Tag Archives: John Gottman

The Alphabet of Trust

Trust is like love. It’s one of those super dense words we seldom unpack. So, for a start, what does it mean to love? What does love look like?

I think that’s why 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is such a popular wedding verse. It offers a set of “How To” guidelines:

  • Love is always patient and kind;
  • Love is never jealous;
  • Love is not boastful or conceited,
  • It is never rude and never seeks its own advantage,
  • It does not take offense or store up grievances.
  • Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth.
  • It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.

Absent these suggestions, we might think love is just a fuzzy feeling.

So how about trust? Is trust just a fuzzy feeling, or are there behavioral guidelines that show us how to behave in a trustworthy manner? Or how to demonstrate our trust in someone else?

And if so, what are they?

Relationship researcher extraordinaire John Gottman has a fascinating article on Trust & Betrayal. If this is an area you are interested in, I highly recommend checking this link.

Meanwhile, I decided to take a stab at my own list of behavioral guidelines for how to cultivate trust.

Your character (who you are ) and your competence (how you act) show up in many ways of course, but the list below, if practiced, will help your relationship in two powerful ways.

  • You will become more trustworthy
  • You will become more trusting.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve had a few clients lately who were raised in less-than-trustworthy environments. They were abused sexually, emotionally or physically and never learned what a trustworthy adult looked like. These young people can’t call upon an inner experience of trustworthiness. They have to think through the huge issues of “Whom can I trust?” and “How do I trust?”. They could use some behavioral guidelines.

This Alphabet of Trust is for them

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ACCEPT influence ~ from your partner. If you show them you accept (which does not mean you have to agree) their views and opinions, they will be more inclined to accept, and trust, yours.

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BELONG to one another ~ reassure your partner you are there for them, they belong in your heart, there is always a space for them.

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CONTROL ~ is an illusion in all but two places: your thoughts and your behavior. So, by all means take responsibility for all you think (and the stories you tell yourself) and all you do (how you show up on the planet with words and actions). But release any temptation to control or manipulate your partner. Trying to manage the outside world to protect your inside emotions never works.

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DUMP DEFENSIVENESS ~ if you make a mistake, don’t use excuses or be defensive. Own your error and simply say you are sorry. Be clear. Be true. End of conversation!

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ENJOY EYE CONTACT ~ lean in, look into each other’s eyes, whether you’re chatting over a beer or making love. Eyes seldom lie.

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(be) FAITHFUL ~ to whatever promises you make. If you’ve pledged monogamy, stay monogamous; if you’ve pledged to move after med school, move after med school; if you say you’ll take kid duty all Saturday, do that. Keep your commitments. If you absolutely need to change things, negotiate. Don’t  just drop the ball.

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GIVE thanks ~ be grateful for little things; a bed made, a meal served, a wound kissed, a knotted shoulder rubbed.

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(be) HONEST ~ tell the truth in everything . Little lies are a slippery slope to big lies. Tell the truth even when no one will know otherwise.

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INITIATE connection ~ reach out frequently. Little and often is great. A text. A smile. A hand squeeze.

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JUDGE with your heart ~ it’s too easy to tell ourselves negative tales about why our partner did this or that. Suspicion is like a poisonous worm – it will eat you up from the inside out. If you have a worry, it is better to confide that you have a worry and get it out in the open.*

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KEEP their secrets ~ if your partner shares something with you in confidence, guard it fiercely. The alternative is a fast track to betrayal.

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LISTEN deeply ~ tune in, seek to understand, paraphrase what you heard and ask “Did I get that right?”

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(be) MINDFUL ~ when you speak and act. It’s crazy-making to live with someone who says or does hurtful things and then denies having said or done them crying “But I didn’t mean it!”

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NEGOTIATE WITH A WIN-WIN MINDSET ~ in partnerships, that old win/loose idea is actually loose/loose. It does not feel like a simple win/loose, it feels like win/betray. Get creative until you find a solution that works for both of you. See How To Negotiate The Small Stuff for tips on how to do this.

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OWN up ~ if you blow it, say so. Offer an apology. Excuses suck!

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(be) PREDICTABLE (but not boring!) ~ a fine line, I know! Create certainty in the big stuff, like your values and dependability. Bring variety to the small stuff, like where and how you “eat, pray, love” (Thanks Ms. Gilbert).

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QUESTION ~ what you do not understand, don’t make assumptions. Ask your partner to clarify things so you can get to know the truth, not your fantasy.

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RESPECT ~ who your partner is, take his/her thoughts seriously. Never be dismissive.

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SPEAK ~ carefully. Not all the time of course, the warm friendly banter between two lovers needs no scripting nor censorship. But if something is bothering you (from a small irritation about making the bed, through a huge gut-wrenching fear your partner may have been unfaithful) HOW you approach the issue is key.  Huge topic of course – you may find my series on communicating helpful. It begins with The Five Conversations,

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(be) TRANSPARENT ~ be upfront about your motives, reasoning and opinions.

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USE “Us” & “We” ~ not “I’ and “You,” as in “We’ve got a problem between us”  rather than “I want this and you want that; I’m right & you’re wrong.”

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(be) VULNERABLE ~ let yourself show up warts and all. We all have aspects of ourselves we are afraid of, or embarrassed by. It is a huge vote of trust to share these aspects of who you are.

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WAIT ~ and count to 10 if you must, before you express an angry emotion. Being with a partner who flies off the handle is emotionally frightening. Calm yourself down before you talk about a difficult subject. If this is an issue for you, see The 7 Deadliest Fights.

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(E) XAMINE ~ your life and conscience from time to time. Are you as trustworthy as you can be?

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YIELD ~ your desires and wants sometimes. It can feel very reassuring to feel prioritized by a partner.

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ZIP-IT ~ sometimes stopping all the noise, all the words, all the “communicating”, processing, planning, commentating, justifying and explaining to simply be still in the presence of one another is the biggest boost to mutual trust there is.


These guidelines are not always wise. It will depend upon whether or not you are in a relationship with a more or less healthy individual. Be sure to come back next week and we’ll explore what to do when your partner is not yet deserving of trust.

  • Is learning how to trust rocket science?
  • No.
  • Does it require the dedicated life long practice of heart, mind and soul?
  • Yes.

And well worth it it is.

(Thank you to  Jenn Erickson for the delightful vintage alphabet images.)


Can we ever be too trusting?


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

  • The Alphabet of Trust

Kindness Is Key

. . . to great relationships.

Triumphed again my darling!” exclaimed my uncle as my aunt produced yet another burnt offering. Cooking was not her forte but she was taking lessons and insisted on trying out new things before she was quite ready.

20150701_132257_Richtone(HDR)My uncle was a kind man. He never resorted to sarcasm. He never gave her anything other than glowing feedback. He adored her culinary triumphs and made light of her kitchen disasters. He exuded an air of “Aren’t I lucky to be sharing my life with this woman!”

I think they were the most joyful couple I’ve ever known and staying with them was deeply restorative.

Were they “perfect?”

Of course not!

They came from very different backgrounds; had different interests; enjoyed different music; had different appetites for socializing; he was a quiet private man, she was an extrovert; they could rub one another the wrong way as much as any couple.

But they were (almost) always kind to one another.

They were my first role models for the power of kindness in creating great long-term relationships.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes living together gets tough. You have issues. You want to fix something. You work hard.

And yet, after all the ~

  • communicating;
  • counting to ten before you speak;
  • concentrated listening;
  • patient “So what you’re saying is . . . ” active reflecting;
  • negotiating, and giving one another space, and problem-solving;

after you’ve cycled through your arsenal of relationship skills in the effort to both understand and grow closer to the person you love (or thought you loved) ~

you may still be mystified by your partner.

You may still feel exasperated, irritated, disappointed, exhausted, frustrated, righteous.

So then what?

This person whom you’ve committed to spending the rest of your life with may still;

  • Loose their car keys every day;
  • Finish your story;
  • Overcook the fish;
  • Forget your birthday;
  • Channel surf;
  • Grunt at you over morning coffee.

Nothing you’ve said or done or negotiated has worked and there is this issue, this “pebble in your shoe” (as the Mexicans say) which threatens to undermine your whole marathon.

It’s hardly a crime against humanity. It can’t possibly be grounds for divorce:

Your Honor I’m done. He burns the fish!”

But, dammit, there’s this issue that bugs you. Whether you’re the partner who looses track of fish cooking times and hates that this matters, or you’re the partner who hates that fish gets burnt, you are aware that over the long haul this issue could get old. And potentially deadly because the truth is, it often IS the little things that make or break a marriage.

So what?


Try kindness.

Here’s why you might want to try kindness.

Every interaction between you and your partner does one of three things.

  1. It brings you closer.
  2. It maintains the status quo.
  3. It pushes you apart.

Happy couples enjoy a ratio of five positive interactions for every one negative one. Their arousal and fear mechanisms are not triggered. They feel safe with one another. They can relax. This feels good. It IS good. Their emotional landscape creates their biological reality. Happy couples literally live longer .

On the other hand, unhappy couples have more negative interactions than positive ones. These negative experiences trigger the body’s arousal and fear mechanisms. They feel less and less safe with one another. They can’t relax. This feels bad. It IS bad. Indeed, emotional toxicity undermines the immune system. There is growing evidence that bad relationships contribute to bad health. which is why Happy couples literally live longer .

Here’s how to try kindness. .

  • So – how to get this 5:1 ratio of good to bad interactions?
  • What does this look like in real life?
  • What’s an example of a “good” interaction versus a “bad” interaction?

It’s not what you think!

Sure the “bad” list includes what you’d expect:

  • Physical, verbal or sexual abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

[By the way, these last 4 in italics have been identified by John Gottman as The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse because they do so much harm. If you are interested I’ve embedded a short video from Gottman’s website . These are the poster children for Not Kindness!]

But the “bad” list also includes some seemingly “normal” responses to the irritating scenarios above. In other words, you may be unwittingly triggering a negative response in your partner through these small daily interactions that add up to no good.

Here are three responses to a chronic lost-key scenario. Which would you prefer if you were the key looser?

  1. You see your partner roll their eyes, sigh, check their watch and drift off leaving you alone to find the keys.
  2. Your partner notices you are key hunting and says in a neutral tone, “Oh, you’ve lost the keys?”
  3. Your partner comes to you a few minutes before it’s time to leave and cheerily says: “So, are we on a key hunt this morning, or have you rounded up those bad boys already?

Personally I’d choose door number 3. There’s a playfulness, lightness, acceptance of the probability of a key-hunt and the use of “we” not “you.”

Option #1 is most likely to be experienced as negative. Eye rolling is a form of contempt.

Option #2 is most likely to be experienced as neutral. No one is angry or contemptuous. But there’s not a whole heap of warmth either.

Option #3 is most likely to be experienced as positive. It’s a kind response. The sort of thing good friends do for one another.

Is that so hard?

What does it take to help move a person from irritation to kind acceptance?

I’ll come back to this question over this month of July because it’s a great one, but for starters here’s how I’d answer that question.

Moving to kindness needs two things:

1. It’s a conscious decision to exercise your inner capacity to be kind.

2. Your inner capacity to be kind is like a muscle – it is weak when not used, and needs to be exercised to be effective.

So meanwhile – try it out! Catch yourself in one of your typical moments of exasperation and think through what a kind response might look like. Then try it. I’d love to know what you notice!

More next week.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  → Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

  •  Kindness Is Key

Thriving Through Tough Times

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 12.08.47 PMYour partner is going through a rough patch. You suspect they may be slipping into a bit of a depression. Maybe a chronic injury is preventing much-needed regular exercise. Maybe they’ve been skipped over for a promotion again and now feel both undervalued and trapped.

You love this person – in theory. But you don’t feel those loving feelings right now, and its been a while. You’ve checked your relationship tool kit and tried a bunch of stuff.

You’ve met with those Parts of you who feel triggered by depression and/or work-place inertia so you could listen to your partner non-reactively. You recognize your partner might be stuck in a Part of him or herself which is young and vulnerable and right now this is just how your partner is facing the world.

But none of this is helping your background ticker-tape-script of frustration, resentment, and exhaustion. There’s this nagging “I could do better! I deserve more! Is this it?”

What happens now in a relationship is often what sets a mediocre or doomed relationship apart from a great and robust relationship.

  • How do we thrive through tough times?
  • What allows a relationship to survive after those fuzzy “in love” feelings fade?
  • What’s the antidote when resentment and disappointment creep in?
  • How can we dwell in the presence of another human being for years and manage to not allow familiarity to breed contempt?

Two things.

  • Empathy – for your partner
  • Compassion – for yourself.

What do I mean by empathy for the other?

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 10.08.29 AMIt’s the social and emotional glue that connects us to one another. It allows us to see things from the other chap’s point of view by going within ourselves to cross-reference our own experiences and feelings.

We can imagine the joy of another by remembering our own joy. We can imagine the sadness of another by remembering our own sadness. We feel into ourselves in order to extend outward.

The limit to empathy might be, of course, our inability to cross-reference every human condition.

If your partner is injured, or flat-lined at work, it’s very possible you can dig into your own life-story and remember how you felt when you were prevented from exercising or overlooked at work. You can allow an upwelling of understanding through shared experience. Thus reminded, thus equipped with a memory for who you were under these same burdens, you can also remember what helped you.

Probably you responded well to patience, understanding, kindness. And, if you came through those tough times, you have a sense that ‘this too shall pass.”

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 12.20.11 PMSo, the extent to which you can dig back into your own experience and resonate with your partner allows you to stay the course. You’d hate to have been ridiculed, chivvied, belittled or worse – abandoned – at a time such as this.

It’s the good old Golden Rule ~ “Do unto others as you would be done by.”

What do I mean by compassion for oneself?

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 10.10.23 AMThis is the astonishingly transcendent ability we humans have to stand beside, to be with, in the face of the unknown.

You may not be able to tap into your own experience of someone else’s difficult situation, but you are willing to stand beside them: with feeling; with caring; with an outpouring of human-to-human connection.

And (or, but) the magic of compassion is that “It has to begin with me”: With compassion for Self.

Right there inside your wonderful complex inner world of opinion and judgment, right there where your background ticker-tape-script of frustration, resentment, and exhaustion deliver the nagging sense of “I could do better! I deserve more! Is this it?” you get to STOP . . .

and stand beside your Self with love. With a hug. With a sort of “welcome to the deliciously imperfect human condition – isn’t it amazing! Aren’t I amazing, to be standing here right now noticing my judgments. Noticing my partner’s frailty. Maybe there never was a memo that life should be easy. Maybe simply being present to this particular version of imperfection is perfect.”

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 12.26.50 PMFrom this place of deep compassion for yourself, you can respond using the lesser known Platinum rule ~

Do unto others as they would be done by

Untethered from your experiences of what might be their pain, you are free to simply BE. It’s a form of radical acceptance.

Here are 2 quotes from one of my favorite mentors ~ and John Gottmans’ pick for the best living couples therapist ~ Dan Wile.

  • Despite what you might have been told, you can expect your relationship to solve your problems, fill gaps in your personality, and help you love yourself.
  • When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.

So, before we dive more deeply over the next 3 weeks into whether and how empathy and compassion can be taught, I’m inviting you to simply experience your response to this Rumi meditation.

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This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

  • Thriving Through Tough Times

Thanks to Ernest Howard Shepard for the wonderful Winnie The Pooh illustrations. 

Beyond Emotion Coaching-Listening For Your Child’s Needs

Because children aren’t just small adults, listening to a child is a unique skill. Not knowing this can get parents and kids off to a rocky start.

In fact, very often when adults wonder why their child doesn’t listen to them, one explanation might be that the child is simply modeling the listening they’ve received. Oops!

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.01.31 PM← This is a terrifically helpful book on the subject of listening to your child, and it’s based on (to my mind) an even more wonderful book, Between Parent and Child, by Haim Ginott.

Both books speak to the importance of ~

  • listening for the emotions behind a child’s words or behaviors;
  • naming the emotions as your child experiences them;
  • listening empathically – which means avoiding the denying, minimizing, interrogating, pitying, defending the other person, advising, teaching, philosophizing and all the other things we do to manage our own discomfort when we are asked to simply be present to someone else.

Reading these books will help you become an emotion coach to your child, and studies show how emotion coaching helps cultivate emotionally intelligent kids. And, for success in life these days, EQ counts.

Here’s my favorite contemporary researcher talking about EQ.  John Gottman writes:

Emotional intelligence means being able to read your own and other’s emotions, and being able to respond to the emotions of others in a cooperative, functional, and empathetic manner. Emotional intelligence is a kind of social “moxie” or “savvy” about even very complex social situations. It requires knowing who you are, knowing your own feelings, knowing your own needs, and being able to handle yourself and compromise these needs with the needs of sometimes very complex social situations. EQ (Emotional intelligence) is a much better predictor of how children will turn out than IQ or achievement test scores.

(For the whole article, click → EMOTIONALLY_INTELLIGENT_CHILDREN_Updated2 )

So its good stuff, right!

However, since great resources for emotion coaching already exist, and since I have experienced an even deeper level of listening – both as a child and a parent – I’m here with two questions to push a little deeper:

  • What is it that sets good-enough listening apart from great listening?
  • What does it take to go further than emotion-coaching your child?

Remember yourself as a kid?

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Were there some adults with whom you could share your thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, stories, and even your slip ups?

And others who could hardly drag a civil response from you?

What was it about the adults you talked to?

My guess is they checked some of these boxes for you.

When you were with them, you felt ~

  • safe but not smothered
  • exhilarated but not frightened
  • loved but not controlled
  • significant but not in a way that gave you false airs
  • capable but not burdened by expectations
  • inspired but not pressured

Sure these qualities speak to an emotional sensitivity on the part of the adult listener. But there’s more there, and cracking that nut will help you become not just a good enough listener, but a great listener. The sort of listener a child (whether a just-verbal toddler or an articulate teen) will joyfully and consistently turn to because~

  • not only do you listen
  • not only do you help the youngster understand him or herself more fully,
  • but your listening actually helps the child meet one or more of their deepest human needs.

I’m drawing upon Tony Robbin’s work on core human needs. Here are the six as he identifies them:

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So – what does “beyond emotion-coaching” look like in the midst of real life?

Four-year old Ian comes running up to you from the sand box at the park where he’s been playing with some other kids using his shovel and pail. He is now empty-handed and screaming.

First – be his emotion coach. There are 3 steps.

1)  Listen for the emotions behind a child’s words or behaviors;

Quietly assess what you see – a kid formerly engaged in sand play now running to you empty-handed and screaming … you can begin to guess what might haven gone down.

2)  Name the emotion;

“Ian, looks to me like you’re super angry and maybe sad too?

3)  Offer empathic listening.

Tell me, what happened?

Now you just listen. Pop him on your knee if you want, or crouch down and hold his hands. Look him in the eye and let him unburden all the yukky stuff he’s feeling. Probably some other kid took his things and he feels helpless, angry, frustrated, alone. Listen until you can see he feels fully heard. Keep helping him find names for his emotions, guiding as you go.

If, for example, Ian says “I hate that kid – he took my shovel” show him it’s OK for him to express his emotions to you, but notice the difference between parroting “You hate that kid


Right now you’re so mad at the kid who took your shovel you feel you hate him.”

See how the first example seems to set in stone that Ian hates the kid, whilst the second example places the emotion in the specific context of the situation so the person with the emotion can be seen to own the emotion – not the other way around!

The two books I recommend above have so much great information on how to listen in such a way that your child feels heard. This IS subtle work, but you can master this.

But now here comes the “beyond emotion-coaching” part.

Second, help him meet his deepest needs.

Knowing Ian as you do, what does Ian NEED right now?

And can you use your understanding of Ian’s needs  – not just his developmental needs although those of course are in the mix, but his needs as a unique, particular human being – to help guide the next step?

Here’s the list of our core 6 human needs once more:

  • Certainty
  • Variety
  • Connection & Love
  • Significance
  • Contribution
  • Growth

So, back to little Ian who’s been able to share all his yukky feelings about the shovel and pail incident. Now what?

Does Ian need a bit more certainty, predictability and security?

Has Ian experienced a lot of change lately? Maybe a trip? New sibling? A move? A divorce?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that creates a bit more stability in his life? In the midst of uncertainty, a child needs certainty. This would not be the day to push him to share, or use his words to negotiate turn taking.

It might be a good day to find a place where Ian could count on having his shovel and pail to himself, with some calm and predictability.

Or, does Ian need a bit more variety, surprise and novelty?

Have things been in a bit of a rut for Ian? Does he play here a lot and often come to blows?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that opens up some exhilarating new ways for him to relate with this other kid, or with this predicament of his toys being taken without his permission? Or even with his response to the fact his toys get used by other kids?

It might be a good day to brainstorm with Ian to find all sorts of ways to respond to the situation. It might be great to get playful and fun and resourceful.

Or, does Ian need to feel more love and connection with you, or someone else in his life?

Have things been a bit rocky for Ian and his relationships? Has he been running to you screaming a lot and maybe you’re getting irritated and he feels this? Is grandma playing with his new baby sister and he’s feeling left-out and second best?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that builds connection and love.

It might be a good day to see if Ian would like to play with you a bit? Or it might be a good time for a huge hug and snuggle before he goes back to the sand box.

Or, does Ian need to experience himself as significant in your eyes? In his own eyes?

Has Ian been going through a bit of a regression developmentally so adults have been doing more for him and you sense he needs to reclaim his power a bit?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that offers him a chance to be brave and creative.

It might be a good day to remind Ian of some prior brave creative thing he did (or of a character in a story he admires) and see if he’d like to find a way to be that boy again in the sand box?

Or, does Ian need to contribute a bit today?

Have you noticed Ian trying to be helpful but not quite getting the thanks and recognition he might be craving? His attempts often fall short (since he’s only four!) but he’s often saying “I’m a big boy now!”

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that offers him a chance to contribute? Maybe the solution involves thinking about how “big boys” might figure out what to do about two boys who want the same shovel and pail?

Or, is it time for Ian to be inspired to grow a little?

Does Ian have a pretty good life? Do things usually go well? Is he emotionally stable and loved? Could he handle a bit of a push?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that inspires in him an opportunity to grow into a bigger, kinder Ian. What might that look like? Could he lend his toys? Could he give them away?

 * * * * * *

No matter the age of your child, this pattern of emotion coaching – followed by a deeply wise recognition of where the child’s needing-edge might be – will deliver to the two of you a connection built upon so much mutual trust, respect and delight that you will be, to your child,  a uniquely satisfying resource.  One he or she will turn to again, and again.

When s/he grows up, and someone asks , “Who could you turn to when you were young? Was there someone special whom you felt really heard you, really understood you?”

Your child will not hesitate, but will be able to turn with confidence and say

“Yes, absolutely. It was X. And do you know  why? Well, when I was with them, I felt ~

  • safe but not smothered
  • exhilarated but not frightened
  • loved but not controlled
  • significant but not in a way that gave me false airs
  • capable but not burdened by expectations
  • inspired but not pressured

WOW ~ What a legacy!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

The 7 Deadliest Fights – Part 2

Last week and this I’m exploring the 7 deadliest fights.

Not those knock-down-drag-out-referee-over-the-body fights.

But those we launch with words, looks and silences on those we love.

I actually believe fights can be good. They are a sign of robustness and courage and can clear the air. I’m almost worried when I meet “nice” folks who tell me with pride they’ve “Never had a cross word…”

But, there are fights, and then there are FIGHTS.

These 2 weeks are dedicated to helping you bring things down a notch or two.

So here they are ~ The 7 Deadliest Fight Strategies

  1. Attacking
  2. Belittling
  3. Criticizing
  4. Contemptuousness
  5. Defensiveness
  6. Escaping
  7. Escalating

(Today I’m writing about 5 – 7. Last week was 1 – 4. Too long for one week.)

Deadly Fight #5 – DEFENSIVENESS

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 3.56.19 PM

One of the most subtle and common of the deadly fight strategies, it is the rare person who has not responded to an attack with excuses, explanations, justifications or a counter attack in the form of blame. “The other chap started things, of course I’ll defend myself!”  you righteously think.

Maybe it sounds like ~

  • “But I didn’t mean to!”
  • “That was so not my fault!”
  • “No, no, no. Let me explain.”
  • “Well obviously I had to do this because…”
  • “You know, if you would have done this first we’d not be in this mess.”

What you’re doing is pushing away what the other person needs you to hear. It might well be that this person is coming on strongly and is angry so you find yourself feeling the need to defend yourself. But not listening to what this upset person has to say will not solve the problem. The more close to the bone the complaints, the more likely you are to reach for those innocent sounding explanations and excuses.

The problem with this is ~

No one is listening! If you’re not listening to what this other person is trying to tell you, for sure they will be in no mood to listen to you. All your excuses, explanations, justifications and blaming will not only fall on deaf ears, it will fuel the flames.


Get curious. If you’re in the habit of responding to criticism or “feedback” with excuses, explanations, justifications or a counter attack in the form of blame – switch to asking questions.

Stop. Breathe. Listen. If you feel defensiveness bubbling up, the deeper truth is that if you could only stop long enough to listen, maybe you’d agree just a little… but instead of exposing that vulnerability, you launch a (clearly justifiable!) defensive mission. If the other person is shouting by all means let them know you’d love to listen when they can calm down. Then, if they can talk to you without shouting, really listen. Ask questions. Get curious. Your goal is to fully understand what is upsetting them. This is important:

Seeking to understand is not the same as agreeing with their point of view or admitting any fault.

Understanding is simply that – understanding. You are the anthropologist seeking – in a non-judgmental way – to see things from the other culture’s point of view. You want to briefly inhabit their worldview so you genuinely see what they see. There is no salve as calming as feeling heard.

I know this can seem like nothing. Or not enough. But once you try it, I think you’ll find its a hugely helpful way of being in the face of someone’s anger. Often indeed, simply listening deeply, non-defensively and with genuine curiosity will allow both of you to flush out what the other person needs to express. And that can be enough.

Deadly Fight #6 – ESCAPING

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 4.04.27 PM

You escape – either physically or emotionally – without letting your partner know you need a time out. You just walk out, drive away, slam a door, hole up, or get lost in the TV, internet, or music.

Maybe it looks like ~

  • A door slamming.
  • A car engine revving.
  • The TV on full blast.
  • A person lost in distractions, buffeted by headphones.

What you’re doing is running for all you are worth away from the pain. You are possibly flooded with sadness or rage; shame or guilt. You are spent, exhausted and done with the effort of figuring out what anyone needs or wants, yet everything is left hanging and no resolution is in sight.

The problem with this is ~

It’s abandonment! If you do this to a friend, it’s unkind. But if you do this to your committed partner it’s devastating. It triggers deep places within people in primary relationships when a partner makes a unilateral move to withdraw with no warning, no explanation, no reassurance. And, right when the stakes are high, your partner’s anxiety will go through the roof.

He or she is left thinking:

  • “When will s/he come back?”
  • “Will s/he ever come back?”
  • “Will s/he do something stupid?”
  • “What should I do now?”


Ask for a break. If you are in the habit of leaving abruptly, either physically or emotionally, without letting your partner know you need a time out, please – pause before you leave. Right when that “I am not taking this any more” button gets pushed see if you can tell your partner what’s going on for you.

Don’t leave them hanging. Before you take that break tell them “I’m totally overwrought. I need to take 15 minutes. I’ll be back.” Then go. But come back when you said you’d come back. If you know you need an hour, say you need an hour, but come back in an hour. If you feel you want to run away for a longer period of time, it works better to move a bit more slowly. Take a 15-minute break and then come back and negotiate a longer space, like a weekend away. The idea is to not lose sight of the goal – which is to reconnect with your partner and heal the problem. If you just take off without negotiating this space, you run the risk of making the issues so much worse because now you’ve got whatever the initial issue was, plus abandonment. And believe me – the latter is a hard repair.

Deadly Fight #7 – ESCALATING

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 4.13.44 PMYou know you’re way too far gone when your partner has de-escalated their part of the fight, is trying to listen to you, is making soothing noises, is asking you to calm down, and is clearly telling you they want to stop. But you are so overwrought, angry, righteous and caught up in emoting that you don’t notice the cues. You just keep on punching the air like a blind fighter alone in the ring.

Maybe it sounds like ~

  • ”No I’m not willing to calm down and take a break”
  • “Don’t change the subject on me now…”
  • “No I don’t want to sit next to you and talk calmly!”
  • “We need to figure this out right now!”

What you’re doing is throwing a “Fire & Brimstone Anger Party” for one. No one else wants to come. You’re horrid company. You make no sense, and you look like you have no intention of stopping any time soon.

The problem with this ~

You are pouring gas on your own internal fire. You are, effectively, fighting with yourself. Your partner is not the issue anymore. You are not listening to anyone, most especially yourself.


Get some firefighting skills. If you know there are times when you loose the plot and escalate conflict, it’s time to get some pre-emptive, flame dousing skills. Here are three tips to get you on your way. The fourth, if these are not helping you, would be to let yourself go talk with a good therapist.

  1. Think of this out-of-control behavior as a Part of you, not the all of you. Say to yourself “I have a Part who escalates fights in certain situations.” (See here for more on the idea that we have distinct inner Parts)
  2. If you can see that you are not only your anger, then immediately new possibilities open up. You may notice other Parts of you who get judgmental and critical of this fearsome, escalating angry Part, but you might also find it within you to be curious about it. What does that Part of you need right then? Quite possibly something about the fight has triggered deep emotional pain, and this aspect of you – this Part of you – tries to protect you from emotional pain by escalating the external mayhem to distract you from the internal maelstrom. This behavior probably made sense at some point in your life and this Part does not understand that it’s not such a great approach today.
  3. Tell your partner about this Part and make a firefighting plan together. If you fight and your partner notices this super angry Part is on a path of escalation, what do you want to do? Some partners come up with a protocol which keeps the non-escalating partner away from receiving the brunt of the escalation without shaming or abandoning the partner who has been overtaken by this pained Part.
  4. Or, seek good therapy. It is so wonderful to de-trigger these Parts of ourselves who hold on to old pain and trauma.


In truth, the tips above about thinking of a potentially problematic behavior as a Part of you – not the all of you – help with all of these tough fighting scenarios. If you attack your partner verbally it”s not the all of you attacking, but you sure have a Part in attack mode.

Or maybe a Part who is

  • Belittling
  • Criticizing
  • Contemptuous
  • Defensive
  • Escaping
  • Escalating

If you want to thrive in your relationships, remembering that different Parts of you show up in different contexts is very liberating. Go back here and here to explore this some more and to let the implication of thinking of ourselves as having Parts sink in a little deeper.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

The 7 Deadliest Fights & How To Fight Fair

“We don’t have conversations – we have fights!”

writes one honest reader.

OK – let’s talk about fights. Not what I’d planned, but a very fair point which needs addressing somewhere in a year dedicated to building skills for great relationships.

Of course fights happen, but fighting per se is neither a predictor of divorce nor the death knell for friendships. What matters is HOW you fight. In my experience fights can bring you closer. Fighting means you still care, you are hot and passionate about an issue. And, fights can allow you to get real with one another. But, the wrong sort of fight creates so much pain it can become impossible to stay married.

I’m indebted to Dr. John Gottman for the main ideas here – particularly these 2 books: .

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last

So this week and next I’m exploring the 7 deadliest fights. We’ll look at what makes a particular way of fighting so damaging and then – since this blog is about fostering great relationships – we’ll look at how to take that anger and transform it into a fight where you can be real about your thoughts, feelings and needs whilst also being decent and kind.

So here they are ~ The 7 Deadliest Fight Strategies

  1. Attacking
  2. Belittling
  3. Criticizing
  4. Contemptuousness
  5. Defensiveness
  6. Escaping
  7. Escalating

(Today I’m writing about 1 – 4. Next week, 5 – 7. Too long for one week.)

Deadly Fight #1 – ATTACKING

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 1.13.00 PM

This is when, in the heat of the moment, you launch verbal missiles at your partner. Often this is a unilateral strike that comes, according to the other, out of nowhere. You launch an angry attack with both guns loaded and firing in such a way that your partner experiences you as angry, hostile, frightening and accusatory.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“I’m so mad at you I could scream!”
“You never listen!”
“How come you are so inconsiderate?”
“How dare you look at me that way!”

What you’re doing is letting off steam regardless of the impact of your anger. You’re probably too upset to know what you feel or need in this moment, so you just emote. It’s a grown up version of a toddler tantrum.

The problem with this is ~

Two-fold. An attack won’t help you solve the problem that precipitated your rage. Conversations tend to end at the same level of emotional heat they began with. In other words, if you start the conversation by shouting, it will likely end with shouting.

But, perhaps even more of a problem than the level of noise is the impact your attack is having on your partner.

Right when you need to be available to one another to solve a problem, your attack will have effectively undermined your “opponent’s” resourcefulness. Fighting is stressful, and stress causes vivid but different responses in men and woman.

The classic “fight/flight” response (coined by Walter Cannon in 1932 and understood as acurate for men and women through 1995 in studies with only 17% female participants!) will kick in for men. This means a hormonal cocktail including epinephrine and norepinephrine will cascade through their system, sending blood from the brain to the extremities preparing them to fight or run. So – if a woman yells at a man, he’s going to either stand there while his body prepares him for a fist fight (not an option in loving relationships) whilst depriving him of his thinking capacity (what he needs when the fight is with words), or of course, he might just leave with an impressive door slam.

Women’s hormones will be inducing the “tend and befriend” response. They will want to reach out – possibly using more words to seek connection, which is not a good match for the now semi-wordless male. Or, they’ll reach out to other women to process the event and get back to the man when they have both cooled down. Not a bad idea – but it would be even better without that initial damaging attack.

Gay? Research seems to indicate that it’s the level of testosterone which determines how the stress response is experienced by any particular individual.

Interested in reading more about the biological responses to fights? Here is one about the male/female contrast
And here is one about the new 2000 study on the female stress response.

STOP!  Right when you feel that flare-up of rage, stop and give yourself a time-out. But, you must tell your partner what is happening. Don’t just storm off. Say something like this: “I’m really angry. I don’t want to attack you as I usually do since I know that’s hurtful. I need some time to sort through what’s making me so mad, and then perhaps we can talk about it more calmly.”

Deadly Fight #2 – BELITTLING

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 1.11.57 PMThe saddest thing about belittling your partner is that putting someone down tends to stem from a deep place. You can only belittle another person when you actually see them as “less than” in some way.

At some point you convince yourself that your partner is not pulling his or her equal weight in the relationship and you begin to tell yourself a story about this.

You don’t recognize or value whatever it is your partner is doing. To the extent you married someone you once found to be intelligent and wonderful, they will know your put-downs come from some judgment about them, which makes this a very hurtful fighting tactic to be on the receiving end of.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“I don’t have time for this stuff just now.”
“You’ve no idea how much I do around here.”
“Look, if I stop doing what I’m doing, we’ll all suffer.”
“Oh, what you did was supposed to be helpful?”

What you are doing is focusing too narrowly on your contribution and your need to have your partner recognize everything you are doing. You are, however, most likely not taking the time to reciprocate. You may be feeling too indignant at your perception of the unequal distribution of effort, but you are most likely missing a great deal of the bigger picture here too.

The problem with this is ~

That it won’t work to elicit gratitude or renewed effort on behalf of your partner. Indeed, the more you see your partner’s contribution as lacking, the more your partner will feel insignificant in your eyes. When this happens, your partner will seek significance elsewhere. This can lead to infidelity or separation at worst, or to a growing distance between you in which you live parallel lives seeking attention and significance outside the relationship.

APPRECIATE one small thing. Stop before you make any more observations about your partner’s lack of effort or contribution, release the comparison, the  judgment, the habit of focusing on the negative. Allow yourself to become aware of what your partner IS doing.

Right before you lob out another put down, swallow hard and think of something your partner did that you do appreciate, however small. Maybe one of these is true? “Hey, I really appreciate that you . . .”

  • “Earn a good living for our family;”
  • “Shopped for the groceries on the way home; “
  • “Rub my feet when we watch movies.”
  • “Made the bed;”
  • “Walk the dogs regularly.”

Small appreciations, noticed regularly will allow your partner to stop experiencing him or herself as insignificant in your eyes. This may empower them to behave in ways that are more impressive to you.

You are effectively honoring and elevating the behaviors you want more of rather than focusing exclusively on those you want less of.

Deadly Fight #3 – CRITICIZING

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 1.10.13 PMCriticism takes legitimate complaints – about specific actions or attitudes – to a whole new level by changing the issue from the specific problem to a character assignation.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“You just don’t care about our home.”
“You’re so lazy, look at all those dishes in the sink!”
“You were unbelievably rude to my friend.”
“You’re hopeless – I have to remind you all the time to do this.”

What you’re doing is moving into the dangerous ground of globalizing one specific problem into a general personality flaw. This is a bad habit to get into because once you start to use words like “You’re lazy!” when you see a few things left undone, you begin to believe yourself. And there is a big difference between living with a partner who leaves the occasional task undone and being with a partner who is fundamentally lazy. And your partner knows this too.

The problem with this is ~

That criticism is not a motivator. It has the opposite effect. Most people can’t tolerate criticism from family members. It drives a wedge and creates unnecessary friction.


First, ask yourself this:

“Do I want to live with a lazy, rude, uncaring and hopeless partner, or
do I want to live with someone who blows it from time to time but is a good person?”

You live with the person you see. So, start seeing them as forgetful by all means, but stay
focused on the specific complaint with a request for them to keep commitments. Lose the
character assignation.


  • “You just don’t care about our home.” BECOMES “When you leave clutter behind you everywhere you go, I begin to think you don’t care about our home. Would you be willing to pick up your things when you’re done with them?”
  • “You’re so lazy, look at all those dishes in the sink!” BECOMES  “Hey – would you be willing to either wash your dishes after a meal or put them in the dishwasher?”
  • “You were unbelievably rude to my friend.” BECOMES “Not sure if you noticed, but you interrupted Meg at least three times tonight. I know she’s quiet and shy, but in my book, interrupting is rude.”
  • “You’re hopeless – I have to remind you all the time to do this.” BECOMES  “Can you shut the door?” (Just remind them if they need it. Ditch the character assignation.)


Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 1.11.06 PM

Contempt is the most damaging response you could possibly offer (short of physical violence) to a disagreement. If you are in the habit of feeling contemptuous of your partner – of mocking them, of rolling your eyes in response to something they say or do, of smirking behind their back in a private joke with someone else – this is contempt.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“You really think I’d read a book you recommend?”
“Oh yes, well see how that works for you then!”
“Great, now you have an idea and you expect me to hear it.”
“Oh heavens!” (
with an eye roll)

When you express contempt for someone it means you have (maybe unwittingly) made a negative judgment about their moral or social standing. And at the same time, you see yourself as above this. In a way you are bordering on a feeling of disgust for the other person’s speech, thoughts, looks, behavior, gender, essence.

The problem with this is ~

It’s deadly! To feel you are the object of disgust in the eyes of the person you love is devastating. Studies show that once contempt has moved in, the relationship is close to death.

one thing. Take a breath. If you are genuinely beginning to feel disgust for the person you live with and in theory love, you need to get help. You can turn this around, but you are on very dangerous ground. Give yourself a time out. Do all you can to remember what you used to cherish about this person.

Even if that quality seems to have vanished – remember it now. Where did that person go? If you look for that person, might you find them? If you are using contempt toward your partner to gain status with those around you, take a good hard look at yourself. Your attempt to make yourself bigger at the expense of your partner might just drive your partner away.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list.Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

2 Magic Ratios for Great Relationships

Math that makes sense for your relationships . . .

 The 1 : 3 Rule

Every time you interact with another human being one of three things happens.

  1. You feel closer to them
  2. You reinforce what you already feel
  3. You feel more distant

Yes. Every time.

Day in and day out, you are constantly shifting position on some internal ratings scale on your partner’s scorecard. On your kid’s score card. On your boss’s score card. Though in truth these 3 constituencies are each tracking and scoring different things.

Partners want to know “Are we securely attached? Does h/she still love me?”

Children want to know “Is my parent on my team? Am I lovable?”

The boss wants to know “Is this employee worth what I pay him/her?”

More or less anyway.

We humans are counters, quantifiers and score-keepers when we are together.

Evolutionarily speaking it helped us – Is this person safe? Really safe? Not so safe?

Today we’re less evaluating physical safety (though this can be present to a certain degree), but we are evaluating emotional safety. And the thing is, this calculator never gets turned off!

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.06.59 PMIf your spouse looks up in the morning when you come into the kitchen and smiles, or better yet gives you a big hug, they’ll get a point in your “I feel loved by this person” box.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.09.04 PMIf they behave in a way that seems – to a neutral observer – to be neither particularly loving nor particularly unkind, you probably won’t bother to score them. No new points get added either for or against. This simply reinforces what you already feel.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.11.03 PMIf, when you walk into the room, your partner walks out, or buries themselves in the newspaper, or gets busy with the social media so you feel excluded and unwelcome, then this person will get a point in your “I feel unloved and pushed away by this person” box.

Have you noticed this?


This matters because we live word by word. Look by look. Gesture by gesture.

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 7.58.26 AM

Relationships are built or destroyed moment by moment.

Not “in one moment” – don’t get me wrong. But by the accumulation of moments, recorded on your scorecard. The way the stalactites and stalagmites grow in caves – one drop at a time until they are sharp enough to pierce your heart.

Moving on to a money metaphor, every day you are doing one of these three things in your relationships:

  1. Depositing good feelings.
  2. Ignoring the bank account (whilst either paying bank fees or accruing interest)
  3. Withdrawing or subtracting good feelings.

If you keep on withdrawing – you go broke. This is not rocket science!

If you are not paying attention to the balance sheet, you’ll find yourself suddenly out of love. You’ll have squandered numerous small occasions where you could have made a deposit.

And, just like your bank, if you drop below a certain minimum balance you get charged bank fees and if you are above a certain threshold the bank pays you interest, it’s the same difference with our emotional scorecards.

Even if you are behaving “neutrally” (being neither nasty nor nice) your partner will “score” you depending upon whether you’ve met certain minimum standards. If you are typically seen as loving and supportive, even your neutral behaviors will get the benefit of the doubt. But if you are typically seen as distant and unsupportive, your neutral stance will be judged negatively. You could be draining your love bank unwittingly…


Forewarned is forearmed.

Be aware of how anything you say or do might be received. Which scorecard will get a point if you say what you want to say right now? Can you afford this?

If what you plan to say is more likely to be perceived negatively – you better keep on reading . . .

The 5 : 1 Rule

If you want great relationships, you need to keep the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions at a ratio of at least 5 positive to 1 negative – even in conflict.

Yup – negative interactions don’t immediately kill relationships.

You can slip up and be ~

  • Thoughtless
  • Unkind
  • Critical
  • Forgetful
  • Selfish
  • Defensive.

As long as you are also ~

  • Thoughtful
  • Kind
  • Supportive
  • Attentive
  • Generous
  • Responsible

 ~ five times more often,

And then, the odds will be ever in your favor.

This research was conducted by Dr. John Gottman and you can find out lots more on his web site.

So, no more excuses.

If you want to build a great relationship with someone remember:

1:3 ~ Every time you interact with this person you are doing one of three things

  1. Building a stronger relationship
  2. Maintain status quo (which might be good or bad)
  3. Undermining what you’ve got with this person.


5:1 ~ You want to have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one.

In April I’ll be talking more about  how to connect with people – what makes an encounter positive rather than negative (beyond the obvious!).

That’s all for now folks.


“Why Under-standing is Over-rated”.


This is the twelfth article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list →    →    →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity