ERP 420: The Importance Of “Turning Towards” In Relationship — An Interview With Laura Heck

By Posted in - Podcast April 16th, 2024 0 Comments

Loneliness and disconnection in relationships can often stem from unmet needs for emotional connection. When one partner reaches out for support, validation, or understanding, and their bids go unnoticed or ignored, it can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation. This lack of responsiveness can create a sense of being unheard or unseen, deepening the emotional distance between partners. Over time, repeated instances of unmet bids can erode trust and intimacy, leaving individuals feeling unfulfilled and disconnected in their relationship.

In this episode, Laura Heck and Dr. Jessica Higgins delve into the importance of turning towards your partner in a relationship to address feelings of loneliness and disconnection. By understanding the bidding system in relationships and learning to respond with empathy and curiosity, individuals can build stronger connections with their partners. This episode emphasizes the significance of acknowledging past traumas, developing new skills, and fostering grace and understanding to overcome emotional barriers and create a more fulfilling and intimate partnership.

Laura Heck is a licensed marriage and family therapist, Certified Gottman Therapist, co-host of Marriage Therapy Radio, and host of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work workshop for couples. She speaks and trains for The Gottman Institute and is a regular media expert on the topic of intimate relationships.

In this Episode

05:30 Laura Heck’s journey into relationship support.

11:22 Understanding bids for connection in relationships.

16:27 Importance of positive to negative ratios in relationships.

21:23 Exploring bids and responses in relationship dynamics.

26:03 Understanding shutting down in relationships.

31:37 Responding to criticism and harsh startups.

33:18 Repairing miscommunications and misunderstandings.

42:32 Building compassion and empathy in relationships.

45:16 Addressing trust and misunderstandings in relationships.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Practice turning towards your partner’s bids for connection, even in moments of conflict or pain.
  • Develop awareness of your automatic responses and the reasons behind them to build compassion for yourself and empathy for your partner.
  • Cultivate curiosity and seek more information when faced with criticism or conflict to avoid taking the bait.
  • Take a pause and get more information before responding to your partner, especially in heated moments.
  • Acknowledge and address past resentments and barriers in the relationship to process and heal old wounds.
  • Build trust and goodwill in the relationship by acknowledging and affirming your partner’s efforts and accomplishments.
  • Practice grace and understanding towards yourself and your partner, recognizing that change takes time and effort.
  • Communicate openly and honestly about your feelings and experiences to foster deeper connection and understanding in the relationship.

Mentioned

The Gottman Institute

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (*Amazon affiliate link) (book)

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with Laura Heck

Websites: marriagetherapyradio.com

Facebook: facebook.com/marriagetherapyradio

Twitter: twitter.com/forbetter_us

Instagram: instagram.com/marriagetherapyradio

Podcast: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/marriage-therapy-radio/id1295458667?mt=2 (Apple Podcast)

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

Laura, thank you for joining us.

Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to meet up with you again.

I know! Me too. I know I was a guest on your show and your fellow host, and really wanted to welcome you to the show and bring your voice here on the show. I would love to just have you talk a little bit about what got you interested in supporting people in the way of relationship and couplehood, if we can start there.

Yeah, let’s see here. I’m trying to think of how long I’ve been doing this for. So I have been in practice, private practice, for 13 years now. So we’ll go back a little further. I just remember I had graduated from grad school with my undergrad, and I was feeling pretty lost. I knew I wanted to do something. I knew that I was driven for something, but I didn’t know what. I was in Long Beach, California, at the time. I remember reading, I think it was like a Cosmo magazine of all things, and ripping out an article and just becoming so fascinated with this article. They were writing about this couple on Orcas Island, Washington, that was doing all this amazing research with couples. It was John and Julie Gottman. This was back in, I want to say it was probably 2007. I never rip things out, I’m just not, I don’t know how to describe it. But I might lock something into my memory. But this, for some reason, really stood out to me. So I ripped the article out, I shared it with my then fiancé, who is my husband for the last 15 years now, and just said: I don’t know what this means, but I’m really fascinated by it. Ever since then, I have been on this trajectory. I decided that I was going to go to grad school, that I was going to dive into couples’ work. That was the beginning of the end for me was just becoming so fascinated with this couple. 

Wow, and you studied and got certified and all of the things with the Gottmans.

Yeah, it’s pretty neat. So in 2007, that was the first time I had ever read about John and Julie Gottman. Are your listeners familiar with who the Gottman ‘s are?

I would assume so. But it doesn’t hurt to kind of recap. Because they’ve done so much research to provide in the field and helping people understand what works, what doesn’t work, and really having that evidence-based.

Yeah, especially coming out of a magazine like Cosmo back in 2007. Most of what we read or what we pull off of the bookshelves or what catches our eye in the media is somebody’s opinion of what they think works for relationships. Oftentimes, it’s derived from their own personal experience. “I went through divorce and this is how the divorce was really successful for me and my family, and so I wrote a book.” That’s not me. But that’s a lot of what we find in the retail space. So to read about this couple where they were saying this is all empirically validated research on what actually is helping to create successful long-lasting relationships, and this is what if you do it will dissolve a relationship over time. I was just fascinated! I was like, this is grounded in research, this has never been done before. 

So yes, I went to grad school, and then immediately after graduating from grad school as a therapist with my license, I thought I’m going to shoot for the stars, and I went and I applied at the Gottman Institute and worked there for, I don’t know how many years I’ve been with them, since 2011. Served as an employee, as their Director of Professional Development. I helped develop a course for the Gottman Institute, and then now, I’m a master trainer for them. So my business partner Zack and I will go around the world and we get to teach other clinicians how to do the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work workshop.

Thank you for giving us a little insight into your background and how you found yourself in supporting couples, and also really working so closely with the Gottman Institute and you’re just developing yourself. I know we were chatting before we got started here on just what is top of mind for you. Would you like to share just where your thoughts are today, as it relates to couples and how to help?

Sure. I mean, it’s a little bit of a loaded question of where my thoughts are, because my thoughts are everywhere at all times. But I had mentioned to you that when I work with couples, usually what happens is, I get really invested in the couples that I’m working with. I would consider myself as having like a micro-practice, where I get to really focus on each couple. I’ve been really thinking about one of the couples that I’m working with, particularly right now. It’s a pretty common complaint that keeps coming up, is this idea of feeling really lonely, really isolated. It’s interesting, because I hear this quote a lot. But when it came out of my client’s mouth, I just sort of had that aha moment. She said, why won’t he just do what I need him to do? Meaning, why won’t he just show up for me, why can’t he just hear me and be there for my pain and hold me and be my emotional support person? It was interesting when she mentioned that, because I was like, why can’t he, what’s holding him back? So I’ve really been spinning on that a lot, the last 24 hours, of thinking about how this is a pretty common complaint, and it doesn’t need to be gendered by any means, of just one partner feeling like the other partner isn’t willing to show up for them emotionally, and is missing all of those bids for connection that they are putting out into the world. So that’s what’s got me on a hook right now, and I’d love to bat it around with you and get your perspective as well. 

Yeah. Well, just to be clear, when you’re referencing this person, this client, you work with them as a couple? 

Yes.

So you’re privy to seeing their dynamic.

100%. I love working with couples, but I also really enjoy breaking the couple up and seeing one person at a time. I really try to keep it balanced, because I don’t want to align more with one person over the other. So I actually had met with her individually, recently. This was something that she has been saying with the two of them, with her partner right next to her. But also trying to understand more about how she is creating meaning around what her partner not showing up for her looks like, why that’s so important to her, what it looked like in her family of origin of people showing up for her in pain, are their expectations that she’s holding? Really kind of spending some time digging into her side of it. 

Yes, it’s so, so helpful. Because there are a lot of influences that predate the relationship, typically, that inform how we’re engaging in seeking support, and also how we’re interpreting how our partner shows up. Then you have the couple dance and the whole dynamic that’s at play and the history in the relationship. Well, if we could back up just a moment, when you talk about bids, I know that many people know what that means. But would you say a little bit more?

Yeah. So the bid for connection, or I would call it like the bidding system in the relationship, is a Gottman concept. But essentially, the relationship is made up of all of these micro moments, where you are constantly reaching for your partner; emotionally, for conversation, for physical touch, for humor, for any kind of connection. It can be through conversation. But it’s really just this system in which you are reaching for your partner, and the expectation is, when I reach for you, you’re going to be there. The bar is actually pretty small, it’s pretty low, in order for you to reach that level of turning towards your partner. So there’s many ways that you can respond to a partner’s bid. One way is to turn toward them. So if I was to say something to my partner along the lines of: “Gosh, I just can’t believe how beautiful it is outside.” I say it out loud, he’s in the room, but maybe I’m not turned directly to him. He can turn toward me and he can say something like: “Yeah, look at that.” Believe it or not, that’s actually turning toward. That’s his way of responding to me and saying: I hear your voice in my ears, and I’m responding to you because you matter to me. So that’s one way of turning toward, and that will actually strengthen the relationship. These moments are happening all throughout the day. 

But then there’s also moments where you’re missing your partner’s bid for connection. It could be because we’re distracted; with television, with children, with life, or cell phones are a massive distractor where we’re missing our partner’s bids. I imagine, while we’re driving down the road, if I’m on a road trip with my husband and I’m behind the wheel, he’s most likely thumbing through his phone at some point. I might say something to him, and he doesn’t respond at all. That makes me feel pretty deflated, and sends a message like he’s not there for me. I might repeat myself. But if he doesn’t respond eventually, I’m going to stop bidding. That grows distance between the relationship, and it actually starts to erode away the trust system. 

Then there’s turning against your partner’s bids. That would be, if I was to say something like: “Wow, I can’t believe how beautiful and sunny it is outside.” And my husband says: “Shush, I’m on the phone.” I’m going to feel like he’s rejecting me, and it’s going to take away from that relationship. So this bidding, oh boy, I got all sorts of distracted explaining the bidding system. 

It’s perfect, because you’re giving us that there’s this cumulative percentage, if you will. But more or less, the felt sense is the responsiveness that my partner will respond. It doesn’t have to be 100%, but that there’s a responsiveness, even if it’s neutral, or even positive, affirming, validating. That that is building trust, and that our partner is there for us. Versus if there’s not responding, or even, I don’t know if it’s worse, but seems worse, that there’s a negative response, which is a criticism or blame or stonewalling, these things that the Gottmans have also identified, that are very harmful behaviors to connection. So tell us if you will, because a lot of people kick around the five to one ratio, and then there’s another ratio when one is in conflict. So can you say a little bit more for people who don’t know, or help us?

Yeah. I mean, Dr. Gottman’s research is very math-based, and so we have all of this really amazing quantitative data. One of the pieces of data that came out of his research is that when you look at a relationship, we have, you would assume, sort of like: Okay, well, the relationship feels overall pretty darn positive. Meaning, I guess, for every positive thing, there’s always a negative thing. But it turns out that healthy, sustainable relationships actually have kind of an overwhelming amount of positivity in the relationship. If you were to quantify it by observing a couple, which is something that he did when he was researching and still is researching couples, who would just observe and would count, this is something that’s positive. Maybe it’s the tone of voice is positive, it’s the eye contact, it’s the touching of your hand, it’s the responding with validation, these are all positive things. If you add those all up over the course of time, he found that healthy relationships, just in everyday experiences, were at about a 20 to one ratio, which is kind of bonkers, that healthy relationships are actually quite positive. Then when you take a look at a couple that’s really quite healthy, and they’re in conflict, it’s still overwhelmingly positive, of five positives for every negative. So that’s the goal of what we’re reaching for. 

I love that it’s really important to keep in mind, you’re not turning toward every partner’s bid for connection. The ratio he found is actually closer to about 86% of couples that sustain their relationship, that’s the percentage that they’re turning toward their partner’s bids. So it’s not a perfect turning toward. You said the word, which I think is really important, it’s that cumulative impact of positivity that creates that culture in the relationship, which is really what we’re shooting for. 

Yeah. Because even if we were prioritizing it as the most important thing that we’re paying attention to, we probably still wouldn’t meet the 100% accuracy of responding. 

No, of course not.

Yeah, there’s this humaneness. I’m so grateful, because people kick around the five to one, and it’s not. It’s actually 20 to one, that that’s what we’re really looking at as far as the ratio. It doesn’t have to be overtly on the spectrum of super extreme positive. Like you said, just even acknowledging and validating, like: “Oh yeah, it is really nice out.” Not necessarily super effusive. That’s positive, that’s a responding.

That’s right. It’s interesting, you had asked: I’m not sure what feels more of a withdrawal in the relationship. Is it that your partner doesn’t respond at all to you? Or is it that maybe your partner responds harshly to you with criticism? 

Free Men Sitting on Bed Stock Photo

“We actually find that it’s better, and I say this kind of tongue in cheek, don’t do this, but to respond rather than not respond. Because at least your partner is still engaged with you, it just might be harsh.”

We find, it’s like you have those fiery couples where they’re engaged in lots of back and forth, and it’s negative, but they’re engaged. Then you have those stone-cold couples that are completely stonewalled from one another, massive barrier between the two of them, and those couples aren’t engaged at all. There’s very little bidding for connection with one another, and very little response. That feels worse. The loneliness is where people are really struggling.

Yeah, thank you. I remember coming across that research, probably similar, 2007. I remember being surprised that the high conflict couples, like that’s not an indicator for disaster couples. That actually, their ability to repair and they’re engaged, and it’s how they’re fighting too that matters. But I appreciate you spelling that out, because this loneliness, this not responding, which is kind of what you started with around what’s happening here when one isn’t responding? Typically, when the partner is feeling lonely, there’s a development of their efforts, whether or not it’s I’m going to get louder, or I’m going to get stronger in my language, in the hopes that you will respond, even however. Then when that’s not responded to, there’s typically this kind of atrophy or this kind of letting go, this disengagement. 

So where would you like to start with just looking at? Because we’ve mentioned the history that informs someone’s expectations, also how they’re interpreting their partner, and then also the attempts. I know the Gottmans talk about the soft startup, but I don’t know if that’s helpful to talk about here.

Yeah, with this particular couple, that was what I was trying to figure out. Because what they basically said is, our bidding system is broken. I’m not interested in responding to my partner. She is like, I’m left out here high and dry. It is at the point of just complete and total resentment and escalation very quickly. Because she’s lonely, and she’s making all of these bids, and the bids are not being responded to. I’m looking at both of them. Well, what are you doing, what are you doing? Because I will tell you that it is never one person that is responsible for that bidding system. It’s both of you, and you’re working off of each other. It’s usually a pretty well-worn cycle that you’ve gotten into over time. The cycle that this particular couple has gotten into is that she has learned that if I request gently, if I come to you softly, if I make these requests of you, they’re not responded to. So naturally over time, she has done what so many people would normally do, is they up the ante; their intensity gets more fiery, they use more curse words. So everything escalates. Oftentimes she will get a response out of her partner, but it’s not the response she’s looking for; what she gets is him responding in anger, or him stonewalling. It’s just a really lonely place. Because what she’s learned is, at some point, I learned that if I just raise my voice and if I intensify, I’ll get his attention. Now that isn’t even working, now he’s completely shut down. 

So starting with her of like, how can I help you move toward him in a way that’s soft and gentle that he can hear you, and how can I help to understand what it’s like to be him? That’s kind of the missing piece. I still need to work with him to figure out what his backstory is. But I can create a whole lot of stories as to why he shuts down, and that’s fun. I think that’s kind of the fun part about being a therapist is that we’re like little investigators, and we get to create stories and then check in and help them to uncover maybe why they’re not responding to their partner’s bids.

Yeah, thank you. I know I reference a lot of the Gottman’s research. I also, as you know, do my best to weave in the attachment research and a lot of EFT, and I think they’re such beautiful complements. One of the things that is so important in the couples’ work when there is a little bit more of this classic, and I say classic just because it’s such a common dynamic where the one that’s shutting down on the outside looks as though they’re disengaged. But again, in the Gottman’s research, when they’re hooked up to all the sensors that are given the physiological reads, their system is quite flooded and overwhelmed, even though it looks like they’re totally checked out and don’t care. Would you say a little more here?

Yeah, it is really tough. Because when you are approaching your partner, and you’re making all of these bids, and let’s just say that those bids are loud and angry and resentful, they’re still bids nonetheless. But that can oftentimes shut another person down; their nervous system just completely gets hijacked. Part of what they may unconsciously be doing is, and I hear them, I’ll often ask like, what are you doing when your partner comes to you? I will find that they are consciously trying to balance their partner. They say things like, if I notice that my partner is really amped up and fiery and upset, I am trying to just stay as calm and cool and stoic as possible, so that maybe I might be able to ground my partner. So they’re consciously thinking that. But what’s happening under the surface is that they’re getting really activated, and they’re trying to keep everything on the outside as still as possible so that it’s not amplifying their partner any further. But then they’re also in this sort of stonewalling shut down, where they haven’t told their partner what’s going on, but this is all happening under the surface. So their heart rate is escalated, all of their stress hormones are flooding throughout their body, and now they’re being completely quiet. They attempt to look as disengaged as possible, and it’s just a self-soothing mechanism. It’s not helpful, but it is what’s happening.

Yeah. When we look at the self-soothing mechanism or the tendency there, often, when we look at history, there is something that has made that really important or relevant. That in your family upbringing or whatever circumstances, that was the best move. That was a wise, adaptive move. Then when you look at, as you’re saying, in the pattern, perhaps it’s hurting their significant other and not actually helping achieve what they would like, which is for the system to be more trusting. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve heard that they are in more of the camp of the shutdown that are so at a loss around: “I try and make attempts, and I’m in this bind that when I try and it doesn’t work, and then I go to shut down. It’s almost like I have to feel like I have to give up, because it’s like, all my efforts don’t help, and then I’m just going to make things worse. So just go to this place, and it’s extremely painful.” The learning here, like you’re describing, that this isn’t just a one interaction, there’s a history to the relationship. So we’re reading each other’s nonverbals, even before. Likely, I mean, I will say this is true in my relationship, where my significant other, he’s reading things on me sometimes before I even know what I’m feeling. I like to be as aware as possible, and I try to be in my practice, but I for sure get caught up and preoccupied and whatnot.

Yeah, that’s funny. My husband will oftentimes tell me when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m like: “Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate. How did you know that?” He’s like: “Well, you haven’t sat down and the kitchen is spotless.” I’m like: “Oh, look at that. Okay, we’re in anxiety right now. All right, thank you for informing me of that information.” 

It’s the feedback loop, the mirror. So we’re sensing each other though, these cues are evident. But when we don’t have the trust, or we don’t have the system that we can turn towards, like you were just describing that your husband can comment and you’re like: Oh, look at that. That’s a responding to him, even though if it’s not comfortable or even fun to look at.

That’s true. Turning toward is also turning towards your partner even when they’re in pain, that’s the hardest part. Like, when we talk about the bidding system, we like to talk about how fun it is when your partner sort of pats the couch next to them, and it’s like, come have a seat next to me. That’s a very overt, obvious bid for connection. I want to sit next to you, or I want to snuggle. Those are fun bids to respond to. 

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“It’s difficult in a much more mature relationship to be able to turn towards your partner’s bids when they’re in pain and when they’re angry, especially when they’re angry at you. But we still require that of our relationship.”

It’s kind of like this whole idea of in sickness and in health, when things are good and when things are bad. That all the emotions are acceptable, and I want to be able to trust and rely that when I show up, and my emotions are not happy, joy, carefree, but my emotions are sadness, depression, anxiety, that you’re still going to respond to my bids. That’s a really important piece of this relationship bubble here to consider.

I think about why a partner might not respond to your bids in those moments, and there’s a whole lot of stories that we can come up with. One that I was really thinking about is, we don’t do things that we don’t feel competent in, and we shy away from them as much as possible. If you have been told your whole life, or you haven’t had successful experiences to be able to tell you that you are competent in being able to show up for other people in their pain, then we’re going to shy away from them; we’re probably going to disengage, and we’re going to check out the moment somebody else is in pain. 

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“I think part of my job is being able to teach people, in the process of therapy, and give them competence and confidence that they can handle these situations, and that they can handle themselves and their partner’s pain at the same time, to be able to do that on their own.”

Right. Because someone who maybe is contending, and maybe again, not consciously, but is living in them, not another failure, not another disappointment, not another reason to let my partner down. Like, I’m just going to disengage, because I don’t feel competent, or don’t think this is going to go well.

It’s not going to go well, yeah. Or I’m going to get overwhelmed. I’m going to be so uncomfortable with my feelings that I don’t want to put myself in that. Nobody does, we constantly avoid putting ourselves in situations where we don’t feel good. If we’re boundary-less, or we haven’t learned to accept or manage emotions in a certain way, then we’re going to avoid them at all costs. That’s really hard. I’m seeing that in my personal life with some dear friends who are really struggling. One partner is struggling, and they’re going, where are you, why are you not here supporting me? I’m like, I know why, because it’s scary for them; they’re struggling themselves with their own emotions and feelings. 

Yeah, so let’s dive into this. Because this is I think the harder task, I sometimes reference it as an advanced move or even a ninja move, when one’s partner is coming at them with criticism or some harsh startup, and to recognize that’s a bid.

It totally is. The ninja move is a jiu jitsu, where you’re just sort of moving around, you’re not using the weapon.

It’s like, get out of the way of the attack.

Yeah, I love the idea. I tell my clients this all the time, don’t take the bait, don’t take the bait. Your partner is trying to bait you because they want you; they want your response, they want you to engage. And what I tell clients is, don’t take the bait, meaning the weapon, and turn it around on your partner. But if your partner comes to you with criticism, see if you can stealthily move around that criticism and ask yourself, what is my partner really needing right now, what is it that they’re asking for? Clearly, they are asking for something from me. They’re using the wrong language, it’s a poorly constructed complaint. 

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“We say criticism is a poorly constructed complaint, and it probably is wrapped in all sorts of bids and anger. How can you not take the bait and instead be curious and ask yourself, what is my partner trying to communicate to me and how can I try and meet their need in this moment?”

That is a total advanced move. So good on you if you’re wanting to practice that. 

Yes. For people listening, I wonder if it would be helpful to work with an example. I don’t know if the couple that you’re referencing, it’s still early perhaps.

Oh, I can give you all sorts of examples from my own personal life. Okay, are you ready? I found myself dropping into contempt. So I had mentioned earlier, we’re in the process of this move; my husband and I swapped roles. I’ve been the primary breadwinner, if you will, if that’s even language that we’re using these days, and he’s been primary parent. This has never been the case, but it has been for the last three months. I find myself incredibly critical of his ability to multitask and get things done throughout the day. I have a whole list of things that I think he needs to get done. So I come home yesterday, and he goes, did you see the garage? He was so proud of himself, all the organization that he’s been doing. I walked into the garage, and I swear to you, the first thing I thought in my mind was, are you kidding me? Like, you’ve been out here for five hours, what did you do with your day? So I can absolutely come at him. So he goes, did you see the garage? I could say, I mean I could literally say this out loud. I didn’t, I thought it. I could say something like, are you kidding me? Do you have any idea what I have done in the last five and a half hours, and this is all you have to show for yourself? So how do you hear that and you not take the bait? Because it is tough. He would naturally get very defensive. Because one, he was proud of himself, and he wanted to show what he had done, and here I was attacking.

And he’s seeking that you’re impressed.

100%, yes. I mean, he made a bid. Look at everything that I did! He was so proud, he wanted me to ooh and aah. This is actually a great example, because I repaired today. So I’ll give you the full meal deal here. How does he respond without getting defensive, or how does he respond to me? I mean, he did not get what he wanted from that bid for connection at all. But one thing I did do was, rather than not respond at all, which is turning away, I did respond, but it was really harsh. So maybe you could role-play like, how would you respond as my husband by not taking the bait? 

Well, first of all, you said, you didn’t say what you were thinking? Can you say what you did say?

What did I say? Let’s see here. So I came in, I went, I did see the garage! So that’s where I left it, because I wasn’t really ready. I had not formulated anything kind or loving or generous. So I just said, I did see the garage. That’s where I left it. 

You know what, I appreciate that you’re bringing this up. Because this is how it is. In my opinion, it’s so nuanced, and the nonverbals. I mean, I think the Gottmans really speak to this as well, just what is being conveyed in communication, most of it is nonverbal, in that tone of voice. But I appreciate what you’re describing, because you acknowledged his bid. I mean, I think this is a move we can reference. It’s kind of that idea when someone asks you a question, and you’re like: Oh, I don’t know what I want to say. So you repeat the question. It’s kind of like, I did see the garage. I don’t have anything to say yet. So I really appreciate that you acknowledged, and then you also just gave a little space. Of course your husband probably wasn’t happy, and if I were you, if you ask me if, I’d be like, he wasn’t.

I am not toting this as like, I did a great job. I absolutely know it needed repair, and it was definitely like, I was feeling let down and he was feeling let down. I’ll tell you the end of it in a bit. But I’m wondering, if I was to sort of attack you, how would you respond as my husband? 

Well, I think you gave a real good preempt earlier. I think one of my best turn-to’s when I’m at a loss is just seeking more information. So if I was your husband, I might be like, depending on how regulated I was. So I might be able to say: Oh no, it’s not maybe what you were imagining, or I’m bummed that you’re not totally happy. Then put a pin in it. Because if you were bidding in this, even though your husband did. But if we’re framing this as the person that’s actually got a bid, because this is true, people can be bidding at the same time. So if we’re teasing this out and I’m responding to you, then I would say: “Oh okay, so there’s more here, it’s not all positive. Are you willing to say a little bit more about what you’re seeing?” So I would get curious. I don’t know exactly the words, but I would try to draw out if I was regulated or not. If I wasn’t regulated enough, I would likely say: Oh, I’m super, whatever, upset or bummed. I might take a minute or two and check back in after five minutes. I’m going to get some water. I’ll be right back. Then I’d try to be like, okay, our situation, this was a big turn, this was a big pivot. I wasn’t expecting this. Because it sounded like he was expecting all positive.

Oh yeah, he wanted me to ooh and aah, 100%. I love what you said, which is kind of like a golden ticket for a lot of people, which is, if you’re not going to take the bait and you are not going to get wrapped up in defensiveness, then take the pause and get more information. So you said if you were feeling regulated enough to continue to communicate, then you might go: “Oh, what a bummer. Like, what did I miss, help me understand. What were your expectations of what I was going to accomplish in the last three hours or something?” But I think curiosity is a really great place to start with, because it buys you time. Instead of getting defensive, instead of reacting to your partner, you can buy yourself a little bit of time and go: Ooh, that stung! Why did it sting? What’s in it for my partner? Because they’re coming at me kind of hot and hard. I’m wondering, there’s got to be something else going on here that I don’t know about. 

Misunderstanding, like you said, we have different expectations, or our definition of cleaning the garage is wildly different. 

Yeah, and it might be that I was under the impression that he was home for the last five hours. Turns out, he volunteered at the school, he went grocery shopping, and he had lunch with his mom. Those are all amazing things that I find really incredibly sexy and lovely. So I might say: “Well, gosh, I mean, five hours’ worth of work.” And he goes: Oh, there, that’s the misunderstanding, I actually just got home half an hour ago, I did da da da da da.” And I’m like: “Oh, well, you crushed it for half an hour then!”

Yes! Was that the repair?

Okay, so the repair was this morning. I went into the garage. I was in a different headspace this morning. I looked at what he had done, and I took a moment and I came back in and I said: “Honey, you really got a lot done yesterday.” That was me, on my own accord, giving him a compliment, and just sort of taking the moment. So what had happened was, I was in a different headspace yesterday; I was feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, frustrated. So when he said I need the oohs and aahs, and I didn’t turn toward him, I wanted to come back around, and I wanted to acknowledge all the hard work that he had done. But it took about 24 hours for me to get there. Not because of him, because of me.

For sure, that’s real. If I’m tired, I’m hungry, or I’m stressed, I don’t have the clarity to see in the way that I would normally see. And you revisited, and you were able to have a real genuine affirmation of him and his work, and he probably felt your sincerity. I don’t know, if I were in your shoes. I could also even say I really acknowledge you were wanting to celebrate, and I wasn’t in a position to do that. So I want to redo that now, if we can. That’s very important.

Yeah, I probably could have even said like: “I know you were really excited yesterday, and my response was so crummy. Thank you for having the grace with me, because I was really overwhelmed.” Real life situations.

I love it. There’s the grace that you’re speaking to, that likely points to the trust in the system, or even in Gottman language, possibly the positive sentiment override. If there’s enough goodwill, that the system can tolerate the bumps in the road. Perhaps for others, there’s not trust, there’s not lived experience in one’s early life that gives them confidence or helps them know how to do this. I mean, people have all kinds of traumas that indicate this is like Danger Zone, don’t go there. So where do you begin to work with people to help build responsiveness? 

Yeah. Well, I mean, part of the work that I have been doing individually with this couple is, having them understand themselves of what’s going on. Because so much of this is so automatic that we don’t realize that really, we’re just sort of operating on these automatic systems back and forth with one another. So if I’m able to break the couple apart and say, can we just talk a little bit about what happens between the two of you, and have them understand for themselves where some of these responses come from, then I think we can build a little bit more compassion and empathy for ourselves, and empathy for our partner. So compassion for ourselves, and acknowledging that yes, I am responding this way, because of my childhood, because of the nervous system that I have developed over time, and this is sort of my automatic response to a lot of things. I’m not giving excuses to people, I’m giving them a pathway of understanding themselves so they can start to make some changes, and then helping them to then also share with their partner: “Hey, I wanted to let you know this is what I learned about myself.” So that they can develop empathy for each other. That’s where we start to build some grace for each other. That we are going to fumble this over and over and over for the rest of our lives. 

Free Man and Woman Facing Each Other While Smiling during Day Stock Photo

“If we can, one, have some compassion for ourselves, empathy for our partner, and build some new skills, what a trifecta to be able to make some change. It’s not going to be perfect, and I don’t expect it to be perfect. But at least building in some of those different tools would be really helpful.”

Absolutely. I’m getting just the awareness that you’re helping people cultivate, in that there are reasons why I do what I do, there’s reasons why you do what you do, and maybe we weren’t even fully conscious or aware of that. So slowing this down really helps us see what we’re after, and then possibly building some new skill sets that give us what we need in the way of safety and what we’re after, and also help us work together for the goal of connecting. Because if we don’t even know why we’re doing what we’re doing, that’s a really hard thing to have change and progress. The other thing that I heard you speak to earlier with the client that you mentioned, and maybe I presumed this, but I often find it to be true when there’s a history in the relationship. That the partner that’s feeling that discontent or that loneliness, or that injury, that pain, it’s not in that moment. It’s like all the times or some pivotal moments of when you didn’t turn towards me didn’t show up. So it’s like, it kind of collapses into this emotional state. So even the person on the other side can feel the intensity of that and the pressure of that. I mean, this is one of the things Gottmans talk about too. It’s like, you can’t solve 20 things in one moment. So the recognition that there’s even just the awareness of like, oh, there’s a lot that informs this, there’s a lot here that I recognize I’ve been holding, which makes this much more intense.

Yeah, I can speak to that. It is tough, because you’ll have partners that will say, you’re bringing this up again? This was six years ago! Or I have been trying so hard, like we started coming to therapy, I’ve been making all the appointments, I’m reading the books, I’m asking you out on dates, I’m showing up for you. This has been the last six weeks, and they’re feeling like: Hey, I’m kind of crushing it here, I’m turning towards you. But there’s a lot of that built-in resentment that they’re carrying with them. If it’s left undone, unprocessed, unhealed, you’re going to carry it with you in the relationship. I imagine it as like these barriers, these walls between partners. 

Free Elderly Couple Happily Married Stock Photo

“It’s a little bit of twofold of let’s change the here and now. But let’s also go back in time, and let’s process through these moments where you can acknowledge and understand how there was a disconnect between the two of you, and why your partner is feeling this pain of not feeling supported and met.”

If you’re able to process that together as a couple, I think about when we just remove one of those barriers from between the two of you, but it’s slow going. Because I have couples that are coming to me with 20 years of these resentments that have built up over time, and it does take time to process through them. 

Yes, because there’s so many misunderstandings, there’s so many different ways of being and how we’ll experience our partner and their difference, we’re going to interpret that. “Oh, you don’t care? I’m not good enough.” That’s what the injury is. When we can revisit it and process it and recognize like, oh, okay. We have our protective strategies, so we want to protect yourselves, so we don’t try to resolve it because we’re like: Okay, well, that really hurt, and so I’ll just protect this and move forward the best I can. But if I don’t ever get to resolve that with you, I’d still hold it. In a moment, you don’t care. Or in a moment, I’m not good enough. That’s on a fundamental attachment level, that’s a primary attachment injury or fear.

Well, I mean, now we’re talking about attachment. 

I know we are winding down. 

I won’t take the bait on the attachment, because I want to. But yes.

What were you going to say? I don’t want to cut you off.

Oh, I was listening to a podcast recently, and that whole concept of like, why do we hold on to these things, why is it that we’re unable to release, what’s the purpose that it’s serving? It is a protective mechanism of continuing to remind yourself that you have been hurt. So it’s really difficult to let those things go. I was actually promising myself to look this up, it’s a Brene Brown term that I love, love, love. But I forget what it is, maybe I’ll look it up and you can share it in your outro. But just the idea of like, why do we hold on to this pain? Even when we have evidence to the contrary and healing moments between the two of us, why do we continue to hold on to this pain? It is very much so is this protection of: “You were hurt at one point, and I don’t want you to continue to be hurt in the future.” Boy, healing is slow, growing, isn’t it? It takes a long time.

Yeah, it does. Thank you for acknowledging just how real that is. Even when we do have repair, the healing and the ability to really feel resolved in that, it takes a process. 

Yeah, it does. 

Laura, thank you for joining us. Is there anything you want to say before we wrap up our conversation that we haven’t addressed?

No. I’m a motor mouth, though. I’ve had my two cups of coffee. So I could keep going. But I think we should pause it. Put a pin on it for now.

Yes. Well, tell people where they can find you. Because you are offering so much, and people can connect with you and engage with you. So where can people reach out?

Yeah. Well, so I’m in private practice. I’m in Oregon, Washington, and Utah, so folks can come, and I work virtually with couples. That’s my website, LauraHeckTherapy. Then I have a podcast, Marriage Therapy Radio. So if folks want to engage with me on a more regular basis, you can listen to me. I would say it’s about, I don’t know 60-40; 60% entertainment, 40% information if we ever get around to it. But I think it’s a pretty fun podcast.

You both have a such a beautiful collaborative style, and very relatable and humorous, and also really well-informed, and people feel real as they navigate relationship and supported. So I appreciate what you’re doing. Also for people that are therapists, is there anything you want to say about trainings?

Yeah, so I train. I’m on the speaker’s bureau for the Gottman Institute. So if folks are interested in being able to bring the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work training as a workshop to their community, I’m offering those workshops pretty quarterly through the Gottman Institute, and you can find out more by going to their website. But yeah, we’re doing some fun stuff. We have a book dropping in the fall, which is kind of fun, and all sorts of fun stuff. We’re constantly doing couples’ workshops, but all of that you can find on Marriage Therapy Radio.

Excellent. I’ll make sure to have the link to that and everything else on today’s show notes. Thank you, Laura.

Thank you.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching