The first part of the State of The Union Meeting mostly depends on how well you understand each other.
How you and your partner fight directly influences how emotionally connected and passionate your relationship is.
After four decades of research on thousands of couples, Dr. Gottman noticed that the Masters of relationships fought differently than the Disasters.
The Masters focused on attuning to each other by seeking to understand before problem-solving, whereas the Disasters consistently devolved into the Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
To help couples successfully navigate issues like the Masters instead of the Disasters, Dr. Gottman created a weekly meeting called “The State of the Union.”
Hold your own State of the Union
The first step is to have a pre-conflict warm-up. By focusing on the positive aspects of your partner and of your relationship at the beginning of the discussion, you remind yourselves that you are fighting for each other, not against each other.
By starting with these sweet words of affirmation, you are intentionally beginning your meeting from a place of calm. (It’s almost impossible to yell at your partner when you’re telling them all of the things you love about them.)
Next, agree on an area of tension to talk about and work together to decide who will start as the speaker and who will start as the listener.
The speaker will share their perspective of the event for a few minutes without interruption as the listener takes notes on a notepad about what the speaker is saying.
If you’ve been following along with our State of the Union Column, you are familiar with the six mindset shifts that Dr. Gottman recommends for the speaker and the listener to promote effective conflict resolution. Based on analyzing happy couples in his Love Lab, he developed an acronym, ATTUNE, to encapsulate these mindset shifts:
Each partner will be given time to speak and a time to listen as you work through the different stages of your disagreement.
When it’s your turn to speak, you get the floor for as long as you need to fully express your feelings and perspective on whatever issue you’ve chosen to discuss.
This is not the time to persuade your partner or recommend a solution. I know it’s difficult to resist solving the problem at this point, but we know from Dr. Gottman’s research that it is counterproductive to try to problem-solve before each partner feels understood.
If you’re the speaker, follow this recipe for success: I feel [name an emotion], about [a specific event], and I need [state a positive need].
Once the speaker talks for a few minutes have the listener reflect back what they heard confirm that they understand what the speaker has expressed. One question I have the listener ask the speaker is, “Did I get it right?”
If the listener understands the speaker, then begin to empathize by saying, “It makes sense that you feel [x] about [y] and that you need [z]. I would feel that way, too.”
After this, have the speaker and listener swap roles. When you both put the ATTUNE skills into practice, it’s not going to sound like a “normal” conversation. It may even feel uncomfortable at first, but if how you’ve been dealing with conflict hasn’t been working, then maybe it’s time to discover a new “normal” for engaging in conflict with each other.
A State of the Union in action
Emily and Kris have been married for five years and have a three-year-old boy. Emily works full time outside of the house at a demanding job while Kris works part-time from home and cares for their son.
When Emily gets home from work around 4 pm, she then leaves at 5 pm to go to the gym and participate in community groups and events and doesn’t return home until around 9.
Since she is busy, she is adamant about being in bed by 9:15 pm. Each time Emily gets ready to leave the house, a nasty cycle of conflict occurs. Emily feels unappreciated, Kris feels neglected.
Their State of the Union meeting focuses on time together. Emily wants Kris to stop fighting with her every evening. Kris wants more of a contribution from Emily with the house, their son, and their relationship during the week. Before they can reach an agreement, they need to hear each other out.
Here’s how their conversation went with Emily as the speaker and Kris as the listener:
Emily: I’m really hurt and frustrated when I leave the house. I wish you would take the time to connect with me between work and when I have to leave again. [Transforming a criticism into a wish.]
I’m exhausted by work and our fighting every day makes it hard to work on this issue again. [Awareness: Using “I” statements.]
Kris: Hmm, so you feel frustrated about our fighting and you want me to spend time with you before you leave again?
Emily: Correct. I need you to talk kindly to me.
Kris: Okay, so can you give me an example? [Understanding: Kris doesn’t assume he knows how to solve the problem and instead focuses on making sure he understands her clearly.]
Emily: Yeah, sure. I need you to ask me about my day and listen. I have a really demanding job to support our family and I feel lonely because I fear to say anything to you because it might turn into a fight. I want to feel like I can talk with you.
Kris: Okay, so you want me to ask you questions about your day and listen?
Emily: Yes. I really crave that.
Kris: I get that. I really do. You work hard all day and then you have to come home to fighting. That’s hard. [Empathy.]