I picked up John Gottman’s The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work after years of curiosity. I had heard about his “love lab” several times over the years, first in a Malcolm Gladwell book, and I was intrigued with the notion that he claimed to be able to predict divorce with surprising accuracy after a few minutes’ observation.
Now, I’m not concerned about my own marriage, but I have seen divorces happen and wondered, “When did the slide begin? Did they suspect this would be the outcome? Were there clues for years or did it happen as suddenly for them as it appears to me?”
I came to the book not to see if there were warning signs in my own marriage, but rather to know what some relational warning signs are, especially as my children get older and will, eventually, begin forming their own relationships. Will I be able to watch a budding relationship and be able to say anything more helpful than, “I have a bad feeling (or a good feeling) about this”?
When I was your age…
So I opened the book with the realization that my teens are the age I was when I met their father. My youngest sister gets married this summer – two years older than I was when I got married – and she’s only 6 years older than my oldest.
I like to be prepared. I like to have ideas to think on ahead of time. So I finally read this book that had piqued my curiosity years ago. After all, he offers principles, and I love to have principles in my back pocket.
And it was applicable to my teens, even now.
But not in the way I was expecting.
Yes, it was about a marriage relationship, and yes, our marriage passed all the quizzes with flying colors.
But if you remove a certain chapter or two, the principles are really relationship principles. They are the principles for maintaining a close relationship with someone over the long haul. Recognizing that people change and develop and remain distinct individuals, what separates the relationships that grow closer from those that grow apart?
Being your teen’s friend
In broad lines, these principles apply to friendship (and made me aware of several ways in which I fall short as a friend).
Turns out, these principles also applied to parenting.
Over the years I’ve read numerous parenting books, mostly focused on the early years – those years where you feel like you’re going crazy and really, really want to do it all Right. Once you get a teen or two, it’s easy to drift into tired mode and say, “Well, whatever. I tried.” Sometimes you can pull off formula parenting with toddlers, but teens won’t let you – and that’s a good thing.
Teens are stretching and growing and asserting their own individuality, and they need to. It’s a painful process for everyone, and the temptation as a parent is either to grip tighter as they pull (because it’s a messy process, not a graceful one) or just give up – or, more likely, swing back and forth between the two positions, exasperating everyone, including yourself (but we’ll blame it on the teen, of course).
As I read this book it dawned on me: This is how to form & strengthen adult-to-adult, respectful relationships. This is how to live together in love and good humor even if you don’t agree. That is what I need as a mom of teens. And if I have been doing so for seventeen years with my husband, I should be able to apply what I’ve practiced more broadly now.
Six signs of relationship doom
Reading the book with a parent filter brought much conviction.
Gottman has his signs of doom – of pending divorce – he watches for and can peg. Parents and children don’t divorce, but they do grow apart, they do break relationships – it’s a thing, and if Gottman’s principles apply and his advice is true (which I think it is), then even parent-teen relationships on the brink of doom can be salvaged and repaired with intentional steps which he lines out.
But it starts with seeing the doom, which you don’t always when you’re in the middle of it.
There are six signs of doom, he says.
- Harsh Start-Up. Is the first thing out of my mouth directly confrontational? That’s not just a problem for certain personality types; it’s unhealthy, period. How telling is it that my children are the only ones I speak to with a harsh start-up? In doing so, I shut down not only connection but also reception of what I’m saying.
- Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. If these four responses are present in a majority of interactions or in all conflicts, emotional detachment is present or in progress. If the teen is defensive or stonewalls, likely it’s as a response to harsh start ups, criticism, or disrespect (i.e. contempt).
- Flooding. This is Gottmann’s term for the feeling of not being able to handle a situation: mental shut-down. He says it is a measurable, physical response that makes relational response impossible; the best option is to leave the situation until your mental state recovers. Stonewalling is purposeful and deliberate. Flooding is a physical response to emotional overwhelm. The only solution to it is to disengage; if that happens too often, emotional disengagement becomes the norm.
- Blood pressure & adrenaline. If conversations typically cause a rise in blood pressure or a release of adrenaline – that is, stress – disengagement is a bodily safety valve. Stress is damaging physically and emotionally, and if a relationship is associated with stress, it can’t last. It will explode or the two will disengage as a matter of self-preservation.
- Failed Repair Attempts. Repair attempts, according to Gottmann, are the little things we say or do to patch things up, to healthily destress, to stop and minimize rising stress responses – interpersonally. If a person sends any sort of repair attempt – a joke in a tense conversation, a little laugh, a plea with the eyes or hands – and it’s ignored, the relationship is courting destruction. As the mom, I need to notice and accept attempts, however clumsy, to stop an argument instead of continuing it until I “win” and get the resolution I want. Rather than escalating the conflict (such as by increasing the demands or raising the stakes), I win when I defuse it. When repair attempts are made and accepted, the resolution brings closeness; when made and ignored, it is the same as pushing a person away and slamming the door.
- Bad memories. When stories are told of the family history, how do they go? Memories are always more than bare facts – the same bare facts can be told in a way that nurtures closeness or feeds discontent and disharmony. Telling family stories with a negative spin is bitterness, and bitterness is relationship poison (according to Scripture). Takeaway: If you can laugh about it afterwards: DO.
Repairing relationship damage
His emphasis on repair attempts was most illuminating to me, not only because I find myself too readily and automatically escalating situations, but also because they are simple, practical, and doable. In a conflict-gone-wrong, I tend to want some sort of big picture, grand scale solution. But it’s actually the little things, the small acceptances of humility, that matter most. Escalating is pride. Offering a joke instead of a jab is humility.
I tend to think that as a parent, it’s my job to stay seated on the throne of pride and ensure everyone else stay submissive and humble under my decrees. Sometimes toddler-parenting can look like that, but no parenting should actually be from a position of pride, because pride is sin. The proud will be brought low; God guarantees it and does it. Better to go low voluntarily.
That doesn’t mean letting the children have their way; humility, rather, looks to undercut the tension, even in a self-abasing, self-deprecating way: a funny face, a joke, a modeling of letting go of self-will.
The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage is likely to flourish or flounder.
Another insight I found helpful:
Unrequited dreams are at the core of every gridlocked conflict. […] No matter how insignificant the issue, gridlock is a sign that you each have unrequited dreams for your life that the other isn’t aware of, hasn’t acknowledged, or doesn’t respect.
This is so true with teens. Setting their own dreams and goals is part of separating and becoming their own autonomous self. At first, their dreams and goals are immature, of course. They want to play computer all day. They want to never do algebra. They want to have no chores.
Rather than thinking of it as them being silly, stupid, or stubborn, I need to think of it as them experimenting, learning, and asserting – all things they need practice in.
Time to give up personal parental dreams
More importantly, often the gridlock is not only because the teen has an immature dream, but rather because I am the one with an unrequited dream for his life. I thought he’d be responsible enough by now that I wouldn’t have to check his work. I thought he’d be interested in this hobby or that, in this subject or that, and I don’t see it right now. Such dreams are as silly as his, though they seem as reasonable to me as his do to him.
Teens sense these dreams not as reasonable expectations, but as threats to independence and as disrespect and even dislike of who they are.
When people feel criticized, disliked, or unappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in.
So show the way. Give up dreams about how the other person should be and make a goal about how to be, right here, right now, yourself: show affection, offer humor, give grace.