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John Gottman on Emotional Health

Research shows a vital connection between children’s emotional health and their academic performance. Retired University of Washington professor of psychology Dr. John Gottman is well known for his research on marriage.  After 14 years of studying 650 couples with the aid of videotape and sensors, Gottman needs only a half hour with a couple to predict with 90 percent accuracy whether they will stay married.

Gottman has also made important discoveries about young children, their emotional health, and early learning. Learning CurveOne study shows that in two thirds of relationships, couples had a big drop in happiness and both fighting and hostility increased, after the birth of their first child. This in turn affected their parenting. Parents, who are sensitive to their baby and its signals, have babies that are more confident and more secure, which leads them to learn better.

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Pride and Anger in Men

Ever been told to “man up” or be a “real man?”

It is pretty common for any man in our society to have their masculinity called into question, and new psychological research has explored this prevalent issue of “precarious manhood.” The idea of being a manly man is a potentially very fragile concept that many men struggle to maintain and often worry that they will lose.

Dr. Nathan Heflick elaborated on this issue in Psychology Today, outlining how men respond to doubts about their masculinity but also how both men and women view psychological disorders or emotions as being more characteristic of masculinity or femininity.

For instance, Dr. Heflick cited a University of Wisconsin, Madison study which had male and female participants rank how likely men and women were to experience certain emotions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants saw men as being more likely to experience anger or pride and women more likely to experience emotions like sadness, love, or fear.

Based on this, Heflick predicted that, if men are not expected to feel sadness or anxiety, then this creates significant hesitation in their likelihood to seek professional help for conditions like depression.

He may indeed be correct! A 2016 study by Dr. Kenneth Michniewicz found that men and women consistently ranked specific mental illnesses as being feminine or masculine. Unsurprisingly, these track closely to the previous study that focused on emotions.

Dr. Michniewicz’s participants pointed to anti-social personality disorder or alcoholism as “male” conditions, whereas anxiety or depression were “feminine.” Following up on these results, the study authors also discovered that men suffering from “feminine” mental illnesses were much less likely to seek professional help.

Unfortunately, this has rippling negative effects on the rest of society. Based on a 2011 study by Dr. Joseph Vandello and Dr. Jennifer Bosson, manhood is often viewed as a precarious position that must be earned and maintained, describing it as “hard fought and easily lost.”

Bosson and Vandello found that men who perceive that their masculinity is threatened are likely to act out in “macho” ways. If they perceive their masculinity as precarious, such as by facing issues of depression, there is an increased risk of violent action. Similarly, such men could become more tolerant of harassment towards seemingly feminine men and may engage in risk-taking behaviors such as gambling.

This is not to say that men are somehow at fault. Instead, there is research, such as that by Dr. John Gottman, has found that men are simply raised to think about emotions differently than women. Dr. Gottman explains that girls are often raised to focus on relationship building, while boys are inundating with the need to compete and win.

If men are simply instructed to be more open to emotional connection and to develop emotional intelligence, this could help reverse such a damaging trend.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea to learn more about how to detect signs of aggression in the men, or women, that you might meet.

Introducing the Four Horsemen

No, this isn’t a religious sermon, but it is an important message for anyone in a committed relationship.

In previous blogs, we have delved into several factors that make marriages fail, succeed, and flourish. Building off that work, it is important to examine some of the other major challenges that face married couples. While this focuses on marriages, as always, these principles can apply to all sorts of interpersonal relationships.

Dr. John Gottman, who has spent years studying relationships, warns of the “Four Horsemen,” that can consistently spell doom for marriage. While we discussed one, contempt, in a previous article, he describes the remaining horsemen as criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism, which we touched on only briefly, constitutes attacks on your partner’s character, often involving ad hominem attacks. Importantly, Dr. Gottman distinguishes between “criticism” and what he describes as simple critiques or complaints.

Essentially, a criticism involves telling your partner that there is something wrong with them, while critiques and complaints presents concerns over specific behaviors or, at their best, offer positive requests for certain behaviors. For example, contrast this criticism: “How can you leave dirty clothes everywhere? Why do you have to be so messy?” with the complaint “Could you try to pick up your dirty clothes?”

The former example involved actually attacking one’s partner, while the latter was framed in the context of an active request. The critical difference, then, between criticism and complaints rests in fostering an acceptance of each other’s needs and in preventing an atmosphere of distrust or conflict. It is in those toxic, criticism-filled, atmospheres that the other Horsemen, such as defensiveness and stonewalling thrive.

Defensiveness is probably all too familiar to each of us. This horseman arises when we face perceived criticism and consider these attacks to be unfair or unjust. Then the defensive partner will attempt to retaliate by lashing out in response, turning the situation around on their significant other.

Building on the example discussed earlier, this could result in the retort that “You are just as messy! Why don’t you clean up more, if it bothers you so much?” Often, this is intended to mitigate the criticism and resolve the situation, but instead it usually fails to end the conflict, perpetuating tension and continuing to undermine trust in the relationship.

Similarly, the final horseman, stonewalling, is similar in some ways to defensiveness, except that it involves a complete withdrawal from the interaction. The stonewalling partner will respond to a criticism, or even valid complaint, by simply shutting down and refusing to respond or address the issue. This can involve leaving the room or completely ignoring your partner.

So, we’ve outlined these apocalyptic relationship habits, but what is there to do about them? The first step, of course, is properly recognizing their signs, but Dr. Gottman offers further advice on managing them properly. He emphasizes the notion of “management” over “resolution,” because these conflicts will inevitably occur, but it is important to better handle them when they do arise.

We’ve already discussed how criticism can be converted into valid complaints, but what about the other two? Rather than becoming defensiveness, we have to work to take responsibility for a given problem. Instead of shifting blame in the dirty clothes example, the partner ought to respond positively and help clean up the house. This needn’t involve taking complete blame, but requires at least acknowledging a sense of shared responsibility.

Finally, sometimes distance from a stressful situation may be necessary, which is the impulse that drives stonewalling. Instead of withdrawal, however, it may be important to agree on taking some time apart to engage in a soothing activity. Just fifteen minutes of time alone can allow couples to revisit issues with compassion instead of anger and frustration.

While these horseman are likely to be constant challenges for any couple, proper management can go a long way towards preserving healthy and happy relationships.

For more information on Dr. Gottman’s relationship advice, see our past blogs here and here.

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