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Waiting For Gottman
I pretty much flew down to Anaheim Thursday morning, to the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference -- not because traffic was light, but because it was light for me, because I can take the carpool lane in my little hybrid. I got 62 mpg getting there, plus smugness, which I felt loads of as I waved goodbye to all the schnooks in their gas guzzlers stuck in parked traffic.


Well, I could have taken the back roads, because therapists John and Julie Gottman, who were supposed to go on at 8:30am, were preceded by another speaker, going on and on about how family therapy has changed since 1960. He did say one thing I found amusing -- about how, when he worked with anorectics, he held his therapy sessions over lunch, around a dining room table, and had the parents bring a meal. He noted that bank robbers go to a bank, etc…it seemed to make sense to do anorexia therapy that way.

Well, what made sense to me was putting down my note pad and eating my big, crumbly Wendy doughnut. When I’m not giving love advice, I give fantastic doughnut advice. In fact, I’m an expert in the doughnut arena. The best doughnuts I have eaten in southern California, or, in fact, anywhere, are from Wendy's Donuts on Lincoln and California, in Venice. I highly recommend the yeast-filled crumbly doughnut (the yeast-filled are the fluffy ones, not the hard little hockey puck doughnuts, which I don't like). Wendy's doughnuts are best when they’re freshest – 6am or 7am or so, but they’re great even a bit stale the next day.

A word on pastry storage, which I learned from a grouchy patissier in Paris. Never, never store pastry in a plastic bag. Always just leave it in a paper bag or a cardboard box, and do not refrigerate it. A plastic bag will make it all gummy and chewy. Even slightly stale, it’s better than gummy-chewy. And here’s a hot tip I learned from my friend Emily: If you have a gas stove, and you want your croissant to be warm and fresh-tasting in the morning, put a metal pot with a lid on your stove. Do not turn on the burner. But put the croissant inside before you go to bed and put the lid on. In the morning, voila!…fresh croissant. Never say I didn’t tell you any important secrets.

But, back to the secrets of making relationships work. I refer to John Gottman’s work frequently in my column, and link to his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Here's an excerpt from my column, The Taming Of The Spew, which references work by Gottman and his research partner, Robert Levenson:

Emotional overload can literally be toxic to a man (and, in turn, a marriage) according to psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson. They cite studies showing that emotional stress unleashes a "fight or flight" chemical response, same as if he was being chased by a Velociraptor. Yes, even if it's only his wife chasing after him to be her combination therapist, best girlfriend, political analyst, career counselor, financial advisor, and strip-mall psychic. There's even evidence that persistent emotional overload depresses the immune system, and may lead to heart disease. So...maybe some of those men who died of heart attacks...really got nagged to death?

Gottman has a “relationship lab,” and a marriage workshop up in Seattle, and he, like Ellis, is one of the people in the field I find truly effective. Unlike a lot of others writing "self-help" books, his work is based on solid data he and his associates have collected over many years, not just opinion. Gottman can usually predict divorce accurately by listening to a couple talk for 15 minutes -- or even much less. How they talk to each other is what makes the difference: Whether they have what he calls “deep friendship,” reflected in the way they related to each other, or show contempt for each other -- which he found is the big killer of relationships.

Now, I’m no delicate flower in the way I speak to people. In fact, a sound looping business near me that refused to stop using our limited residential parking (despite the 12 mostly perpetually empty spaces in their gated lot) once took a restraining order out on me for calling the snippy blonde manager a name. The first time, I asked the manager nicely, explaining that we have a drug problem in our neighborhood, and need to park reasonably close to our homes and apartments. She said they’d use their lot in the future (pure lip service, apparently, since their parking habits changed not an iota).

The second time I went over there, after one of their guys took the last spot in the neighborhood the day my neighbor was coming with her infant and toddler from Costco, the manager responded with a sneer, “It’s a public street.” Um, no, it’s not. It’s zoned residential, and their building was required to provide the parking spaces in their lot because there wasn’t room for their employees and clients to park in our neighborhood. Then she said, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you get permit parking?” Well, we can’t, because of complicated issues with availability of spaces for non-residents and Coastal Commission issues. At that point, I knew we (residents) were simply screwed, so I expressed my displeasure in the way most likely to disturb a disagreeable little blonde woman about my age. I said, in a low, calm tone, “You know, you’re really a cunt.”

Her jaw dropped. I said, “Oh, did that make your head roll off your shoulders and fall on the floor? I don’t think so.” The owner of the business came over. She told him what I’d called her. He said I should apologize. I explained that they were being very bad neighbors and I wouldn’t apologize, “Because…she kind of is.” Two weeks later, there was a temporary restraining order summoning me to court in my neighbor's mailbox. (Amazing how people supposedly living in fear of you and watching your every move thinks you, an extremely white woman who lives in a white house, reside in a purple house occupied by three women who are the color of dark chocolate.) Besides, this is known as a SLAPP violation -- A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation -- since I went over there not as a general looney, but as a neighborhood activist complaining about a neighborhood issue. (I call myself "the block bitch" -- I'm the one with the community policing team on speed-dial.)

Anyway, the idiots didn't know I was a newspaper columnist, or they probably wouldn't have brought what was clearly a malicious nuisance suit. Being me, I responded, point-by-point, to their sloppy, hand-scrawled, libelous application for a restraining order against me with a 26-page typed response on legal pleading paper. Since they'd intimated in their document that I was nuts, I tucked in a few words Albert Ellis said about me at a lunch we had a few years back, and later confirmed in writing on his stationery so I could send it out with my column samples:

"I have spoken and corresponded with Amy Alkon and find her to be saner than most of the therapists I know."

(If you know any therapists, you'll discount this a great deal. Nevertheless, I still consider it quite a compliment.)

(By the way, the appropriate cunt-calling defense, for all you law buffs out there, was Cohen v. California, 1971 -- the "Fuck The Draft" case. I discovered this -- and a lot of other interested law stuff -- after constitutional scholar and UCLA law prof Eugene Volokh gave me a copy of his book, The First Amendment: Problems, Cases And Policy Arguments, autographed "To Amy Alkon -- Hope you find this interesting. But stay out of trouble! --Eugene Volokh.") Naturally, the restraining order against me was dismissed. While I am, of course, "hostile and unpredictable," as the manager charged in court, I am not violent. The "cunt," by the way, has left the company.

Well, that’s the long and winding road to noting that, even though I have no problem letting less-than-delicate remarks fly when applicable, I’ve never said a mean word to Gregg. First of all, he doesn’t deserve it. And second, you get the relationship you create. That’s where the Gottman’s come in, with their ideas of deep friendship. Although they're more relaxed about verbal warfare than I am (in couples who don't show contempt, etc.), the way I put it, you just never forget that you love the person you’re with – in the way you talk to them and treat them. Every time you’re cruel or exasperated or unkind, it takes a nick out of what you have with them, chipping and chipping until you're finally just two snarling junkyard dogs in human's clothing. And remember, I'm somebody who’s diagnosed as clinically impatient (ie, I have “ADHD.”) But, because I made a pact with myself never to be a bitch to Gregg, if I’m getting impatient, or can’t listen, I tell him I’m getting impatient instead of getting mean. Not rocket science, is it? But very few people seem very capable of figuring it out.

Here’s some of what the Gottmans have figured out: (Unfortunately, they didn't have much time to voice it in the remainder of that session, but I'll go to more of their sessions in the afternoon and in the next few days.) Julie Gottman spoke first. She explained that she and John Gottman studied 3,000 couples, exploring their behavior. For example, when one partner says, “Look, honey, there’s a beautiful boat,” does the other respond, “Shut up, I’m trying to read”? Nearly 70 percent of conflicts were perpetutal, they found, and caused mainly by criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (mainly in men), which means shutting down.

John Gottman and Julie Gottman

A few more remarks from Julie Gottman on their findings: Every couple had its own culture, legacy, purpose, meaning, and mission. Their interventions “blend cognition, behavior, emotion, and looks at existential meaning -- what is their purpose and their purpose for being together.” They looked at not just how unhealthy couples behave, but studied how couples who get along “do it right.” And one interesting note for those who suggest conflicted marriages should stay together, no matter what, Julie Gottman said, “The level of stress hormones in children predicted whether parents were having terrible fights or not.”

Next, John Gottman spoke. He said, “Probably the most important thing that we have learned by doing research is what good relationships are like and how different they are from our fantasy of relationships.” Therapists, he noted, have a fantasy of what the relationship should look like, which comes from their own experience and poetry and literature and film. “I think what we’ve learned,” he continued, “Is really the importance of emotion. The split between cognitive therapy and emotional therapy is really kind of silly.”

He added that he thinks it’s important to look at the masters of relationships in different races and ethnic groups. “We find, for example, when we study Latino families, that they are an enormous resource for understanding sexuality, because they actually talk to each other about sex. They talk, after a baby comes, about how to make their sex life better.” He said they let each other know -- tell each other that they’re beautiful and attractive. He said gay couples do this as well -- unlike all the uptight white heteros out there...who are too busy writing to papers to try to get smut-peddlers like me fired!

John Gottman then showed a 15-minute film about how to “read” babies. He explained that how parents relate to babies when they’re upset has big affect on kids’ emotional development. If a parent characteristically does not respond very much to the baby’s cues then the baby withdraws from the world and feels nothing it does really matters. Kids like this will become adults who won’t explore as much, or feel as secure, or (be as at home?) in the world. (I think this is shorthand for “You may even be raising a felon if you’re tone-deaf with your baby.)

Gottman said, “It’s not hard to read a baby’s emotion; it’s really easy, but you have to know what to look for.” When the baby turns it’s head away, it’s not because she doesn’t like you but because she’s overstimulated. Some parents will be upset by the baby turning its head away and turn her face toward them, and the baby will get upset, because she needs time to be alone – to calm herself and self-soothe.

Babies, he noted, operate on a much slower timescale than adults. Like when you‘re a kid – the world goes much slower. It gets faster as you age. Babies take 10 to 40 seconds to imitate you. Slow way way down to relate to babies, he said. Spend a lot of time in sustained play. You don’t have to devote 90 percent of of your time to playing with the baby -- just be fully engaged when you are.

Don’t change game because you’re no longer interested – the baby will feel empowered if you play it as long as baby wants it.Through sustained, play babies can go through a cycle of getting excited about game, having enough, then getting ready to refocus again.

If you want to get the baby’s attention, imitate the baby. Do exactly what its doing. Pretend to blow bubbles back. Or make noise of spoon hitting table with your voice. It lets your baby know he's the archictect of the game, which is, apparently, a good thing.

Or, here’s what works for me: Don’t have children, and you won’t have to make bubble noises or spoon voices at all! Or pick the kid up at rehab or jail when you do the bubble noises or spoon voices all wrong!

(P.S. I thought there must be a book on this baby communication topic. I found one on Amazon: What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: The Nine Signals Infants Use To Express Their Feelings. Please note that I haven't read the book, but it looks like it covers this area Gottman talked about, and it got some pretty good reviews from people who claim they bought it. [Amy the eternal skeptic says: You never know with those Amazon reviews!])

Posted by aalkon at December 8, 2005 12:17 PM

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I said, in a low, calm tone, “You know, you’re really a cunt.”

Well, so much for UOA....

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at December 9, 2005 6:53 AM

Oh, I fully accept her as the cunt she is. Unconditionally.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 9, 2005 7:00 AM

Ah, but where was the "compassion"?

(A mild grumble: but this whole approach sounds awfully theoretical. Maybe I'm missing the bit where it has an effect on behavior?)

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at December 9, 2005 9:21 AM

There's too much, "aw, there, there" in the world. Your supposed friends coddle you instead of telling the truth. That's friendship? I get letters from people accusing me of being "mean" to the anonymous people in my column. The anonymous people I'm "mean" to -- like Ellis, I tell them to "cut the crap" -- thank me for being the one person who told them the truth. I'm just as hard on myself when I'm being an idiot -- something which I do frequently. Admitting that you're an idiot is step one. Ellis would say that you "behave" like an idiot. He's more correct in stating it that way, but I don't feel the need to shave it down to that point to get the gist of it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 9, 2005 9:26 AM

From hybrids zipping along to where the best doughnuts can be found and how to store them to emotional toxicity to rude parkers to restraining orders and why we should shut up and think rather than perpetually fight with our spouses and this all leads up to how to read babies minds.

Did we forget our Ritalin on this trip?

Just kidding- I enjoyed the trip. I also got the (used) baby book on Amazon for a penny + shipping.

Posted by: eric at December 9, 2005 2:33 PM

Wow. There are some real bargains on Amazon. Best I've done, I think, is 25 cents.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 9, 2005 3:56 PM

Sadly, that was me being coherent.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 9, 2005 3:57 PM

There is still 1 left at a penny.... good shape, which usually mean untouched...

Posted by: eric at December 9, 2005 4:08 PM

I love that you called that woman a cunt, Amy. I've never understood the squeamish take on the word, but I've got like 5 brothers (six? something) and a mother who believes cursing is our way of sticking it to the man. I got in a pretty rad fight with a psychotic woman last weekend; you can read it here if you feel like it.

Posted by: rebecca at December 10, 2005 12:30 PM

I particularly liked "I'm Mexican" as justification for screaming "bitch!" at people. Psychotically rude is more like it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 10, 2005 12:39 PM

It drives me crazy that poeple take more issue with a person calling someone a cunt than with the person who's actually acting like a cunt.

And I concur on the elatonship issue 100%. I don't understand the "I HATE YOU, YOU BASTARD" kind of relationships. If I hate someone, it's time to fnd the door.

Posted by: slackmistress at December 10, 2005 7:50 PM

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