ERP 396: How To Recognize Unhelpful & Misguided Relationship Advice — An Interview With Zach Brittle

By Posted in - Podcast October 31st, 2023 0 Comments HOW TO RECOGNIZE UNHELPFUL & MISGUIDED RELATIONSHIP ADVICE

Are you tired of sifting through an endless sea of relationship advice, much of which seems more unhelpful than beneficial? We’re often bombarded with well-intentioned but sometimes misguided advice. You’ve likely heard phrases like “never go to bed angry” or “love will conquer all,” but do these sayings truly hold the key to a thriving, enduring partnership?

In this episode, we’ll explore the common cliches and one-size-fits-all solutions that sound good in theory but often fall short in practice. Discover the art of de-escalating conflicts, the power of emotional vocabulary, and how to recognize unhelpful advice that may be holding you back from deeper intimacy. If you’re seeking to transform your understanding of relationships, this episode will empower you to question the common myths and embrace a more profound, lasting connection.

Zach Brittle is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), a Certified Gottman Therapist (CGT), and a Certified Relational Life Therapist (RLT). He serves as the founder and co-host of Marriage Therapy Radio and has authored the best-selling relationship guide “The Relationship Alphabet” and the Marriage Therapy Journal. His marriage to Rebecca has been a source of happiness for 24 out of 26 years, with the 8th and 18th years proving to be rather challenging. They live in Seattle with their two adulting daughters.

In this Episode

4:55 A peek into Zach’s journey: His work, podcast, and personal life.

9:21 Zack’s unique approach to therapy.

14:23 Debunking the myth: “Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint”

19:20 The influence of language on behavior and choices within relationships.

26:33 Deconstructing defensiveness and criticism: An approach to authentic communication.

29:45 Challenging unhelpful relationship advice.

33:43 The importance of de-escalation and repair in conflict.

40:47 Connect with Zach Brittle and marriage therapy radio.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Prioritize de-escalation and repair in conflict, and avoid engaging in heated arguments.
  • Establish a safe word or signal that signifies the need to pause, emphasizing that you love your partner but need to take a break to prevent further harm.
  • Be patient and listen to your partner to understand their perspective, rather than rushing to defend yourself during disagreements.
  • Enhance your emotional intelligence by developing a broader emotional vocabulary to better express and understand your feelings.
  • Challenge the common advice of not going to bed angry, acknowledging that taking a break and returning with a fresh perspective can often lead to better resolutions.
  • Question and explore relationship clichés and platitudes to gain a deeper understanding of their meaning and how they apply to your partnership.
  • Keep in mind that challenges in a relationship can be opportunities for growth and deeper connection.
  • Understand the difference between the aspirational declarations of love at the beginning of a relationship and the practical execution of those commitments over time.

Mentioned

Marriage Therapy Radio (*Apple Podcast link)

Marriage Therapy Journal (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

The Relationship Alphabet: A Practical Guide to Better Connection for Couples (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

ERP 344: How Our Language Can Steer & Shape Our Relationships — An Interview with Dr. Georgi Gardiner

ERP 058: Beyond the Wedding. What Is Marriage Really Like?

Connect with Zach Brittle

Websites: zachbrittle.com

Facebook: facebook.com/marriagetherapyradio

TikTok: tiktok.com/@marriagetherapyradio

Instagram: instagram.com/marriagetherapyradio/?hl=en

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Zach, thank you for being here. It’s a gift. I know I invited you to the show, and just grateful to have your voice here on the show.

Yeah, it’s fun. Honestly, I’m glad to be here. As you know, I have a podcast of my own, and we usually are running the show and kind of driving the agenda. I’m glad to kind of just join somebody else’s for one. So that’s kind of fun.

Yeah, what’s the name of your podcast, as you’re mentioning?

I have a weekly podcast called Marriage Therapy Radio. I am a marriage therapist. I live in Seattle. My partner who does the podcast with me, her name is Laura Heck, and she is in Bend, Oregon. And we get on every Thursday morning, and we just talk to each other about marriage stuff, stuff that’s happening in our offices and maybe that’s coming through concepts. We get a lot of listener questions from time to time. Yeah, we just enjoy. We’re kind of like brother and sister, so we sort of have this kind of grouchy banter. Then eventually, we stumble onto something that sounds like wisdom, I hope.

Is the show geared towards therapists or anyone who is interested in relationship?

Pretty much anybody. I think there’s lots and lots of marriage podcasts out there. So people find them because they’re looking for something to change the way they think about their relationship, whether that’s a therapist or a couple or just an individual. We generally say we have two things that we try to do every week. Number one is, we want people to go: “Huh, I’ve never thought about it like that before.” Then number two is, we want them to have something that they can use today, some tip or trick or tactic that they can actually use today. I just hope it changes the quality of conversation for people, because I think a lot of conversations that people have about relationships often are kind of lazy to be honest, or kind of clichéd. So it’s just really an interest for me to change that and just make people go: “Huh, all right, well, that’s new, I guess I’ll try it or whatever.”

Right. To be able to have something actionable that they can implement and really work or experiment with, even if they’re not fully starting.

Yeah, because nothing changes if nothing changes. That’s the reality. So I want people to have an opportunity to change something. Honestly, a lot of what we talked about comes from our own relationships. I’m married to Rebecca. Rebecca is different than Laura; Laura is my podcast partner, and Rebecca is my life partner. We’ve been married 26 years, and I think sometimes we say we’ve been happily married 23 out of 26 years. Because we have definitely had a ride. And we’re raising two daughters, who sometimes I say, I have three wives. I’ve got a 17-year-old wife, a 21-year-old wife, and a 50-year-old wife. So I’ve got to put this stuff into practice all the time.

Yes, relationship is everywhere. 

You can’t avoid it. I try sometimes, but I’m not very good at it.

Well, I appreciate your transparency in being willing to recognize or even just acknowledge here that you’re in practice. I also raise my hand with you that this is not something we ever arrive at, it’s something we’re growing. And as we grow, new terrain opens up, and it tests us even more.

Yeah, no question. I want to arrive. I want to get there. But I just don’t think there’s a “there” there, to be honest.

Agreed, agreed. Well, I’m really excited about what we’re going to be talking about. We’re going to be perhaps combating some of the cliché or relational myths that get perpetuated, and perhaps what you might offer in contrast to that, or what might be a little bit more useful. Before we do that, just for people that are getting to know you, I know you have your show and people can connect with you, and you are going to talk to us a little bit about ways to get connected with you towards the end of the show. What got you interested in looking at supporting people in relationship as a focus?

Well, my private practice is 100% couples. I’m bad at individual therapy. I would say less than 5% of my practice is individuals, and they’re folks that generally have come because as couples we worked together, and then after their relationship didn’t work, they hung around; they stuck with me. But for me, I learned that I liked couples’ therapy. I was doing individual work and I hated it, and I was about to clock out as a therapist. Then somebody brought their wife in, and my whole body just lit up. My whole thing, like, I just changed the whole thing. There’s a dynamic that happens, I think, when relationship is actually present and out, and also, I don’t have to carry the burden. So for me, I get to be in a room, and there’s a couple working it out, and I really do feel like, this is a weird phrase, but kind of like the god camera. I feel like I can kind of be above it. 

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“I think about therapy sometimes like theater, and I’m a little bit of a director. I’m way better as a director than as an actor. So I like just to direct traffic and direct the scene and try and propose different ways of doing things.”

So sometimes I’ll call it the boring neutral. The boring neutral is did you take out the garbage? If I hand that script to somebody who’s really good at directing rom-coms, they would be like, did you take out the garbage [in a sing-songy tone]? Or if it’s somebody who’s really good at dramedy, they’d be like, did you take out the garbage [in a dramatic tone]? 

So couples come in, and they’re directing their own play. The reason they come in is because the play is not working out very well, and then they are looking for alternatives. So I just try to provide alternatives. I have areas of expertise that I filter. But my real passion and energy is around story, literature, art, and metaphor. I like being creative. I’m probably more of an artist than a scientist. So that’s kind of how I think about my work with couples. I think I’m never bored. Every couple is unique for me. There are certainly patterns that you can see and recognize and drill into. 

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“The reality is it’s not whether a relationship works, it’s whether a relationship works for you.”

Yes. And with the information age, there’s so much available in the way of research and labels and language and typologies. I think when we’re talking about lived experience, it’s often on a continuum. It’s often a constellation of things. So in practice, it’s much more fluid and evolving. So it’s not as static as we tend to think when we access information and we’re like: “Ah, this is it!” So as a practitioner, I share that with you. It sounds as though, given your attention to the story and how the drama is unfolding, I imagine you might resonate with this. But I’m just wondering, that if you’re looking for the story underneath the story, sometimes the moves are what’s being perpetuated, and the dynamic isn’t actually the underlying motivator.

It never is. When they come in and talk about the garbage, did you take the garbage out, they’re not talking about garbage. They’re talking about trust, and they’re talking about reliability, and they’re talking about equality. I’ll start off with people sometimes, like: You guys, I could not care less about your garbage can. I do not care about it.” They’re like: what, this is what we’re talking about? I go, it’s not. It’s not what you’re talking about at all. So that opens up new opportunities. Like, well, what do you care about? I say, what do you care about? When you start talking about the garbage, what do you really care about? Is it garbage? It’s not garbage.

Precisely. Okay, great. Well, I just appreciate your frankness and your sense of humor.

I can’t get around it sometimes. Nobody has ever accused me of being inauthentic, I can’t do it. Like I said, I’m just not an actor. I don’t have the skill. I have two daughters; one is 21, and one is 17. The older one is an actress, she’s been on TV and does some stuff, and I don’t get her at all, because everything is drama. It’s truly art. Like, she’s a very good actress. But I’m like: “Baby girl, no, come one, we can logic our way out of this if we want to.” So we’ve been negotiating terms for a very long time.

Nice. Her delivery, I’m sure, is surprising at times. Well, I want to pivot to what do you see? It sounds like, as we were chatting before we got started here, that you have an interest in combating some of the myths or misnomers or clichés that are perpetuated in the relationship advice sphere? So where would you like, maybe we covered it?

I was thinking about how we were talking a little bit before about how I want to get there, but there’s no “there” there. It actually reminded me of the metaphor that I hate the most, which is when people say: marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m like, no, it’s not. 

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“Marriage is not a marathon, it’s just running. Marathons are over at 26.2 miles; you know when halfway is, you know what your body can do. That’s not what marriage is at all. It’s just running, until you die, or until you get divorced.”

I mean, that’s what it is. The end of the marriage race: death or divorce. I mean, again, what I want to do is, I want to acknowledge and validate that, no, you cannot sprint the whole time. But also, you have to really pace yourself as though this is the grand adventure of your life, like this is the eternal journey. It’s not the 26-mile jog that you’re going out on a Saturday afternoon. You can’t really even train for it. Because at some point, you’ve got to stop and slow down and see if you have the right shoes. So when people come into my office and they say stuff like that, I just start to salivate. Because I will immediately go, well, what do you mean, and hold on, and how does that work? Okay, well, if it’s death or divorce, how do you push that out farther? How do you make the race actually longer? We’re not trying to make it shorter, we’re trying to make it longer. That’s weird, because nobody wants to just run forever. So that’s, for me, the heart of the way I began to think about things, is that I never take anybody at face value.

Or perhaps people are appreciating the contrast to the sprint, which you’re noting has value. And what they’re associating or connecting with in real meaning around that, you’re challenging that.

Well, if I go to sort of a meta-commentary on how people use language right now, I think again, it’s just kind of lazy. I think we hear stuff and we go: “Oh, I like that. I’m going to use that as my guiding principle.” But it doesn’t actually have legs. It just has, I don’t know, pith perhaps. I think we want to go deeper into it. I really, really value expanding vocabulary for people, just as a generalized practice. The story I always use is, everyone knows the Spider Man story. Do you know the Spider Man story? Spider Man, bit by a radioactive spider, got some powers, Uncle Ben dies, tells him he needs to be, now he’s the friendly neighbor who swings around and solves problems. If you have a five-year-old, and you’re telling them about Spider Man or you give them a Spider Man book, it’s got about 50 words, maybe 150 words. If you’re reading a comic book that’s designed for a middle-schooler, it’s maybe got about 500 words, maybe closer to 1,000 words. If you’re watching a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, designed for adults, it’s got 100,000 words or more. It’s all the same story. It’s all the exact same story. It’s just truer, deeper, more nuanced and more mature, because there’s more language. 

So what I generally expose for clients early on is that they come into my office with about 100 words, 100 or 150 words about the relationship. I’m like, what if you had 100,000, how would that change your relationship? So when they come in with something that sounds not very thought through, even, frankly, if it’s from an expert, like John Gottman or Terry Real or Esther Perel, even if they come in with these things, I’m like, okay, but what does that actually mean for you? Then everything slows down, then we slow down and we start doing the work. Because I’ll give you a John Gottman speech, I can give it to you right now in six minutes. Until we slow down and really go, okay, but what does that mean for you, and what does that mean for you, and what does that mean for you? It’s basically useless, I think.

I’m reminded, I interviewed a woman who’s a linguist, and we were talking about the topic of limerence, which is kind of an infatuation, and the phenomenology around that. Or maybe she’s a phenomenologist, I think that’s more accurate. She was really targeting around when we have language, it actually can shape the direction of our choices and our behavior, because we’ve identified it in a certain way, and thus had meaning, to your point, and then we behave accordingly.

Yeah. I think that movie Inside Out, for example, this Pixar movie with the girl who has the emotions in her head, I think there’s five: there’s happy, sad, angry, fear maybe, and disgust, I think are the five that are in her head. But you take anger, for example. People, men, a lot of men, they’re very comfortable with anger, and their expression is rage. Because they only have those two words: anger and rage. But if they get frustration, and if they get disappointment, and if they get embarrassment, and if they get, what did you say?

Grief, loss.

Grief, sure. So many other shades. Anger in the movie is red. But there’s also scarlet and blood and pink and crimson and maroon and all these other shades. 

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“I think the more we have access to words, the more we can actually tell a true story about what we’re actually feeling and thinking and being in the relationship.”

So that’s a big energy for me. I think, again, we just take stuff for granted because it’s easy. I actually think, a good friend of mine just finished a novel that took him 26 years, and he sent it to me to read, and I started reading and I was like: “Holy cow, I forgot how to read! I don’t know how to read anymore.” Because I’m TikTok-ing all the time, or I’m just going through social media, or I’m getting my news from some scrolling feed that’s coming in, and I’m not actually settling in to language. That was a wake-up call for me earlier this year. I think that was a good reminder that oh yeah, we actually do have to remember how to read; each other, ourselves, our relationship, the whole bit.

And to enter into a deeper story requires a little bit more space and contemplation or reflection. Like some of these things that hook us, even a longer novel, there’s a lot of dimension and symbolism.

Well, and you’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to slow down long enough to actually.

Actually comprehend at a deeper level. 

Yeah. This particular guy, he’s old school, doesn’t have a cell phone. I feel like I betray him if I read it on a Kindle. So I’m still working through. It’s 800 pages, and I’m still working through the paper version. I’m like: Oh yeah, paper. Feel it. Sit down. Get comfortable in a chair. You have to do all these things that we’re not accustomed to really doing right now. Because we want it to go like this, come on, come on, come on, and fix my relationship. Can you fix my relationship? I’m like, no.

Yes, cozy up, people, here we go! Well, I’m curious, as you’re speaking about metaphor, I wonder would you say? Because one of my questions was, do you have a metaphor that you typically like to use? But then I was thinking, as you kept talking, oh, probably any metaphor would be limited, if we look at it.

Yeah, well, they’re all limited. But you can play with them. Probably my favorite to play with is around defensiveness. Like, I’m a pretty defensive guy. Zack Brittle is a defensive person. It’s hardwired into me. Like I said, I had just finished therapy this afternoon, and every week it comes up, and I got it from my dad, blah, blah, blah. But about 15 years ago or so, my wife said: This isn’t going to work, I can’t handle this defensiveness anymore.” I was like, oh, I guess I better. So for about 15 years, is it 15? Yeah, 15 is about right. I’ve been really working on it. I’ve been really working on getting good at defensiveness. I’m really good at it now. People are like, what do you mean? I go, well, I live in Seattle. There’s a famous, not famous, but there’s a very popular football player named Richard Sherman, who played quarterback for the Seahawks. This is a guy who went to Stanford, and who was very, very proud of how good he was at being defensive. But he wasn’t violent. He would hit the receiver if he needed to. But he prided himself on knowing the playbook better than the other people did, than the receiver did. He prided himself on cutting off angles. He was very excited about the statistics showing that. Quarterbacks wouldn’t even throw it to his side of the field because of how good he was at being defensive. So he cut off the violence by getting ahead of the game, basically. I like thinking about that. 

The other thing is, football is really easy, because he was very, very clear about what he was defending: this rectangle spot of grass. So I’ll talk about defensiveness all day long, because I’m like, what are you defending, and what should you get ahead of, and what’s the playbook? You know your wife is going to come at you with X, Y, and Z. Why do you take the bait? Why do you know feeling attacked isn’t the same as being attacked? I eat that stuff up, I love it. I’ll talk about this. 

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“My other favorite metaphor when it comes to defensiveness, I’ll say we hire defensive soldiers to walk up and down the castle wall. But if the defensive soldier is walking up and down the castle wall, and he hears the sound of the woods, and he immediately starts firing arrows in the woods, pretty shitty soldier. Like, he could be wasting arrows, he could be killing the hunting party that is coming back.”

It might be zombies, but he doesn’t know until he slows down and looks really close and listens hard, maybe ask somebody else to come over here and listen with me, and then decide whether or not to pull out his arrows. That’s being good at being defensive. 

So John Gottman will say defensiveness is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I’m like, uh-oh, I’m in big trouble. Zach is in big trouble, because I’m defensive. Well, instead of getting rid of my defensiveness, I’ve just gotten really good at it. So I’m very clear about what I’m defending, and I get ahead of it so that I don’t have to deal with the threat. Then when it eventually comes, I just try to be patient and listen long enough to make sure I only use my arrows if I have to.

Well, it sounds as though you’re using your skill set in service of what you’re trying to cultivate. That’s a deeper understanding of what’s happening here. Awareness around okay, I’m listening for the right thing. Or so-called right, I tend to not like right and wrong. But I’m listening deeply. Like, there’s a utilizing the skills differently. Because the way I understand defensiveness, as it shows up in relationship, is often in response to criticism. No, you’re mischaracterizing me or misrepresenting me, I need to counteract that, and let me tell you why. Or just this stance in life as a protective strategy, but often maybe not in touch with those deeper insecurities or longings.

In touch with what you’re protecting.

Yes, exactly! So would you agree that what you’re describing isn’t just defensiveness in the way that we typically see, and that you’re utilizing these skills in service of cultivating greater intimacy or connection?

I would hope so. I think my relationship with my wife is way better now than it was 15 years ago, in part because we’ve gotten a lot better at picking our battles. Defensive people are often in relationship with critical people; they somehow find each other or they create that dynamic, and it works for them, because that’s how conflict works. I would put her in the critical category. But she has learned also how to ask me for the thing that she wants. She has learned how to take her critical eye, and train it on the reality and just say: “This is what happened, and here’s what I want. So when you didn’t take out the garbage, that was frustrating for me because I rely on the system to work in this way, and now the garbage is backed up, and I just really need to know if you’re going to participate in the system.” Then I’m like: “I’ll participate in the system. Yeah, I want to do that. But I don’t want to be told to take out the garbage.”

Or be told you’re, some character attack.

Or that I’m lazy. 

Yeah, exactly. I know I often think with criticism, if one is willing to look at what’s underneath the criticism, often there’s a real reveal. Like, here’s what’s happening for me. Or there’s a request. I think in Gottman language, it’s a longing. Underneath every criticism, there’s a longing. So yes, these can be used to create more connection and just show up for each other.

Yeah, I think criticism is a bad ask. It’s an ask. So if I feel defensive at a criticism, I have learned how to say: “Hey, babe, are you trying to ask me for something? Because I’m feeling defensive, and I don’t think that’s what you’re chasing. But are you trying to ask me a question, or are you trying to ask me for something specific? Because I’ll want to do that way more than I want to get defensive.” Because honestly, getting problematically defensive, I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel good to me. I don’t want to do that. So I’m trying to find it out all the time. That doesn’t feel humiliating. I think that’s the other thing. Defensive people feel like losing is equal to humiliation, or somehow giving in. I don’t think it is, I don’t think it has to be.

Well, and it’s also too, there’s an awareness that you’re connected to and present to. It’s almost like, I like to think of sometimes the critical tendency is like smoke and mirrors a little bit. So you’re not taking the bad ask bait, there’s something else that you’re like: “Okay, and can you tell me more about what you’re needing or what’s happening there for you or what you’re wanting?” So good. 

Okay. Well, I’m curious, are there things that you see in the world that feel like unhelpful, unproductive relationship advice that you want to speak to?

Yeah, I mean, there’s so much out there. When I’m public speaking, one of the icebreakers that I will raise, I’ll always say this, and I’m interested to see if you have an answer. I’ll say, what’s the worst relationship advice you’ve ever gotten, or what’s the best? There’s one thing that’s always on both lists. Do you have any idea what it is?

I don’t. I can say there’s one that I find troubling, is love will conquer all. It’s not so much that the essence of love, I do think the essence of love is so-called perfect. But humans are imperfect, and so there’s a lot more I could say about that.

Well, even that, what I would do is, I mean, we’re doing it right now. But I would be like, what does that even mean, where did that come from? Love will conquer all. Like, what are we conquering, and what is all, and what is love in this case? I mean, that conversation lights me up. But the one I always hear is, don’t go to bed angry. I’m like, that’s terrible advice. Go to bed angry. I mean, what’s the alternative? You’ve got to try and sort this thing out at 10pm when you’re both tired, you might be a little drunk, you’re already thinking about tomorrow, and you’re trying to figure it out. No, no. Literally, call a truce. Go to sleep, take some deep breaths, and meditate your way out of this, wake up tomorrow and find out if you still need to talk about this thing. Because you rarely do. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, they’ll say we had a big fight last night. I go, what was it about? They’re like, we don’t even know. I’m like, what? Yeah, she said something, and then I got upset about that, and then I didn’t like the way her tone. Tone, what the heck is tone? It’s like, volume is like, you’re volume 2, 6, 11, whatever it is. Tone, tone is just interpretable. That’s just you making up a story about what you heard your partner say. I’m like, dude, make up a different story. 

Yeah. I guess I would add, I don’t know if you disagree, but I do think the nonverbals; 80% of communication is nonverbal, So I do think the quality of the tone, even the neuroception and the polyvagal, I think there’s something that can be perceived through tone. But yes, how often we’re misperceiving and projecting and making meaning incorrectly is great.

Listen, you might be right that they had a tone with you. They go, blah, blah, blah, blah, tone! And you’re like, don’t use that tone with me. Or they could go, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, tone! And you go, wow, this sounds really upsetting to you, maybe I need to pay attention, and I’ll go back to what I said earlier, maybe we need to slow this down. How about we slow this down? We just take a couple of deep breaths. Let’s go to sleep. We’ll see if it’s important in the morning. But you start going to war over tone, nobody is going to win that one.

No, agreed. To your point earlier, in some of these cliché or even just very common, what are they called, like platitudes or whatever, relationship-focused, like don’t go to bed angry, I guess what I would wonder what is in that is this sense of: how are we caring for each other, are we putting the focus on caring for our bond? Even if a couple is in the midst of a conflict or dysregulated, I do think there can be some: “We’re going to come back to this. Let’s just call a pause.” It doesn’t mean we don’t know if we love each other anymore. It’s not that.

Yeah. 

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“The heart of John Gottman’s theory on conflict is basically de-escalation and repair. It has very little to do with topical understanding, or even resolution. It’s really about de-escalating and repair.”

I think if you can de-escalate, well, A, I think de-escalation is a priority. What you can’t do is de-escalate sort of unilaterally. You can’t just say: “Eff this, I’m out of here! I’m done talking to you.” But you can say: “Hey, if we keep doing this, it’s going to go real bad for us both, and neither one of us wants that. I’m pretty flooded, and I don’t know if I can continue this conversation. So how about we take a break till tomorrow?” 

Now, if people are flooded, there’s no way they have access to that language. So I’m pro-signal, I’m pro-code, I’m pro-shorthand, to get yourself out of these nonsense arguments. Again, it basically is just two children yelling at each other. Elementary school teachers have figured this out. They go, a hush fell over the crowd, and everybody goes Hush, just trained into them. It’s not: “Hey, class, please settle down. You’re getting a little too loud. It’s almost recess, I know you’re excited.” No, we don’t treat children logically. We treat them like little automatons, which is what we are when we get flooded and into these conversations. So I’m pro just have a safe word and get out. But that safe word has to mean, “I love you and I don’t want to do this anymore, because we’re going to harm each other, and I have no interest in that.” 

And we’re going to circle back. 

And we’re going to keep doing this, and now 10 o’clock is going to be 2 o’clock. And we still have to be at work at 9 o’clock, and we’re going to be wrecked because of it. No, thanks. Go to bed angry.

Right, agreed. Yes, pull on the air, whatever you guys decide, tap on the shoulder. That that means code for: “I love you. I am flooded, I can’t do this. And we’re going to circle back.” Yeah, so great.

I don’t know, there’s so many of these. I think there’s so many spaces and places where we just sort of settle for really easy language. Platitude I think is a good word, it’s the right word. If we do that, we’re going to just get dumber. I think my hope, my goal, in general, is that people will just get smarter about their own stuff. I mean, that’s why I do therapy. I go in and I go, “I’ve got this theory about myself, what do you think?” She helps me vet that theory, and I come home and I go, I’m going to try out this new theory, see if it works.

It’s a challenge. I think it’s a challenge for many, myself included at times, because I think the human tendency is to categorize and to automate for efficiencies. So when something resonates, we want to lean on that and say, okay, check the box, I got that, and now we are off to something else. Yet, what we’re talking about with relationship being so dynamic and evolving, we don’t want to get automated.

Well, I think you ought to get automated in most of your life, so that you have the space to do relationship or do intimacy in the places that are really important. I think you ought to, again, if I go to John Gottman’s language, it’s solve the solvable problems; automate everything that can be automated. But your relationship isn’t part of that. That needs actual thought and depth and engagement. And risk is hard, man. People want it to be super easy. That’s why we gravitate toward extreme political views or whatever. We go: “Oh, this guy told me what to think, this is what I think. I’m good. I’m settled. I’m good, I don’t have to think anything else for the rest of my life.” Until we go: “Wait, that thing and that thing on the left and the right, they actually are the same. They’re just sort of different. So what do I do with that, and how do I do it?”

Right. There’s safety in numbers or safety in what feels known, even though it might not actually be consistent.

You know what sneaks up on people a lot, too? Do you know about this, or have you experienced this? People who have never experienced infidelity, beforehand, they’ll say: “If he cheats, I’m out. It’s the only thing I will never tolerate. That’s it, that’s my line.” Then he cheats, or she cheats, and they’re in my office. I’m like, but wait a second, you said you were out. They’re like, well, actually love, actually commitment, actually sunk cost. I go okay, well, what if you started to think about the possibility that your relationship could be stronger after infidelity than it was beforehand? 

Because you know where we say the most clichés, the most often, is on the altar. We go, yep, yep, yep. For better, for worse. Sickness, health. Yep, totally. Better, worse, what is the other one, rich or poor, I’m in. Then we experience better and worse, and we experience sickness and health, and we experience rich and poor, and we have to go: wait, really, am I doing this? I think when you say yes to that, when you go wait, really? Now that I’ve seen worse, now that I’ve seen poor, then you say yes, then you say I do, that’s where the magic is right there. It’s not at the beginning. It’s after the problem.

Because in my eyes, they’re not even real commitments. To your point, we don’t have real any sense of

I had no idea, none. I was 24 years old, I thought I knew everything there was to know, that I had figured it out. And I was absolutely clueless.

Right, we don’t even know how that’s actionable. Some of it is aspirational, and it’s beautiful and romantic and proclaiming our love and is very beautiful sentiment. Yet, we no idea how to execute it either.

Yeah. It’s bizarre, man. But like I said, I’m never bored, I’ve always got something to talk about with couples. Also, I’ll say this, because I try to say it as often as possible. I have a tonne of respect for my couples, because they are doing something that most couples are not doing, which is asking for help, and I think that’s a big deal. I think people who are listening to marriage podcasts or reading marriage books, they’re a step ahead of the curve. Because most couples on the planet are not doing the work of really putting their relationship under the microscope and trying to figure out how to optimize for the long run that’s longer than 26.2 miles.

Yes, it’s such bravery and such courage. So Zack, thank you so much for being here. If people are interested in getting connected to the podcast, or what else would you want to encourage people to connect with you on?

Thank you for asking. I think you can listen to Laura and I every week at Marriage Therapy Radio, that’s wherever podcasts are. We also have a thing at, we have a website called MarriageTherapyRadio.com. Occasionally, we have workshops, and that’s kind of fun if you’re interested in learning, particularly about the Gottman method. We host workshops about three or four times a year. If you want to learn more about me, I’m just at ZachBrittle.com, a quick Google search will find that for you. You can’t hide from anybody these days. If you want to find me, you can. But I appreciate talking to you, and I’m sorry I don’t have more time, this is actually really fun. But I jammed up my day today. 

No problem. I’ll make sure to have all of those links on today’s show. Thank you again for being here. Appreciate your voice and perspective. 

Yeah, thank you.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching