Katherine Plumhoff
March 04, 2020 4:09 pm
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When I got in my first real-deal adult relationship, I realized I had no idea how to act in one. I’d seen examples of relationships played around me in pop culture and in my friends’ and families’ lives, but I’d never actually been in one myself.

The fun, we’re-madly-in-love days passed easily; I didn’t need a guidebook to tell me how to enjoy them. I’d fallen in love with my partner because he was wonderful, generous, spontaneous, and kind, and I basked in all of that. But relationships have conflict, too, and that was trickier to manage.

How were we meant to disagree productively if we were both short on patience? How could we discuss finances when we had very different values about money? How could we share frustration or hurt without bringing the other person down?

Loving someone is a skill, and like any other skill, we can get better at it if we practice—if we know how. We need the will, the time, and the effort to invest, but we also need some guidance.

I was all-in for effort and time wasn’t an issue, but I had to hobble together with my own guidance. I’m lucky enough to have a generous and wise group of friends who were willing to let me in on their experiences, as well as enough disposable income to go to a therapist and ask her about navigating some of the stickier issues. 

But my quest to understand how relationships work and what kind of behaviors can best support them made me realize that while that information is out there, it’s not at all accessible. We rarely make room in our lives—whether in our media consumption or conversations—to study and discuss relationships on a deeper level. 

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the married founders of the Gottman Institute, creators of the Gottman Method for couples therapy, and perhaps the most well-known contemporary experts on the subject of love and relationships, have set out to change that. In their decades-long careers, they’ve continuously conducted research about how couples can strengthen their relationships and published on their findings. Therapists around the world use their counseling techniques to work with struggling couples, so readers can access their practical advice on their website or in their books.

Their latest book, written with Drs. Doug Abrams and Rachel Carlton Abrams, is called Eight Dates and has a fairly simple thesis: For a relationship to last, both parties have to make time for each other, be curious about each other, and ask lots of questions. You can understand why I was intrigued.

Could it be so simple? Eight conversations had during eight dates that could teach partners how to build a strong relationship?

After an enlightening afternoon of reading, I had my answer: yes, it was. Eight Dates’ authors lay out, in terms near and dear to my Type-A heart, exactly how to have an intimate conversation. They explain how to put into words what you’re feeling, how to ask questions, how to listen and respond. Skills I thought I had down pat, having many serious conversations with colleagues, friends, and family throughout my life.

But I found plenty of errors in my approach as I read. Their practical advice for communicating well is both maddeningly simple and incredibly wise. Here are a few of my favorites: 

  • Be explicit about what your recipes for success are. “For example, ‘I would like you to respect me’ isn’t as good as, ‘I would like you to turn off your electronic devices at dinner so we can just talk to each other.’”
  • Tell your partner exactly what it is you love about them, all the time. “You can’t just think positive things about your partner, you need to verbalize them to your partner. Appreciate their efforts, their attractiveness, their intelligence, their work, their skills, their sense of humor, and whatever else about them you love and admire. [We] found that successful relationships have a 20 to 1 ratio of positive to negative in all their everyday interactions.”
  • Avoid judgement and definitely don’t lecture. “Don’t be critical and don’t give advice unless your partner asks for it. In every conversation with our partner, we want to communicate respect, understanding, and empathy.”

With solid communication skills in place, partners can then go have rich, fruitful guided conversations about eight main facets of a relationship. Each date topic comes with pre-work, a suggested location, and guidelines for navigating the topic. Here’s a preview:

8 date ideas your relationship needs to try

1Trust and commitment

This date, which the Gottmans suggest happens in an elevated location with a great view, is all about defining how you and your partner can make each other feel safe. Questions to start off the conversation include, “What does trust mean to you?,” “How are we similar and how are we different when it comes to trust and commitment?,” “How can we accept these differences?,” and “What do you need from me in order for you to trust me even more?”

2Addressing conflict

This conversation is based on understanding how each partner manages conflict, and the date should be had somewhere private. The authors suggest a picnic in a park or going for a long walk and beginning the conversation by exploring differences between you and your partner across a range of facets: organization, emotionality, finances, relationships with relatives, preferred activity levels, spirituality, drugs and alcohol, and fidelity, among others.

3 Sex and intimacy

The authors suggest starting this date off with a candlelit dinner in a special place, where you can take turns answering questions like “What turns you on?,” “What’s your favorite way for me to let you know I want to have sex?,” or “Is there something sexually you’ve always wanted to try, but have never asked?”

4Work and money

This date centers on going over each partner’s family history with money, discussing everything from what their grandparents did for a living, whether their family went on vacations together, how birthdays were celebrated, and what their money values are. For some, “having enough money” will mean being able to create; for others, it’ll be about having control—and there are another few dozen possibilities in between.

5Family

Have this date around families. You’ll either be excited about your family plans or be recommitted to your chosen form of birth control. From there, ask questions like, “What does your ideal family look like?” and “What are the ways in which your parents did or did not appear to maintain their closeness, love, and romance after having children?”

6 Fun and adventure

Start this date off with a scavenger hunt or a spontaneous activity. Starting off with curiosity and fun will help you discuss what kind of activities excite you—anything from going to a climbing gym to renting Segways to cooking a new dish together. From there, ask specific questions like, “What’s the most fun you’ve had playing in the last few years?” and “What adventures do you want to have before you die?”

7Growth and spirituality

Beyond the basic questions about religious belief and upbringing, this date focuses on rituals of connection, which can include holiday meal traditions, how you take care of your partner when they’re sick, and what your bedtime routine is. Exercises to explore those can culminate in a conversation that asks questions like, “How do you feel you have grown the most? And in what areas?,” “What carries you through your most difficult times?,” and “How can I support you in your own personal journey?”

8Dreams

If there’s a place that inspires dreaming for you and your partner—maybe somewhere you can see the sunset or the stars—have the date there. There, you’ll discuss your individual dreams, from professional to personal, and ask questions like, “Did you have any dreams for yourself when you were a child?” and “How would you feel if this dream was fulfilled? If it wasn’t?”

While I haven’t worked my way through all of them with my partner yet, the conversation and communication skills they’re based on have already paid huge dividends in my relationship. 

I called Dr. John Gottman to thank him, pick his brain about my relationship (I had the world’s expert on love on the phone; how could I not?), and ask him about how his research team built their approach.

HelloGiggles: The premise of Eight Dates is that questions—open-ended ones—are powerful. How did you come to realize that open-ended questions were key to communication in relationships?

John Gottman: It was really by just analyzing thousands of couples talking to each other about how their day went, which is something we do in every study. We saw that there’s something about open-ended questions that open the heart. They feel much more like an invitation to be vulnerable, to speak about what’s really on your heart and mind.

With closed-ended questions, what we found was that people would take turns broadcasting. That’s the most common kind of dialogue.

HG: So it’s about asking, but it’s also about listening, then?

JG: Yes. Listening turns out to be a real key to great lovemaking and getting closer to one another and staying connected emotionally. To me, listening is a very active thing; it’s not passively taking in what your partner is saying. It’s like being a tourist. Imagine you’re in a small town in Italy and you’re filled with questions. When was that church made? Who built it? Where’s the market? When you’re a great listener, you’re like a tourist in the landscape of your partner’s mind. You want to know when did that happen, how did that unfold? And so on.

HG: In Eight Dates, you talk about how important it is to be positive in your relationship, to celebrate the good moments, to tell your partner how much they mean to you. Do you think social media, which often encourages us to curate good times, can help with that? 

JG: If you, on your own, think about how lucky you are to be with this person, if you cherish all of their positive qualities and minimize their limitations, I would think it’s a really positive thing to do that on social media. But if you’re posting a happy moment but actually thinking about what a terrible time you had that evening, not so much.

HG: How did you come up with these specific dates or conversation topics?

JG: With lots of tests. We had 300 couples to fine-tune the dates with. We started off with 12 date ideas, then got rid of four that were duds. We listened to the couples that went out on the dates, and we knew that these were the important issues. The important thing is that none of these dates are confrontational. All of them about keeping curiosity alive.

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