Stress-Reducing Conversations

Stress-Reducing Conversations

Life for the average couple these days is beyond hectic. Keeping on top of work, friends and family in the era of social media is a full time job in and of itself! If you throw children into the mix then there is the added time needed to ferry them to sport, friends and dozens of other activities which kids want to be involved in. If you live in a blended family with children from different relationships the complexity simply becomes exponential.

One of the biggest opportunities for couples, often missed, is to be the main support for each other within the busyness of our lives. To be a port in the storm for each other. However, what often happens is that stresses from outside the couple relationship end up getting in the way. Sadly, we end up seeing our partner as just another source of stress. Then we miss out on being a safe haven for each other.

A good antidote to this situation is what John Gottman calls The Stress Reducing Conversation. This is where a couple takes the time to greet each other regularly with a short conversation in which the only goal is to be on each other’s side – not to solve problems. You can find a great example of this kind of conversation in a brief video by Jason Headly called It’s Not About The Nail.

It is often said that women need men to stop solving their problems and just listen to them. Another way of saying this is they need to know their male partner is on their side. But actually men need this just as much, it’s just they are not typically very good at it (as you see in the video). Same sex couples are no different. For love to remain present in any relationship, a good place to start is to practice listening to each other without giving advice and without leaping into trying to fix each other’s problems.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.

The Nasty Box for Couples

The Nasty Box for Couples

Every couple has arguments from time to time and sometimes these arguments get stuck in what John Gottman calls ‘the nasty box’. This is the place where the argument seems to take on a life of its own and no matter what is said by either partner, they don’t seem to be able to get out of the argument. It’s a bit like in the song Hotel California by the Eagles, ‘you can check in any time you like but you can never leave’.

When in the nasty box some couples torture each other with very vocal attacks, while others avoid direct conflict but will stew and remain silent for days or weeks. When asked about this the couples will tell you they feel terrible about these arguments but they don’t know how to stop and resolve things. In Gottman’s research he says that there are typically 2 main reasons for this inability to stop – flooding and failed repair attempts.

Flooding is the term used for a physical response more commonly associated with high level stress. Increased heart rate, high blood pressure, tensed muscles and shallow breathing are what we feel when highly scared or anxious and it is exactly the response that one partner in the couples nasty box can often experience. Flooding in this case is another way to describe the fight and flight response and it is deadly for couples if it happens a lot because it shuts down the ability to be rational, to listen, solve problems or understand our partner’s emotions. So typically a flooded person will either attack (fight) or shut down and refuse to communicate (freeze or run). Gottman calls this stonewalling.

The second reason for staying in the nasty box is failed repair attempts. It is often connected to flooding because when one partner floods they lose the ability to make a successful repair attempt which could calm things down. Often, even if the one who isn’t flooded attempts to soothe their flooded partner, this repair attempt fails. So they might attempt a repair by using humour but if the other partner is flooded they will not respond to the humour but rather remain shut off and turn away. This is how trust is eroded between a couple.

What is so often lacking is a failure of attunement within the relationship. That is, the ability to really understand and respect each other’s inner world and to communicate this understanding in a way that each other can actually hear. I’ll talk more about attunement in another post.

But if you are reading this right now and you realise that this scenario describes what is going on between you and your partner, you might want to take the warning sign seriously. When we get stuck in the nasty box more times than not then our relationship is in danger of further eroding of trust. It might be time to consider seeking some couples counselling before the nasty box becomes the norm.

Conflict in Marriage & Couple Relationships

Conflict in Marriage & Couple Relationships

For the majority of people, a large part of their individual sense of life satisfaction and happiness is bound up in their close relationships. Work certainly contributes to a sense of fulfilment, even more so when we find our work meaningful. But humans are a social species so it tends to be relationships with others that is an important barometer for well being. Many people will say it is their children that give them joy and happiness but can be less forthcoming when talking about the relationship that is arguably even more important, their spouse or life partner.

There are various reasons for why some people are reluctant to confidently say that they find their marriage or partnership fulfilling but according to John Gottman, the most well respected researcher worldwide in marriage and couple relationships, a key reason is the way they handle conflict. His research, based mostly on observing couples interacting for over 30 years, has found that, for most couples 69% of their conflict is based on issues that are actually unsolvable. That means the reason why so many couples report circular arguments that have long histories and that never seem to get anywhere is because they are arguing about something they can’t actually fix!

It is this kind of argument that can begin to erode a couple’s relationship over time and produce the kind of gridlock that can lead to separation and divorce. If left unchecked this kind of arguing can create a negative emotional attractor whereby we view our partner as defective and begin to filter everything they do through this lense.

So what is the answer?

Well of course the answer is simple – start recognising what is unresolvable and focus instead on the 31% of things that are solvable within the relationship (and yes this can be easier said than done).

Take for example a relationship that consists of one introvert and one extrovert. An ongoing conflict can be the frustration the extrovert has with the introvert on the ways they don’t communicate and this ends up being a character assassination on the introvert’s perceived negatives. But remember this difference in communication style may be unresolvable. The extrovert could focus instead on a positive need such as “I really need you to check in with me for five minutes on what we are doing Saturday with the kids, that way I feel like we’re a team on this”, rather than “You never give any time to me about OUR children you just stay in your own little world”.



Busyness seems to be the norm for many people now. Busy with work, busy with children, with friends, projects, catching up, keeping up, and keeping ahead. Although this seems to have become a trend, the pace has most definitely quickened with the exponential growth of internet, smart phones and general inter-connectivity. A whole generation of young people has grown up absorbing this technology into daily life. The norms for what is acceptable are changing so quickly it seems we no longer even see the goal posts, let alone when they are changed.

All of this busyness is doing. It takes up time, energy and if we are not careful can simply dominate our lives to an extent never before seen on such a scale. But we forget that doing is only a part of life. Underneath all this doing there is a place of being. In fact this place of being is always present but it can remain beneath the surface of our experience unless we take the opportunity to tune it to it as if it were a frequency we are not familiar with.

Formal meditation, whether we are sitting, lying down, walking are all practices of non-doing.

I say formal meditation because it is these practices that most of us think of when we hear the word ‘meditation’. As I mentioned in the recent post on mindfulness, these formal practices are one aspect of meditation. They are useful and practical precisely because by taking some time to sit or walk in meditation, we are taking the time to stop doing and notice instead what it is like simply to be.

One of the simplest practices of formal meditation is sitting with focused attention on sounds. Find a quiet spot to sit, either on a chair or on a cushion on the floor.  Either with your eyes closed or open, spend some time relaxing as you sit. Breath in relax, breathe out relax. If you can hear traffic, or voices around you or even the sounds of nature simply listen to them and keep allowing yourself to relax and enjoy being here. You could also use some relaxing music. Other than sitting here you don’t need to do anything else right now.  Stay with this for as long as you can just sitting and listening to the sounds around you. Take the time to simply be for a few moments longer.


2500 years ago in northern India, Gautama Siddhartha went through a remarkable transformation. His transformation was so profound and all encompassing that very soon people began asking him in all seriousness whether or not he was actually a human being. Time and again they would ask him ‘who are you’, ‘are you a god’, ‘how do you come to be this way’? Every time they asked this of him he replied simply “I am awake”. In the Pali language spoken by this man he came to be known as the Buddha, the ‘awakened one’.

People may have believed him to be not of this world but at the heart of it all was his intense capacity to pay attention to what is happening right now, in the present moment. This is mindfulness. Or what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It is a capacity that all human beings have but it can seem so simple that we ignore or forget how to do it. It is the most basic, most fundamental and also the easiest of all the practices that have come to be known as meditation.

Another way of describing mindfulness is the capacity we all have to know what is happening as it happens. It becomes mindfulness when we actually begin to cultivate this capacity of paying attention as we do things. We can cultivate fitness by starting to jog or go to the gym. We cultivate mindfulness by taking a little time to pay attention on purpose.

Start small by taking time to pay attention while you do things in your day. As you walk to work, begin to notice yourself walking. Notice the feel of the pavement, the feel of the weather and the sounds around you. Much of our lives are on automatic pilot and without even knowing it we are being mindless. So take the time to notice the colours of things you pass regularly, you may be surprised. Another practice is taking a few minutes to make a cup of tea. Make it mindfully by paying attention to what you are doing as you pour the water, let it steep and then add the milk. Notice the heat as you hold the cup and drink the liquid. Notice the taste.

You might find many activities you do every day that you can transform simply by cultivating your capacity to pay attention, on purpose as it happens. The other thing is learning how to do these things kindly rather than judgmentally – but that is for another post!