A review of ‘Eight Dates – Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love’ (John & Julie Gottman)

Falling in love can bring an intoxicating feeling that we are seen as we are, and that we are accepted as we are, and that we are perceived to be special. We experience the other’s intense interest and feel heard and, wonderfully, understood. A sense of trust allows us to begin to open up and share intimate and private thoughts. However, a long relationship needs deliberate, focussed and constant attention on maintaining curiosity and open communication. Through complacency, not ‘turning towards’, not patiently listening, not giving enough time, we can make assumptions that we ‘know’ when really we don’t. Very often we misunderstand more than we understand and miscommunicate more than we think. The mutual longing is for intuitive understanding: ‘You should know!’ along with the plea: ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ (Nina Simmone)
Irritability, impatience, and even contempt (neatly summed up in this Gottman cartoon:
can set the conversational tone and the necessity for communicating kindly with respect, not complaint and blame, is not always appreciated. It is easy to be critical of a partner for the frustration of a breakdown in communication and it is a short step to conflict and arguments. It is harder to slow down, accept responsibility for our own responses, stay curious and find the generosity to focus on listening. We are not always conscientious in checking our own attitudes and behaviours, and not always considerate of our partner’s needs. As Harriet Lerner says: ‘If you want a recipe for relationship failure, just wait for the other person to change first.’ We tend to assume we communicate clearly, say what we mean, and hear what was meant. But there are many layers in a conversation. What is the subtext? What is not said? What is the context? Do we fudge in fear that we will be judged? We rarely utter the magic words, ‘Tell me more.’ We may be speaking the same language but a lot can get lost in translation. The start of a conversation ‘is always a rough draft, merely the beginning of something that you will both need to shape together’. The task can be daunting if it is an emotionally difficult topic and can be further complicated by apprehension and fear. We can be tongue-tied and find our words clumsy and inadequate to express our meaning. Also, trying to explain is not always easy if we fear triggering a challenging reaction. Sometimes it can be that conversations unfold too fast to allow us to clarify what we really mean and then confusion ensues. Partners can be preparing a reply – only half attending to what was really meant. We can push back defensively if we feel criticised and unpleasant prickly patterns of interaction can become the norm. But avoidance is not the solution and, unfortunately, when the art of a more positive couple conversation is not mastered, speaking up can feel like more trouble than it is worth. Repetitive negative interactions can lead to a couple stopping talking altogether. The Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong song, ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ expresses hopeless despair: ‘It looks as if we two will never be one!’ but also sums up the dilemma: ‘But oh, if we call the whole thing off, Then we must part, Then that might break my heart.’
Healing, careful, organised conversation is the theme of the Gottman’s book: ‘Eight Dates’. They believe all couples could benefit from practising open candid discussion and suggest eight topics in particular that they view as ‘crucial to a joyful relationship’. Each of the dates, preceded by considered individual preparation, makes possible a thoughtfully structured sharing, and ends with the couple making an affirmation and commitment statement. For each topic the authors suggest a location for the date, an outline of specific discussion questions, and a trouble-shooting section if stumbling-blocks occur. A reassuringly constructive model, and a creative aid and support, for the development of healthy communication. Worth a try! Kathy Rees