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Understanding your partner requires the capacity to listen. Really listen. Couples are advised to hear each other's complaints without feeling attacked. As great as this sounds, it can feel unrealistic.

When something you said (or didn't say) hurts your partner's feelings, there's a strong impulse to interrupt with, “That wasn't my intention. You're misunderstanding me," even before your partner is done talking.

Unfortunately, when the listener reacts to what the speaker is saying before the speaker gets the chance to fully explain themselves, both partners are left feeling misunderstood.

This is why the N in Dr. Gottman's ATTUNE model stands for Non-defensive listening.

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The defensive reaction

For most of us, listening without getting defensive is a hard skill to master. This is especially true when our partner is talking about a trigger of ours. A trigger is an issue sensitive to our heart—typically, something from our childhood or a previous relationship.

This could be a result of a number of things. Maybe you've been repeatedly hurt or have experienced injustice in your relationships. These moments from our past can escalate interactions in the present. Or, maybe you feel controlled like Braden does. So when his wife, Suzanne, tells him, “You have to make sure the kids have dinner cooked before you go to the gym," he responds with, “Stop acting like my mother!"

After a few more defensive statements, Braden shuts down.

Braden's heart races at the thought of Suzanne bringing up a complaint during their State of the Union meeting (what Dr. Gottman calls a meeting to ensure that both partners feel heard and understood before problem solving together). Any complaint Suzanne expresses that includes a wish for him to change some part of his schedule around, makes Braden feel controlled.

Self-soothe to listen

While it's important for the speaker to complain without blame and state a positive need to prevent the listener from flooding or responding defensively, it's also vital for the listener to learn to self-soothe.

If you're unable to self-soothe, your emotional brain will overpower your rational brain—the part that is designed to self-regulate and communicate—and you'll “flip your lid" and say or do things you don't mean.

As Dr. David Schnarch puts it, “Emotionally committed relationships respond better when each partner controls, confronts, soothes, and mobilizes himself/herself." This is because the more partners can regulate their own emotions, the more stable the relationship becomes.

Self-soothing improves the stability of your relationship by allowing you to maintain yourself and your connection with your partner during a tough conversation.

Here is how Braden did it.

During their State of the Union Meeting, Suzanne started off as the speaker, protecting his triggers by stating her complaint without trying to control him: “When I asked about making sure the kids were taken care of and you responded by telling me I was acting like your mother, I felt hurt because it felt like our kids are not a priority for you. I want to make sure our kids are loved and I need some help."

While Suzanne expresses her experience using I statements, Braden has a hard time hearing her. He wants to defend himself and tell her how she is bossy and demanding. But he understands that he isn't supposed to mention any of these feelings until it's his turn to be the speaker. When that happens, he has to be sensitive to her triggers.

Below are some tools that helped Braden self-soothe instead of act out in defense.

1. Write down what your partner says and any defensiveness you feel.

Dr. Gottman suggests using a notepad to write down everything your partner says, which is especially helpful when you're feeling defensive. This also helps you remember what was said when you reflect back what you hear or it's your turn to speak. Remind yourself that you're listening to your partner because you care about their pain.

Lastly, it's helpful to say to yourself, I'll get my turn to talk and express my feelings about this.

2. Be mindful of love and respect.

During tough conversations, it's helpful to focus on your affection and respect for your partner. Recall fond memories and remember the ways your partner has demonstrated their love. Think of how they support you and make you laugh. Remember that the joy you bring each other is more important than this conflict—that working through this together will lead to more joy.

I've found it helpful to write a quote or a happy memory in the top right corner of my notepad, reminding me that I love my partner and that this conflict has the potential to bring us closer. Dr. Gottman suggests saying to yourself, In this relationship, we do not ignore one another's pain. I have to understand this hurt.

When you self-soothe, you learn to separate your relationship from the anger and hurt you're feeling over this particular issue.

3. Slow down and breathe.

Slowing down and taking deep breaths is a great way to self-soothe. Focus on relaxing your body. Sometimes doodling helps. When you do this, don't get lost in the activity or stop listening.

If your partner notices you soothing, just say, “I am trying to stay present as I listen, and stuff is coming up for me, so I am trying to calm myself so I can truly hear you."

Remember to postpone your agenda and focus on understanding your partner.

4. Hold on to yourself.

In Passionate Marriage, Dr. Schnarch advises partners to create a strong relationship with themselves as individuals by learning how to self-soothe and embrace their own emotions.

Oftentimes, when you feel flooded, it's not because you are reacting to your partner's words or behavior. It's because you assign personal meaning to their statements. Maybe their anger makes you feel like they're going to leave you. Or maybe it makes you feel like you're not being a good enough partner.

Look inward and notice what you're telling yourself about what this conflict means and how it may impact you. Holding onto yourself also means considering that your partner's complaint may have truth to it. Sometimes we hold onto a distorted self-portrait. I know I have.

5. Don't take your partner's complaint personally.

I know this sounds impossible, especially if the complaint is about something you did or didn't do. If you feel yourself getting defensive, seek to understand why.

Ask yourself, Why am I getting defensive? What am I trying to protect? Your partner's complaint is about their needs, not yours. Soothe your defensiveness so you can be there for them.

6. Ask for a reframe.

If your partner says something that triggers you, ask them to say it in a different way: “I'm feeling defensive by what you're saying. Can you please reword your complaint so I can understand your need and explore ways we can meet it?"

7. Push the pause button.

If you notice you're having trouble focusing as the listener, ask your partner to take a break from the conversation. This is a proactive way to self-soothe and prevents your emotional brain from flipping its lid.

You can say, “I'm trying to listen, but I'm starting to take things personally. Can we take a break and restart this in 20 minutes? Your feelings are important to me, and I want to make sure I understand you." During this time, focus on the positives of your relationship and do something productive. I prefer to go for a walk.

Once you've learned to self-soothe, it becomes a lot easier to ask your partner to help you calm down. If you find yourself struggling, tell your partner what's on your mind. For example, “Hon, I'm feeling flooded. Can you tell me how much you love me? I need it right now." vs. “You're the one with the problems. Fix yourself!"

The latter reaction comes from a place of fear and often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The former gives your relationship a fighting chance and the possibility to create a more secure bond.

Conflict is not only a catalyst for understanding, it's also a vehicle for personal growth. I like to think of relationship conflict like an oyster. Oysters don't intend to make beautiful pearls. Instead, pearls are a byproduct of the oyster reducing irritation created by grains of sand. In the same way, conflict can inadvertently create connection and closeness.

After listening to Suzanne, Braden takes a deep breath. “I hear you saying that my reaction to your request for help with the kids made you feel like family doesn't matter to me. I can see why you'd be so upset with me." A tear rolls down Suzanne's cheek. This is a major breakthrough for their marriage.

Long-lasting love requires courage. The courage to be vulnerable and to listen non-defensively, even in the heat of conflict – especially when we are hurt and angry.

Originally posted by Kyle Benson on The Gottman Relationship Blog.

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Jessica Simpson's life seems perfect. She has three beautiful kids, a wildly successful career, a seemingly solid marriage...she has it all, at least as far as we can see. But recent revelations prove that no one really knows what anyone else is secretly dealing with—and Jessica, by her own admission, has been struggling with alcohol issues.

The singer-turned-business-woman recently sat down with TODAY's Hoda Kotb, and it will air on NBC's TODAY Wednesday morning.

"I had started a spiral and I couldn't catch up with myself…and that was with alcohol," Jessica explained. "I would say it openly to everyone. 'I know. I know, I'll stop soon. I'll cut back'," Jessica continued when asked if she realized things were getting out of control. "For me to cut back, like I'm an all or nothing girl, and so I didn't know it was a problem until it was...I completely didn't recognize myself…I always had a glitter cup. It was always filled to the rim with alcohol."

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She's hardly alone. The rise of #winemom phenomenon is well documented and many parents struggle with substance abuse problems. But Simpson's story proves there is a way to get your life back.

Simpson quit drinking in 2017 after she found herself unable to get her kids ready for a Halloween party. She says she'd started drinking before 7:30 in the morning, before accompanying her husband, Eric Johnson, to a school assembly for their oldest daughter. Later that night she was unable to get her kids dressed in their Halloween costumes. The next morning she was so ashamed. Feeling like she had failed her kids she slept until they left the house, then got up and drank some more.

That episode was her tipping point. She quit drinking (as did her husband, Eric Johnson, who supports her in her sobriety.)



As parents, we know how overwhelming the demands can be...and how easy it is to sink into habits that don't ultimately serve us well. For Jessica, the way to heal was to sever her relationship with alcohol.

"I had to give [drinking] up," Jessica said. "I'm not going to miss another day. I'm not going to miss another Halloween. I'm not going to miss another Christmas. I'm going to be present."

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Babies come with a lot of stuff. And when you're out and about, a roomy, comfy diaper bag is the place for everything you need to be prepared for whatever the day throws your way. But is a cute, trendy diaper bag that doesn't scream, well... DIAPER BAG, too much to ask? It's not, mamas.

We've rounded up our favorite diaper bags that don't actually look like diaper bags, but instead like the cute, super stylish bags you might have carried before the days of finding crushed up puffs at the bottom of your purse.

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Frustrations and emotions were at an all time high for both us. I was worried that my lack of patience would get the best of me, leaving her feeling let down and frustrated with me on her new journey of becoming a “big girl." And selfishly, I was tired of washing wet underwear. For her part, my daughter was tired of being asked for the hundredth time if she needed to use the potty.

We both were feeling a little defeated in this new adventure.

I have found too often as a mother that I expect my child to respond new things, like to potty training, as fast and as close to the last blog post, book or opinion I heard or read. What I have learned is that no two children are alike and the moment I release my expectations for where mine should or should not be, we are both brought back to peace and patience.

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So maybe a break was all we needed to start fresh the next day. We headed to our favorite spot by the lake and had a picnic. My daughter munched on popcorn and chatted away about the weather and pinecones, and listened for the sounds of helicopters—which you hear quite often living on an aviation military base.

Sometimes in the daily struggles of motherhood I have noticed that I can forget who I am and the strength we possess as mothers. It may not come easily at first, but I grow with each new day. Even potty training—this mundane human activity that is emotional and (quite literally) messy, teaches me much about the meaning and purpose of motherhood.

Potty training has taught me a huge lesson on patience. Patience to be present, to pay attention to what is right in front of me. To be encouraging, to not rush the process, to not place expectations on timing or play the comparison game we often play as mothers.

Patience is needed in every area of parenting and potty training is just one way where we can see as parents where our patience is wearing thin.

I have found that it's when I come from a place of patience and presence that I can then glean wisdom from those messy, mundane, time-consuming tasks of potty training, and find that the waiting, sitting and hours of time spent in the bathroom gives me an opportunity to be present in my child's world.

Whether it be the grocery line, a traffic jam, or cleaning up wet bedding, I learn the art and joy in the small and big moments in motherhood. Giving our children space to fail and try it again as many times as it takes encourages them that they too can cultivate the gift of patience in there own tiny lives.

My daughter speaks to me everyday, inviting growth that sometimes feels really hard and frustrating, she provokes patience to be felt and sensed through every minute of the day. And for this I am grateful. Because to truly live and be present in my child's world means “I learn from her, and she learns from me." Even in potty training.

Our children have so much to offer to who we are as individuals and they have so much to teach us. In fact, I have come to live for these exhausting, beautiful, and downright messy moments in time. When I push myself to embrace them, rather than just find them frustrating, I stretch and grow and evolve. I become the mother I hope to be.

And to you mama, whether in the midst of sleepless newborn nights or toddler tornados or the midst of potty training, may you find strength as a mother, as a wife, and as a person to let go of any expectations or judgements you place upon yourself.

May love and gratitude fill our hearts and peace be with all of us on the journey that motherhood is.

Life
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