Relationships: Notes From A Gottman Therapist

December 27, 2013

How to Strengthen Your Relationship? Think More Like a Cow

What We Can Learn From Cows

Alpine Cow

Relationship Guru? Well, Actually Yes!

Who would have thought that when it comes to qualities, it turns out that cows have a number of innate behaviors and social characteristics that translate really well into creating happy and healthy relationships in our species.

Driving by groups of cows now and then, I concluded that there really doesn’t seem to be much happening. They seem loosely together in a group, and pretty much chew and regurgitate. It kind of seemed to me that they are more solitary than herd-like.  Then again, I have seen them walking in a line together without any humans directing the way. How does that happen? Is there an alpha cow who moos and signals time to punch out and head back home? Maybe if they had facial expressions it would be a little easier to get a read. Admit it, have you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a cow? I recall driving up the Mendocino coast  with my wife some years ago and noticed the cows grazing on prime ocean front property and wondered if they appreciated the view, we certainly hoped so. Maybe I think too much about cows? Nevertheless, I did some research.

I’ll try not to milk this fact too much (sorry, couldn’t resist), but if you look up “cow quotes”, you will discover a number of insights and perspectives on cow qualities that have pretty significant implications for relationship health and wellness. 

Here are a few of some important cow quotes (taken from, Cow Quotes, at

 “The cow is a poem of compassion” – Mohandus (Mahatma)  Gandhi

“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.” - Thomas De Quincey

“Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a Swiss farm, and live entirely surrounded by cows – and china.” – Charles Dickens 

“There’s nothing like sitting back and talking to your cows.” – Russell Crowe

And my personal favorite:

“We have two dogs, Mabel and Wolf, and three cats at home, Charlie, George and Chairman. We have two cats on our farm, Tom and Little Sister, two horses, and two mini horses, Hannah and Tricky. We also have two cows, Holy and Madonna. And those are only the animals we let sleep in our bed.” – Ellen DeGeneres

Cows like to sleep close to their families and have been known to walk miles to find their calves. They actually do form close friendships, and can hold grudges and preferences in their social group. If a cow likes another cow, they will even baby-sit, or I guess I should say calve-sit. Research on cow social behavior points to the conclusion that cows excel at picking leaders. Also, they do communicate with different types of moos, apparently indicating a variety of emotions.Well, so much for the idea that not much is happening in the cow field other than chewing cud and adding contributions to the green house effect.

So what can we learn from cows about relationships? I really want to focus on their curiosity and gentleness. If in a relationship partners can hold a spirit of curiosity about their partner’s thought’s, reactions, and perspectives, then that relationship will likely go well. It can be easy to fall into our own reactions to what our partner is expressing before really understanding, much less validating, what our partner is saying. Cows are really curious and will explore and investigate everything. Imagine how your partner might feel if after sharing something with you, especially if was important to your partner, you were to embrace this attitude of curiosity, interest, and gentleness. It made me wonder about think of the expression “chewing the cud”. According to The Free Dictionary it is an idiom defined as “To think about something carefully, and for a long time.”

The things that lead to intimacy and trust: Taking your time to be curious, ask questions, and understand your partner’s thoughts and feelings. Without those qualities relationships are more likely to feel tense and uncomfortable. When couples get stuck in issues and try to problem-solve before really understanding why they are stuck, then the best option is to be like a curious cow. Rather than arguing your point or trying to solve the problem, put on a cow face if you can (they are cute), make it safe for your partner to share, then communicate compassionately what you hear.

If we put together chewing the cud with our partner, along with Gandhi’s take on cows as being a poem of compassion, well, I would say you are going to be an udder success with your partner. Oh, by the way, did you know that cows have an almost 360 degree panoramic view? That’s another pretty good metaphor for trying to take in the big perspective!


December 20, 2013

What I Have Learned from the Gottmans: Where to Start?


Okay, Let’s Start with the Research

John Gottman’s research on the longitudinal course of relationships began in 1972 when he and Bob Levenson  asked the question: What predicts divorce? At the time there were only six studies on divorce and none were at all helpful. John and Bob did not exactly have a vote of confidence from the academic and research community. John, a professor at the University of Washington, and Bob a professor at UC Berkeley, received much skepticism  with responses characterized by the question: “Social scientists can not predict individual behavior very well, how can you predict relationship behavior?” John and Bob’s research outcomes surprised even them; relationship behavior is predictable, they indeed found out what is associated with relationship breakdown and with relationship stability.

The three areas of John and Bob’s research involved: interactions, physiology, and perception. It turns out that each of these areas have significance in understanding and determining relationship trajectory: either towards stability or instability. What they discovered was that relationships have a  balance between negativity and positivity, called”set points”. In dysfunctional relationships these set points are habitually toward negativity with a dynamic of blame and/or withdrawal, referred to as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With over 90% accuracy John and Bob could predict what would happen to the relationship with the knowledge collected in just a few hours. The  consistent escalation in negativity impacts the couple’s ability to repair hurts and conflicts just as the consistent calm characterized in the healthy relationships was an indicator for relationship stability.  


The research was multi-dimensional, involving over 3,000 couples from every major racial and ethic group in the United States, and included a twelve year study of committed gay and lesbian relationships. This is pretty compelling stuff, but what happens next sets this cutting edge research in a unique category of research. It is one thing to  have learned about these relationship patterns and dynamics that provide a way of understanding and predicting relationship trajectory, but it’s quite another thing to make use of it in a very practical and applicable way. It wasn’t until John began collaborating with his psychologist wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, that methods were developed to help couples. The outcome of this innovation of blending science and practice was a relationship model developed by the Gottmans, the “Sound Relationship House (SRH) theory. The SRH model provides a map for working with couples involving three different components of relationship – Friendship, Conflict, and Meaning –  broken down into 7 different levels. The SRH model is a non-linear, interactional model, with separate but related levels that effect each other.


Now Let’s Talk About What They Did with the Research

Together, Drs. Julie and John Gottman co-founded the Gottman Institute, a vision aimed at helping couples and training therapists in this research-based approach of couple therapy. The Gottmans created “Art and Science of Love:  A Weekend  Workshop for Couples, an intensive experiential workshop where couples are provided tools and given information on what emerged from the research.

Additionally, through Gottman Institute has trained countless therapists over the years and has developed training program options with opportunity to deepen the understanding and application of the SRH model. In the spirit of “pass it on”, the Gottmans have transitioned from providing all the training to training Certified Gottman Therapists to be trainers and to continue what has been this important work.  What a gift it has been to be a part of this work. Untold hours have been spent by the Gottmans and their team under the able direction of Etana Dykan Kunovsky (who has been there from the start), and Alan Kunovsky, developing and continuing to evolve the workshops for couples and the the training workshops for therapists.

I’m not intending to write this article as an advertisementt, but rather as an acknowledgement and public appreciation of a brilliant model of research and practice that has  developed into a process of bringing  important information about relationships to couples and to therapists.

What I believe drives the success of this model is the underlying philosophy John and Julie hold, that the SRH theory and methods of intervention are continuing to evolve and be developed and deepened. Like all healthy relationships, growth is ongoing, we are never really done in the sense of reaching a certain stage of development – “Whew, we have arrived”. Rather the ups and downs, success and failures all lead to a sense of continuing change and growth.


What This Has Meant To Me

Over 10 years ago I began my own research with couples in recovery from addiction. This work has continued with the support of the Mental Research Institute (MRI), where I am a Research Associate in addition to my private practice. It turns out that we know a lot about how addiction affects couples, but not very much about how to actually help relationships impacted addiction. I too have been met with skepticism over the model I have developed helping couples in recovery, because couple therapy traditionally is discouraged unless they have years of recovery.

Much to my own surprise I have found striking similarities with SRH model and my Couple Recovery Development Approach (CRDA). What I didn’t have, however, were interventions to help couples. This is where Gottman Method therapy enters. I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with John Gottman in developing my own adaptation of Gottman therapy for recovering couples. This research/practice model developed by John and Julie Gottman has motivated and inspired me, and provided a road map of sorts on how to develop this model and get the work out to couples and to recovery professionals and therapists. Both Julie and John express their continued support and mentoring in developing a workshop for recovering couples and tools for clinicians in helping recovering couples.


With Gratitude

Couples in Addiction Recovery Empowerment (CARE), is a concept of  relational approach to recovery, one that supports individual recovery in the context of the couple relationship, essentially creating a “Couple Recovery”. As I have learned from the evolution of John’s research to a model of practice:

  • I am grateful for beginning this phase of work with the support from the Gottman Institute and John & Julie  
  • I aspire to innovate and continue to collaborate in developing couple recovery approaches.
  • I hope to be a part of creating a vision of couple recovery as a widely accepted practice within recovery circles
  • Perhaps others will feel motivation and continue to motivate me in carrying this forward

A Road Map for the Journey: A Gottman Worshop for Couples in Addiction Recovery, is a two-day workshop I developed in collaboration with John Gottman and sponsored by the Gottman Institute and Edgewood Seattle Addiction Services. The workshop debuts April 5 & 6, 2014 at held at Edgewood Seattle. After a decade, this is quite a dream come true. I am very grateful to be a part of the Gottman Community.

January 30, 2013

Managing Resentments and Grudges: Opportunities for Intimacy-Really!

Filed under: Gottman Method Therapy,Gottman Research,Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 4:56 pm
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Resentments and grudges can hurt relationships, but…

We have learned a lot about relationship stability from Drs. John & Julie Gottman’s work.  What’s interesting about resentments is that we can think about them as falling in three different categories, with thoughts that might go something like this: 1) “On second thought or in the big picture, maybe this isn’t really that important, and I can let this go”.  2) “I’m feeling resentment here and this is irritating and this is important to me, (but not particularly meaningful)”, and 3) “This is serious and painful, and has meaning to me related to an important value, belief, or strong feeling.”

It’s important to know that, the very same behavior for three different couples could fall in three different categories based on our histories, experiences, perceptions and other factors.

managing them well can lead to increased intimacy.

We can’t avoid all negativity in a relationship. In fact, intimacy occurs when we can express our deepest feelings to our partner and feel heard and respected. Addressing grudges and resentments, when done in non-blaming ways, opens our inner emotional world to our partner. Just how do we do this?

The three categories? Here they are:


Category 1 Resentment

In a “Category 1 Resentment” we can let things go without necessarily talking about it with our partner and, most importantly, we feel okay about doing that. Generally this happens when the relationship is in a good place and we feel mostly positive about our partner and the relationship. We may feel a bit under the weather in the relationship because of this resentment, but it isn’t all clouds, there is some sun breaking through. In other words, the positive outweighs the negative in the relationship and we are able to give our partner some slack and see the bigger picture – the issue isn’t that big to us, no real triggers are set off. “OK, on second thought this isn’t that important”, or “Well, I could have used more help from my partner at our dinner party Friday night, but I realize work has demanded a lot of me and I might be over-stressed and over-reactive. Usually we work well together and this isn’t an issue. I can let this slide”.

Lightning from Blue Cloud

Category 2 Resentment

In a “Category 2 Resentment” we are dealing with something that may cause negative feelings, it feels a bit charged, and if not managed could lead to increasing resentment if not talked about. However,  it doesn’t threaten the security of the relationship or have particular meaning other than irritation, anger or frustration. What to do with Category 2 resentments? Tell your partner what you need instead of holding on to the resentment. We have learned from research that couples who manage conflict well, know how to start a conversation without attacking the partner. There tend to be three elements in a good start to talking about upsets: 1) Talking about one’s own perceptions by describing the event, recognizing this is your own perception and not probably your partner has a different perception; 2) Expressing your feeling about what happened; and 3) Stating what you needed at the time, or need now. One formula for this “softened start” is the following:

“When (describe the behavior that happened or is happening),

I feel or felt (upset, angry, frustrated, confused, hurt),

I need (this to happen, or I need this now, please).”

Category 3 Resentment

In a “Category 3 Resentment”, meaning is given to the incident or behavior that can drive the resentment to a level of great distress in the relationship. The resentment is experienced as very painful and is perceived or explained either as a fundamental flaw in the partner and/or is triggering some deeply felt feelings or core beliefs. These are the majors storms in the relationship that can create a lot of damage if not managed, eventually leading to bickering or to an emotionally disengaged relationship of withdrawal. When not talked understood or talked about these resentments can lead to a gridlocked impasse in the relationship that feels overwhelming and usually is confusing to the couple because they aren’t really having the conversation they need to have yet about the story underneath the resentment.

What causes these feelings? Often it’s because something from the past is triggering the emotions, or the incident represents something very important to the individual like, trust, safety, teamwork, inclusion, etc. These resentments need to be understood as representing something core to the individual, a dream, a hope, a deeply held desire. Without blaming your partner, focus on your own feelings, telling your partner what this issue represents and what the issue means to you; ask for understanding. The listener’s role would be to try to deepen understanding of what happened to have made this event or experience painful to the partner. Focus on:

  1. “Here is the incident and the feelings I have about the incident_____________”
  2. “What I really would have wanted to happen instead was_____________”
  3. Check to see if this is an old and familiar feeling that has roots in your history. For example, “I have a sensitivity to criticism because that’s what my family did best”.
  4. It really helps if you can share what beliefs and core values you have about what this incident means to you. For example,”I want to feel heard when I express my feelings and perceptions. This is important to me in our relationship”

Category 3 resentments can be difficult to manage, and a couple therapist may be needed to work through these types of resentments. It may be that more conversations may need to happen.

Oh Yea, Don’t Forget the Positive

Couples that have the strongest relationships have learned to focus on the positive in the partner and in the relationship, developing a mindset of “Catching your partner doing something right and telling him or her, in other words, developing a culture of appreciation, one of the best preventative measure couples can take to avoid resentments. We have learned that stable, long-lasting relationships are characterized by couples who daily show interest in each other, asking questions, making attempts to connect. When there are issues that are important to talk about, they tend to avoid criticizing the partner and state what you need and why. Otherwise, Category 2 resentment can turn into Category 3 resentment. Finally, develop a daily ritual involving checking in with each other, and taking time to really know your partner thoughts, feelings and needs. The resentment storm watch will likely downgrade Level 3’s, to Level 2’s and Level 1’s.

March 11, 2012

Recovering Couples: How to Develop a Deeper Friendship with Your Partner

Filed under: Gottman Method Therapy,Gottman Research,Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 6:17 pm
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(Originally published in New Times: For Addiction Recovery, July/August, 2007)

Friendship is essential in developing and maintaining an intimate relationship. Based on John Gottman’s ground breaking research involving 3,000 couples over 30 years on what makes relationships successful, we now know what it takes to foster friendship in an intimate relationship.

Gottman found that couples with greatest relationship satisfaction consistently demonstrated strengths in 3 areas of developing their friendships: “Love Maps”, “Fondness and Admiration”, and “Bids and the Emotional Bank Account”. Each of these components require specific relationship skills and tools; and for recovering couples this raises the question of how to address recovery issues in the relationship. Let me introduce you to three couples, problems they are experiencing in their friendship, and what they can do about it.

Couple #1: John drove home from his AA meeting excited about an awareness that opened up new insights into why he had been struggling all week to stay sober. As he walked in through the doorAlicegreeted him with “About time you got home, what a day I had with the kids. Alan needs a bath”. John silently felt deflated and resentful, shrugged his shoulders stating “OK”, and walked pastAliceto tend to his parenting.

Key Skill #1: Love Maps

Good friends know something about their friend’s world; it’s sharing the day to day experiences that bring people closer together. People change over time and to keep up with these changes good friends make a committed effort to sit and listen, without judgment.

John and Alice need to take time to catch up with each other’s day. Agreeing to set a time each night to get a “live update” fosters a sense of knowing your partner and his/her world, and of being known and understood by your partner. Finding a time to talk after Alan’s bath, John could share that he had a particularly meaningful meeting. For example, without sharing details and without breaking anonymity, he could simply let Aliceknow how he feels about what he is learning about himself. Asking Aliceabout her day and the pressure she felt with the kids will go a long way in giving Alicea sense that John cares about her and her struggles. Unless asked for, the key is to avoid giving advise or giving one’s own perspective, rather just listen with the goal to understand a little bit more about your partner’s world.

Couple #2: Samantha was learning in Al-Anon and in therapy how difficult it was for her to ask for what she needed. She felt desperate as she looked at her partner Chris concluding that he was a big part of the problem. Her thoughts went to how he always focused on himself. Despite her momentary awareness that she was “taking his inventory”, she continued to make a long mental list of his shortcomings

Key Skill #2: Fondness and Admiration

Friends are able to express what they like and appreciate in each other. Feeling loved, liked and appreciated creates feelings of emotional safety and trust. Would you stay in a friendship where you felt criticized and judged, probably not? Likewise, couples need to remember and focus on the positive qualities and attributes of their partner.

While Chris isn’t perfect, if asked what Chris’s strengths are, Samantha may remember that Chris did take her out for a wonderful birthday dinner last month. She may recall that he often asked her how her meetings are going and if she would like him to call her mother to say they are not able to attend the family reunion this year because he has a work conflict. Noticing and giving voice to what we appreciate in our partner provides balance, avoids black and white thinking, and brings positivity that will ultimately help deal with the negative problematic areas of the relationship.

Couple #3: Recovery was going well for Lisa; she just celebrated another sobriety birthday, felt connected with her sponsor, and loved her Thursday night meetings. Happiness finally seemed a possibility, but as her recovery progressed positively, her relationship with Bill seemed to deteriorate. In recent months they stopped going out to dinner, an activity they used to love on Friday nights. The tension in the silence felt heavy, and when they did try to talk, they often ended up arguing, so Bill and Lisa tended to just avoid each other.

Key Skill #3: Bids and the emotional Bank Account

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend”? The lyrics tell of how the friend expresses his commitment to the friendship, he will be there, just give a call. Every time a partner calls or reaches out for connection or attention, it is called a bid. When the other partner responds to that bid, it’s like money in the emotional bank account and builds friendship and closeness. However, if the response is ignored, or if what comes back is negative or attacking, it’s like taking money out of the emotional bank account and damages the relationship. Gottman found it was the little bids and positive responses that made a huge difference in the big picture of the relationship. For example, “How was your day?” is a bid. A turning toward that bid and building up the emotional bank account would be any response that acknowledged the partner’s interest, for example: “It was boring…It was great…I’m mad about it and would rather not talk about it, but how was your day?”. Frequent bids and positive responses to those bids can turn a relationship back on the path of a good friendship

Lisa and Bill, once they understand the importance of bids and the emotional bank account, could focus on trying to better recognize when the partner is reaching out, then respond and acknowledge with words or a smile. Studies indicate if bids are ignored and rejected, the bidder stops trying. The net effect over years is an emotionally distant relationship. Lisa and Bill, as with the other two couples, will do best if they can try to incorporate and work on all three components of friendship: Love Maps, Fondness and Admiration, and Bids.

Recovering couples are challenged with finding a place for recovery in the relationship. Some partners are both in recovery, but are unsure how to share more as a couple in their individual recovery journey. Some individuals find themselves alone in their recovery or even criticized by their partners for being in recovery. Regardless of each individual situation, developing a better friendship means “progress not perfection” in each of these areas. Having a discussion about these concepts is a step in the direction of improving or strengthening one core aspect of a satisfying relationship, friendship.

April 24, 2011

Recovering Couples: When You Take the FUN Out of DysFUNction

Filed under: Gottman Method Therapy,Gottman Research,Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 1:31 am
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Published in Couples in Addiction Recovery 4/23/11 (

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Margaret and James used to have a good time together – that is when they were both drinking. They had quite a ritual, with both coming  home from work around the same time they would begin their daily pattern of  happy hour. For many alcoholic couples, happy hour doesn’t stay happy as alcohol begins to change moods, temperaments, and judgement, all leading to unhappy hour. This wasn’t the case for James and Margaret.  They rarely fought during their happy hour and often had lively conversations filled with laughter. They both saw this time  as a time to bond. Drinking time was a fun time for them, often lasting several hours. After dinner, well not so much fun, with both falling asleep usually watching television. Drinking wasn’t so fun always at other times either as health issues for Margaret and escalating work-related difficulties for James led to poor performance reviews. James sales position required some evening and at home work which simply wasn’t happening.

Remarkably, both Margaret and James decided to stop drinking at just about the same time, and both began working a recovery program. They both went to AA and eventually found sponsors.  What surprised them both was that their relationship satisfaction dropped after they stopped drinking. James had about 8 months of sobriety and Margaret with 10 months when they started couples therapy.  James discouraged, commented, “Boy is recovery a buzz kill, literally! Aren’t relationships supposed to get better? Why aren’t we having more fun?” Margaret nodded her head in perplexed agreement. This was a great question, and not an uncommon issue or concern for couples in early and in ongoing recovery.

The couples that do best over time find ways to establish new rituals of connection and find ways to celebrate and have fun that don’t involve drinking or drugging. This is especially difficult when couples have relationships with their families of origin, and one or both of those families have highly ingrained rituals around drinking , with no model of how to be together and have fun without substances. Un-recovered family alcoholism presents a major issue to confront when individuals try to establish recovery in their lives and still be a part of their familiy where drinking is central.

“What do you two do for fun now that you no longer drink?” I asked after hearing about their former happy hour (or two) nightly get together. “Well,” Margaret replied,” We tried continuing our happy hour time with non alcoholic drinks”. “How has that gone?”, I asked, kind of knowing what the answer would likely be. James chimed in, “I don’t know what to talk about. We just sit there like we don’t have anything in common anymore. Sorry honey…” as he looked at Margaret, “…but it’s really kind of boring”. Margaret started to get defensive, but then had to admit that she really wasn’t having a good time either.

Time to Establish Some New Rituals for Fun

Trying to establish a non alcohol happy hour just didn’t work, too many associations with their drinking. They both needed to learn how to be together having fun in ways that didn’t involve drinking. Both coming from alcoholic families, neither one had family experiences to draw on, both families maintained drinking as a central activity at all family gatherings and celebrations.  As we continued our work in therapy, Margaret and James discussed new activities that they were willing to try together. For years they both expressed an interest in taking yoga, but drinking always would win out with mutual promises of “Next time”.  Now that they could, they decided to take a yoga class together, and found that the socialization following class really opened up their friend network, something long neglected. Margaret and James began attending parties hosted by the yoga class instructor and other members of the class. They found themselves open to new ideas about other things they had long talked about doing but never quite got to. James got his keyboard out the closet and began to practice again, entertaining ideas of trying to get his old group together . “Who knows, maybe we can actually play some gigs again now that I won’t be so loaded that I insult the club owner”.

It turns out that play is an important drive, hard wired into all brain circuitry.  Dr. Jaak Panksepp, noted psychologist and neuroscientist, writes about the emotional command systems in the sub cortical structures in our brains that when activated predictably lead to specific behaviors; play is one of them.

All couples really need to make play a part of their relationship. It doesn’t really matter what activities you choose as long as you both enjoy it. Also, taking time for yourself to develop interests, nurturing a playful self is an important part of every individual recovery program that all too often is overlooked.

Think about the things you might want to do with your partner that could be a fun, shared experience, as well as finding or getting back to your own individual interests.

Taking the FUN out of dysFUNction means putting the FUN back in FUNctional recovery.

April 9, 2011

When Arguments Are Like A Memory Foam Pillow

Filed under: Gottman Research,Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 5:54 pm
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It was a mystery. My poor wife was waking up in the morning and starting the day with a headache. “What do you think is causing these headaches honey”, I asked bravely, given that the first person she sees every morning is me and not wanting to be ground zero on the headache terrain. “Do you think it’s stress?” – This is the kind of question a therapist spouse is destined to ask. “No”, she replied, “I don’t think so. I don’t know what’s going on or why now.”

It’s really a drag to start the day with a headache and it didn’t seem to be getting better, so she decided to check in with her doctor and see if she had any ideas. What followed was a surprise to both of us. After the doctor asked some questions about the type of headache my wife was experiencing and the nature and location of the pain, her doctor suggested that these types of headaches can be triggered by not having enough neck support from your pillow. ” Really!” I marveled at this revelation. “It can be as simple as having the right kind of pillow. It’s not stress?” – Once a therapist always a therapist.

“No, it’s not stress, although that is  not to say that some of my headaches don’t sometimes come from other sources”, as she looked at me with a slight smile and her head confidently cocked to the side. Time to drop the stress thing and get back to what the doctor told her. “Basically, she told me to get a contour pillow, the kind of pillow made of memory foam. It provides support”. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical that this would do the trick, but it certainly was worth trying, and it was a lot better than going on medication or more intrusive measures.

It turns out her doctor is a genius; the memory foam pillow has made all the difference in this headache issue, pretty much eliminating the problem. What is memory foam? I learned from a European Sleep Works website (no, this is not a commercial) that memory foam is able to contour to the body’s shape because it is made of  a synthetic foam and a type of mineral oil, a  “wetting agent”,  which makes the foam yield then spring back at a slower rate. The longer you lay on the pillow, the warmer the wetting agent becomes, leading to a greater contour fit to the head and neck.

I got to thinking, sometimes in relationships arguments are very much like memory foam pillows or mattresses. Couples get stuck in repetitive, perpetual conflicts that always seem to end up in the same place. The longer you “lay in” the same argument, the more it contours to the same old pattern. Talk about headaches!

John Gottman refers to these issues as perpetual issues, which are defined as the kind of problems all couples have because we are different from one another. The research indicates that about 69% of the problems couples report are due to these perpetual, ongoing differences. No two individuals always think or act alike, we have differences in preferences, ideas, perspectives, interests, and so on. These differences are normal, even in the healthiest and happiest relationships. The trick is to accept these differences, work with temporary compromises, and realize while your partner may not be as perfect as you are, or see things in the same ways that are so obvious to you, your partner is thinking exactly the same thing about how different you are. Are we really surprised when our partner acts in certain ways that may irritate us or seem illogical?

Maybe bringing a new insight or new perspective to an old problem is like laying in a new spot on the memory foam – it creates a new fit, a new contour. If we think about personality differences and how we are really different people, maybe it’s not so bad if we ask ourselves -Would I really want to be married to somebody exactly like me? Sexual connotation aside: Vive le difference.

February 19, 2011

It’s Hard to Hug a Porcupine or a Lioness

Filed under: Gottman Method Therapy,Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 10:06 pm
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Ah, you are telling me that you want a hug? Really?

Why is it that it is so hard to ask for what we want? Allen was feeling pressured. The boss had him working two jobs after Jim left and his position was not refilled. Of course yesterday the car started sounding like a washing machine and losing power on acceleration: that can’t be good. The kids, God bless them, Allen loved them but they seem to be fighting more these days over important issues like “Dad Alisa touched me”, “and “Kelsey stop looking at me”, you know the important stuff the 2nd grade twins found to be life thretening. Oh, then there was Allen’s annual physical his wife had been nagging him about. “Yea, Sandra, I really look forward to my visits with Dr. Big Hands”. Sandra responded, “Oh come on Allen, you should try delivering twins, then we can have a conversation about your physical!”

Allen finally make it home after another accident filled, rainy, gridlocked commute and promptly expressed his frustrations and stresses in classic form: No he did not say he was stressed, tired and feeling overwhelmed, no, he morphed into a porcupine: all prickly and grumpy. Allen learned from his father that men  let their partner know they need something by becoming porcupine-ish. Somehow, Sandra kept missing the cues, “Or maybe she doesn’t care?” thought Allen

Sandra responded with a few attempts at asking if Allen had a bad day, but when he responded sarcastically with “What do you think?” Sandra morphed into “Chucha, lioness who can not be tamed”. With her own version of survival in motion Chucha prowled the rooms carefully avoiding the prickly porcupine, after all, she had cubs to tend to and a list of chores on her to do list.

Both Sandra and Allen were able to make it through the evening. Allen got the kids ready for bed while Sandra spent some time on the phone coordinating play dates and getting ready for her day at the office. Finally, the kids went down, after three repetitions of “The Runaway Bunny”. Sandra heard Allen read the story from the other room, with not just a little irony, both she and Allen thinking “Yea, running away sounds pretty good to me too”. When Sandra finished her calls and getting things ready for the next day, she found Allen slumped on the couch looking like an extra in the movie Day of the Dead. She sat next to him after he saw her and patted the seat next to him. They both realized that each had been under the gun, but somehow they couldn’t figure out how to deal with what seemed like an endless stream of responsibilities that was impacting their relationship.

Sandra recalled that she desperately wanted Allan to hold her last night. why couldn’t he see how exhausted she was? She was practically in tears when she looked at the laundry, why didn’t he offer to at least help? Both Allen and Sandra have a hard time asking for what they need. Sometimes they need help with stuff, mostly they seem to  need understanding, or a listening ear. That night Sandra didn’t morph into a lioness, she morphed into a fragile kitten.

Inside every porcupine and lioness is something else  that simply wants to be held, understood, validated, helped, or some other need. What is underneath that morphed animal? Here’s a starter list below. Find a picture from a magazine or the internet that might show your partner how you are feeling. Who knows, you may work up to actually putting words to the picture.

February 1, 2011

Bob’s Blog Boo-Boo:Technology and Relationships Addendum

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 10:56 pm
Tags: ,

You have got to be kidding. I just discovered today that in a strange, unplanned, unintentional and ironic little turn, in the last blog I posted on the issue of  technology’s impact on relationships, I made a mistake that sent a very confusing post to all who subscribe to this blog.

Let me explain. So the blog was titled “Is Your Partner Having an Affair…With Technology?” As I was writing the blog I thought I would use technology to help create a conversation between partners about the impact of technology on their relationship. Hey, here’s an idea I thought, I would add some audio files embedded in the blog that would make funny little sounds.  I would encourage the reader to click on the audio buttons while their partner was in the room – grabbing their partner’s attention and asking what the sounds were about. Here was the perfect opportunity to have the partner come over, read the blog and answer the questions I listed and could start that conversation in a spirit of humor. You know, kind of like fishing, putting out the bait you know the fish likes, see if you get a hit, reel them in.

Of course, this approach could backfire – it is a bit devious and well, I can admit , manipulative – but in a nice way. I figured the previous blog addressed how to repair an argument, what the hey, they’re covered. If this attempt to tantalize the partner’s technological curiosity wasn’t being perceived as a lighthearted “bid” for what could be an important conversation, I was going to encourage the partners to disrupt the argument by hitting the funny noise buttons until they both laughed. I laughed every time I hit one of the buttons, but then again, I am the guy that likes shiny objects that move and/or make noise.

Here is the problem. I found out I couldn’t add sound files to my blog without an upgrade to my WordPress account. OK I thought, maybe I’ll get the upgrade later, but in the meantime I will rewrite this section and leave out the audio files for now. Press PREVIEW : Except I hit “PUBLISH” before writing the new section. At that moment, everybody who subscribes to the blog got an email of the blog – the version that had the instructions to hit the non-existent buttons with the non-existent audio files, with the non-existent funny sounds. Oh, by the way, this blog was just featured in the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists Facebook  page, and a bunch of those folks just started a subscription. Great timing Bob. – Hi and welcome  AAMFT members…blush…gee…sorry about the confusion…you can delete the email…ahh, the final version is at the blog address…)

I can’t really blame technology for this, I’m the guy that hit the wrong button. And as long as I’m confessing, I thought this would be the rare opportunity to legitimately (appear) to have a reason to put funny sounding audio files in my blog, add the moving images, and play a bit with this stuff. Also, I know the picture at the top looks like OJ, but it isn’t. There, I feel better, plus I got to use another animation in a blog. Now I will click on publish and hope there aren’t too many tyypos, you can’t be too careful. See, repair is really cool in relationships, with or without funny noises.

January 31, 2011

Is Your Partner Having an Affair…with Technology?

Filed under: Gottman Method Therapy,Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 3:51 am
Tags: ,

Conversation Snippets

“It’s 3:00 am, why are you checking your email now?…because you want to see if your vacation notification is working?”

“The blue glow from your lap top in our bedroom is really attractive, but turn that stupid thing off!”

“Are you listening? I need to tell you something important…oh, I see, you are listening and are good at multi-tasking”

“Do we really need to store the remote under your pillow?”

“You want me to text you? I thought we might actually have a conversation here at the restaurant.”

“Yes Wikipedia is interesting and no, I don’t want to know how many varieties of mold have been discovered in the last 10 years.

“Honey, we don’t need to set the GPS to get to my mother’s house. What do you mean you are searching for an alternative route that takes longer?”

Smart Phones, iPads, Kindles, BlackBerrys, Blu-Ray Players, GPS Navigators, Video-Game Consoles, Monitors, MP3 Players, etc., etc.

Sound familiar? Technology has invaded our culture, our lives, our relationships. Relentless, technology marches on with the newest, coolest, sexiest gizmo  never more than weeks away from release. These concerns are more and more a part of the complaints I hear in the couples therapy room.

I have to say, when it comes to technology, I feel a bit like Gollum in the Hobbit, remember him, the character with a split personality – one part talking to the other part with a love/hate thing. My internal conversation is about technology. “My precious iPod, you are amazing, I can use G mail, Google calendar, use Microsoft Word, read books and sync it all wirelessly with my netbook. I can even deal with angry birds and land airplanes – best score 57 safe landings ….wait, go away, I know you want me all the time – you call to me all the time.Yes you are clever and seductive…yes precious I can listen to any artist I like on Pandora radio…WAIT (Whew)! “

There is a sort of “use your powers for good” concept here. Undoubtedly, technology has made our lives easier in countless ways. Yes technology can make our work easier. The “dark side” is summarized in a session I had with a couple recently. Both partners expressed the toll technology has taken on their relationship. One partner stated that, “We have never been more connected, and yet more lonely”

Given that we ultimately have to learn to deal with the realities of technological innovation in our daily lives, how might couples manage the challenges of technology and the impact on their individual lives and their relationship? John Gottman’s research on relationships lead to the “Sound Relationship House” model. Happy stable relationships have three different parts of the relationship going well: the friendship system, conflict system, and the meaning system. It’s this last category that best addresses the technology issue. Questions in this last component deal with what gives the couple meaning, the kind of life style, values, roles each person sees for a happy and healthy relationship. GOAL: ADAPT TECHNOLOGY TO YOUR LIVES, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND ( ADAPTING YOUR LIVES TO TECHNOLOGY)

Have a Conversation With Your Partner About Technology

  1. Perhaps you can get an agreement to check out this blog. Then discuss the following questions, each person taking turns as listener.
  • What are the ways I think our involvement with technology sometimes interferes with our relationship?
  • What  do I like about how we manage technology in our lives?
  • How might we adapt our technology and use of technology to better match what we value in a life style as: Individuals? A couple? A Family?

Remember, connecting with your partner will sometimes mean walking away from those seductive electronic sirens beckoning us for “just a little bit longer”.    

January 22, 2011

Why Your Partner Makes You Feel Crazy: Part 2

See Dick and Jane Trying to Communicate: See Dick and Jane Repair the Communication

“OK Dick, I want to talk about what happened last night”(1), Jane opened with a no-nonsense, let’s get to business look. She was calm, but felt upset and hurt. Dick paused a few moments, on the one hand Dick dreaded “the talk” after the argument, on the other hand, he too felt badly about how intense their conflict became. He knew he had really hurt Jane when he compared her to her mother, a relationship Jane had struggled with her entire life. While it seemed like the right thing to say at the time just to get her to stop attacking him, he could at least admit to himself that he didn’t like how it felt afterwards.

“Dick….?” Jane felt him slipping away again emotionally and she desperately needed to fix this. Dick avoided looking directly at Jane, took a deep breath and in a slightly condescending tone replied, “Jane, it’s talking that got us in trouble to begin with.”   After several moments  of silence Dick looked at Jane, waiting for another attack. He wondered how and why things got so bad so quickly last night. Dick didn’t like what he was feeling but he saw where this was heading and changed direction. “Jane, OK, let me start this over (2). We do need to figure out what happened and just not go there”(1), Dick took another deep breath and kept eye contact.

“I know”, Jane replied with relief, as the tension in her eased a bit. “Dick, sometimes I don’t feel listened to and I get frustrated(3). I ask you to do things that you seem to forget. I guess something snapped inside when I saw you had taken the mail into your office again after you said you would leave the mail on the kitchen table for me to see. I shouldn’t have criticized you(4), and I am sorry about that(2), but that statement about my mother…I need you to not go there(1)“.

Dick could see Jane’s hurt and replied “I am sorry Jane, that slipped out and I know that hurt you(2,4). I hate feeling like I let you down or have disappointed you, sometimes it comes out sideways(4). The comment about my ‘Oops moments’, could you not say that(1)?’ Dick couldn’t say it out loud, but he felt shame when he would forget things. He wasn’t sure if he had too many things going on, or maybe he had ADD, but he has struggled with forgetting things most of his life which has been an endless source of pain and humiliation for him.

Jane replied with increasing softness, “OK. Sorry(2). I will work on not attacking you when I’m upset(4), and if I come on too strongly will you tell me that rather than coming back at me?(1).

Dick smiled, “I guess we both have our ‘Oops moments’(4). Sure, I will let you know if my gut starts twisting into a square knot when you start to talk”(2), Jane looked at Dick and started laughing and replied “Deal”.

The relationship seemed back on track for the both of them. There was more to the story, but this was good for now.

Play by Play of the Repair

Most important tools in a repair (numbers refer to footnotes above):

  1. Asking for what you need not what you don’t need. Avoid Blame
  2. Repair - starting a conversation over when off to a bad start; saying “I’m, sorry; humor, (anything that turns down the anger or escalation)
  3. Sharing feelings:  I feel______ about________. Describe behaviors, avoid labels-
  4. Accepting responsibility – simply owning a part of the problem and avoiding defensiveness.

One of the most important tools every couple needs is to have a way to repair the relationship when it slips off tracks, which it inevitably will do. Building repair into the relationship will help when the communication slips into the “Oops Moments”. It also provides a level of deeper intimacy – trust me on that.

See, Dick and Jane are like you and me. Who doesn’t have their Oops Moments?

January 17, 2011

Here’s Why Your Partner Makes You Feel CRAZY!!

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 4:26 pm

See Dick.  See Jane .  See Dick and Jane fight.

Jane tilted her head to the side, her eyes widened, the muscles in her jaw tightened forcing her upper and lower lips into a very small shared space on her face. She couldn’t contain it anymore. Despite her attempts to stay calm she let loose  at Dick.  Her lips went from very closed to very open, creating the illusion that her face was getting bigger. “You have got to be kidding! You actually took the mail into your office AGAIN, and well, I didn’t get the credit card statement. We now have a late fee. That’s a $39.00 late fee plus the interest…all because I couldn’t find the bill to pay it…AHHHhhhh, what is the matter with you?”

Dick couldn’t believe she was reacting this strongly. The credit card balance was only $800.00. Pretty low all in all. Dick was thinking, let’s see, what’s that,  $10.00 interest fee, on top of the $39.00. Dick’s tried to remain rational, but he found his voice automatically elevated,  matching Jane’s tone and intensity, “We are talking about a stupid $50.00 penalty. Give me a break. Everything always comes down to such a crisis for you. You are not happy unless you have something to complain about. When is the last time I forgot to pass on the credit card statement?”

Jane looked incredulously at Dick. How about for the last two out of four months? You seriously think I look forward to your latest “Oops” moments? Dick replied defensively and definitively, “Oh come on Jane, You know that is an exaggeration. No way. And yes, you seem to enjoy pointing out everything I do wrong. Guess you learned that from that sweet understanding mother of yours”.

Dick knew that one hit, and hit hard. He knew any reference to Jane’s mother was a trump card. Jane moved to the opposite end of the couch, threw up her right hand as though to dismiss Dick and the conversation, and took a deep breadth. Jane slid despondently and silently into silence. Dick. with his arms crossed his chest, felt vindicated. She was being unjust and unnecessarily critical. He  remained like a stone, arms crossed. Both Jane and Dick had their own versions of that internal voice pronouncing the inevitable conclusion after such a heated exchange: “YOU MAKE ME FEEL CRAZY”.

Dick’s victory at ending the argument so quickly felt short-lived. Jane went to the kitchen and put on some coffee, aimlessly and mindlessly picking and cleaning things up. Dick stayed on the couch, checked his email on his smart phone, but he couldn’t really concentrate. After about 20 minutes, both Dick and Jane were feeling badly about the whole encounter. Yes they had their disagreements, but this was a bad one. What Happened?

Dick & Jane’s Play By Play

1. Jane started the conversation the wrong way. Instead of starting off with blame, a softer start would have been better, something like, “Dick, you took the mail and put it in your office. I’m frustrated because I didn’t see the credit card statement. I really need to have you leave the mail on the kitchen table until I have had a chance to see what’s there.”





2. Dick Was defensive. He could have taken some responsibility for the mail mishap. It’s possible a simple “I’m sorry”, might have helped. If Jane’s reaction continued, he could have asked what this was about.






3. Both became a catalyst for sensitive feelings. We all have enduring vulnerabilities that our partner tends to bring out from time to time. For Jane, she grew up in a family where father was financially irresponsible. She doesn’t see Dick as irresponsible, but in the moment all the old feelings and fears rushed in – she couldn’t help it. Furthermore, her mother was quite critical of Jane’s father and of Jane and her sister. Any identification with mother pushed a deep, painful button – and she knew Dick knew that. Dick too has his vulnerabilities. Growing up with a perfectionist father left Dick feeling like he always fell short. Jane’s criticism really hurt Dick. Needless to say, both got flooded with emotion very quickly.





4. Both became “flooded”, a term referring to physiology taking over our bodies, minds, and words. When activated, the sympathetic nervous system puts us on alert, signaling danger. Dr. Gottman discovered that when couples get physiologically flooded during an argument, communication deteriorates, humor disappears, and listening and empathy are impossible. The best option when one or both partners are flooded is to take a break until everybody is calm, at least 20 minutes.




Dick and Jane were able to get past this. The most important tool that couples have is repair. There is no way we can always avoid starting things out poorly, becoming defensive, triggering our partner, or becoming flooded. We can work on those things, but the key is to have a system to repair the relationship when it slips off track. We will cover that in the next blog.  Don’t worry too much about Dick and Jane, the argument above sounded worse than it was because Dick and Jane know damage control…

See Dick and Jane. See Dick and Jane learn how to repair their argument in the next blog.


July 24, 2010

Gus: Master Gottman Therapist

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 4:28 am

Meet Gus, Master Gottman Therapist

Imagine this scene: Judy and Mike are experiencing a lot of difficulty in their marriage. They decide to get some help from a therapist to figure things out and develop some new tools for managing their conflicts. Opening scene of their first visit: 

Therapist: (Well here’s the new couple in my waiting room. Hey, they’re arguing already, they didn’t even wait for me). “Excuse me, let me show you to my office.”

Mike: “After you, DEAR.”

Judy: “Mike, grow up. We are here to help you with your obvious lack of communication skills”.

Mike: Oh, excuse me, I thought we were here to deal with your anger issues – remember, our last therapist thought you had father issues.”

Judy: (Eyes close) “No Mike, she said my unresponsive, blaming  father, was well, just like you, and gee what a surprise I may have reactions to the fact that you are selfish and self-centered”.

Therapist: (Maybe this is a good time to think about a referral). “Let me stop you. Let’s get into my office, then I’ll get both your stories.”  

They all walk into the therapist’s office. The therapist hears one complaint after another, and thinks (Yikes, this is a case for Gus, Master Gottman Therapist). Gus has the ability to, without using any words, simply look at clients and get them to stop criticizing each other. The couple only has to look at Gus and realize that their argument is escalating and that is not good. They realize that the biggest predictors of divorce are the “Four Horsemen of  the Apocalypse”, constant patterns of escalating conflict with 1.Blaming 2.Defensivness 3.Withdrawal (Stonewalling)and 4. Contempt (belligerence).

So, who is Gus? Some figment of my imagination? Some fantasy of what I wish I could do with the couples I see in my office.? No, Gus isn’t a figment of my imagination, he is real – and yes admittedly, maybe I wish I could have the same effect on the couples I see in my office. So here is the true story of Gus.

A couple I am working with has been struggling with arguing and bickering. We identified and had been working with the patterns of the Four Horsemen in their interactions. They had some successes, but struggled with relapsing into old patterns of blame and criticism. In our last session they reported that they had made a breakthrough in their relationship. I waited with anxious  anticipation after asking them what made the difference? I thought to myself, what did I do or say that made the difference? What tool did I give them that helped them to manage their conflicts? One can never tell for sure what things seem to click.

Here’s what they said. “The thing that really helped us was our dog Gus.” (What? I thought, your dog??) “Yea , every time Tom and I started to fight, Gus would get scared and go in the other room and just look at us. We realized we needed to stop being so mean to each other”. Ever since we realized Gus was getting upset, we have been able to stop, before things got nasty”.

 Hmmm, one upped by a dog. But there is a great lesson here. Next time you start to get into it with your partner, try to visualize Gus. Who can resist those eyes?

This ability to objectively look in on a situation that you are involved in is referred to by Dan Wile, as “Stepping on the platform”. You step outside the interaction and observe what is happening. When you can do that, you can observe the scene with objectivity and see where things are headed. That’s what Gottman Method Therapists are trained to do with couples, but frankly, I think Gus can teach us something, and he didn’t even go to graduate school.    


July 6, 2010

Sex in the City…Really?

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 5:06 am
Tags: , , ,

“Rick” and “Sandy” came into the office with smiles and in good humor. I checked with them asking how things have gone since our last therapy session. They talked about: how they are making an effort to spend more time together, that they went on a family vacation that went very well, and that they are developing some new rituals as a couple involving checking in with each other on a regular basis. All this is good, because they came to therapy complaining that they were feeling emotionally disconnected and dissatisfied with their relationship.

I asked about how their sex life was going, they looked at each other and laughed, “What sex life?”  When couples have difficulties in their sex life they often aren’t laughing, so I knew there was a story behind the laughter. Here’s the story.

Rick and Sandy have two children, aged five and three. Need I say more? It can be challenging to find either the time or energy to connect romantically with each other when you have little kids. Sandy spoke of how one night recently their three year-old, “Emily” crawled in their bed with them, and how tired Sandy was that night; she  felt a bit claustrophobic, so Sandy went to sleep in Emily’s bed. Shortly after that Andrew moved in on the other side of dad, who was now officially a dad sandwich. Rick reported that at about 3:00 am he heard Andrew yell, “Emily switch sides with me, I peed the bed!” Emily woke up and argued “I don’t want to go on your side”. “Come on Emily, sleep on my side”. Dad just looked straight up at the ceiling during the exchange, and took a deep breath. Mom was restless in the other room as her feet hung over the end of Emily’s bed. 

Many couples can relate to the challenge of keeping the romance going with little ones in the house. Research indicates that marital satisfaction goes down for most couples when a new baby arrives in the household. New parents are exhausted, there is little time for oneself, much less one’s partner, parents are sleep deprived, and many couples just have a hard time talking about sex.

Dr. John Gottman conducted a study in the San Francisco Bay Area looking at the first three years of parenthood, and couples who managed to keep their sex life going. There are three patterns that led to better outcomes in the sexual arena for new parents:

  1. Couples continued to court each other and tell their partners regularly they were special, gave little gifts, and paid each other compliments
  2. They developed rituals to initiate sex, ways to refuse sex and be ok, and found ways to talk about preferences. They talked about it
  3. They made sex a priority like  creating get-aways, date night,  communicating desire for the partner, and finding ways to connect physically not limited to intercourse.    

Rick and Sandy (not their real names) gave me permission to share their experience. Sex in the city is possible, even with little kids. It probably won’t look like Hollywood, but with some creativity and perseverance… 

June 26, 2010

Bud Must Have Marital Problems

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 6:48 pm
Tags: ,

My wife and I had occasion to meet a new friend. Bud is in his eighties, has been married over 50 years, strong as a horse, sharp as a tack, and funny as all get out. .

Bud is a soft spoken man, exuding kindness, and a sort of wisdom that draws you in. He recalled the following story, sharing with Cindy and me that recently his neighbor Jim, was convinced that Bud was having marital problems. Bud stated that he was confused why Jim expressed his concern about how Bud was doing given the shaky marriage he apparently was in.

So, Bud asked Jim why he thought he had marital problems. “Well Bud, it is the way your wife yells at you, it seems pretty constant”. Bud replied, “Yells at me? What are you talking about?” Jim reluctantly mimicked an abrasive,demanding, staccato rhythm of ‘BUD! BUD! BUD!’ She sounds really upset with you”.’

Bud smiled and said, “I see. Well actually, that isn’t my wife you hear, it’s Sweetie, my parrott”. Bud reported that Jim looked incredulous, paused to see if Bud was serious, and when he saw that Bud wasn’t kidding, both men laughed.

This true story points out that Jim was quite the Gottman researcher and could predict Bud’s marital happiness based on what appeared to be abrasive demands, that apprently Bud wasn’t responding to.

Next time you get angry at your partner, think about Sweetie, and whether you want to parrott the parrott, or whether you might be able to take a breath, state what’s happening and how you feel about it, and what you want. You can sqawk, or you can talk. I guess we all need to squawk every once in a while, and hey, nobody is perfect. However, I could argue that constant squawking is for the birds.

June 20, 2010

Time Release Conversation: Part 2

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 1:14 am
Tags: , , ,

OK, lets talk about this idea of a time release conversation. As mentioned in Part 1, the concept of a time release conversation relates to the importance for couples every once in a while to review an issue that falls into the “Perpetual Problem” category.

It is important to know that it is NORMAL to have any number of issues that keep showing up in the relationship. Why? Because people have differences in how they think, how they see things, and how their own history shapes these ideas and feelings about certain issues.

Couples who have been happily together for many years have learned to talk about their differences in a gentle way. They act toward their partner like they would with their best friend when there is a disagreement.

Very happy couples can have very different ideas and feelings about a lot of issues. Compatibility does not mean thinking the same, rather, to be compatible as a couple means living together in harmony. How do we do that when we have differences?

Time release conversations can be set in a way that parallels how time release medication is designed. Time release technology has been around since the 1950′s,  created to slowly release the medicine over time. It’s taken less frequently than instant release medication, keeping steadier levels of the drug. So what does this mean when it comes to conversations? Couple who are successful at these conversations have the following characteristic:

  1. Talk about areas of disagreements, don’t avoid them – they will build up and lead to blow-ups, like  unanticipated sneezes
  2. Be gentle in discussing differences with the goal of providing your own perspective. Don’t try to sell or convince your partner of anything. This slow delivery means this conflict isn’t going to be solved once and for all; it’s an ongoing effort, continuing over time, of expressing thoughts and feelings that are predictably going to be different just about every time
  3. Listen to your partners perspective, asking questions to clarify their position and work toward validating that position simply by acknowledging what that position is – you don’t have to agree with it
  4. Come up with a temporary compromise if at all possible
  5. The goal is to have a conversation that respects both positions – because both positions are right, they just happen to be different

Joe and Becky had a fight about what  to do on their vacation to Cota Rica.  Becky was looking forward to a quiet, peaceful and romantic time with Joe. Becky pleaded with Joe. “Joe why you just learn to relax? You always have to be moving”. He was ready for action, and was looking forward to getting away and experiencing new and exciting activities he hadn’t tried before, and countered, “Bec, I just wish you were more adventurous. I feel like sometimes you hold me back”.

This was not a new argument, they had some variation of this conflict since they had known each other. Whether it was about weekend get aways or vacations, their preferences boiled down to how much activity would be planned for. Categorizing this conflict  as one of their perpetual issues, due to their differences in preferences, not defects in personality in the other, led to an agreement to compromise on the amount of time spent quietly on the nice Costa Rican beach, and that of engaging in tours and surfing expeditions. Each partner recognized their own needs weren’t wrong, but neither was their partner’s.

Joe will likely always be more adventurous than Becky; Becky will tend to appreciate and prefer less, rather than more, activities when she wants to relax. Learning to continue to dialogue each time, searching for creative ways to, “Give a little, to get a little”, is very good medicine indeed.

April 3, 2010

Time Release Conversations: Part 1

I remember as a kid waking up just about every morning with a bit of a stuffy nose accompanied by a chorus of sneezes, one after another. I think my personal best was five sneezes in a row, each one with the slow but inevitable build up of air staggering in and leading to a series of explosions leading me to look like a live action bobble head, ricocheting whiplash style forward and back. The most embarrassing moment in my long-time sneezing career occurred right after opening  my parents top dresser drawer, which came up to my chin, reaching for a hanky (as my mother called them),  when another, unexpected sneeze came upon me – no slow build up, no anticipation, but lightning quick. I preceded to do my bobble head downward trajectory on the top of the drawer, leaving a bright red line across my forehead:  What timing!

As an adult I discovered that this morning ritual could be largely avoided or minimized through the use of time release 24 hour antihistamine. Once a day, not every four hours, this little beauty seems to do the trick, holding at bay that nasty and irritating attack of involuntary convulsions.

It occurred to me recently that relationship difficulties can be like sneezing. You may not want to read the following if you are eating, but the Wikapanion definition of sneezing is: “A sneeze (or sternutation) is a semi-autonomous, convulsive expulsion of air…usually caused by foreign particles irritating the nasal mucosa. The function of sneezing is to expel mucus containing foreign particles or irritants and cleanse the nasal cavity.” By the way, sneezing can’t occur while you are sleeping.

What does sneezing have to do with relationships? Well, couples arguments can have an explosive, involuntary, ill timed, convulsive effect. They may build up in anticipation, or may come out of the blue, leaving couples a bit banged up if not prepared and knowing when to step back. Sneezes are triggered by irritants and sneezing functions as a way to expel the irritants. Couples may struggle with ways to effectively clear or cleanse the irritants in their relationship, leading to a frequent, or even daily ritual of tension or irritation with each other.

As it turns out, the preventative techniques for sneezing are pretty effective for managing arguments and preventing escalation. Again, from Wikipanion: “Examples of preventive techniques are: the deep exhalation of the air in the lungs that would otherwise be used in the act of sneezing (or arguing), holding the breath in while counting to ten, and crinkling the nose…ensuring the timely and continuous removal of (irritants) through proper housekeeping, and replacing filters on air filtration devices…”.

Your mother was right,  counting to ten is a good idea when an argument starts escalating. Crinkling the nose? Well maybe this won’t help so much unless it can provide some comic relief. But getting rid of irritants – yes, this is really important. How do we do that? This is where time release conversations come in. Dr. John Gottman’s research on how the “Masters of Relationships” manage conflict, indicates that 69% of couples problems are perpetual, ongoing issues over the years. These problems are related to differences in personalities, ways of doing things, temperment, and so on. The Masters seem to have a way to deal with the irritants in their relationship by having conversations every once in a while about the same issues that inevitably show up again and again. They talk about how and why this issue is bothersome at this time; how they feel about it; what their concerns, hopes and maybe dreams are about the issue; and what they want to have happen. They develop new filters on how they perceive the issue and their partner.

The Greeks believed sneezes were prophetic signs from the gods. If your relationship has a lot of sneezes, think of the sneezes as a sign that something needs to be talked about and dealt with. Out of conflict comes opportunities for greater closeness and understanding.  Understanding what the real irritants are means going beyond the surface of what the issue means to each individual. Ongoing dialog (time released conversations) provide an important path to preventing relationship deterioration, and faciltating greater closeness.

I will cover more specifics on how to have a time release conversation in the next article (Part 2).

February 27, 2010

Gottman Gold

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 6:52 pm
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The pressure was mounting. Every second counted and the twists and turns were coming more quickly than anticipated. “Patience and timing…patience and timing…”, he repeated over and over again. “If only I had started off right”, he silently thought to himself, wishing he could start over.

No, I am not referring to Bode Miller, Bronze Medalist in downhill skiing at this years Winter Olympics. I am referring to Rob, trying to get through a difficult conversation with his wife. Unlike alpine skiing, where faster is better, conflict discussions tend to end better when they go more slowly, “Patience, timing…patience, timing”. Sometimes it takes an Olympian effort to keep the slower pace.

This week I met with Rob and Cheryl (not real names) and they gave me permission to share the following. They were reflecting on the impact of a very stressful year on their relationship; managing these external challenges left them little time or energy to talk about and deal with their relationship concerns. Conversations, like for the alpine skier, can speed rapidly downhill, with partners feeling the G-force of negative momentum, straining to get back on track.

It seems to me that Rob and Cheryl recognized that, like the Olympic athletes skiers, it takes many runs to get the feel for the course, to learn, to get better and more skilled. They validated to each other the difficult journey they have been on, how they have slipped off the tracks at times, and how they now wanted to turn toward each other.  We know that even the most disciplined, practiced, and skilled skiers fall, we also know that they get back up and go again.

What can help? Rob shared this insight. “I don’t think I have ever taken time to breathe, to take inventory…now I’m learning to exhale,  it’s a different feeling”. What does Rob mean by this? It is what Olympic athletes learn to do to enhance their performance: Relax the muscles, breathe regularly and deliberately, focus.

Try this experiment: Tense your stomach muscles, then breath in and briefly hold your breath. This is a state of tension. When we remember to (mindfully) exhale, we let go, the muscles relax, we slow things down. Next time a conflict starts, focus on exhaling slowly, work to relax the stomach muscles, patience and timing.

Bode’s remarkable efforts  led to the coveted Bronze, a wonderful achievement to be proud of, but Rob and Cheryl are on the platform with a Gold.

March 28, 2009

Gottman Therapists: We Aren’t So Scary, Really!

j04140351Dr. John Gottman’s research on predicting relationship stability or instability is remarkable and for those that are familiar with his research you know he is the first scientist/therapist to figure this out. Most couples are anxious about therapy to begin with, so when a Gottman therapist tells a couple that therapy doesn’t start until after an assessment, anxiety may go up a notch or two, the palms get sweaty, and the scary feeling of not knowing what to expect kind of works its way up to the throat – where it sticks. Sometimes people think assessment means that the therapist will tell the couple whether they should stay married or not, or they fear that maybe they will find out that the  relationship problem is their fault after all – just like their partner has been saying. Neither of these things happen in assessment because assessment boils down to two questions: What are the strengths in this relationship and what are the areas that need attention? We now know from the research what works to predict long-term relationship satisfaction, but if things are not working well then Gottman therapists are trained to explain why and what it takes to change the direction of the relationship.  It’s up to the couple whether they want to and are willing to take that path.     

I am writing from Seattle at the end of day three of a four day training workshop in Gottman Method Therapy. Once a year the Gottman Institute offers advanced training to therapists deepening skills in assessment and methods to help couples struggling with conflict or with having grown apart emotionally. Along with several other Certified Gottman Therapists, I am assisting in helping during the small group role plays where therapists learn and practice therapeutic interventions based on Dr. Gottman’s research and the methodology of therapy he and Dr. Julie Gottman developed out of that research. Seventy therapists nationally representing 14 states and internationally from Canada, Mexico, Australia and the Netherlands, have joined ranks to learn and practice skills in Gottman Method Therapy.  Tomorrow Julie is teaching therapeutic approaches for couples with special issues like clinical depression, chemical dependency and trauma history.

Therapists know couples feel anxious about dealing with their relationship, it’s scary. Let me tell you, the therapists I j04140331have met this week are really nice people, not scary at all. Just like the couples we work with therapists learn new skills, seek guidance and coaching on those skills, and need to work to maintain those skills. Nobody has to be perfect; we just have to keep working at it. I remember going through my advanced training and the anticipation I felt before actually starting, a mixture of excitement and it felt a little scary not knowing what to expect. It didn’t take long, however, to experience connection and support with the Gottman community. Beginning something new can feel scary, but maybe that won’t necessarily stop us from taking the next step anyway.

March 22, 2009

Family Legacies: How Do You Feel About Feelings?


How do you feel about feelings? This may seem a strange question, but how we view emotions factors into and influences our communication with our partners. Sometimes couples feel like they are on separate roads emotionally when it comes to differences in feeling and expressing emotions like sadness, anger, affection, pride, and happiness - to name a few. This leads to the question, how can couples merge these differences in a way that leads to better managing the couple’s emotional life? It starts with understanding the emotional legacy each person is bringing into the relationship. In my previous blog Family Legacies: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly (March 21, 2009) I discuss the importance of thinking about what we have learned from our families of origin about relationships and how this works its way into our own relationships today: So what have we learned about emotions?      

I recall a husband proudly proclaiming that he came from a “strong family” emotionally. He spoke of how during his grandmother’s funeral his mother remained unemotional and advised her children to “be strong”; reminding them that crying showed weakness. This man, understandably, struggled with supporting his wife when her mother died. This was a very painful time for her and their marriage.

In the families of couples I work with where there is a history of untreated addiction, often times I hear that emotions like grief, anger, and sadness were not tolerated. Denial of the addiction usually means denial of feelings. The message in these families is: “There is no reason to feel upset, scared, or angry; and if you do feel anything like that, there is really something wrong with you!”

Individuals from a family where there has been verbal or physical violence are likely to struggle with anger. Sometimes the emotional experience of anger in the relationship touches off intense fear and withdrawal. Other times, individuals from these families struggle with managing anger, flying off the handle and flooding easily with overwhelming rage.

In some families the norm is to not express gratitude or appreciation for behavior that is expected. Growing up in these families leads to real challenges for partners in their own relationships to support each other with kind words and expressions of fondness. We know from the research that couples who are able to notice and comment on what they appreciate about their partner have stronger friendships – this dynamic correlates with sex and passion in the marriage.

We are not doomed by are past, but we may need to explore what that past has been when it comes to expressing emotions. One approach is to discuss with your partner what their experience was in their family of different emotions.

Consider the following questions for each of the emotions listed below. What was your experience in your family of (emotion)? How did your parents respond to each other’s (emotion)? What is it like to experience (emotion) now in our relationship?

Insert the following emotions into each of these questions (one at a time):

1.      Sadness

2.      Anger

3.      Affection

4.      Pride

5.      Happiness  

This can be a challenging dialogue, but if you haven’t had this conversation, it can lead to greater understanding of an important part of the relationship: emotions and how they are managed.







March 21, 2009

Family Legacies: The Good, Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 3:37 pm
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CB035266Every family creates legacies. There are different kinds of legacies; some we strive to maintain, others we struggle with. If we think about some of these legacies long enough we may come to see some as destructive, undermining our relationship: unnoticed detours to closeness and intimacy. The Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary ( defines legacy as:  “Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” We can see how important it is to be mindful of these legacies: the good, bad and the ugly.

Positive legacies involve family traditions we have experienced in our family of origin and want to bring into our own relationships, ways we celebrate: holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, take care of sick family members, approach vacations, etc. These kinds of legacies truly are gifts from our ancestors, predictable rituals of connection and family life.

Recently, some couples I am working with addressed some painful, not positive legacies from their families: alcoholism, rage, and emotional aloofness to name three. These discussions were important because these legacies were unnoticed, unnamed detours, shaping behaviors, views, and perspectives of themselves and their relationships.  As we began to explore the impact of family history on the current relationship new awareness’s emerged, ultimately helping to these couples to see and understand their own reactions. Decisions to do things differently offered hope for change and tools to establish new rituals and traditions.
Consider with your partner what traditions (legacies) you want to maintain in your family relationships. Are there new rituals you would like to start?

See blog: Emotional Legacies: How Do You Feel About Feelings? (March 22, 2009)

March 15, 2009

Stop! In the Name of Love


My wife and I took advantage of a little 24 hour get-a-way this weekend. These 24 hour breaks are a long-standing tradition of ours and one we had not done in a while. They are great because while we are able to take time for ourselves it doesn’t take all weekend, which then allows us time to manage some of the stuff that we need to take care of: not a bad compromise. So we were walking on a windy Northern California beach after sunset, when I noticed my wife had her warm little beanie on. As my ears were becoming numb and tingly, I reminded her that I did not have my beanie because she and my daughter threw it out, unbeknownst to me. One day I was looking for it and when I saw my wife and daughter look at each other and try not to smile, I knew at that moment they had ditched my beloved beanie. She reminded me that they threw it out because…well, they tell me, I had a big head, and gee, “It really doesn’t look good on you”. Head size in our family seems to be a topic of conversation for some reason. Back to the walk…As I looked at my wife with her warm ears, I reminded her how nice it would be to have a warm beanie right now. She looked at me and laughed, as I sang the song “There ain’t no beanie big enough”…of course to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s There Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.   

This led me to think of the great Motown hit recorded by the Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1965. The story behind this Motown hit, Stop! In the Name of Love, has a lesson for us that underscores the wisdom of just stopping when the conversation with our partner is on the slippery slope. Lamont Dozier was a song writer and part of a production team for the Supremes, as well as other great Motown groups like The Isley Brothers and The Four Tops. Apparently Lamont and his girlfriend were having an argument, she started heading out the door when Lamont was inspired to yell, “Stop…in the name of love.” She did indeed stop and began laughing. Lamont’s quick thinking and use of humor did the trick. Things calmed down and Lamont had the beginning of an idea for the song that would eventually hold the number-one position on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles. This well known song was part of a series of continuous hits for the Supremes – is it running through your head right now? It is for me as I am writing this blog – but I digress.

The lyrics start with “Stop! In the Name of Love, before you break my heart…think it over, think it over”. The song goes on to mention that the lover is heading out the door to someone else, but the story in this song is the wisdom underneath those few lyrics above. When an argument starts heating up, take a breath, and just stop in the name of love; take a break, take a walk, and if you can, make an agreement with your partner to stop. 

The wisdom of “think it over” is building in a lag between thoughts and the words that come out of the mouth. We all can say things that we don’t mean when we are angry. When we are really overwhelmed with emotion we become flooded with that emotion. John Gottman’s research on diffuse physiologic arousal indicates that couples can not listen or process anything when one or both partners are flooded; our bodies become overwhelmed with stress hormones, a rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and other symptoms of an activated sympathetic nervous system in the fight or flight mode.

Next time you get angry, before you break your partners heart, “Stop in the Name of Love”, and “Think it over, think it over”. Let the song play in your head, or you can think of a guy with a big head stretching the beaney to its limits.

March 10, 2009

Silence: A Relationship Killer

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 11:50 pm
Tags: , , , ,


Dick and Pat were struggling in their relationship. It seemed to them that they had different opinions on almost everything. What bothered Pat even more than these differences was that she and Dick couldn’t seem to talk about them. He often felt attacked and would withdraw; she felt that she wasn’t able to talk about the issues without Dick becoming defensive. It seemed that even the simplest issues were becoming impossible. So, how do we explain why two intelligent people with really good problem-solving skills, can’t figure out who is going to take out the garbage or how much money to spend on a couch?

John Gottman’s research on conflict uncovers the mystery. Gottman discovered that 69% of the problems that couples identify as problems are ongoing, perpetual problems. This is normal, even in the best of marriages differences in personality, preferences, temperament, beliefs, etc. lead to a particular set of disagreements that aren’t going to change, because our basic beliefs, personalities and preferences aren’t going to change. When couples can laugh about these differences, or lovingly laugh at themselves or partners, then they have figured out that these issues just aren’t going to go away. They have also figured out, for the most part, how to manage those differences. When couples – like Dick and Pat – aren’t able to laugh about the differences and has escalated to pain and withdrawal, then the issue has moved from being a normal perpetual conflict issue, to being a perpetual, gridlocked. 

Gottman found that about 16% of perpetual issues are gridlocked. These are the issues that are the most painful and problematic for couples. For example, when Dick and Pat fight about how much money to spend on a couch it is because underneath the conflict is a symbolic meaning that they have not talked about. If they were to start to approach the issue differently and find out what makes this issue important, they would find out that one of Dick’s greatest fears is losing financial security.  Growing up he remembers his family as always struggling financially. Dick would describe his father as careless with money, having bad judgment, and putting their family in ongoing financial distress. Pat would say that her family experience was exactly the opposite. Her parents continually complained about not wanting to spend money and they would yell at her and her sister about being “spoiled, selfish and expecting too much.” She remembers one Christmas getting a cheap bag of plastic farm animal figures; this memory still brings tears to her eyes.When couples get stuck over issues that you would normally think shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out, the odds are really good that the issue is a perpetual gridlocked conflict. What should you do? Here is a very helpful game plan:

  1. Have a different type of conversation, one that doesn’t focus on problem solving
  2. Make an agreement to try to understand what makes the issue so important to the other person. Ask questions and try to listen 
  3. Make the goal to have dialogue, remember avoid problem-solving, convincing, or arguing for your position

Dick and Pat will need to deal with their differences on spending their entire marriage, but the goal is to remember that differences are normal and that it is important to continue to talk about these differences by first focusing on what the issue actually means to the both of them. This helps move the problem from gridlock to dialogue. Don’t fall into silence, at least not for very long.


March 7, 2009

Relationships: Letting Go of Past Hurts

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 5:41 pm
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Where is our relationship at? How can I forgive him/her for what has happened? How can we go forward when my partner keeps talking about the past? Do we have a future? These are questions many couples struggle with in the counseling room, sorting through the mixture of ambivalent and often contradictory feelings about the relationship. 

I have noticed a common dynamic with couples on a path to heal their relationship that at first glance seems counter-intuitive: When things get better, people sometimes get angry. “Why?” you ask, first, let me set the stage. Research indicates that couples wait too long before actually getting help with a relationship in trouble: on the average six years. A lot happens during those six years of a deteriorating  relationship; most often there are patterns of increasing levels of anger and/or emotional disengagement leading to  indifference. Secondly, partners often carry hurts from the past that makes it hard to stay in the present or work toward the future. Now, back to that common dynamic, when things start getting better, sometimes partners get angry and frustrated. Why? Because the feeling is “Why did this have to take so long? Why couldn’t we do these things years ago?” So, what helps to manage negative feelings when things are actually going positively in the relationship?

There are no pat answers, but something that may help is to know that us humans are able to hold or feel contradictory feelings at the same time: “I love that we are doing better” with “I hate that we are doing better only after all this pain”. Or, “I feel close to you when you try and make efforts to improve our relationship” with “How can I feel close to you if I don’t know if I can really trust you?”  These feelings may quickly alternate, sometimes within seconds of each other. I often talk to couples about this dynamic when things start going better after long periods of the relationship not going well. Protecting ourselves from pain is a normal, natural thing, so when these feelings come up it may help to see these feelings as very understandable.

It usually helps if couples can see healing as a process, managing the contradictory feelings, and at the same time working on strengthening the friendship part of the relationship by taking time for each other, remaining positive and not critical and being gentle during conflict.  The challenge is to work toward developing a balance between discussing past hurts with working toward building a better relationship.

I would like to thank my colleague and fellow Certified Gottman Method Therapist, Andy Greendorfer, for sharing with me a wonderful metaphor he tells couples who are struggling with issues from the past. Andy wrote the following: “Think of your relationship in terms of driving a car. You want to look in your rear view mirror to see where you have been, but not for too long. You will also want to look forward to see where you are going. You don’t want to ignore what is behind you as it informs the present, but if you don’t look forward and watch for where you are headed, you may drive off the road.”

When driving in traffic good drivers know how concerned to be with what’s behind them and what’s ahead of them. In relationships  “traffic conditions” change too, so flexibility and adaptability of dealing with past, present and future is what usually is most helpful. If you are struggling or differing with each other about that balance, consider having a therapist help you, hopefully, sooner than later. Good luck.    


March 5, 2009

The Six Second Kiss: It’s about Time!

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 3:36 pm
Tags: , ,


 One of the biggest complaints I hear in the counseling room are related to couples not feeling close, of  having lost touch with each other. Sometimes this happens because of significant problems and differences between them that have driven them apart. Other times the emotional distance has been created to a large degree by the lack of time given to the relationship.  It is easy to get carried away with the flood of responsibilities and things we manage in life. Let’s face it, the list never ends of things to do, places to go, people to see.

We know from Dr. Gottman’s research that couples that feel close have somehow managed to use the same 24 hours in a day that we all have, and dedicate some of that time to the relationship frequently. When they get off track they take a relationship “self correction” turn around and manage to find some time for each other.

One wonderful and simple ritual that many couples have incorporated into their lives is the six second kiss. Instead of the peck on the cheek when you greet each other or say good night, try a kiss that lasts for six seconds. This is a nice way to be mindful of and present to your partner. It is a way to communicate caring, attention and can really help you feel more connected to your partner. If you don’t feel ready for a kiss, modify; perhaps you could go for the six second hug.

Let’s see: Six seconds, twice a day, times seven days=84 seconds/week. This might be a timely consideration for your relationship. So next time you give your partner a kiss, give it a second thought – six seconds to be exact!

March 1, 2009

How Does Your Relationship Measure Up?

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 6:24 pm
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Tape Measurer

 I was in a session with a couple where they were taking stock of their relationship, discussing how each saw things. They shared with me how nice it was to focus on the positive in their relationship, not just talking about what wasn’t working. Things weren’t perfect, but noticing what was going right helped to cope with what wasn’t. That got me to think about the question of how couples measure their relationships. Lets listen to Mary Ann and David. 

Mary Ann looked up at her husband, “You know, I have been thinking about our relationship.”

David thought to himself  ‘Oh boy, here we go, what now?’ He braced himself internally – the same physiologic response he had when that oncoming SUV crossed into his lane last week. David responded with a non committal, but slightly questioning, “Yea?”

“Well”, Mary Ann continued, “We do a lot of things right.”

David’s stomach muscles relaxed considerably, he felt himself start to breathe again: the SUV missed him. “We do? Like what, what are you referring to?” 

“We had a nice dinner last night, it was nice just you and me, it had been a while since we have been able to do that.  I had a good time. Also,  I’m glad we finally got rid of that old toilet that has been sitting in our garage . We replaced that thing a couple months ago and it was starting to get to me. At least now I don’t feel like I’m driving into an outhouse.” Mary Ann laughed.

David smiled and joined her laughter. “I told you we could have planted a fern and put the whole thing on our front lawn, for some reason you didn’t like that idea. “They were both relieved to get rid of the “family throne” as they called it. “Dinner was nice; we should try to get out more, even if for just a cup of coffee or something.”

“That would be nice David. You thought I was going to nail you for something, didn’t you?”

David looked thoughtful. “I wasn’t sure Mary Ann, this was OK; no, this was good.” David smiled again

There were a lot of conversations that David and Mary Ann could have had. Either one of them could have focused on what wasn’t working – her work schedule, his tendency to want to stay home, to name just a few of the many items they both could list. How the relationship measures up depends on what is used to measure the relationship. When things are stressed in a relationship, it’s hard to notice what is going right and all you see is the yardstick of failure. When taking stock of your own relationship, think about what is going right as well as what bothers you: Now that’s a measure of success by any standard.

February 27, 2009

A Relationship GPS: Wouldn’t It Be Nice

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 2:44 am


Several months ago I got a GPS unit, I love the thing,  it’s amazing; It knows where you are, tells you how to get to where you want to go, and how long it takes to get there. Not only that, but when you don’t follow directions correctly it doesn’t get mad, it makes adjustments and gently and without judgement,  says things like, “When possible turn around”, or “That’s OK Bob, we all make mistakes, please turn right then right again. So how is your day going? My, you look nice in that shirt”. Well, maybe the last statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but I love when it makes its recalculations because I didn’t follow the directions; it makes the adjustments not me. Well, human relationships are a lot more complicated and not so one-sided. But wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like a relationship GPS 

I heard a radio commercial a while back that was based on this very concept. A warning would go off when the guy wasn’t responding right and a relationship dead end or disaster was imminent unless he changed direction. My version of this wonderful idea goes this way:  

“Jim, do you think I talk too much?”

“Well Karen, you do go on and on and on sometimes.” WARNING, WARNING ,WARNING, BACKUP IMMEDIATELY…Well, let me try this one again. Why do you ask?

“Because Sharon told me she thought I talked too much, it hurt my feelings.”

“Why do you let her bother you, I’m sure she had a bad day, or you are over reacting.” WARNING, DON’T GO THERE…”Wow, that is a mean thing to say to you. What did you do after she said that?”

“Nothing really I said I was sorry, but later I got mad”.  

“Can we eat dinner now and talk about this later?” WARNING, STAY ON COURSE… I can understand why, I don’t like feeling criticized, nobody does”

“Yea, maybe I go on a bit sometimes, but I think she was rude”. Let’s eat, I just wanted to get that off my chest”

OK. (Whew, I made it, and we made pretty good time too).    


February 20, 2009

You Want Me To Do What??

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 5:18 pm
Tags: ,


Pete’s voice is rising as he directs the latest tirade at Susan, “You want me to pick up your mother from the airport? It is at least 45 minutes from the airport to our house…alone…with her”. Susan reacts immediately, “Pete, all you have to do is turn on talk radio, she loves that kind of stuff. You are being unreasonable here, you know I have a meeting today at 3:00, I can’t get her!” Susan’s eyes seem to get bigger, Pete’s voice, surprisingly lowers, “Suzie, what if we arrange a shuttle?” Susan screams “Pete, get real, it’s not that big of a deal. My father would never react this way to my mother’s asking for help”. Pete’s calm voice suddenly sounds like Darth Vader, slowly and deliberately: “Susan, I am not your father!!” Suddenly, Susan started laughing as Pete made hissing sounds.

These two are masters a de-escalating conflict. Anger is OK in a relationship, but escalating conflict, or anger with belligerence is damaging. Susan and Pete were angry, but they were able to step out of the path of the charging bull without getting gored. Stepping out of the way with humor, or taking a break, or  simply taking a few deep breaths, will change the outcome of potential time bombs.

As it turns out, Pete later reported to Susan that the trip wasn’t too bad; her mother was jet lagged and fell asleep on the way to the house.  Susan smiled and thanked Pete for “completing the mission”, adding “Let’s use our Jedi powers to get through this one. She will only be here a week”. They both laughed and did get through it together.

February 18, 2009

Intimacy Moments of Opportunity Abound

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 4:57 pm

CB106035How do you define intimacy in a relationship, what is it, how do you know when you have intimacy? The big question is how do we get there? Here is where we can learn from the “Masters of Relationships”, the research group Dr. John Gottman defines as people with long-term stable relationships who want to be with their partners, have a good friendship, and are happy in their relationship. Their secret: They notice small moments of opportunity to respond to their partner’s attempts to start a conversation, or to initiate some connection, even if that connection is for very brief moments.

It isn’t the deep heart-felt interactions that ultimately create intimacy – those can be nice – but rather, it is how we respond to our partner every day, in between those heart-felt conversations that makes those heart-felt conversations even possible .

Think of it this way: Every time your partner starts a conversation or makes a comment, or attempts to get your attention, turn toward that effort by acknowledging and responding positively in some way. These are the small moments of opportunity to strengthen the relationship, deepen friendship, and develop emotional connections. Gottman calls this “Putting money in the emotional bank account”. When we ignore those attempts, or worse yet, attack our partner, it is like a withdrawal from the emotional bank account. Too many withdrawals leads to the emotional equivalent of our current economic status – bankrupt and in the red.

These responses may be very brief and they don’t necessarily require much from us. For example, Patty comes into the room where Tom is reading the paper and asks what the weather forecast is for tomorrow. Here are some possible responses that miss the opportunity for connection:

  1. “I’m reading the paper, can’t I have a moment by myself?”  
  2. Tom takes a deep breath, rolls his eyes and seems impatient when answering the question
  3. Tom says nothing, engrossed in the article, or he says “Rain”, and returns to the article ignoring Patty
  4. Tom says “I don’t know”, then goes back to the paper.

Responses 1 & 2 are attacking and take big withdrawals from the emotional bank account. Responses 3 & 4 aren’t so bad on the surface, but nevertheless, withdrawals occur. After time those small withdrawals add up and will eventually lead to emotional disconnection.

These following responses are turning toward the partner with increasing amounts in deposits :

  1. “I’ll check when I’m done with this article”.
  2. “You know, I was wondering the same thing, we have had a lot of rain lately”.
  3. “I’ll check, do you need to know because you are going someplace?”
  4. Tom answers the question, and then starts a conversation about the weather, or Patty’s day for tomorrow, or something else.

As you can see, the above responses don’t really require a lot from us, but the consequences over time between the deposits and the withdrawals are huge. The Masters respond to their partners 86% of the time the partner initiates an interaction, while the couples who end up unhappy or not together respond positively only 33% of the time.  The difference between the two groups of responses doesn’t necessarily seem huge at first glance, but over time people stop making bids if they are not responded to.

February 15, 2009

Relationship Skills Are Easy, But Hard To Remember (Sometimes)

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 8:42 am


Much of what we now know works in relationships isn’t hard to do – at least theoretically. Couples that stay together have three qualities to their relationship: they treat each other like friends, they are positive with each other, and they are gentle in how they handle conflict. This translates in a pattern of non-attacking, non-defensive interactions in managing conflict. They like each other and are positive in non-conflict interactions. In other words, treat your partner like a good friend. We all know how to treat our friends to keep the relationship going, even when we feel disappointed.

I encourage couples to be patient with themselves and with their partners, especially on the bad days. This relationship stuff takes a while to get. “Little things often” is a signature motto of the Gottman Institute. Over time those little things make a difference, and little things are easy to do, we just have to remember to do them.

What’s one little thing to do often? Well try this, every day find at least three positive things you like or appreciate about your partner and actually tell it to him/her. If you do that every day for a week, it is likely that the relationship will experience a bit of a lift. Simple concept, but sharing positivity speaks to a basic law of relationships: Negativity leads to more negativity, positivity leads to more positivity. See if you can find some way to treat your partner like a friend next time you are upset, it’s not hard, just hard to remember sometimes.

Unplug To Connect This Valentine’s Day (and Beyond)

Filed under: Relationships — Dr. Bob Navarra @ 8:13 am
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Here is a bit of a word play: “Being present is a great present” (for your Valentine). What do I mean by this? Well, too often we are distracted, impacted,  and protracted in a million different directions by the very devices we buy to simplify our lives. There are unlimited ways our attention is redirected, especially by the variety of  sexy and seductive electronic gizmos -  Imagine a scene where two lovers are together feeling all romantic and cozy…off goes BlackBerry #1, “Excuse me, I have to return this call”. Two minutes later an iPhone informs person #2 of a text message. Beeping, buzzing, and vibrating, these romance-breaking moments lead us to turn away from our partner, and a bit more distance creeps its way in the relationship  You get the picture, speaking of which, one of the phones is downloading a picture of a friend’s new baby.  

Hmmm, what’s wrong with this picture? Gottman relationship approaches encourage couples to develop rituals of connection; predictable times and ways couples can count on to get together, talk, share, just hang out like: Coffee or tea together in the morning or after dinner, checking in with each other at the end of the day, taking a short walk on a Saturday, planning something fun to attend in the next month. 

An important part of any of these rituals is to actually turn off the electronics, in other words, a ritual of disconnection from all those electronic sirens beckoning us to them. See if you can find the off switch, most of those things actually can be turned off, and be present for your partner. Initially, some may experience withdrawal, but eventually you begin to remember how things used to be – now that’s romantic. Good luck.

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