It could have been so much worse. We were teetering on that place where the conversation could have taken a turn down the slippery slope in an instant.
It was last Sunday late morning and we were out on a walk when my phone rang. My Dad had been admitted to ICU the night before and I was waiting for news. It was my sister telling me how bad things were.
“Do you think this is a marathon or a sprint,” I asked, stating that if it was going to be a marathon I would come later in the week. “I think it’s a sprint. I think this might be the end,” she said through tears. “Ok. Nick is right here beside me. Let me talk with him and I will call you right back.”
We turned a corner and headed for home, talking about what would be the best thing to do. Should I go without him? Wait another day and see if Dad stabilized? He was worried about jury duty and we were both concerned about some work and volunteer commitments. We were trying to figure out the details but we were in a state of anxiety. Our voices got more tense and the conversation more pressured. I was trying to soothe my own anxiety and his. It wasn’t working. I took a deep breath while he was saying something that made things worse. And then I remembered: Soothe him.
Soothe each other. It is a skill that John Gottman says “Marriage Masters” know how to do and “Marriage Disasters” fail at frequently. The prerequisite skill is to be able to regulate your own emotions during conflict or ordeals. We call this self-soothing. Of course we are responsible for our own emotions and reaction. But if you want to be a relationship master, then you learn to soothe the other person when you see their emotional state rise. Sometimes this is also called a repair attempt. You can watch a video of Gottman talking about this here.
If you want to be a relationship master, then you learn to soothe the other person when you see their emotional state rise.
I took Nick’s hand as we walked. I said to him, “Honey, there has to be an emergency exception for jury duty. There has to be. People get sick, get in car accidents, and die. There has to be a phone number on your form that allows you to call in.” He was not soothed. His mind was racing. It was “Yes, but….” for a few more sentences. Then he took a deep breath and we walked a block in silence. Then he tried to soothe me. “Ok. What do you need? I will do whatever you need me to do. I want you to know that.” I took a deep breath. We both already have difficult memories around parent’s deaths. “Thank you. I know I need to go. But I want you to think very carefully about what your needs are right now. My dad is as much a dad to you as your own step- dad. He tells you all the time you are his son and you always agree. I don’t want you to have regrets. I want you to feel good and confident about your own decision.” And he took a breath. And our voices softened and we walked hand in hand making the plan to leave together as soon as we got home.
Let me assure you, we have not always been good at this. Truth is we have been marriage disasters at several points in our marriage, once to the point of a separation. We are written up in a textbook for marriage and family therapists as a case study. (I am not kidding. Our names are disguised to protect us so you won’t be able to find us through a search. But trust me, the naked and embarrassing truth is out there for anyone to study.) Any marital failure is the result of many things going badly, and we had many things going badly at different times in our marriage. But hard work, (translation: good therapy) deep and active faith lives, vulnerability, true love, good times, the best friends and family, and pure grit has kept us working at this thing we call marriage and we have come out as a graced and lucky long-term married couple. I wish we had learned some of the skills Rhea and I are sharing with you earlier in our marriage.
Back to soothing each other. It is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? When you’re having a fight or a disagreement, you want to win, don’t you? I always did, and sometimes still do. When we argued in my childhood home, we argued to win. Not to understand. But now I often ask myself this important question: “Do I want to be right or do I want to be in a relationship?” And more importantly, can I listen with the sincerity to understand where my partner is coming from? Do I get him? Am I curious enough to ask the right questions to find out what she is really trying to say? And do I know how to soothe him?
Soothing your partner, Gottman says, is a form of reverse conditioning. If you have a repeated experience of being soothed by your partner, you stop seeing your partner as a source of anxiety and you associate them with feeling relaxed. There is an automatic increase in the positivity of your marriage. And isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day. A peaceful, positive relationship?
Soothing your partner is a form of reverse conditioning. You start associating your loved one with being relaxed.
So ask your partner if you don’t know. Is touch helpful? A quick backrub or neck rub might change the tone of a relationship. Does your partner enjoy a little humor? A quick inside joke? Perhaps silence works. Or certain types of music. Or a guided meditation. The way another is soothed is as individual as the person.
Let me end with a word about my dad. Dad transitioned to life everlasting Saturday, February 11th, at 7:00 am. As you might imagine, we are all raw and quite vulnerable. Although I am not new to deep grief, I am a bit anxious all the time. So is my husband. And the rest of my siblings. So we are all trying to soothe ourselves and each other. We are a lucky bunch. Your prayers are certainly appreciated.
We all need to learn to soothe each other. We can get nowhere when we are anxious, flooded, and on the battle field determined to win. Life is messy for me right now, my Friends. But it is also marvelous, and it continues to transform and evolve in ways I could not possibly imagine.