The Gottman Institute: The Art & Science of Love
My husband and I had a rude and rough couple of years.
Sabin was briefly ensconced at the antipodes with people who thought they knew him better after 12 minutes than I did after 18 years, and they brought out his worst self. They encouraged him to forget his family–to lose sight of his integrity. I frittered away our months apart with people and pastimes that took me away from my mission in life. I wasn’t my best self, either.
Love brought us back together and our union needed repair.
There were tools that aided us. I’ve blogged about those before. I read several books and used an excellent program developed by a California-based marriage counselor.
In particular, and with some mirth because he’s funny, we watched videos of Dr. John Gottman talking about what makes a marriage work. I bought Gottman’s books and googled The Gottman Institute.
After one fierce fight that ended with me in tears and Sabin apoplectic with hurt and anger, I said, “Enough. We’re going to a Gottman workshop.”
Sabin agreed, if skeptically. He was more amenable when I assured him that there was no public disclosure.
The time came and we flew to Seattle a few days early so we could hike Mt. Rainier. I figured two days of exercise on the mountain would exorcise Sabin’s physical restlessness.
We arrived early at the Seattle Sheraton on the morning of the workshop to secure good seats, close to the front. And there began two days of extraordinary learning.
The first day focused on building the ground of being of love through Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s research-based techniques. We listened to lectures on love maps, fondness and admiration, and bids for connection, and then we practiced the skills through carefully thought out exercises. The exercises were good fun as well as good practicum for a marriage. They deepened the friendship, connection, and trust that are so essential in the union.
It was fun to tell Sabin all the good things I think about him–and even more fun to hear him describe my strengths!
We also practiced a “stress reducing conversation” according to a Gottman script. It was an effective tool. When Sabin spoke about the stresses of his life, he was able to feel my empathy; when it was my turn to confide, I felt his empathy. We finished the exercise feeling heard and cared for. Our hearts opened and we felt close to each other.
But it wasn’t just the exercises and lectures that taught us and moved us. Equally eloquent was the way John and Julie Gottman related to each other. They were at turns playful and somber and they were always palpably connected. They teased each other, finished each other’s sentences, demoed exercises together with zest and relish, touched each other affectionately, listened respectfully when the other was saying something of heightened import, admitted to fighting, owned their own parts in their conflict, apologized for hurting each other, and praised the other.
Julie and John were modeling something critical: a real marriage, hugs and warts and tears and laughs and all. A marriage wherein both spouses are deeply committed and deeply engaged in the ongoing work of building a strong and joyful shared sense of “we.”
This was most evident the second day of the workshop, when the Gottmans addressed conflict.
Around 10 am of the second day, I witnessed one of the most profound human interactions I’ve ever seen–and I attended a 4 years hands-on healing school which included a great deal of deep personal process work. But this was astonishing: Julie and John demonstrated their script for repair after a regrettable incident.
I’ve never seen two people be more real, more vulnerable, more honest, and more sensitive with each other. It was deeply soulful. It showed the power of being real, being vulnerable, being honest, and being sensitive with your mate.
Julie and John worked through an actual fight from a few years earlier, following one of the scripts they’d written. Julie dissolved into tears, remembering early life traumas that had played a part in her responses. I was in tears watching her. With candor and grace, John also talked about his triggers. I marveled at his insight into himself.
The goal was to understand each other better. It achieved that and so much more. It was a marvelous process.
In class, Sabin and I did the exercise around a recent fight. Since returning home, we’ve done the exercise around the painful episodes from the last two years.
The Gottman Institute weekend ended with presentations and exercises around shared meaning and helping each other attain life dreams. In a real way, Sabin and I are already strong in that area, because we both feel so strongly about arts and letters. He’s been the strongest supporter of my writing, and I’ve always supported his art.
For me, the best part of the weekend was being in the field of the relationship between Julie and John Gottman. So that’s what a good relationship is, I thought. Perhaps the Gottman tools could even have helped my difficult first marriage. It’s possible. It’s for certain they’re a great blessing for Sabin and me.
In his thoughtful way, Sabin voiced the most beautiful, most telling comment about the weekend. “I never before understood about the sacredness of marriage,” he told me. “Now I do.”
Arrival, a beautiful movie
The movie opens with a reverie about time and memory, set in a scene of love, the love a mother feels for her child, and loss. The images fade. Louise, a professor of languages, goes to her university to teach. The students are mesmerized by news on their laptops: twelve shell-shaped black space ships have landed around the world. This happens with slow and quiet dread, not with bombast. Louise is tapped by the military to try to communicate with the aliens.
There follows a thoughtful, absorbing story about the frustrations inherent in communication. Louise is tasked with finding out where they came from and most importantly, why they’re here. But the aliens’ language isn’t even sound-based–it’s written in smoke. The aliens produce feathery circular symbols.
While Louise is on the makeshift military base set up around a shell in Montana, she experiences memories of her beloved daughter, who has seemingly died of a rare, incurable illness.
The secret to the aliens’ language is its oneness. An entire thought complex can be seen at once; their language doesn’t begin and end over a period of time. In the way that language shapes thought, all time is one for the aliens.
And so Louise is feeling and inhabiting this oneness. The closing question is heartfelt and poignant, and one I’ve pondered: If you knew in advance everything in your life, how it would all play out, would you choose to do it anyway?
Losing a child is the hardest thing any parent can face. So if the parent knew beforehand about the loss, would she choose to have the child anyway, just for the journey of loving the child for however many years the child was with her?
A question worth pondering asked by a movie worth seeing.
Of late things have been hard.
My heart is broken. Broken again, for the 3477th time this life.
“Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time,” wrote E. B. White, to a despairing Mr. Nadeau. The actual first paragraph of White’s letter said:
“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”
I must say, on this journey, I have met some extraordinary people. Amazing, wonderful people. They hail from disparate walks of life, different races, different cultural backgrounds. Some are immigrants, no two from the same country of origin.
They share a love for Freedom.
They are passionate. They are quirky. They are independent. They tend to be wildly intelligent and creative and brimming with life.
They tend to be honest.
Right now some feel inconsolable.
I feel fortunate to have encountered these souls, who are all, as I am, beset with difficult feelings.
People I considered friends have shown their true colors. I know now who really has my back. It’s painful and it’s good.
I counseled some lovely friends: “We must think of ourselves as the Londoners during the War. They thought God had forgotten them. God-Goddess-All-that-Is hadn’t forgotten them then, and hasn’t forgotten us now.”
But E.B. White that masterful wordsmith said it better:
It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
So tomorrow I will rise too early, as always. Luminate coffee with coconut creamer and coconut sugar, beguiling and delicious. I will wind the clock.
A friend from my distant past contacted me recently. She sent a kind email and thanked me for something I’d done for her, all those decades ago.
My service to her was important, even life-changing, I say that honestly. But I also know that she would have found a way to do it without me. She was that kind of person: bright, energetic, personable, poised, competent.
And it was reciprocal. I learned from her. With my modest origins, I was something of an uncut gem in my early 20’s. There were things I simply hadn’t learned, like how to apply make-up and the value of a great haircut. You can get away with some rough shagginess when you’re young like that, but it sure does help in life to sport a slick of polish. My friend took me to her salon and sat me down in a chair and I received my first ever truly great haircut.
Everyone judges a book by its cover, and she helped me to foist a better one. I’m grateful.
At the same time, it felt really good to be acknowledged, to be recognized, for a kindness I had done. I’m sort of used to my good works going unnoticed, or even denigrated. Not by Sabin and my little one, who are appreciative people, but by others from my past. I suppose I should be enlightened enough to follow the Bhagavad Gita’s advice, and do good things without attachment, simply because they’re there to be done.
But, dang, it does feel super good to be acknowledged and thanked!
In that vein, I happily thank book reviewer Psibabe aka Ashley Perkins of the Game Vortex site for her wonderful, thoughtful, insightful, and well-written review of my first novel Immortal. Perkins had read Fallen and some of my other novels and liked them, so she went back to read Immortal. Game Vortex is a big international gaming site, and I’m delighted to have the exposure. Good reviews feel pretty great!
So to Ashley Perkins and all the other book reviewers who have taken the time to read my books and write a review: Thank You! I know you have busy lives and yet you’ve done me a splendid service. I appreciate your time and thought.
Last Saturday morning in Central Park, I came across a uniformed male softball team, practicing intently before a game. A grim-faced player jogged out to shag a ball.
“Excuse me,” I called, “you wouldn’t all happen to be neurosurgeons, would you?”
“Yes, we are,” the player said. His eyebrows remained firmly knit and he didn’t crack a smile — the impending game was two minutes away — but he did kindly direct us to the field where I would find my friend Dr. Joshua Bederson, who heads up the Mt. Sinai neurosurgery department. My 7 year-old daughter and I giggled at the player’s gravity as we scampered across the lawn.
En route, we encountered some blue-uniformed Mt. Sinai players. “We’re playing over there,” pointed number 7, Dr. Andy Hecht.
“What chance do you have of winning?” I asked.
“Zero point zero,” said Dr. Hecht, grimacing.
“Good odds,” I commented.
Dr. Bederson, the neurosurgeon who recently saved a New York City cop stabbed in the head, had told me about this charity softball tournament over Szechuan fare the previous night. Dinner conversation morphed into a debate about whether or not the sublime fine motor skill coordination possessed by trained neurosurgeons would translate to the gross motor skills needed to hit and catch a ball.
In fact, neurosurgeons from around the country were in New York City for the tournament. Twenty eight teams of neurosurgeons had come to raise money for pediatric brain tumor research. Pediatric tumors have surpassed leukemia as the leading cause of cancer death in children; the Neurosurgery Research and Education Foundation is committed to advancing understanding and treatment of childhood tumors through scientific investigation.
Let me tell you, when neurosurgeons commit to something, they mean business.
Mt. Sinai first played against the Columbia University neurosurgery department. “You’re keeping it in the city,” I commented.
“Columbia has been known to cheat,” teased another doctor, with a wink at the end that belied his words, and left Columbia’s sterling reputation unbesmirched.
“We usually win,” proclaimed Columbia pitcher Dr. “Goody.”
Columbia players had names emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys: “Han Solo,” “Angry Passion,” and “Deuce” among them.
My daughter asked why the Mt. Sinai players didn’t wear names. “It’s not what’s on the back that matters, it’s what’s on the front!” exclaimed young Dr. Ted Panov. “We’re Team Sinai!” Another doctor pointed out that the Yankees don’t wear their names. This befits the founding of the tournament, by a Columbia resident who went to George Steinbrenner in 2004 with an idea for an event, laden with camaraderie and fun, that would make a difference.
“Why do you drink all this Gatorade?” my daughter persisted.
“We want to feel like we’re actual athletes,” answered Dr. Panov.
I couldn’t help but notice that there were only men on Team Sinai, which surprised me. Bederson’s wife is a famed neurosurgeon in her own right–and a skier who competed at the national level.
“There used to be more women,” Bederson admitted. “It’s just become so competitive.” Indeed, watching as teams washed around the fields, I couldn’t avoid the testosterone-laden alpha-male fumes which ebbed and flowed like an insistent current. Nor have I ever witnessed a sports team playing with more extreme focus. These are men who don’t joke around when it comes to competition: they like to win.
Good thing, because they compete with death on a daily basis.
“Phoenix usually wins, they’re a very athletic department,” Bederson told me, scowling while also smiling at the Chiefy’s who waited to play the winners of the Sinai-Columbia contest. Games are four innings long and each batter starts with one ball and one strike, so the round robin turns over quickly. Bederson kept his eye on the Chiefy’s, the team from The Barrow Neurological Institute. “They’ve won the last two tournaments.”
The Chiefy’s did look professional, in their spiffy red uniforms. They’d brought dolled-up maidens to cheer them on to victory. I haven’t seen skirts so short and stacked sandals so high since an episode of Jersey Shore. The attention to detail was admirable.
I trotted over to get a quote from a Chiefy, any Chiefy. They were a tall, toned bunch. Uber alpha-males? “We’re looking to complete our three-peat,” stated Dr. Fusco, a neurosurgery resident at Barrow.
Team Sinai did themselves proud during the Columbia game, though a slide into second base by Dr. Gologorsky raised the question: was that a Shabbos-approved move? It was not resolved. But in the top of the third inning, score 0-0, Sinai was up and bases were loaded. Sinai batted in two runs. The good Dr. Bederson himself batted in another run.
Columbia joked about stage one versus stage two, a dark inside joke for neurosurgeons, though it seemed to alleviate the sting of 4-0, Team Sinai.
“Sinai dominates Columbia,” yelled Dr. Hecht. “That should be the headline of The Huffington Post tomorrow!”
Alas, gallant Team Sinai could not prevail over the illustrious Chiefy’s, who took the second game 2-0. Then Ohio State clobbered them 15-1.
But Team Sinai, along with all the other teams, was still heroic. These guys have lives full to overflowing, work days that last sixteen + hours, barely enough time for their families. Yet they’re out on a baseball diamond to help kids. It shines as an example of both generosity and professional commitment.
For more information, see www.neurocharitysoftball.org
If I were married to a surgeon, I would hear about cuts and scalpels; if I were married to a movie producer, I would be regaled with stories about talent and above- and below-the-line costs; I am married to a classical figurative sculptor, so I have spent considerable time in Possagno, at Canova’s Gypsoteca and the nearby breath-taking Tempio.
Tonight I wanted to try a new place for dinner. Sabin googled a restaurant and, en route, we passed an Agriturismo.
“Oh, let’s stop there, I love Agriturismos!” I enthused.
Sabin was skeptical, but he was in the mood to please me. I had, after all, endured several hours of waiting for him to emerge from the Canova museum. He raised an eyebrow but drove up the gravel road to the restaurant.
We were greeted by the honks and shuffles of a small pen of ducks and hens. “Dinner,” Sabin observed. But he was happy to note that the immaculate walkway to the Agriturismo was lined with half-life-size sculptures. It was all very neat and manicured.
Once inside, we saw several locals and a few tourists. Nice-looking young Demitri waved us to a table in welcoming fashion and then informed us of the day’s offerings.
The antipasti consisted of two plates of the most delicious salumi. One plate was heaped with prosciutto, pancetta, and salami. The other plate sported paper-thin slices of roast breast of turkey. As a rule, I don’t eat pork. But the salami was mouth-wateringly scrumptious, and I couldn’t resist. I ate every bite that Sabin allowed me—he finished most of it, and he wasn’t sharing, despite the kilo of beef he’d eaten for lunch.
I also indulged in the wine. It was a riot of purple goodness on my tongue, fresh and drinkable and absolutely superb. At night I have one glass of wine at dinner. But tonight a few glasses vanished before I belatedly realized that I really should pace myself. It was just so clean and yummy that I wanted more, and more. Oh, and have I mentioned that the wine is home-made?
Then came the pasta: home-made tagliatelle with duck ragu. Ohmigod. As a professional writer, I really should have a better way to say it than Ohmigod. But that luscious primi deserved devout praise, an exclamation of the purest pleasure. Again, as a rule, I don’t eat pasta. But this was a divine exception.
Sabin devoured his pasta without saying a word or even breathing.
Then I had the steak, and it was fantastic, clean and lean and perfectly cooked and exquisite. Sabin and I shared the secondi because he had, after all, eaten a kilo of beef at lunch.
We passed on dessert. I couldn’t have wedged another bite of anything down my gullet. So Demetri brought me home-made limoncello, and it was another mouthful of bliss and paradise. We fell to talking to him, or rather, Sabin spoke Italian and I understand a lot more than I can say, so I followed the conversation. Then Demetri introduced us to his wife Jessica, a lovely and talented young woman who keeps a sparkling kitchen and cooks like an angel. We begged her to allow us to take a few pictures, because it was overwhelmingly impressive.
And then Demitri brought me a glass of an herbal liquor that he claimed was a digestive, something they make themselves. Have I already used the words delicious, divine, scrumptious, and bliss? Because they all apply to this liquor, which must be tasted to be believed.
So next time you are in the area of Asolo or Possagno, or anywhere in the Veneto, stop by Agriturismo Al Vecchio Borgo. They’re located at Via Fusere 7 – Fietta di Paderno del Grappa, tel 0423 190 14 57. Restaurant open Friday and Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch and dinner.