The other day my 4-year-old son asked me to play a game with him while I was frying potatoes and the baby was screaming in his high chair. So naturally, I said yes. And I said it in a falsely cheerful voice, because I am too often irritable with him when he asks me to do something like make a special costume—Subway Worker/Spider, or Knight-with-Ice-Powers, all of which involve Googling and scissors and sometimes a whole mood-board phase of design conception—and I am trying to be less irritable.
But playing Qwirkle while splattering my wrists with hot oil was more challenging than I thought it would be. When my son nagged me to make my move for the third time, I snapped, “Do you know how hard it is to make dinner and play a game at the same time?”
Well, no, of course he doesn’t. He’s never made dinner. The term multi-task doesn’t exist for him. And I worried that I’m teaching him that when he asks for what he wants, someone is going to snap at him.
Everyone knows hideous couples that carp at each other, turning every dinner party into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Are their kids going to grow up thinking that snide comments and nasty jokes are inevitable parts of intimate relationships? I thought about my own marriage, which, for better or worse, is going to be the template for my kids’ romantic relationships. Hmmm.
I spoke to Carrie Cole, a Gottman Institute-trained therapist, for a deeper understanding of both how to have a good relationship with your partner and how to model one for your kids. Here’s my takeaway on what happy couples are teaching their kids.
1. How to “Turn Towards” Bids for Attention
Drs. Julie and John Gottman, a husband and wife team of psychologists, have identified “micro-behaviors” that either support the health of a relationship or undermine it. They call these behaviors “bids for attention,” and how the other person responds to them is critical.
For example, my husband might make a bid for attention by saying, “I found out something really interesting in my research today.” According to Cole, I have three choices about how to respond: I can “turn towards” by saying, “Oh, really? Tell me about it.” Or I can “turn away” by ignoring him completely. Or I can “turn against” by saying something openly nasty, like, “I don’t care at all about your research.”
Cole says, “happily married couples are managing to ‘turn towards’ 86% of the time. In miserably married couples they’re doing it about 33% of the time.”
Says Cole, “It’s about meeting people’s emotional needs, even for pretty small things, like answering them when they ask, ‘Are we out of Cascade?’ Because what they’re really saying is, ‘Will you respond to me? Do you have my back?'”
2. How to Politely Postpone a Bid for Attention
Because I am a woman and mother, I’ve been conditioned to attend to others’ needs, even when I am being scalded with hot oil. I need to learn to say—without the pissy subtext of don’t you see how busy I am?—”I can’t listen to your story right now, but I can after lunch.”
3. How to Be Overwhelmed Without Freaking Out
I am often overwhelmed with juggling child care, housework, and work-work, and my temper frays because of it. But it’s not my kids’ fault I’m overwhelmed—it’s something my husband and I have to sort out and solve. Learning to be under stress without taking it out on your nearest and dearest is a valuable relationship skill. Trying to play a game while wielding knives and a fryer is something only circus performers should attempt, but that was my mistake, not my son’s.
4. How to Make Repairs When You Don’t Respond Kindly to a Bid for Attention
The secret, Cole says, is in the “repair”—apologizing when you’re irritable or dismissive of someone’s overture. Apologizing or otherwise making amends goes a long way towards telling the other person that you do care about his needs. I apologized to my son about the Qwirkle incident and told him we would play later.
5. How to Model a Culture of Appreciation
“We should say out loud the things that we really value and appreciate and respect about each other,” says Cole, “like ‘great dinner, honey.’ Or ‘I really appreciate how you took care of the situation with the kids’ teachers,’ or ‘I know I can always count on you to get the bills paid on time.’ In small moments, catch someone doing something well or right. It’s helpful for kids to hear their parents saying that. You’re saying, ‘we have a culture of appreciation in our home. This is what we do. We let one another know what we appreciate about one another.'”
6. How to Be Social in an Intergenerational Community
Attentive parents want to know whom their kids are dating or just hanging out with. “You have to be aware of who your teens are dating,” says Cole. “Invite them over to your house. Don’t embarrass your kids, and be involved in their lives. If people come into their lives who don’t treat them in the [kind] ways they’ve been treated, your kids will quickly move on. That foundation of what to expect from other people gets laid early in life, the way we expect to be treated is laid early in life. That includes the dating world.”
7. That Contempt Has No Place in a Happy Relationship
The Gottmans’ major contribution to the field of psychology was to identify four predictors of divorce: Criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Of the four, contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce. “Emotional abuse is contempt,” Cole says. “If a child grows up in a home like that—[for example], if the father puts down the mother, the boys will think this is acceptable behavior. And girls think this is acceptable to be treated like this. If you can’t turn around the contempt, the relationship is in serious trouble.”
8. That Thinly-Veiled Hostility in the Form of Jokes Is Not Funny
“Contempt is often veiled as a joke or sarcasm,” says Cole. In one of the recent training sessions on couples counseling, Cole reports that the wife began a sentence with, “I was thinking…” and the husband interrupted her with, “Oh honey, don’t think.” Cole says, “It was humiliating for the woman. She might have smiled or chuckled about it, but that kind of joke has got a deep barb to it.”
9. How to Build Your Own Culture
As a feminist, I am surprised—pretty much daily—at how easy it is to slip into traditional gender roles in a relationship. I’d like to think I’d know better… but no, there I am re-setting the dinner table if it doesn’t look right. But this is how my husband and I were socialized; these are the gender roles from our childhoods. I asked Cole: How does a couple recognize the greater cultural factors that influence us—those that generally privilege the man over the women in heterosexual relationships—and recognize that those unspoken expectations can breed resentment? (Resentment, after all, is something one wants to avoid in one’s relationship.) She said, “Everybody has to negotiate what their family of origin’s culture was, what they want to bring with them, and what they want to leave behind. Sometimes couples negotiate this well and easily and others don’t. You have to concentrate on creating a new culture, the culture of your family. Families who do this well are constantly talking about this and constantly negotiating.”