city I love — all were wrong, bad, worthy only of scorn. He had no empathy with my desolation over his long absence. He had no remorse about his choices. He had no compassion for me or anything I was going through. He could only talk about selling our apartment and moving away. At least once a week, he threatened to leave.
All this time, we were having uninhibited, unhinged sex — the best sex in fifteen years. Often twice a day. Finally, the sex life I’d always dreamt of! I didn’t know what to make of it.
I woke often in the middle of the night, went to the dining room table, and wept. I couldn’t reach the gentle man I knew to be my husband.
My therapist advised me not to feel rejected. He helped me shoulder the burden of my tumultuous feelings. But it was hard for the people who love me to witness my despair. My close friends, my grown daughter, and my mother all insisted, “You have to leave him.”
I said, “No. This isn’t Sabin. In two years, you can tell him what a jerk he’s been. But right now we’re going to draw him back in.”
It was during one of those pre-dawn tear-fests that I googled “how to save a marriage” and discovered Dr. John Gottman on YouTube. He was giving a lecture about “Making Marriage Work.” (2)
I was electrified.
With humor and grace, Dr. Gottman talked about his 40+ years of research into marriage and how he had come to understand what separated the Masters of Relationship from the Disasters. He emphasized kindness and gentleness. He identified the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that are harbingers of divorce: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.
I flinched as I recognized my own worst self in both criticism and contempt.
In the video, Dr. Gottman outlined the antidotes to the four horseman: gentle-start up for criticism; taking responsibility for defensiveness; describing your own feelings and needs, rather than describing your partner, for contempt; and physiological self-soothing for stonewalling.
Further, Dr. Gottman said it was the small moments that build safety and trust in a relationship. He articulated a theory of bids for attention. All day long, people make little bids for attention from their mate: “Look at that boat in the bay, isn’t it beautiful?”
At that moment, the partner has a choice. They can turn away from the bid by ignoring it; they can turn against the bid by saying something like, “Why are you bothering me when I’m reading the newspaper”; or they can turn toward the bid by embracing the comment and responding to it: “Say, that is a beautiful boat! We should go sailing sometime, wouldn’t that be fun?”
Turning toward a bid follows rules similar to improv: Say ‘Yes’ and run with it.
And it’s in those happily-answered bids that good feelings are built.
I scoured the internet for more videos of Dr. Gottman. I bought every book I could find with his name on it. I read the books he recommended. I took notes and I observed my own behavior toward Sabin. I worked to sheathe the arrows of my critical eye, to describe for Sabin the behavior, not the person (him), to which I objected, and then to explain what I need in positive terms that set him up for success.
It wasn’t always easy because I’m highly analytical. It was also galling to realize how much I had contributed to the problems in our marriage. I felt remorse for the ways I’d treated Sabin over the years. I even felt remorse over the ways I’d treated my former husband in my benighted first marriage. There was just a lot I didn’t know about how to make a relationship work.
Dr. Gottman’s books and videos were a fine tuition in the art of effective communication in partnership. I was grateful to have found them.
Eventually I cajoled Sabin into watching some videos. He approved of Dr. Gottman’s practical, grounded mien and his gentle, often self-effacing humor. We cuddled together and giggled as Dr. Gottman spoke of how he and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman compromise by doing what Julie wants. Dr. Gottman stated, “One of the most important predictors of marital success and happiness is the husband taking influence from his wife.”
The other important predictor was the wife using softened start-up. That was on me.
In April, Sabin came back to the marriage. The constant criticism ceased. He stopped threatening to leave. He expressed remorse for his actions; he voiced empathy for the hurt he’d caused me. He took ownership of painful incidents over the years. He apologized. We still fought but our fights were qualitatively different: we were working together toward the shared goal of our mutual happiness and safety.
Having tested me, Sabin trusted that I meant it when I said that I was committed to him. He also believed that I was committed to healthier dynamics in the marriage. He opened his phone and his computer to me, shared all his passwords, and offered complete transparency. For the first time, he moved firmly away from people who did not support our marriage — who were not friends of the marriage. He set clear boundaries with malevolent folks like his parents: what came first now were his wife and daughter, his family.
Also for the first time, he asked how he could make it up to me for the pain he’d inflicted. He showed gallantry about my feelings and my enduring vulnerabilities. One thing about my husband, he’s inherently generous, and when he does something, he does it right!
I reciprocated the transparency. I reciprocated the commitment. I also did what I should have done years ago: I dissolved our prenuptial agreement and made him a full and equal co-owner of our apartment. I understood how the legal arrangement must have made him feel that our marriage was conditional.
We walked one cold, clear, bright April day to Riverside Cathedral, sat next to each other in a pew, and held hands as we said vows of commitment to each other. I cried a little. Sabin wrapped his arms around me and whispered, “I love you so much.”
It would be wonderful if that was the climactic end of all conflict and the beginning of a storybook happily-ever-after. As a novelist, I’m well aware of the appeal of great fiction. But in the real world, the commitment is struck and then the deep work starts.
So our renewal of vows was a beginning. But it was the beginning of a marriage-in-progress. A real marriage, warts and cuddles and all. There’s work to be done when two strong-willed people forge a union.
Our journey together quickened when we attended a workshop in Seattle, “The Art and Science of Love,” led by Drs. Julie and John Gottman themselves.(3)
Sabin, who for all his affability values his privacy, was concerned about public disclosure. I assured him that there was none. We spent two days hiking Mt. Rainier, exercise to exorcise Sabin’s physical restlessness.
We arrived early the first morning to secure good seats, close to the front. And there commenced two days of extraordinary learning.
The first day focused on building the ground of being of love through the Gottmans’ research-based techniques. We listened to lectures on love maps, fondness and admiration, and those quintessential bids for connection. We practiced the skills through meticulously thought-out exercises.
The exercises were good fun as well as good practicum for a marriage. They deepened the friendship, connection, and trust that are so essential in the union.
Sabin admitted that he enjoyed hearing about all the shining qualities I admire in him. I certainly enjoyed his words of praise and appreciation!
But it wasn’t just the exercises and lectures that taught us.
Even more eloquent was the way John and Julie Gottman related to each other. They were at turns playful and somber and they were always palpably connected. They teased each other, finished each other’s sentences, demoed exercises together with zest and relish, touched each other affectionately, listened respectfully when the other was saying something of heightened import, admitted to fighting, owned their own parts in their conflict, apologized for hurting each other, and praised the other.
Julie and John were modeling something crucial: a marriage wherein both spouses are deeply engaged in the ongoing work of building a strong and joyful shared sense of “we.”
On the second day, they addressed conflict.
“Conflict is inevitable in marriage,” Dr. Gottman stated firmly. It’s a myth to think that a happy marriage is conflict-free; he suggested that a conflict-free marriage can actually be a dead marriage.
“Conflict is there for a reason — so we can improve our understanding of our partner,” he continued. He also pointed out that 2/3 of conflict is unresolvable. He emphasized the supreme importance of repair after conflict.
Then Julie and John demonstrated their script for repair after a regrettable incident.
Never have I witnessed two people being more real, more vulnerable, more honest, and more sensitive with each other. It was deeply soulful. Reverent silence pervaded the big Sheraton ballroom as Julie and John came profoundly, achingly alive with each other. I thought of Rumi: This is the most living moment.
The Gottmans worked through an actual fight, following their repair script. Julie dissolved into tears, remembering early life traumas that had played a part in her responses. I was moved to tears watching her. With candor and grace, John also confessed his triggers. I marveled at his insight into himself.
The goal was to understand each other better. It achieved that and so much more. It achieved communion.
In class, Sabin and I structured the exercise around a recent fight. After returning home, we repeated the exercise around the painful episodes of the last few years, taking notes as the other spoke. We now keep yellow pads of paper around our apartment for the moment one of us gets triggered or furious or frustrated and hollers, “I need to do a Gottman!”
We’ve each filled up an entire pad of paper. I take more copious notes than Sabin does, but then I write smaller, too.
The Gottman weekend ended with presentations around shared meaning and helping each other attain life dreams. Sabin and I are strong in that area. We both feel passionately about arts and letters. He’s been the staunchest supporter of my writing, and I’ve always supported his art.
For me, the sweetest part of the weekend was being in the field of the relationship between Julie and John Gottman. So that’s what a good relationship is. I’d never actually seen one before. I’ve seen plenty of people pretending to have a good relationship. That kind of chicanery feels hollow. The Gottmans’ relationship felt thick and vibrant and rich through a boundless spectrum of human feeling — upbeat feelings and challenging ones. All that richness radiates out from a core of loving intention.
In his thoughtful way, Sabin voiced the most beautiful comment about the weekend. “I never before understood about the sacredness of marriage,” he told me. “Now I do.”
Which brings me to the Gottmans’ recent book, “Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”(4) This is a wonderful book.
Having read many of Dr. Gottman’s earlier books — including some obscure ones, like “When Men Batter Women,”(5) I was hungry to take in more of his and Julie’s insights into love and relationship. I’m committed to my husband and our marriage. I’m committed to our love, joy, and growth as husband and wife.
The fresh wisdom in this book concerns curiosity. Truly, committed partnerships can grow stale. The antidote to that is to remain open and curious. To inquire, of yourself and of your partner, Who is this person to whom I am committed? What populates my partner’s inner world? “Baby, who are you, and what’s going on for you?”
Or, as the Gottmans write, “Every great love story is a never-ending conversation.” (Eight Dates, p.2)
To promote this curiosity, the Gottmans have constructed a syllabus of eight dates for the couple. Each date is an opportunity for in-depth conversation. Each conversation focuses on one arena of relationship: commitment and trust; conflict; sex and intimacy; work and money; family; fun and adventure; growth and spirituality; and, finally, dreams.
The book is a structured method for inculcating the habits of date night and in-depth conversation. It was thoroughly researched, as per the Gottman approach.
In a general way, a cookbook approach is taken. Living in Manhattan, I’ve been apprised of the East Coast psychoanalytic schools’ condescension toward cookbook psychotherapy.
However, if I open Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,”(6) locate the recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, and then follow Child’s recipe exactly, I will get Boeuf Bourguignon. It will be fragrant and succulent and it will stick to my ribs to my complete delectation. That’s a pretty great result.
It’s far more effective than endlessly discussing the kind of beef to use (flank or chuck), which olive oil to use — Spanish, Greek, or Italian — or the year of the dry red wine for the stew. Paralysis by analysis too often yields no stew at all.
“Eight Dates” also recapitulates the Gottman findings from decades of research. It’s worth reading as a refresher course, or as a primer, in all the benefits of kindness and gentleness, softened start-up, bids for attention, husbands taking influence from wives, repair after conflict, shared meaning, etc.
No human system is perfect because humans aren’t perfect. John Gottman himself openly admits that he was wrong most of the time when he anticipated the results of his research. But the Gottman system will get loving partners closest to true and lasting love.
I close with a quote from John Matousek’s “Mother of the Unseen World: The Mystery of Mother Meera.”(7) This book chronicles a spiritual quest through the lens of Matousek’s relationship with an Indian saint. It seems an odd choice, but isn’t the journey of marriage the most spiritual quest of all? What leads us into greater compassion and greater vulnerability and greater soul growth than marriage?
Matousek writes poignantly about our most fundamental human need. I think he articulates the longing embedded in marriage. It’s certainly what I long for with Sabin. I hope — I intend — to grow sufficiently to give it to him. I also think the Drs. Gottman teachings have the best chance of guiding us to it:
Nonetheless, it remains our deepest human longing to be seen without judgment for who we are, recognized for our essential goodness, free of shame and self-defense, exposed, accepted, and blessed without condition.
(Mother of the Unseen World, p. 26)
1Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn, and Coleman Barks. The Soul of Rumi: a New Collection of Ecstatic Poems. HarperOne, 2002.
2 “Youtube.” Youtube, 16 March 2017, youtu.be/kY4kkDoaItY.
3 “The Art and Science of Love Workshop — Couples.” The Gottman Institute, www.gottman.com/couples/workshops/art-science-of-love/.
4 Gottman, John Mordechai, et al. Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Workman Publishing, 2018.
5 Jacobson, Neil S., and John Mordechai. Gottman. When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
6 Child, Julia, et al. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.
7 Matousek, Mark. Mother of the Unseen World: the Mystery of Mother Meera. Random House Publishing Group, 2017.