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Small Talk, Big Impact

Dov Finkelstein, LCSW

“I’ll be home tonight around 7 p.m.” “Great. Do you want pasta or burgers for dinner?” Can small talk bridge marital divides? Here’s how everyday, seemingly inconsequential conversations promote greater shalom bayis and may actually be the glue that helps couples stick together.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Fifteen years ago, Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist and professor, conducted a landmark study to find out why certain marriages thrive — and why others end in divorce. But he wasn’t interested in coming up with another theory; he wanted proof. So he devised a scientifically sound method for analyzing relationships.

To entice married couples to join his study, Dr. Gottman offered an apartment overlooking the ocean for a three-day period. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., all of the couple’s interactions were recorded by video camera. Dr. Gottman then studied the tapes of the spouses who reported being very satisfied in their relationships.

At the time, there was a popular theory that couples who disclosed a lot of information about themselves had the most fulfilling relationships. So Dr. Gottman was expecting to see a lot of heart-to-heart conversations on his video tapes.

Instead, he saw the opposite. The happily married couples had countless small, fairly meaningless conversations. One wife might say, “I read a great article today.” Her husband would reply, “What was it about?” Or the exchange would sound something like: “Honey, can you bring me a cup of coffee?” “Sure, as soon as I’m finished with the pancakes.”

Dr. Gottman was surprised — and confused. These interactions appeared to offer no clue as to what made these relationships so fulfilling. Then, one day, after studying a few more tapes, the underlying dynamic became clear. He realized that happily married couples have many more positive interactions than negative ones. In fact, the positive to negative ratio is 5 to 1 during a disagreement, and rises to 20 to 1 during non-conflict times.


Building a Shalom Bayis Bank Account

You might think it would be difficult to engage in twenty good interactions for every bad one. But, in reality, those positive moments accumulate very quickly. In every conversation, regardless of the topic, there are numerous chances to connect. Every time a spouse makes what Dr. Gottman calls a “bid,” there is a chance for a positive interaction. Bids are any gestures — whether verbal (i.e. speech) or nonverbal (like smiling or offering a napkin) — that send a message to the partner. When a spouse responds to the bid, he or she earns a “plus” in Gottman’s system. In this manner, a couple having dinner together can have as many as 100 positive interactions in a ten-minute span.

These positive responses can be high-energy, low-energy, passive, or attentive. For example, if your husband was having a tough day, you might say, “I can understand why that was hard” or “I feel so bad that you had to go through that.” The responses can also be as simple as “uh-huh” or “okay.”

Most couples can manage the “sure, honey” responses. But how do wives find the time to rack up 100 positive interactions when they’re also busy playing mother, employee, housekeeper, and chef?

The key is to think creatively. One easy solution is to create small rituals of connection. For example, in the morning, tell your husband at least one thing that you’re looking forward to doing that day. During the work day, find time to speak at least once, even if it’s just for a minute. In the evening, take a walk together. You should also plan regular date nights. Some couples set aside twenty minutes in the evening to talk about how their day went. Of course, during these moments, it is essential for the listener to be attentive .


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