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Marriage and Shamu the Whale

Michael Basta

After two days in a retreat with relationship experts, John and Julie Gottman and my talented group of Gottman Master Trainer colleagues on Orcas Island, it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept of one partner training the other in an intimate relationship as a trainer would with an exotic animal. First of all, we had gone out on an boat trip together the previous year to see beautiful Orca Whales. We learned that bad things had happened to these beautiful creatures when they were captured and kept in places like Seaworld. Secondly, as a Gottman therapist I see the value in incremental behavior change ("small things often"), but where is the friendship, emotional connection, mutually respectful management of conflict, making life dreams come true, and shared meaning in the training of one's partner like an animal in captivity.

I was introduced to What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage from a colleague who said that the 2006 New York Times article inspired his work with couples. Despite my skepticism, I not only read the article, but see the sense in it. This is how I wrap my perspective on couples (based upon the research and theories of the Gottman's) around "Shamu". First of all, Gottman's research shows us that 69% of all couples problems are perpetual (meaning they are not solvable because they are based in personality differences). The author of "Shamu", Maureen Dowd, notes that nagging and arguing about behaviors that are part of her partner's personality, such as being forgetful, often late, or messy, leads to greater conflict and disconnection. On the other hand, as we have been trained as Gottman therapists, being mindful of the times that one's partner remembers, comes on time, or cleans up, and then expressing appreciation for these actions, is predictably more likely to be a winning strategy for closeness and conflict management. Moreover, stopping and taking a breath (and being aware of the underlying emotion that one's partner feels) rather than offering advice or platitudes will likely work better than the alternative when one's partner is distressed. 

Michael Basta, LCSW, Gottman Method Couples Therapist (and sea mammal advocate)

Click Here to read the article.