What You Can Do to Make Your Relationship Work

Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True. And I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True foundation. The Sounds True foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.

You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Elizabeth Earnshaw. Liz is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the founder of A Better Life Therapy and a certified Gottman Method couple’s therapist. She specializes in the areas of infidelity and betrayal, grief and trauma, and she also trains and supervises new therapists who are seeking their licenses in the counseling field. With Sounds True, Liz has written a new book. It’s called I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age.

Liz is just 35 years of age, and she holds not just so much wisdom and information and good recommendations for how to build lasting relationships that are filled with love, but she’s humble and open and sincere and a terrific educator. I learned so much from talking with her and most of all, she lifted up my heart to be such a young person who is so dedicated to helping people build loving relationships that lasts. Here’s my conversation with Elizabeth Earnshaw.

As a way to begin Liz, I wonder if you can share with our listeners by way of giving some background about you, how you first decided, what was the path that took you to becoming a therapist who specialized working with couples?


Elizabeth Earnshaw: I love this question. My obvious path was that I was very lost in my life after I graduated my undergrad, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, I was driving down a highway and I saw a billboard that advertised a marriage and family therapy program. And I said, “That’s calling my name for some reason. I’m interested in it,” and I applied for it, and I got in, and the rest was history. But the less obvious answer is that, clearly, I was drawn to that for some reason, clearly that spoke to me for some reason, which is that I think that I grew up like so many of us in very dysfunctional relational dynamics. And from a young age, I was always fascinated about how relationships worked, I always wanted to understand them, I always felt like I was watching people and thinking, “What are you doing? Why are you interacting this way?” And so, to me, it’s been like a lifelong journey to figure out how to have healthy relationships for myself and to also help others do that as well.


TS: Liz, I’m under the impression—tell me if you think this is accurate or not—that doing couples work is some of the most challenging therapeutic work, both for the therapist and the couple that’s in therapy. Do you think that’s true?


EE: For me, I’ve actually found it to feel easier to do in the actual session, but I have heard from others that it feels really challenging for them because I think conflict is really uncomfortable even for therapists to be in the midst of. It is absolutely challenging. For me, there’s something about how dynamic it is, there’s something about how much people can bounce off of each other and learn from each other that is so invigorating and exciting that it makes it so that my days go by very quickly, and it’s just something I’m incredibly passionate about. So I don’t find it terribly challenging.


TS: OK. That’s interesting. What I know from a lot of friends that I’ve had historically, is that they’ve gone to see couples counselors to help them and the report is, “Well, that didn’t really work. We’re going to try this other person because that didn’t really work.” Tell me, what do you think about your approach, working with people, makes it effective? I’m presuming you do think it’s effective. What makes it effective?


EE: Yes, there’s so many different forms of couples therapy and there so many different training paths that people go down. And I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. I went to school as a couples and family therapist. My training is really based in relational therapy from the get-go. A lot of people that end up practicing couples therapy, they weren’t initially relationally focused, they are individual therapists that move into couples’ work. And so couples’ work is much more dynamic than individual work. You have to really learn to push people back together through their conflict, help them to communicate with each other, and move yourself out of it, which I think can sometimes be really challenging for therapists because they’re used to doing the one-on-one—I ask you a question, you give me the answer, and then I ask the other person.

I make sure that the couple is not putting their energy towards me, but that they’re putting it towards each other. The other thing that I think is different than what a lot of people experience that I’ve worked with is that I’m really direct. I’m a certified Gottman therapist. Gottman therapy is very directive, so I will stop people and I will say, “Hey, I need you to stop for a second. What’s happening right now is something that we know is going to be detrimental and I want to help you to say it differently, but you’ve got to say it differently.” And the feedback I’ve gotten from other people who have done other therapy is that they go, and the therapist allows them to shout at each other the whole time; the therapist gives them no goals and no direction. I think the containment is something that can be really powerful for couples.


TS: OK. It’s very interesting to me when you say you’re very directive. Would you describe that there’s a framework that you’re working in, a basic kind of belief system or frame, and what is that?


EE: Yes. I do practice through the framework of Gottman Method couples therapy; it looks at the couple through the framework of things that research has shown makes couples thrive or makes couples suffer together for either a short amount of time or a very long amount of time. When I’m working with a couple I’m continually looking for signs that they either are developing these skills that make them, quote, the masters of relationships, or I’m looking for signs that they could be leading themselves into the disaster zone.

And so some of those things are, do they share their internal world with each other? Are they able to trust each other and be trustworthy? Do they have commitment with each other? Like, is it clear to them when they wake up in the morning, even if we were mad at each other last night, I know this person hasn’t just run out on me and given up on me? Do they navigate conflict well? When they share their lives with each other, does the other person care and respond? And is there some united goal that’s holding them into the relationship or is it really diffuse? So, I’m constantly looking for those things to create the goals for therapy.


TS: [Yes.] You mentioned your training in the Gottman Method and that the Gottman Method is research based. Can you share with us some of the research—this is what works, this is what doesn’t work, and this is the research underneath that?


EE: Yes. It’s fun to talk about because I think a lot of the time, especially with relationship work, it feels so—I don’t know what word to use—fluffy. Like, we don’t realize that there’s definitely research underneath it. The Gottman Institute has been studying couples since the ‘70s. And they have studied them in many forms, so they’ve had them in love labs, they’ve put them into apartments together where they’ve watched them interact. They’ve done all sorts of things to watch couples. And what they have found are a couple of really interesting things. Number one, they’ve been able to—and they actually hook people up to machines to monitor their heart rates while they’re talking to each other—code their interactions; they follow them over many years to see if stay together or they break up, and if they do stay together, even more importantly, are they happy and fulfilled with each other?

Some of the really interesting things that they’ve found is that there are four communication habits, which they’ve dubbed “the four horsemen,” as a play on the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And these four communication habits signal that a couple is in distress and couples therapists trained in the method can predict with over 90 percent accuracy that if a couple is chronically using these four horsemen, they’re going to break up or they’re going to divorce. That’s one piece of the research.

Another important piece of the research is that couples who report that they’re happy are turning towards each other more than they’re turning away or against, which sounds really common sense once you hear it out loud, but it’s something that they were able to track. And what that means is, if I said to you, “I love your glasses,” turning towards me would look like saying, “Thank you so much. I just got these glasses,” or, “I’ve worn these same glasses for years.” If you turned against me, you would say something like, “Why are you telling me that? I don’t care if you like my glasses.” Turning away from me would be just no response at all. And for anybody listening, you did turn towards me, you smiled just now.


TS: Oh, yes. Thank you so much. And I’d be happy to share more with you. I got these glasses when I was in Iceland with my wife. She was like, “You need an accessory.” But anyway, I definitely want to turn towards you, Liz. Thank you so much. And I have to say, I really like the way you have your hair pulled back and that it shows your eyes so beautifully.


EE: Oh, thank you. But you did a beautiful job of turning towards before you even said anything. You were taking notes and you looked up and you smiled at me. And when we track interactions in relationships, they just have to be these small moments actually. You could have said nothing else, just the smiling at me made me already feel safe to turn towards you again. You did that, and now I’m going to keep turning towards you the rest of the call, because you made me feel safe. But we can track this with couples. The research shows that when couples are turning towards 80 percent or more of bids that they are—and me saying that to you was a bid—more likely to stay together and that they’re more likely to report being happy. If they don’t do that, then they’re more likely to be unhappy. So those are some of the most fun research findings to share.


TS: Yes. And I want to talk a little bit more about both of these different categories of research findings. You mentioned the word “bids.” Let’s just describe what’s that when a couple is making a bid for connection in some way with each other.


EE: Yes. Bids for connection are big and little moments where people are trying to connect with each other. And we do these with strangers. So, if I go into Starbucks and I say to somebody, “I love how you changed your hair this week. It looks so pretty,” I’m making a bid. If I hold a door open for someone, I’m making a bid, but with our partners, we make all sorts of bids. We might say something like, “Wow, did you see how beautiful it is outside?” Or we might make a sound like [Sigh] that’s a bid, or we might be very direct and say, “Can you give me a hug?”

There are all these things we do to get response from the other person. There are positive bids. The things I just mentioned are positive. And there’s also what we call negative bids, which might be picking a fight, rolling your eyes, any of those types of things to get attention, but we do these things to connect.


TS: If I understand you right, when our partner makes a bid for connection, whether it’s small or large, what’s going to predict whether we’ll be happy years from now is if I turn towards. Turning against might mean saying something like “Who cares?” or “Harumph,” or I don’t know what—and then turning away would be just ignoring them altogether.


EE: Yes. […] Turning away has been found to be the most detrimental, which is interesting, because you would think it’s not as mean; but when people are turning away, there’s no energy anymore. And if there’s no energy, there’s nothing to work with. Turning against is exactly what you said. It’s being like, “Harumph. I don’t care. Why are you talking to me? Your idea’s stupid.” But that can still be worked with in many ways, because then the person can push back, they can get in an argument, and they can figure it out. But yep, exactly. Just what you said.


TS: The silent treatment really doesn’t work, not a good strategy, not useful, no.


EE: Not useful. And being on your cell phone when your partner’s trying to connect with you, not useful. There are so many things right now, I think, that are really escalating the amount of times that we turn away that just weren’t present before. So, it’s a huge problem right now.


TS: OK. Now let’s talk a little bit more about these four communication habits that you also said were research-based. And your new book I Want This to Work, it covers dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens—it’s really packed, it’s dense—it covers a lot of different skills you can use to be successful, bonded, happy, interdependent, to use your word in relationships. And we’ll talk about that. But I’m starting with this research-based work from the Gottman Institute because I noticed it really got my attention. And I think maybe that is because I find the whole relational field like a big ocean to swim in, and suddenly you bring in, “Oh, this is research-based.”

And I sit up and I think, “Oh good. Somebody’s going to tell me something that there’s some evidence behind it.” OK. So, let’s talk about these four communication habits. In the book you offer antidotes to each one. So instead of criticism, you offer the antidote that instead of criticizing our partner, we can put the problem in front of both of us and talk about it as a need. I’m wondering if you can give me an example of that, of how a couple perhaps might have been criticizing each other and then made this shift.


EE: Yes. I’ll use the very cliche dishes example that couples fight over. An example of what it would look like to criticize would be if I went downstairs and I said to my husband, “Andrew, you never clean the dishes. They’re always such a mess when I come down the steps”—I’m likely going to get defensiveness, and that’s not going to get us anywhere. But if instead I can recognize that the problem is the dishes—that’s the thing that’s making me really mad. I’m upset that my partner didn’t do them, but I’m actually upset about the dishes. Like, if the dishes didn’t exist in that sink, we would be great. 

If I can identify that my problem is the dishes—and under that, what’s my need? My need is that I want to relax after work, my need is that I want a clean kitchen, my need is that I want to feel like I’m being helped. There are these needs underneath the problem. Once you can identify those, you can bring it up so much more gently in a way where the other person isn’t going to have to defend themselves. And maybe I’m still mad and that’s okay, but I could go downstairs and say, “Hey, I’ve noticed I come down here every day at the end of work and the dishes are filled to the brim, and I feel really frustrated because at the end of the day, I just want to be able to chill, I just want to hang out, and I need that. I need us to figure out how we’re going to figure out this dish situation.” So, it just changes the way you’re expressing it in a way that is more likely to be received.


TS: Now, Liz, I’m just curious, because as you’re working with couples in your office, and you said you’re directive, and you hear them criticizing each other, do you take that as a moment to educate, do you interrupt and you go, “This is an educational moment”?


EE: Yes. So, when you said, just a moment ago, that you felt really connected to the fact there’s some evidence around this and you perked up about that, I found, that in couples’ therapy, couples perk up when you do that of them, because it feels grounded in something. And it also makes them not feel criticized, right? I’m not just picking on them, I’m saying, “Hey, I’m here to help you. There’s something I know about the way you’re expressing this, that we know from decades of looking at couples is going to cause problems. Can I help you to say it in a new way?” And people receive that really well, and they want a new way to say it, right? They don’t want to lose their listener; they want that person to hear what they have to say. So, it’s something I do the entire time that we’re working in therapy.


TS: All right. Let’s go into defensiveness. This is another communication habit. What’s the antidote? “I feel defensive. You’re talking to me about the dishes”—we’re just taking this everyday example—“and I’ve got so much going on. I haven’t had a chance.” Who knows?


EE: Yes. If I was the therapist of that person, I would say that is probably all very true and your perspective is not going to be heard if you don’t take responsibility. So, the antidote is to take responsibility or validate, so either of those things, but to be able to say to your partner at first—you might explain yourself later; that is totally fine. But your initial reaction is to turn towards, right? We just talked about turning towards, being able to say, “You did have a long day. And you’re right; the dishes are a disgusting mess right now.” Period. Goes a really long way in disarming the other person. That’s all you got to do.


TS: All right. OK. I do want to cover these last two habits because I thought this section was just so… It was illuminating for me. The third one is stonewalling. That’s another version of turning away. Yes? Just doesn’t work. What do I do when I’m just like, “God, I do not want to deal right now. This is not my time to be engaging”?


EE: Stonewalling is super interesting because we actually hook people up to oximeters in the therapy room so that we can see what their heart rate is, their beats per minute. And when people are stonewalling, they look frozen on the outside, but they are full of turmoil on the inside, and they’ll have this thing on their finger that just starts going “beep beep beep beep beep,” because their heart rate is all the way up. So, if you are a stonewaller, if you’re not able to get words out, if you’re blocking it out, something you really want to work on is recognizing what’s happening in your body, being able to say, “Whew, I can’t get my words out what’s turning off here. My stress hormones are being pumped,” and calming your heart rate, being able to get into a calm space, is the most important thing you could do. We know it takes about 20 minutes for the stress hormones to dump from the bloodstream. So, you have to take a break. So that is the antidote to stonewalling, self-soothing and taking space.


TS: [Yes.] And then the fourth communication habit that predicts that your relationship will probably not be around in the future is if you express contempt for your partner. So tell us what expressing contempt sounds like and what would be the antidote to that?


EE: Contempt is criticism supercharged. So it sounds like belittling, taking superiority, being really disgusted with somebody. So while criticism might sound like, “You never do the dishes,” contempt sounds like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You are a flipping pig, and I can’t believe I married you. I am so disgusted.” And there’s a facial expression that comes with contempt and your voice changes. And when this happens, you’ve lost respect, right? It’s not there anymore. And there could be reasons, but your partner feels that. Over time, they’re going to feel incredibly belittled and demeaned, and they’re going to back away from intimacy in the relationship. The antidote to that is to be able to name your feelings and also to take some responsibility and to try to figure out like, “Where is this coming from? Is there something that needs to be healed within me or with the relationship so that I can actually talk about what’s going on for me instead of pushing this person down a peg?”


TS: All right. This is some of what you learned from the Gottman research. What I’d love to know is, in your work with hundreds and hundreds of couples now, work that you enjoy, that seems to come naturally to you, when you meet with a couple and you think, “Oh, here are these indicators. I see these indicators. I think, this couple, they are on their way. They’ve got it. I’m going to put my money on them for the 50-year joyful growth run.” What is it that you see? What behaviors? Or do you not see very many couples like that because they don’t come to you?


EE: Oh, I do. I see them. All sorts of couples come to see me. And I would say the majority of couples that come into therapy are everyday couples who are struggling but really want to make their relationship work and they are willing to change. So some of the things I see are what I just said, a willingness to engage in the work, right? They have this willingness to take feedback, they have a willingness to change themselves in a way behaviorally, not at their core, but behaviorally. So that is something that I look for.

I certainly look to see that couples are turning towards each other; I look to see how they’re telling their story. Couples who come in, I always ask people, “Tell me your story. How did you meet? What have you overcome?” All of that kind of stuff. And when they come in and they say, “I don’t really remember what I liked about them. I can’t even remember how we met. Everything’s been crap,” I tend to be a little concerned because that often means that it’s at a place where they have waited way too long to get help. It does not mean it can’t turn around, but it’s a little precarious at that point, because we know that the way people recount the past is more based in what’s happening in the present in terms of the relationship, than what actually—


TS: Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that. So, if I tell the story of how I and my partner met and there’s all this love and ooey-gooey, that’s not necessarily because of what actually happened 20 some odd years ago, it’s because of how I’m feeling about the person today. Whereas if I tell it in a flippant, like, “Who cares what?” it’s not really about the actual that happened 20-some-odd years ago—


EE: No, because our memories are always changing, and they’re changing with information that we have. And so, when I meet with couples who are in high levels of distress, they will almost always, like 99.9% of them, will tell me how annoying the person was at the beginning and consider it. “I should have seen flags. I should have seen—” all of these things. And I will really try to get in there, like, “But what was it that you thought was really lovely? What made you want to go on the first date?” “I don’t even remember. I don’t know what made me want to go on the first date.” I know that they’re in a pretty bad spot because even couples who are struggling that still have what call the positive perspective, even when they’re struggling, they can tell me what they liked about the person. Once you can’t tell me what you like about the person anymore, you’ve gotten into what we call negative sentiment override, which means that anything good about them is being buried beneath your anger, your resentment, your characterization of who they are.


TS: OK. Now, one of the things you share right towards the beginning of, “I want this to work,” is this notion that there are three R’s when it comes to cultivating a healthy relationship. You describe it as a relationship based in interdependence. So, let’s start and define that idea of interdependence. And then what are these three R’s and how did you get to them?


EE: Yes. Interdependence is the way that we are able to balance our desires for connection and our desires for autonomy. So all humans have an autonomous self that they want and all humans have a connective self that they want and we balance them differently, right? I might be someone who really leans into connection and my partner might be someone who, of course, loves our connection, but leans more into independence and autonomy. When we’re in relationships that are imbalanced, we don’t know how to navigate those together. So either we become hyper focused on the connection and we forget about autonomy and we lose ourselves. And so, I’ll see couples and they’ll be so focused on the connection, but I’ll say, “Well, what are your hobbies? What are your interests? Who are your friends?” And they don’t have that anymore because the connection has become everything, and that can be problematic.

There are also times where the connection isn’t there and autonomy has become everything. It’s about my career, my friends, what I want to do. We’re usually matched with the opposite, which, as you can imagine, can be hard to navigate. We have one person saying, “Autonomy is the way. I don’t need to be connected as much. Leave me be. I’m focused on my other stuff.” And we have the other person saying, “Talk to me, cuddle me, be with me, take me on dates.” Interdependent relationships are able to dance with both of those things. And so, what I work with, with couples a lot, is learning from each other. What does your partner have that maybe you struggle with and how can you lean into that a little bit? The second part of your question was what are the three R’s?

So those are Reliability, Respect, Responsiveness. And I came up with those by looking at what emotionally focused therapy tells us, what Gottman Method therapy tells us, relational life pact. There are all these methods of couple’s therapy. When it comes down to it, they’re essentially teaching couples to be respectful to each other, which means acting like their partner has inherent value to be reliable with each other, which means I know that if I reach for you, you’re going to be there, you’re committed to me, we’ve got time to work this out, I can predict mostly who you are and to be responsive, which is turning towards, when I’m having a hard time, you care, when I’m having a good time, you care. And when those three things are happening, couples are able to create that interdependence with each other.


TS: OK. I noticed for whatever reason with the three R’s, and this may just be me, they felt a little abstract to me. I was trying to make them really real in my experience—


EE: Yes.


TS: —so I could remember them (and do them, God willing). So, help me with each one, make it very real in terms of behaviors, like, “These are the behaviors that demonstrate respect, Tami.”


EE: Yes. So one of the things I talk about is it needs to go in all ways, right? So if you’re in an interdependent relationship, you can respect yourself. So an example of that would be, let’s say that you have a partner who’s being in a way that is hurtful to you, you can respect yourself enough to say, “I don’t like this. I’m not going to be late to my work meeting because of the fact that you did X, Y, and Z. I’m going to respect myself here,” respecting them would look like doing the same for them, right? Saying, “I respect your time, I respect your needs, I respect your influence, I care about your opinions.” So that’s what respect looks like. Responsiveness, a very easy way to think about it is that turning away, turning towards, turning against stuff.

If your partner comes in and says, “Guess what? I just got a job promotion,” are you the type of partner that’s able to say, “Honey, that’s great. Tell me about it. What happened?” Just as much as if they come home and say, “I hate my boss,” can you say, “What happened?” Instead of “Well, I think your boss has a point there.” But you also need to be able to respond to yourself. So if you’re having a hard time, do you have space in your relationship to say, “I need to deal with what’s going on for me, I need to be able to talk it out, I need to be able to tend to myself.” And then reliability is commitment.

So the Gottman Institute talks about how important it is to have commitment, because if we don’t think our partner is going to be there for us, if we’re in a relationship where one day they’re all in and the next day they don’t text us back, where one week we’re together and the next day they say, “We’re going to get a divorce,” then we can’t trust enough to work on things together. But all of the methods talk about the same thing, right? If we’re looking at what Esther Perel talks about out, which is that reliability and commitment allow us to have space to actually process through things, to not be afraid, to not have anxiety. So that’s what all of those things play out like in a relationship.


TS: One of the things I read is that one of your areas of specialty is dealing with infidelity and betrayal. And I thought that was interesting because it seems to me once again, like that would be really hard, I would think. And I’m curious how you help couples once there’s been this breakdown of reliability? How do you help people trust again?


EE: Yes, it’s hard because the contract has been broken. When there’s infidelity, the contract was, “We’re not going to step outside of the relationship in that way.” After a contract is broken, then trust is very much changed. And so, you have to be really gentle with it. But we go through three phases when I work with people. The first is that we own up to the fact that we broke the contract and the person who broke it has to atone. So they work on offering remorse, they work on explaining what they learned from the situation, answering questions and listening, really taking time to hear the impact. That’s the hardest part. People in that situation, there’s a lot of shame, it’s painful, and they’ll often say, “How many more times do I have to hear this story?” And I sit with them and I say, “Look, I know it’s exhausting but you have to keep hearing it for a while because it needs to come out and it needs to receive responsiveness. The story needs to be responded to again and again and again, so that your partner can feel safe.”

So that’s the first stage. After that happens, once that partner who has been betrayed feels like their questions have been mostly answered, they’ve been able to share the story—I talk to them a lot about you can’t move the goal post, we have to get to good enough here so that we can move to the next stage—we move to attunement. And that’s where they both get to talk about what was happening before the affair, what was going on in the relationship that might have allowed that to have space. Was there not enough turning towards? Was there a stressful moment that you didn’t know how to navigate together? Were you feeling in some way neglected? And so they talk together about what was going on. Finally, in the last stage, they get to the point where they’re able to say, “OK, let’s recontract again. Here are the things that we’re going to do to rebuild this relationship in a new way”; and we call that stage “attachment.”


TS: OK. Just to ask you a mathematical question, I’m just curious. The couples you work with where there’s betrayal and infidelity, would you say—what percentage? Fifty percent—more than fifty percent?—are able to get to attachment and moving forward together or less than that?


EE: I would say more than fifty percent. Yes. Maybe like sixty percent or so. A good number of people who come in after infidelity, they do remain in their relationship. The times where that does not happen is when the other person continues to lie. So, people can almost always find a way to trust and recommit again if there’s just complete transparency and honesty. And sadly though, a lot of people will come in and they’ll say that they’re being transparent, and then two weeks later, and it breaks my heart, the partner comes in and says, “I found another email. I’ve asked you 80 times are there any other emails—you said, no. I found another email.” In those cases, it tends to be really challenging to move forward and people do end up breaking up.


TS: [Yes.] Now, Liz, I wanted to ask you a question about I Want This to Work, your new book, which is, I got the impression that—and this is based on a quote from the back cover of the book where it says, between 2008 and 2016 the divorce rate plummeted 18 percent. So, I got the impression—I Want This to Work—that perhaps people who are getting married, maybe people in their twenties and thirties, people who are getting married in the last couple of decades have more of an investment in having their relationships work and learning these skills, etc., than previously, in other times. Is that true? Is that part of what you’re seeing?


EE: Yes. And that’s where the title came from, is I see so many people come in and say like, “We’re really invested in making this work.” And both people coming in saying that it’s not that kind of old example of a couple where somebody’s pulling the other person in. I have people where they’re both coming in and they’re saying, “We really want this to work.” And I would love to hear if you have thoughts as well and theories, I think some of that comes from—so many of the people I work with grew up in families of divorce.

And so we have a lot of people in the millennial generation whose parents split up, and they’re very invested in trying to do it differently, which ends up being a huge motivator for them: “I don’t want to get divorced. I watched my parents argue, I watched them turn away from each other, I watched them not respect each other and accept influence, and I really want that to be different here.” And that seems to be something that is really pulling people towards maintaining their relationships. Also, people are getting married later. So, they are being very choosy with what they’re doing, and once they choose, they’re really invested in making sure that it works. I think that those are a couple of the reasons that that’s happening.


TS: Right. It makes sense, and I notice in hearing you describe that, I feel happy about that. I’m like—that’s so wonderful. It’s so wonderful that millennials feel that type of eagerness to invest, willingness to invest in. And this is something else you posit towards the beginning of the book, that, really what it is, it’s about learning skills.


EE: Yes.


TS: And I think, in a way, it’s a very simple idea, “Oh, there are these skills you need to learn.” But it puts relationships in a different category because, I think, often we think it has to be some type of soulmate chemistry or angels have to sprinkle dust on us. Not like—it’s skills, the same kind of skills it would take to be successful at something else in the world. I wonder if you can speak some about that. Is it just like learning other kinds of skills, but yet now they’re interpersonal?


EE: Yes. I mean, I think it’s a muscle, right? And we learn our relationship skills through observation. We watch how other people relate and we take it as our own and we don’t even know it. It’s not even conscious. But when we can start to consciously learn, “Oh, there’s a new way I could say this. And when I say it that way, it really changes the interaction,” or, “Maybe there’s something I’m doing here that’s making it hard for me to get close to this person, and here’s a few things that I could do that would really change that then we can become empowered.” And it’s like anything else. When I take a yoga class, I am always out of alignment because I don’t know how to hold my body the right way. And when the instructor comes over and it’s helpful to me and moves me to a way that I’ll feel more comfortable in an alignment, all of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh, that’s how it could feel. Now I know how to do it,” and then I can hold myself differently. And it’s the same with relationship skills.


TS: Now, here you are. You’re in your mid-30s. And this got my attention when I first picked up the book I Want This to Work. “Who is this Elizabeth Earnshaw? OK. I’m going to learn more about her. She looks really young. Here I am. I’ve been at this a long time. I still have a lot of skills I need to learn. Can she really help me? She’s so young, she’s in her mid-thirties.” How do you address that when couples come to you who are older than you and look at you and go, “Really?”


EE: Yes. It’s a good question and it is one that comes up a lot. The first move is always to be curious about that. We always talk about it. As a therapist, that’s my go-to, is “What’s your fear? I’m younger, and so tell me about what comes up for you.”


TS: “You don’t have enough experience.”


EE: Yes.


TS: “How good are you really at your relationship? How long have you even been doing it?”


EE: Yes.


TS: “I got married before you were even born.” I mean, whatever. Something like that.


EE: Yes. people could be my parents, all sorts of things. Everyone gives different answers. Some people say, “I don’t think you know enough,” some people say, “You’re the age of my daughter,” some people say, “Yes, you weren’t even alive when we got married,” and we explore that. But one thing I share with them is that I have worked with couples for over a decade and I’ve worked with hundreds of them of all ages, and that what I’ve seen is that the issues they present are consistent; and that I know the research, I know the skills that will help them, and I think that I can direct them and contain the situation enough to really help them move forward.

I also open up the allowance. They’re allowed to be concerned about that. And I say to them, “If at any point you feel like I’m not getting it because I’m too young, if at any point there’s some transference where you’re thinking, ‘This is like my daughter talking to us. Do I really have to listen to her?’ I hope that we can have a relationship where you can bring that up.” I use a lot of relational work with the people that I’m working with in their relationships.


TS: OK. Let me ask you a personal question, another one.


EE: I love it.


TS: Of all of the relationship skills you teach, which have been the hardest for you to really embody well in your own intimate relationship?


EE: I am a critical person. For me, I have had to learn how to express myself without being critical when I’m frustrated. I’m not naturally a critical person, but when I’m frustrated, that is my go-to. I get flooded. I get mean sometimes. And so, even though I know that criticism just kicks off this really unhealthy dynamic in a conversation, I use it sometimes. And my husband pairs well with me and he becomes defensive. Something that we are continually working on together is helping each other to learn to do it a little bit differently and to feel safe enough to do it a little bit differently. But yeah, my growing edge is that I’m working on the criticism.


TS: And what do you do when you have the criticism come up? What’s your shift?


EE: Yes. If I notice it in the moment—because sometimes I don’t—I own it immediately. I love to narrate what’s happening in my head. I’ll say things like, “Oh my gosh, I can tell I’m being ridiculous right now.” And I start narrating how I’m feeling instead. So I’ll say something like, “I’m just really enraged, and I don’t know what else to say, and I need to walk away right now.” I’ll stop it. I’ll narrate what’s happening for me instead of narrating what I think about him or what I think about the other person.

Once I get there, I’m a human. I don’t want to seem like I’m this god of relationships. Once I get there, I do apologize. And I think that that repair is so important. It’s almost, even if you can’t get rid of that unhealthy habit, if you can catch yourself and repair, it does so much for the security in the relationship. And so I apologize; I try it again. I ask for permission to get another chance to have the conversation, but it’s something I’m always working on.


TS: Now, that’s a very good tip to ask for a permission to do a do over kind of thing. That seems really important.


EE: Yes. And asking for permission around anything difficult makes that conversation go so much better. The other person already feeling like they’re being considered is pretty powerful. So, saying, “Honey, would it be okay if we tried that again?” Or, “Are you open to us talking about X, Y, and Z?” That disarms a person very powerfully.


TS: [Yes.] Now, you’ve founded a new company, it’s called Actually, a premarital wellness company. Tell me a little bit about that—premarital.


EE: Yes. So I’ve co-founded Actually with a couple other people and we are trying to make relational wellness mainstream. And so, we feel like starting prior to the relationship. So we know that people wait an average of six years to get help when they’re having a problem, but we want to make it feel normal to—not have problems—but to learn the skills that I talk about in the book. So you don’t have to wait until you’re in a fight to learn how to fight better. I would love for people to be learning that way in advance. So we’re starting with premarital, but we’re going to continually add on other programs for people to do proactive work around their relationship.


TS: There’s a quote on the Actually website, “In this famous Harvard study, the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” And I wonder if you can share a little bit more, this excited me, the connection between our physical health and a happy marriage.


EE: Yes. So the Harvard study found that people who are in happy relationships have better physical health, everything from heart health to risk of stroke, to risk of different types of cancer. All of those things are reduced. Those risks are reduced when we feel happy and safe in our relationships. And it makes sense. We’re animals that are meant to be in community with other animals, and when we are in safe relationships, our bodies are co-regulated. We can manage our stress differently because we feel like we can fall and somebody’s going to catch us. Life isn’t always scary. We don’t always have to have chaos and crisis and conflict. So in those safe relationships and because of the fact that they make you feel secure, you’re going to be taking really good care of your heart, you’re going to be taking really good care of all of those stress chemicals that get pumped through your body, and you’re going to feel happier and motivated to move, and to live, and to do all of those things that really matter.


TS: OK. There’s one more section of your new book I Want This to Work that I’d love to talk to you about. And it’s a section that’s called “Taking a Team Approach.” And I thought this was just important. Once again, it landed with me that when you as a couple have made a decision, for example, in favor of your partner’s preference, use the word “we” when you’re talking to outsiders. This is one example of taking a team approach. And I thought about that because I could think of all these different examples where my partner and I had talked about something. We had a different viewpoint, and when I shared it with other people, I definitely did not say, “We’ve decided this.” I said, “Look, because of my partner’s blah, blah, blah thing, we’re going to have to do it that way.” And I wonder if you can share more, what does it mean really to take a “we” approach? What are some good examples of when it’s important to do it?


EE: That was a good example […].


TS: I know! I saw it in myself. I saw it. I thought that I don’t do it. I throw them under the bus a little bit saying, “Because of this person’s special needs, we’re doing it this way.”


EE: Yes. And that is so common. You’re not alone with that. But what tends to happen is then the other person feels frustrated for being thrown under the bus and we’re going to do it sometimes, right? All of these things are things you don’t want to do chronically. So just a reminder, you do not have to be perfect. But when you take that team approach, you are then showing the outside world that you are a united front and you’re creating that attachment security within your relationship. When you start putting the other person, “Oh, the reason we’re not coming to Thanksgiving this year, mom, is because Andrew doesn’t really like the turkey that you make.”

When we start doing that, what starts to happen is we triangulate. And what triangulating means is that there’s three people in a situation, but there’s a weird mismanagement of energy there, where somebody might feel in conflict. My mom might then feel like, “Oh, well, why didn’t Andrew tell me this?” Or, “Why doesn’t he want my turkey?” And then Andrew and my mom are in—Andrew’s my husband, by the way—conflict. Instead of it just being, “You know what? We’ve decided that. In our little couple bubble, we have decided that this year we’re doing Thanksgiving in this way,” and it really creates a lot of safety and protection.


TS: OK. And then here’s another one in this section on having each other’s back in relationship. When your partner’s talking… I just keep outing myself. I have a confessional convention. That’s what it is. It’s… I don’t know. When your partner is talking about something or telling a story, don’t interrupt or correct them. And I thought, “Wow, don’t correct them? But what if it’s time to do a fact check here?” But no, and I can also see how it’s more respectful not to correct them, but yeah, it’s like, “OK, just let it slide. Really?”


EE: It kills you, right? So respect, going back to those three R’s, you don’t have to let things slide, right? But is there a way to address it when your partner isn’t going to be embarrassed, shut down in the moment? So if your partner is telling a story… And I can think of times I’ve done this, where we’ve been out and my husband’s telling a story about something we did and I’m like, “Don’t over exaggerate. That’s not what happened.” And then I’ve taken the wind out of his sails because he’s entertaining people with his story, or this is his memory, or whatever, and then everybody else around us is like, “Why isn’t Liz on Andrew’s [team]? What’s happening between Liz and Andrew? That’s awkward. What are we supposed to do here?”

Most of the time you don’t have to fix it, because what’s the matter? But if it’s really not factual, later on, in private, you could say, “Honey, what was that story earlier? You were telling people that we won $1000 at the slots last week, we did not win $1000. Why did you say that?” And you can work it out together as your united front. But you just want to be cautious about making your partner feel embarrassed in front of other people.


TS: Yes. No, I thought this was a good insight. In the same section on making sure you have each other’s back in relationship, you write about not allowing other people to be disrespectful of your partner. And I wonder what you would suggest if somebody said, “God, blah, blah, blah,” about Andrew, “He can really be difficult. Come on, how do you deal with it?” Something like that. What would you say in that kind of situation? Especially the person might even be saying something that seems right.


EE: Yes, I know.


TS: Yes. Kind of. But you’re right. What do you say?


EE: I think, obviously again, I like real human talk. I’m not going to tell you that you have to be fluffy and be like, “Oh, thank you for sharing your insight with me.” But I think that you can sidestep it. If it feels real to you, you might say something like, “I can hear where you’re coming from. And honestly, I don’t want to talk about Andrew right now.”

The other thing that—and this is for all relationships: people triangulate each other, which means that they have anxiety with another person, and they don’t want to deal it directly, so they put it into somebody else. So, if my friend comes to me—they’re annoyed with Andrew. Their anxiety is with him, but they’re putting it into me and they’re hoping that I’m going to relieve that for them by agreeing with them, or fixing Andrew for them, or whatever. That’s not a healthy dynamic for any of us to be in. So being able to step out of triangulation might sound like saying something like, “I can hear you on all of that and I really think you should talk to Andrew. I don’t know what I can do with this for you, but I think that if you contacted him, it might be a better conversation.” You can direct it back, but you don’t want to go into it and disrespect your partner behind their back.


TS: [Yes.] All right, Liz. So, you put a lot of time, energy intelligence, research studies and a whole lot of practices. I would say this book is a very readable and applicable toolbox, I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age. What’s your hope as people pick up this book and read it and think, “[Yes.]”—what’s your hope for the reader?


EE: Yes. I hope that for readers who are saying, “I really want this relationship to work,” maybe especially readers who aren’t sure how to go to therapy, don’t have access to it, don’t have a partner who’s interested in it, that they can open it up, and even if they don’t read it cover to cover that they can find little nuggets of things that they can just gently approach in their lives and start to use in their relationships so that they personally feel more empowered in trying to make their relationship work. Yes, so my biggest hope is just that it gives them something that they can do especially when they’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe hopeless, not sure what to do, they have some containment, they have some direction.


TS: Interesting. You said even if your partner might not be interested in doing the work, you could still pick up this book and start and get right into it. And one of the sentences you put in the book is, “Be the change you want to see in your relationship.” And I thought that was very powerful, that we could start embodying the change, just ourselves, even if our partner’s not reading every chapter with us and doing the exercises with us. Yes.


EE: Yes. It’s true. Once you start doing it, things will change. We don’t know which direction, but they will change in some direction.


TS: I’ve been talking with Elizabeth Earnshaw. She’s the author of the new book I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age. What a wise and humble young person you are, Liz.


EE: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here today. It was so nice to talk to you.

TS: Same. Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app, and also if you feel inspired head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.

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