Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Neutral Box

This morning, I once again asked Sara where I could find something, and Sara's glance let me know she was frustrated.  She walked into our bedroom, moved several items around in the top desk drawer and pulled out what I was looking for.  Point be told, I'd moved stuff around in the same drawer, but I couldn't find it.  Nevertheless, this has been going on for a number of months now, me not finding things and Sara finding them for me.

A couple minutes later, Sara engaged in a conversation with me in the living room.  "Steven, I don't know how to not be angry with you about this.  I know you aren't lazy and I know that you are looking, but I'm having a hard time because this has been happening for quite a while now."

To give you a clue about Sara's demeanor, I'll mention that her voice wasn't raised and even the way she started the conversation was to let me know that she didn't want to get into a fight, but that she wanted to have a conversation about the issue.  The main thing I knew is that she didn't want to be adversarial.  The result was we were able to have a conversation about the issue without getting into a fight, without pointing fingers, and even though we weren't really able to resolve the issue, we both finished the conversation knowing that we felt respected, heard, and more understood.

John Gottman, Ph.D. categorizes spousal interaction into three categories: "nice", "neutral", and "nasty".  The conversation I just described falls into the "neutral" category.  The interesting thing is that in Gottman's research, it isn't large volumes of conversations that fall into the "nice" category which sustain long term marriages.  Instead, it is the high volume of "neutral" conversations.  Such conversations, though direct, are often introduced with what he calls a "soft start-up".  A soft start-up lets the partner know that the conversation isn't meant to be adversarial, but rather to connect.  

When Sara used a soft start-up with me this morning and entered a direct, yet kind conversation with me about my struggles with finding things around the house, she let me know that even in her frustration, she still wanted to connect with me through conversation about it, rather than getting into a fight.  She wanted me to hear her heart.  Such "neutral" conversations would leave movie theaters empty if they were the basis for screenplays, but string along hundreds and thousands of these in a marriage over the decades, and they result in so many moments of gratitude for spouses in a marriage.  Such gratitude is what I write for Sara and I right now.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons by niXerKG)