In Gottman couples therapy, the Stress Reducing Conversation is a bedrock intervention. What makes it unusual is that it is perhaps the only Gottman intervention which deliberately avoids marital issues.
Its fundamental purpose is to afford couples a pathway to reducing workplace stress, and other external stressors. Workplace stress has emerged as a top-tier marital stressor as the COVID pandemic, and other social issues, continue to unravel.In a previous post, I discussed the jobs that are the most divorce-prone. But in this post, I want to cover some pre-COVID research which has identified the 4 fundamental characteristics of particularly depressing jobs.
The most depressing jobs involve:
- Frequent or complex interactions with the general public
- Direct emotional labor
- Higher risks of conflict with others
- Careers which intrinsically require managing interpersonal conflict and/or promotes poor work/life balance
The researchers also identified 4 additional aggravating factors which also contributed to job-related depression:
- Little to no control over your work schedule and working conditions
- Relative immobility during work hours; a lack of physical movement
- Ongoing marital stress from work/life balance conflicts between career and family values
- Hard work for sub par compensation
Stressful jobs and how a Stress Reducing Conversation helps
Depressing jobs cut across class. According to Wulsin (2014), these are the 17 jobs with the highest depression rates:
- Transportation drivers
- Real estate agents
- Manufacturer reps
- Personal service providers such as gig workers
- Customer service for membership organizations
- Stock brokers and commodity traders
- Printers and publishers
- Agricultural services
- Front-line big-ticket retail sales
- Electric, gas, and sanitation workers
- Specialized trade contractors
- Petroleum and coal workers
- General merchandise customer-facing retail sales
- Automotive mechanics
What makes a job depressing?
Jean Paul Sartre said it best: ”Hell is other people.”
What is emotional labor? Jobs which require skill at emotional self-regulation during serial encounters with the general public are said to require emotional labor.
The highest levels of depression were found in industries with the most emotional labor and workplace conflict…and these jobs overwhelmingly involve regular encounters with the general public.
This was also true of the jobs which were the most divorce prone. Most of those jobs also involved emotional labor and complex workplace interactions.
But in the wake of COVID, the stress of dealing with the public reached the breaking point for many. This might be the ‘X” factor that partially explains why COVID took such a devastating toll on American marriages.
That’s why understanding the merits of having a Stress Reducing Conversation with your spouse has never been more urgent. A supportive spouse has proven to be a key factor in keeping depression at bay, but an unsupportive spouse can be an aggravating factor.
Remember this is a specific, focused effort that will increase your relational resilience. The whole point of a Stress Reducing Conversation is for both you and your partner to feel supported while reducing stress.
A Stress Reducing Conversation is not supposed to do anything else, or serve any other purpose.
A Stress Reducing Conversation is externalized…
The Stress Reducing Conversation is specifically designed for external stressors…and for most people, workplace stress is the most intrusive external stressor.
The role of the speaker is to simply report the external emotional stressors while scrupulously avoiding even the appearance of criticizing the listener.
The speaker should avoid expanding the discussion of their emotional upset to include any marital issues, however trivial.
Keep the conversation focused…there is only one goal for a Stress Reducing Conversation…reducing stress.
The listener doesn’t often interrupt. The speaker is encouraged to speak in paragraphs. The listener bestows attention. They hold eye contact. They nod. They may grunt affirmations, or blurt brief validations.
They may also eventually ask brief, deep questions..with few if any comments. If the speaker is speaking 80-90% of the time, that’s a good sign that the Stress Reducing Conversation is on track.
How the conversation might fail…
Gottman reminds us that the greatest impediment to a successful Stress Reducing Conversation is the tendency to offer problem-solving advice. This is a bad conversational habit which tends to afflict men more than women.
Men are socialized to price action over process.They sometimes tend to become irritated with discussing `feelings,' and may burden their stressed partners with unsolicited advice.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with having a problem solving conversation. One of Dr. Wolfe’s findings when he researched marital satisfaction was the discovery that men are happy when their wives join them in pragmatic problem solving.
Just remember to process emotions first… then get permission to collaboratively problem-solve. This is a teachable skill. We can help you with that.
The essential skills required in a Stress Reducing Conversation
One of the benefits of repeated efforts at a Stress Reducing Conversation is that you will deepen your understanding of your partner’s emotional world. Gottman calls this accrued knowledge a “Love Map.”
Another benefit of regular Stress Reducing Conversations is that it helps to restore a couples’ friendship system.
Here are 6 essential steps for having an effective Stress Reducing Conversation:
- Take turns as speaker and listener. A Stress reducing Conversation is a shared experience, so make sure you take turns.
- Validate…Validate…Validate. Remember the Stress reducing Conversation is only about reducing stress. Validate your partners’ emotions first.
- Show encouragement and affection. Be a united front. Don’t be “reasonable,” or play the devil’s advocate. The only way for your partner to reduce their stress is to luxuriate in the feeling of being loved and supported by you while they kvetch.
- Do not divide your attention. Don’t be a lazy listener. This is not ordinary listening, so put your phone away, or better yet, turn it off. Keep your focus on your partner. It’s your focused attention that is the superhighway toward their stress reduction.
- Show that you get it. Hold eye contact, nod, grunt affirmatively. Remember this is a reality-free zone. You are helping your partner to feel emotionally supported, period. For bonus points, ask really good questions that invite your partner to explore their feelings even more deeply.
- If appropriate, ask for permission to pivot to problem solving. Neuroscience tells us that we can “prime the pump” for problem solving by offering it as a permission-based possibility. After you’ve heard their feelings, and they are feeling supported, say something like “I’m sure you’ve given this a lot of thought. If you ever want to put on our thinking caps and dive into this in a problem-solving way please let me know…”
Final thoughts about workplace stress and intimacy
I’ve noticed a marked increase in workplace stress among my couples therapy clients, and a corresponding inclination for them to ignore it.
Some men have told me that discussing their work stress would be tantamount to bringing the worst aspects of their work home. The guy code, as usual, complicates things. Men are expected to “handle” their emotions in a solitary fashion.
I have often needed to emphasize to these men the brevity of the Stress Reducing Conversation…and its singular focus.
When the Gottman protocol is followed correctly, a Stress Reducing Conversation is a brief, powerful intervention which can offer couples a buffer against a working world that, for many, hardly works anymore.
Remember that your relationship can be a fortress for well-being and emotional support. Don’t ignore workplace stress. Have a soothing Stress Reducing Conversation instead.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
Wulsin, L., Alterman, T., Timothy Bushnell, P. et al. Prevalence rates for depression by industry: a claims database analysis. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 49, 1805–1821 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-014-0891-3