New York Times Article and Fathers Lounges

As many of you may already know,  I was interviewed for the New York Times  on women’s roles and feminism in religious spaces.   The story apparently has received some controversy.   Many see feminism and religion as irreconcilable, but to me, they’re inextricably entwined in my life.  And as a psychologist, I’m trained to see spirituality as an important multicultural issue, and a feminist lens is one way to look at current cultural norms.  I’ve especially noticed a common response is to ridicule feminist approaches as unnecessary or ridiculous, and a recent blog post  in response to the New York Times article seems to do just that, with a heaping dose of sarcasm.
His post asserted women like me who question male-only policies in their religion should be prepared to advocate for men, too, and he gave a list of demands.  It’s ironic he did this, because a lot of what he says is in line with the men and women whose feminist beliefs he disparages.  I actually agree with him on a few points:
He asked why there is a mother’s lounge but not a father’s lounge in his church, for tending to babies, feedings, changing diapers, and rocking them to sleep.  I couldn’t agree more.  I also can very much relate to his experiences walking around churches looking for an empty classroom or using the stand-and-sway method to calm their baby.  I have been in older chapels that don’t have mother’s lounges.  I was so frustrated to try to find an open room, and sometimes get walked in on by a Sunday School class about to meet.  I feel very blessed to attend in a newer building now that has a mother’s room.  So I can’t imagine what it would be like to never have that option of a separate room dedicated to a parent to change, feed, and rock babies to sleep.  My husband says he wishes for a father’s lounge all the time.   I have to admit, when my neighbor told me about how her Methodist church puts rocking chairs in the very back of their chapel so parents can still sit and hear the talks, I was jealous.  Not jealous enough to leave my faith.  But yes, a father’s lounge is an excellent idea!   And who knows, maybe there will be someday.
Childcare during male-only events.  This is another one I can understand to a degree because I know what it’s like to try wrangling kids during a women’s  activity.  Contrary to his claim though, not all women’s activities have built-in youth babysitting.   Some do, and I really appreciate it.  But most of the time (including women’s auxiliary presidency meetings, as well as most women’s craft night, activities), no such luck.   But I am lucky that my husband indeed watches our babies almost every time (on very rare occasions he has a schedule conflict so the babysitting helps).   The author is absolutely right: the fact that childcare is occasionally provided during women’s activities, but never during men’s activities, implies that men are incapable of watching their kids.  And that’s just plain wrong.  As a therapist, I strongly believe mothers and fathers work together to care for and nurture their children, in an equal partnership.  I think providing childcare during both mens and womens meetings is a phenomenal idea, one that will reduce stress levels for both sexes.
The author also brought up how men are usually the only ones called on to help members of their religious community move in and out of the ward.  How astute to point out yet another double-standard!  I’ve heard the argument men are stronger so they are the only ones who should have to move boxes and furniture.  But a friend of mine, bless his heart,  is 5’5 and 130 pounds.   Another friend (female) is 5’11′, 170 pounds, and is a college volleyball champion who lifts weights daily.  I agree with the author, many hands make light work:  it’s counter productive that only men are required to do moves.  In fact, I recall a client once who just had her baby, and her husband was gone all day helping with the other men move a family in their congregation across town.  She was very stressed out, struggling with postpartum blues, and really wanted her husband home with her and their baby.   Just think, if women and men worked alongside each other, there would be plenty of people to help out their move so that her husband didn’t have to go and spend much-needed time away from his new family.
I have seen the benefits in my own life of critically examining traditional gender roles, and throwing out what seems outdated, and keeping what works for our family.    And I’ve seen how, as a therapist, when clients process that as a couple, they come out of that experience with a stronger relationship and feeling more satisfied that they are doing the best match for their unique personalities for their children.   I, and many anthropologists believe, that there is more variation within the sexes than between them. I don’t believe for a second that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. My husband puts our two girls to bed *much* better than I do.  And I’m pretty handy around the house.  Does that make us freaks of nature?  I don’t think so.  I think the larger point is, feminism in religious spheres shouldn’t be seen as a threat:   I personally see it as a way for couples to grow closer as they work together to carve out their own unique distribution of tasks and responsibilities, and as they stretch outside of traditional gender roles, they discover talents they might never have known they had.  Structurally, I feel it’s important for policies to reflect the needs of *parents,* not strictly what a mother needs or what a father needs, and never the twain shall meet.    We as a society need to be more parent friendly.  In short:  bring on the father’s lounges!  And paternity leave!  My family would be very, very happy to see mother’s and father’s supported equally.

Control and Victimization

Let’s talk about control–who has it, and who does not. When individuals feel they have control over themselves and their lives that’s called an internal locus of control in the psychological literature. Those who see and feel that the world controls them have what is called an external locus of control.  Think about it like an  internal-external (I-E) continuum, rather than a this-or-that set of black and white choices. Internal control (IC) refers to the belief that events are contingent on individual actions and that people can shape their own fate. External control (EC) refers to the belief that events occur independently of an individual’s actions and that the future is determined more by chance and luck.

In the U.S., research finds that high internality correlates with attributes highly valued by U. S. society, such as mastering one’s environment, superior coping strategies, higher achievement motivation, etc.  Other research on generalized expectancies of locus of control suggests that non-white folks, socio-economically disadvantaged people, and women score significantly higher on the external end of the locus of control continuum. Using the I-E dimension as a criterion of mental health would mean that people of color, females, and poor people would be viewed as possessing less desirable attributes.

The problem with an unqualified application of the I-E dimension is that it fails to take into consideration the different cultural and social experiences of the individual. While the framework from which the I-E dimension is derived may be very legitimate, it seems plausible that people of color, women, and the poor have learned that control operates differently in their lives relative to how it operates for more privileged sectors of society. Powerlessness may be defined as the expectancy that a person’s behavior cannot determine the outcomes or reinforcements they seek. A strong possibility exists that externality may be a function of a person’s opinions about prevailing social institutions.

And telling minorities, women, the mentally ill, and the poor to just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” doesn’t help much, though it seems to have helped Seth, and more power to him.  In point of fact, power is something he already has quite a lot of as a college-educated, white Mormon male that is upper middle class (just guessing, given he has enough resources to go on a LITERAL odyssey).   If the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric really worked for everyone, we’d have racism and sexism SOLVED.   Instead, systemic, structural responses to aid those who have not had access to the kind of power Seth does have often proven more helpful.  For example, the home state of Seth’s faith, Utah, just did an amazing thing to reduce homelessness.  Did they just give folks two spoonfuls of “You CAN CHANGE!” motivational speeches? Nope.   The state reduced homelessness by 74% in 8 years by simply giving homeless people an apartment and a case worker, and asking questions later.    Now that’s empowerment.

Let’s all be a little gentler with ourselves and each other:  agency is contextual, it depends on your environment, beliefs that abusers, racism, sexism, etc have molded onto you, and, of course, poverty.   Unpacking all those restraints on agency isn’t as easy as “snap out of it, you’re in control!”  It takes time and resources.  And at the same time, I’m all for folks unpacking their privilege as well.  I highly recommend this oldie-but-goodie on how to do that, here.   This is tough stuff, folks.  But it is also necessary if we want a more empathic, compassionate society and communities.

Let Your Husband Love You: And Be Yourself

Express yourself, or quietly suppress and let your man love you:  a Victorian false dichotomy.  It’s human to feel like crap, because parenthood is tough, tough stuff.   In my clinical opinion, the last thing a woman needs who is battling feelings of self-worth and exhaustion, authentically displaying it to her husband is to “suck up your pride, your anger, your frustration, and your crazy.”  

I recommend authenticity and processing.  And depending on the situation, therapy.   Irritability and feelings of worthlessness, along with not enjoying the things you used to enjoy (like, sex or spending time with your partner) are hallmark symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.  A counselor can help appropriately diagnose and get you the help you need to feel better end enjoy your relationships more.    Perhaps, if the original post brought up a ton of guilt or shame, considering scheduling an appointment with a counselor.  At the very least, I recommend processing your feelings about the post with an empathic friend or your partner.   You’re not alone. It’s normal to want to be real in your own home and the thought of sucking it up and pretending everything’s coming up roses feels either:  a) exhausting, b) anxiety provoking, c) guilt-inducing.

A counselor can also help process how current relational dynamics are working/not working for you.

To be specific, this post seems to highlight how very black and white division of labor between home and career just doesn’t work for so many.  It will work for some, I acknowledge that, but far too often after a few years of this set-up something’s gotta give:  and all too often its the wife who “sucks it up.”  Usually men work toward their careers, women work at home.  This is not the kind of post to argue which is better for men and women:  only the individual can decide that (P.S.  End Mommy Wars!).   I’m only here to gently suggest that reassessment at some point between the couple on how to help each other (whether it’s doing more housework or meal preparation together, husbands taking the *entire* evening/night shift–rather than a 1-2 hour “break” for mom, supporting mom if she really wants to go back to school or work outside the home) is beneficial.

So I talked a little about processing above (with your partner and perhaps a counselor).  Let me just end a little on a note of authenticity.  First, my own:  I completely resonated with her exhaustion with my 2 babies 18 months apart.  Some won’t though, and that deserves mention.  Men and women who have carved out work and home in different ways won’t relate much at all, and that should be acknowledged.   Given that caveat,  I personally can very much relate to how smelling like vomit, being climbed all over all day can be soul-crushing.  Of course I haven’t believed my husband when he compliments me.  And yes, I could say “thank you” more often.  But there’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind, with processing how you’re REALLY feeling. Lots of women have been trained since they were children to keep words and actions in pretty-mode.  I imagine the author of this article did, too, as highlighted in her comments:  “Dude, I so get it. It was such an eye opener for ME when I stepped outside of myself and saw what my man comes home to sometimes. Not pretty.”   I totally did it when I was younger.  In college, I remember dating some guy who even said after a few months, “you know, I wish you’d express more how you were really feeling–I want you to vent, express, be REAL with me.”  And I did, and I married him, dear reader.  Best decision I’ve ever made.

I emphatically and unequivocally support being yourself, expressing yourself.   Let your partner love you AND be real.  It’s not an either/or, folks.   Personally, I don’t want to be adored/pedestaled.   I prefer to be loved, as myself–exactly the way I am, feelings and all.

Postpartum Care


New research suggests the length of time a woman takes off after giving birth influences her risk of depression— a finding at odds with the typical amount of maternity leave in the U.S.

University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers found the more leave time from work that a woman takes after giving birth — up to six months — the better protected she will be.

“In the United States, most working women are back to work soon after giving birth, with the majority not taking more than three months of leave,” said Rada K. Dagher, Ph.D.

“But our study showed that women who return to work sooner than six months after childbirth have an increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms.”

The study is published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law.

The first year after childbirth presents a high risk of depression for women, with about 13 percent of all mothers experiencing postpartum depression, with debilitating symptoms similar to clinical depression.  Here are some suggestions about navigating through a difficult pospartum period:

Consider talking to your boss about more maternity leave, if you can afford it.  I know this is unrealistic for so many, as laws in the U.S. do not protect new mothers like they do in most of the world. To me, that is criminal.  Still, if you feel your job will not be at risk for asking, here is a handy worksheet to broaching the topic and negotiating with your boss (as well as more family-friendly work hours in general):

Anyone reading this who doesn’t know what to give new mom?  Clean her house.  If you live far away, hire a service and pay for it, maybe put it in a nice envelope at the baby shower or as a congratulatory gift after the birth.   Do as often as you can afford, I’d suggest at least once a week for 4 weeks, or once every other week for 8 weeks.  Perhaps pull together as a group gift?

Also, arrange meals for the new mom.  Freezer meals are great, very convenient, and here are some recipes:  Bring them to her home and put them in her freezer.  Moms, don’t feel guilty about take-out.  Already prepared food is a beautiful thing, and if you have other kids, they’re gonna be ok.

I’d also recommend a little sign on a doorknob that says “Quiet, baby sleeping.”  Would make a cheap and thoughtful shower or baby gift.  Something like this, so you won’t  get unannounced neighbors and friends who want to see the baby, or when you really need to sleep:

baby sleeping

Let me say something here about the oft-neglected “4th Trimester.”  If you are feeling anxious about the prospect of family descending on you (you may not even feel it until after giving birth), try to help your family understand your need to not have houseguests or play hostess while recuperating in terms of a 4th trimester. You need time to bond with your baby, your body needs time to heal, and your family (you, partner/spouse, kids) need time to bond together and get used to each other.  Usually I’ve found it can be about 3 months, but only you know when the time is right.  

Finally, consider a post-partum doula (or hiring your doula on to help take care of you and baby).  Or loved ones of new mommas, hire a post-partum doula for her!   If you feel you may have postpartum depression, talk to your OBGYN for a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist.   And above all, take care of yourself.

Porn is NOT Adultery

Pornography can be very problematic. The porn industry exploits women who work within it, gives its viewers unrealistic expectations of what a healthy relationship looks like (and what real women look like for that matter). It can degrade women. Child porn is horrible, tragic, and needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. And it’s SO understandable and valid for wives and girlfriends to feel like their loved one is cheating on them by looking at porn. Especially given the rhetoric that is very prevalent by well-meaning folks who say that it is. Many of these people have their flock’s best interest at heart, and are just not well-versed in  sexuality and mental health. And that’s OK, many are from a different generation besides not being psychologists, and who can blame them for trying to help? This post isn’t here to bash anyone who thinks differently than I do. My purpose is to provide some helpful tools to help reframe and contextualize the issue of pornography in psychologically healthy ways:

I was a psychologist-resident for a detention center for young sex offenders, so I know a thing or two about sex. We Ph.D. residents received extensive training on sex addictions, the neurobiological mechanisms behind porn use, and how to promote sexually healthy behavior (and stop re-offending behavior). First off, to use another Princess Bride reference: Sex Addiction. People keep using that phrase. I do not think that means what you think it means.  Occasional porn use is *not* an addiction. While it is possible to be addicted to it (I saw it with a few of the inmates), in our culture the word “addiction” gets overused and stigmatized, referring to anyone who has viewed porn and masturbated once in a while. I won’t argue the morality of masturbation, since everyone needs to follow their own moral compass. What I will say is that it’s not a sex addiction, it’s not in the DSM (what doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists use to diagnose people), and when we call it an addiction it can lead to even more shame and continuing the behavior. And if someone wants sincerely to cut back for religious reasons, shame does not help them get there: it makes it worse.

The porn industry exploits women. Those who produce it objectify those they film (usually women, but men too), take advantage of them, and use them and often spit them out and leave them in the dust. Can we please talk more about why porn is wrong for those reasons and direct our anger at the producers, instead it out on our brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, neighbors, coworkers, friends…and ourselves? Also, women are objectified in other places, like advertising, TV, and movies. Can we have an open and honest discussion about how and why that happens culturally, and focus on reducing the harmful messages all objectification sends to/about women, rather than focusing our wrath and indignation on those who view pornography (which only contributes to more shame, and makes them more likely to do it more)?

Also troubling to me as a psychologist is how women (wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends) are sometimes triangulated into the shaming about pornography (i.e. it destroys families! It’s disgusting! It’s adultery!), worsening the negative impact it will have on that person’s life because they are acutely aware how much their behavior hurts their wife/girlfriend/mom (if they’re young), as we women are told to be hurt about it. We are being recruited–albeit out of good intentions–for further hurt to our loved ones and ourselves. Think of it like an eating disorder: telling our daughters to “stop it!” when they refuse to eat at the dinner table isn’t going to accomplish anything. It’s a complex psychological process that involves digging much deeper psychologically, unpacking her relationship with food, and not shaming or attacking the behavior, as it will only get worse. It’s little wonder our relationship to sex and eating aren’t that far apart.

Just like the bingeing/purging cycle with those who have bulimia, people who feel horrible about themselves can go through a similar cycle with porn. The goal is to treat your loved one gently, as you’d want to be treated if you were struggling with disordered eating.  Recognize that sex (like food) serves a very natural purpose and you want to help them:  not by policing them or holding them accountable.  You may say you want to help them by letting them know you understand nobody’s perfect, their sex drive is normal, and that you’ll always be there for them.  It might also be helpful for both partners to keep in check any repulsion (perhaps process it with a counselor), because it will hurt you both.  Like I said, it’s totally understandable that you’d feel that way–you may have been raised to feel that way!  The goal is just to work through it over time. It won’t happen in a day, don’t beat yourself up, either way.  But don’t *ever* blame yourself for how you feel.  And in fact, you may have a completely healthy view of sexuality or not say a word to your loved one about their porn use, and your loved one might still down-spiral in shame and shut you out.  Not. Your. Fault.  Sometimes people retreat into their own world because the guilt/shame from inner and cultural sources that you never contributed to in the relationship, along with any deeper psychological baggage are too much for them to deal with.  All you can do is suggest they talk to someone and keep telling them you love them.  It can feel very lonely when a partner gets to that.  Very isolating–for both partners.   If you, as a partner, ever hear that it’s your duty to help someone overcome a porn addiction, run away. Far away.  It’s wrong, it’s damaging, and it makes me so sad to hear women report that she was told she just wasn’t satisfying her husband’s needs enough and maybe if she did he would stop.  Wrong!

Let’s all work together to discuss ways media (ads, tv, movies) can exploit/objectify women and treat each other a little gentler for being human.

Suicide, Loss, and Hope

 I wrote my dissertation on suicide prevention in the Western U.S. (where suicide rate are highest).   I also counseled imprisoned young men and women during my doctoral residency year in Texas, and I saw firsthand how hope saves lives. In life’s difficult moments we may lose sight of hope, and that’s understandable. In fact, sometimes we may feel locked away in a prison, not of steel bars, but of hopelessness and isolation.

I never expected to work in a prison as a therapist, but my husband was accepted to a nearby university, and it was the closest doctoral residency. My first day, I felt almost overwhelming hopelessness as I read these youth’s records. Stories of their traumatic pasts struck me so deeply that I wept over their files. Common to many were histories of abuse, broken homes, and illicit substance abuse–heavy burdens for children so young. On the other hand, I felt disgusted, I felt angry, and I struggled to feel compassion as I read the stories, some in lurid detail, of why these adolescents were incarcerated. I struggled to find a balance between anger and compassion. These details settled into the background as I met and counseled with each individual. When they first arrived, the despair in their voices could not be hid as they talked about how much they had messed up and how lonely they felt. My heart hurt.  Several of my inmate patients confided in me to wanting to end their life.  One almost did.

While I was writing my dissertation on suicide prevention, I spoke with family and friends of one particular young man who did take his life while in prison. I listened reverently as they shared their stories. He didn’t fit the mold of a delinquent. He was a sensitive boy who loved toy trucks, helped out on his friend’s farm, and kept his baby blanket close even when it wore to shreds. I gleaned from their stories his fear of disappointing, how he heaped guilt onto himself, how he told his family he felt like he was a lost cause, and toward the end of his life, he separated himself from his friends and family.  He was clinically depressed. He seemed to have lost all hope. When I later presented these findings to my dissertation committee, I sobbed through most of it. Wise mentors pointed out how in the midst of such sadness, we can glean hope from his story because certain patterns came to light: expressing hopelessness, fear about disappointing others, feeling inappropriate guilt, and self-inflicted isolation. They noted that these warning signs are lessons learned from this tragedy. Noting these warning signs and intervening we can save lives. Most importantly, we can recognize the importance of hope.

If you feel you have no one to turn to, you actually do. Turn to friends and loved ones for support. It is a myth that talking to someone else about feeling hopeless and thinking about dying leads to suicide.  Being honest and asking friends, loved ones, or your spiritual leaders for help saves lives and helps you regain hope.

If a loved one, friend or student has expressed feeling hopeless, burdened with excessive guilt, and has expressed a loss of interest in life, follow-up and ask them directly if they are thinking about ending their life. If so, and if they have a plan and means of hurting themselves, they need to go to a hospital immediately. You may offer to accompany them, so that they do not feel alone.

It is important to acknowledge their suffering, listen, and ask them to talk about their feelings. Since hopelessness most often precipitates suicide it is critical that hope is encouraged and felt again. Ask, remind, and listen to their reasons to hope, including specific sources of love and support from others, and from God (if they are a spiritual person).

We can be that source of hope for each other, daily.  Even through social media, we can let others know how much we care.  From my dissertation research I learned that depressive disorders are the highest risk factor for suicide risk.  If you know know someone who is depressed or bipolar, let them know how much you love them and how much they mean to you.  Not that you could ever have controlled another’s actions, please don’t feel like there’s more you could have done in the face of tragedy (THERE ISN’T).  I’m only here to give education and tools based on my skill-set.  A word of caution:  most suicidal behavior occurs when someone is on the “up-swing” of a bipolar episode or just coming out of a very severe depression.  This happens because, when someone is deeply depressed, they often lack the energy and motivation to plan/do something drastic.  However, it is still a dangerous situation because when it resolves eventually (whether to a dysthymic, hypomanic, or even manic emotionality), motivation and energy return to follow through with suicidal thoughts.  Also, triggering events precede most suicidal deaths:  like a break-up, fight with a loved one, being fired from your job, getting arrested, or other emotionally charged events. So it’s important to be physically present and supportive if someone you know who is struggling experienced a triggering event.

If you have lost a loved one to suicide, you are not alone.  Suicide survivors can (the term used for those who have experienced this loss) experience anything from normal bereavement to profound psychological pain, which can happen immediately or take months to surface.  It can be especially painful and resurface during anniversaries and birthdays of your loved one.   I highly recommend seeking out a local (preferably) or online suicide survivor support group.  A national database of these can be found here:

To end on a personal note, two years after I published my dissertation I lost a childhood friend to suicide.  Even though I knew intellectually there’s nothing anyone could have done, I still blamed myself and became very depressed.  She had recently been married, seemed happy at her wedding, and I was blindsided by how hard her life continued to be.    I thought, I literally wrote a book on the subject and I didn’t save my friend. I wracked my brain for ways I could have helped her better.  My husband tried to tell me what any good counselor would do to comfort me, but I still felt terrible, left his company for the bedroom, and cried alone. I felt lonely, hopeless, and helpless. But I soon heard my husband’s footsteps, and on the other side of the door he began playing an old love song on the guitar he often sang to me when we were dating. He said he didn’t want me to be alone, and that he always loved me.  May we be that song of hope for each other.

Research-Based Tools for a Healthy Relationship


I first heard about Dr. John Gottman’s decades of research and his “Love Laboratory”  as an undergraduate.  My mentor, the smartest woman I knew (who had 2 Ph.D.’s–one in clinical psychology, the other in neuroscience) referred me to his book and expressed her admiration for his meticulous research.   It’s the best work I’ve seen on relationship studies, and I highly recommend his book “7 Prinicples for Making a Relationship Work.”  (It sounds hokey and self-help-y, but it really isn’t).   He works out of the University of Washington and literally had a “Love Lab” where he watched couples and monitored their brain activity, heart rate, sweat flow, blood pressure and immune function, and then followed them annually to check in on how they’re doing. He and his wife are a modern-day “Masters of Sex” for the relationship world, for those of you following that series on Showtime now.  For anyone short on cash at the moment to get it used on amazon, here’s a good summary of the 7 Principles by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.:

1. “Enhance your love maps.” Love is in the details. That is, happy couples are very much familiar with their partner’s world. According to Gottman, these couples have “a richly detailed love map — my term for that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life.” You know everything from your partner’s favorite movies to what’s currently stressing them out to some of their life dreams, and they know yours.

2. “Nurture your fondness and admiration.” Happy couples respect each other and have a general positive view of each other. Gottman says that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in a satisfying and long-term relationship. If these elements are completely missing, the marriage can’t be saved.

Gottman includes a helpful activity to remind couples of the partner they fell in love with called “I appreciate.” He suggests readers list three or more of their partner’s positive characteristics along with an incident that illustrates each quality. Then read your lists to each other.

3. “Turn toward each other instead of away.” Romance isn’t a Caribbean cruise, an expensive meal or a lavish gift. Rather, romance lives and thrives in the everyday, little things. According to Gottman, “[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

For instance, romance is leaving an encouraging voicemail for your spouse when you know he’s having a bad day, Gottman says. Or romance is running late but taking a few minutes to listen to your wife’s bad dream and saying that you’ll discuss it later (instead of saying “I don’t have time”).

Gottman acknowledges that this might seem humdrum, but turning toward each other in these ways is the basis for connection and passion. Couples that turn toward each other have more in their “emotional bank account.” Gottman says that this account distinguishes happy marriages from miserable ones. Happy couples have more goodwill and positivity stored in their bank accounts, so when rough times hit, their emotional savings cushion conflicts and stressors.

4. “Let your partner influence you.” Happy couples are a team that considers each other’s perspective and feelings. They make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your partner influence you isn’t about having one person hold the reins; it’s about honoring and respecting both people in the relationship.

5. “Solve your solvable problems.” Gottman says that there are two types of marital problems: conflicts that can be resolved and perpetual problems that can’t. It’s important for couples to determine which ones are which.

Sometimes, though, telling the difference can be tricky. According to Gottman, “One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones.” Solvable problems are situational, and there’s no underlying conflict.

Gottman devised a five-step model for resolving these conflicts:

  • In step 1, soften your startup, which simply means starting the conversation without criticism or contempt.
  • In step 2, make and receive “repair attempts.” Gottman defines repair attempts as any action or statement that deescalates tension.
  • In step 3, soothe yourself and then your partner. When you feel yourself getting heated during a conversation, let your partner know that you’re overwhelmed and take a 20-minute break. (That’s how long it takes for your body to calm down.) Then you might try closing your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing your muscles and visualizing a calm place. After you’ve calmed down, you might help soothe your partner. Ask each other what’s most comforting and do that.
  • In step 4, compromise. The above steps prime couples for compromise because they create positivity, Gottman says. When conflicts arise, it’s important to take your partner’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Here, Gottman includes a valuable exercise to help couples find common ground. He suggests that each partner draw two circles: a smaller one inside a larger one. In the smaller circle, make a list of your nonnegotiable points. In the bigger one, make a list of what you can compromise on. Share them with each other and look for common ground. Consider what you agree on, what your common goals and feelings are and how you can accomplish these goals.
  • In step 5, remember to be tolerant of each other’s faults. Gottman says that compromise is impossible until you can accept your partner’s flaws and get over the “if onlies.” (You know the ones: “If only he was this” “If only she was that.”)

6. “Overcome gridlock.” Gottman says that the goal with perpetual problems is for couples to “move from gridlock to dialogue.” What usually underlies gridlock is unfulfilled dreams. “Gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other,” Gottman writes. Happy couples believe in the importance of helping each other realize their dreams.

So the first step in overcoming gridlock is to determine the dream or dreams that are causing your conflict. The next steps include talking to each other about your dreams, taking a break (since some of these talks can get stressful) and making peace with the problem.

“The goal is to ‘declaw’ the issue, to try to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of great pain,” Gottman writes.

7. “Create shared meaning.” “Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together — a culture rich with rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become,” Gottman says.

And that’s what it means to develop shared meaning. Happy couples create a family culture that includes both of their dreams. In being open to each other’s perspectives and opinions, happy couples naturally come together.