The most important thing you can do to make your relationship work

When I teach Bringing Baby Home classes, I always give away plastic monsters.  We use those monsters to represent our problems, and to remind us that we need to work together as a team to fight the monsters.  If we let those monsters get between us, we end up fighting each other instead of fighting the problem.  

For more thoughts on this, check out this short video from Dr. Gottman:

Welcome to the "Accepting Responsibility" Challenge

We are working on reducing the "4 Horsemen" from our relationships.  In January we worked on identifying when we notice criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling in our relationships.  In February we practiced the antidote to contempt: creating a culture of appreciation.  In March we practiced the antidote to criticism: complaining without blaming.  This month, instead of choosing blame and defensiveness, we are going to practice choosing responsibility and accountability.   

"Next, we get down to the hard part. We each have to take some responsibility for our part in the fight. Nobody likes doing this. But when we do, the problem becomes our problem in communicating, and not the diabolical dealings of Lex Luthor, who, of course, is our partner, and not ourselves. Arguments are almost never one person's fault" (excerpt from John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman's book And Baby Makes Three, 2007, p. 109).

Clearly stating what we need

Once we are able to describe the problem without judging the other person, it is important that we are able to clearly tell the person what it is we need.  If we can do that, we are giving them the tools that they need to meet our need.  Describing our needs in clear terms opens the discussion about what may or may not be realistic.  It can be hard to state our needs when we feel that we might be rejected, but it is the way to set ourselves up for success.  

Being polite and appreciative

We all need to feel appreciated. When we say "please" and "thank you", we show respect to our partner and we are modeling good habits for our children.  We can say "I really appreciate it when we do the dishes together.  It makes me feel like I am part of a great team.  Is there any way we can do the dishes together more often?"

Using a softened start-up; making statements that start with "I"

According to research by Dr. John Gottman, the way that a conversation starts is often the way that it will end.  Therefore, if we can phrase our complaints by stating our feelings and our needs, rather than attacking the other person, we are helping our partner to know how they can support us.  We are less likely to seem critical when our statements start with "I" instead of "you."  We can say something like "When... I feel... I need..." 

This article from the Gottman Institute talks about how to soften our start-up for more productive conflict management.  

"Culture of appreciation" practice #4: Associate thankfulness with a daily ritual

One way that we can practice gratitude is to create gratitude rituals associated with a time of day.  For example:

Mealtimes: We can make a routine at mealtimes to share what we are thankful for.  When we do this, we increase our ratio of positives to negatives, we increase fondness and affection, and we get to know each other better.

Bedtimes:  When we tuck our children into bed, we can take time to share what we are thankful for.  When we get into bed, we can take 5 minutes to write down a few things we are thankful for in a journal.  

Any other daily routine:  We can think about what we are thankful for every time we brush our teeth.  One of my gratitude rituals is to use my "Thankful" app when I get on the elliptical every morning.  

Culture of appreciation practice #3: schedule it and breathe it

Another strategy that we can use to increase gratitude in our lives is to set an alarm or a daily event on our calendar that reminds us to stop and consider what we are thankful for.  We could even consider adding an element of focused breathing... taking just one minute a day to breathe deeply and to think about what we are thankful for.  We get extra credit for sharing what we are thankful for with another person when we are done!

"Culture of appreciation" practice #2: say it

Valentine's Day is a great opportunity to think about how we express our affection and thankfulness to the people that we care about.  It's an opportunity to say, "I'm so thankful for who you are and for the joy that you bring to my life."  

One way that we can do this on a regular basis is to use a strategy called "positive descriptive acknowledgements."  We say something specific that the person did, with an adjective about how it describes the person, such as desired character trait or expectation.  For example, to a child we might say "You took turns with your friend. That's friendly," or "You put away the dishes. That is helpful." We can even look at the behaviors that we don't want and look for opportunities to provide positive, descriptive acknowledgements when they do the opposite!

To our partner we might say, "Thank you for doing the dishes. That's really helpful, and it makes me feel like our family matters to you."

I am thankful for each of you who reads this.  

More details on how to move from praise to positive, descriptive acknowledgment can be found here:

Find more strategies for acknowledging children here:

Some classroom examples of providing positive, descriptive acknowledgement instead of saying "no" all the time:


This week's challenge:  Make a plan for how you can regularly tell your loved ones and friends and even acquaintances what you are thankful for and what you like about them.  

"Culture of appreciation" practice #1: write it down

A great way to start this month of appreciation is to take time to write down what we are thankful for.  We can do this in a few different ways, such as a gratitude journal and thank you notes or even "you rock" notes.  

One way that we can create a culture of appreciation is to keep a gratitude journal.  We can keep a gratitude journal near the dining room table, so that we can add to it as a family each day, or near the bed where we can reflect at the end of the day.  

Even better is to create a note habit that can be shared with the people we are grateful for.  We can write notes to loved ones to express gratitude, fondness, and affection for the ways that they have blessed us.  We can make it a regular habit to write notes when people are helpful to us, or when they do things that we really appreciate.  We can say what we are thankful for, and we can express why that person "rocks."  This gives good feelings for both the giver and the receiver, and it increases the ratio of positives to negatives in our relationships.  

This week's challenge:  Write some nice Valentines to those that you care about.  Be specific about things that the person has done that mean a lot to you, and why it means so much.  

Welcome to the "culture of appreciation" challenge!

This month our challenge is to create a culture of appreciation in our homes and in our lives.  Each Monday I will present ideas, and I encourage you to let me know what works for you!  

Why focus on appreciation?  Creating a culture of appreciation is the antidote for contempt, which is one of the biggest destroyers of relationships according to research by Dr. Gottman at the University of Seattle.  When we fight contempt, we improve teamwork in our relationships. Appreciation also increases our ratio of positive to negative, which helps our partners and our children to be able to listen better. 

Appreciation can help to improve children's behavior as well!  It increases their ratio of positive to negative interactions. It puts them in a frame of mind that allows them to learn better.  In addition, children's behavior is often a reflection of where we focus our attention.  If we focus our attention on "stop that, don't do that!" then what we get back is often the things that we don't like! If we focus our attention on "You just traded. That was friendly," then we might just get back a child who knows what it means to be friendly and feels good for doing it. 

As mentioned previously, Brene Brown found that practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives.  So we are looking for a "tangible gratitude practice."   Clearly you don't have to use all of these ideas.  

Summary:  The "culture of appreciation" challenge encourages us to find a tangible, consistent way to make appreciation a regular practice in our lives. 


Join us for upcoming challenges!

Over the next four months, our challenges are going to focus on the antidotes to the "four horsemen."   In February we are going to focus on the antidote to contempt:  creating a culture of appreciation.  In March we will focus on the antidote to criticism:  complaining without blaming.  In April, we will focus on the antidote to defensiveness:  accepting responsibility for our part of the problem.  In May, we will focus on the antidote to stonewalling: taking breaks to calm down.  Join me and the Little Elf family as we strengthen our families and make our lives more positive and playful!  


What stonewalling means is that we become so upset by the interaction that we shut down.  The listener withdrawals from the interaction, usually out of fear that speaking will make the problem worse. Stonewalling appears to be an attempt to withdraw to calm down or to self-soothe. 

The antidote to stonewalling is to take a break from the discussion.  As part of Dr. Gottman's research, he asked couples in his love lab to discuss a topic that they experienced conflict about. Then with some of the couples, he told them that the equipment was broken and would they please read some magazines while they fixed the equipment. This gave the couples the opportunity to self-soothe.  The couples who took this break in the argument ended up having more productive conflict management discussions than the couples who continued to argue without a break.  A good break needs to be at least 20 minutes long, and it needs to focus on soothing without spending the whole time obsessing about the problem.  That allows our brain to get out of "fight or flight" and be able to think more clearly, with a better chance of being able to access more of our brain.