Phrases used in Cardboard Couples Therapy

100 BPM
Dr John Gottman had participants in his couples therapy research wear heart-rate monitors, set to beep when the rate went above 100 beats per minute. He then stopped the conversation, because when your body is primed to run or fight, capacity for subtle thought disappears. If you’re an athlete, the number is more like 80 BPM.
See: SOOTHE, TEN BREATHS LATER
30 MINUTES
This is how long it takes stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to be processed by our bodies. If you exert yourself physically, it’s faster, as the flight-fight response is designed to get you moving, and exercise increases the rate at which these hormones are metabolized by the liver.
See: TIME OUT
BOTH RIGHT
Partner ‘A’ will often drag partner ‘B’ into therapy, believing that all their problems would be solved if only partner ‘B’ would change. Michelle Obama herself did this with Barack! However, outside of an abusive relationship, this is not the case. When we know what desire or fear is driving them, even the oddest behaviors start to make sense.
See: MUTUAL ENEMY
CRITICISM
This is one of Dr John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Criticism automatically triggers defensiveness.
Tip: make a positive request instead.
See: JOHN GOTTMAN
DEFENSIVENESS
The result of criticism. This is one of Dr John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. It takes great strength to resist the urge to defend ourselves, particularly if a criticism contains an ounce of exaggeration or the slightest inaccuracy (as they inevitably do).
Tip: look for the sliver of truth in the criticism, and own it.
See: JOHN GOTTMAN
DISTRACTION
We want to cling to the flaming argument train, and we won’t get off until we’re both burned to a crisp! But if you can step off and turn your attention elsewhere, perhaps to a crossword instead of cross words, you’ll regain your broader perspective and your wisdom.
See: TIME OUT
FLOODED
Nothing to do with water. This is when our system is overloaded with stress hormones and we feel overwhelmed.
See: STONEWALLING
JOHN GOTTMAN
The kingpin of relational psychology, who conducted 25 years of invaluable research at the University of Seattle, then created the Gottman Method of couples therapy, based on all that empirical research.
He identified the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, the interpersonal behaviors most highly correlated with divorce and relationship dissatisfaction. These are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.
His team studied thousands of straight and gay couples over multi-year longitudinal studies, and found that they could predict with over 90% accuracy which couples would we happy, and which would be unhappy (together or separated) based on the first 3 minutes of a conflict conversation!
See: CRITICISM, DEFENSIVENESS, STONEWALLING
LAUGHTER
This may seem inappropriate at times of great anguish, but with deft deployment, laughter can diffuse tension. Physiologically, it counteracts flooding, causing system-wide relaxation, including deepened breathing as we push out multiple consecutive outbreaths (“ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”).
See: PUN INTENDED
MUTUAL ENEMY
Imagine two armies fighting each other. Two outcomes are possible: mutual destruction (no good) or one party being defeated. This is also no good—being hellbent on winning every battle may result in us losing the war (damaging our precious relationship). Now imagine two armies allied in their assault on a third party. This is you and your partner collaborating on fixing the problem. In this scenario, you can both win.
See: BOTH RIGHT
NEUROTIC EARS
Even if we’re listening in our first language, we interpret everything. We make meaning, and if that meaning is driven by things that hurt us in the past, it can disguise what’s here in the present. These meanings are called “cognitive distortions”, and while it’s great to recognize your own patterns of warping things against your own best interests, it’s also really helpful if you can be empathic about your partner’s silly stories too.
PUN INTENDED
See: LAUGHTER
STONEWALLING
This is one of Dr John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, and refers to a person who retreats from an argument by shutting down: checking their phone, folding their arms, cutting off eye contact, or ending the conversation with a sarcastic “whatever…”
While appearing impassive, stonewallers are very stressed (high heart rate, high adrenaline, high blood pressure), and blocking stimuli because they are overwhelmed. Dr Gottman found that the majority of stonewallers are men, who are physiologically primed to respond more intensely to fight/flight triggers like arguments.
Tip: change the subject, soothe, distract, take a time out.
See: DISTRACTION, JOHN GOTTMAN, SOOTHE, TIME OUT
SOOTHE
When we get embroiled in an emotion, we can lose touch with the maelstrom it triggers in our bodies. We need to slow this physiological storm with slowed, deepened breath, gentle physical touch and soft words, gifts which we can offer ourselves and our partner.
See: TEN BREATHS LATER, TIME OUT
TEN BREATHS LATER
Clients often tell me they do the deep breathing thing when they’re stressed out, and that it doesn’t work. The problem is usually that we are not slowing our breathing for long enough to lower our heart rates. We may take one or two deep breaths and then get frustrated or bored because of our anxiety, which tells us everything is urgent.
Tip: take one deep breath out, then one deep breath in for every finger you possess. If you’re still worked up after that, use your toes.
See: 100 BPM, SOOTHE
TIME OUT
When kids have a tantrum, enlightened parents let them ride it out, perhaps in another room, and call it a “time out”. When adults have a tantrum, we are much harsher, and demand instant rationality. The Adult Time Out is planned in advance. After you each go your separate ways, you will have sufficient blood in your frontal cortices, and a productive argument is possible.
See: 30 MINUTES, SOOTHE

Interested in couples therapy?

You’re in luck—I also work with humans! Check out my human website and schedule a free consultation at Linda-LMFT.com.

Photo of Linda