Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: My girlfriend is a bonafide social media influencer with nearly half a million followers who regularly profess their love for her on her Instagram profile. I’m a barista at a coffee shop and not on social media. I met her before she became an overnight sensation. While her fame has inflated her ego to some extent, I still love and hope to marry her. Being an influencer is essentially her occupation, and it’s also what she loves. But it makes me jealous and insecure. I’ve tried to pretend that I’m unbothered, but I get paranoid every time she’s on her phone. Do I have to just suck it up and deal with it, or is there a way to get past my insecurities? -K.I.
A: It sounds like the love of your life is trending while you’re feeling like you don’t have much influence at all.
When a partner becomes highly invested in a career, the other can experience a feeling akin to being abandoned for another love. Throw in a preoccupation with sudden unprecedented success, being glued to a smartphone, and even a slightly inflated ego, and the other partner can begin to really feel betrayed.
Most likely, neither of you imagined that her career dreams would come true so soon. For her, this kind of success and recognition can almost feel like giving birth to a baby she’s always wanted. Without knowing it, her need to protect and nurture this newborn could gradually or even quickly become the center of her world, drawing attention away from you and your relationship.
Because she has become a celebrity of sorts, and receives so much attention from others, your feelings of insecurity and paranoia are understandable. If her career path continues as she hopes, you may continue to feel those feelings, so you need to let her know them now.
If you avoid telling her how you’re feeling, you will likely become more and more resentful over time. I recommend you use a technique called “gentle startup” to discuss your concern.
Leading marriage experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman have developed a technique called “gentle startup” to help people express concerns to their partners without blaming them. The technique was developed in response to research that tells us that the first three minutes of any discussion predicts how the rest of the discussion will go. A conversation that begins on a negative note will likely end that way. Using “gentle startup” helps partners avoid criticizing or blaming one another as they express concerns.
How do you do it? Start your conversation with this language: “I feel________, about________, and I need ________.”
In contrast to “gentle startups,” “harsh startups” often involve accusatory statements like “you,” “you always,” or “you never,” and leave partners feeling attacked or criticized. Avoid using a “harsh startup” like, “You are always on your phone. God knows who you’re texting and what you are up to!”
Instead, use a “gentle startup,” and say, “I feel kind of insecure and even a little paranoid when you text so much. I need for us to put away our phones when we spend time together and focus on each other.” If your partner becomes defensive, say to her, “Look, I am just telling you how I feel in reaction to what you are doing and what would make me feel a bit better.
Using a gentle startup is a good place to start.
More than likely, if your girlfriend remains a celebrity and you stay together and marry, this issue will resurface. Your issue is one that the Gottmans have coined a “gridlocked perpetual problem”
“Perpetual” meaning it’s one of those problems in a relationship where you both will always have at least somewhat different perspectives. After all, you’re both individuals with separate sets of feelings, needs, stories, wounds, and dreams. For example, she may experience the attention she receives as positive for a number of reasons, while you continue to feel as if it interferes with your sense of closeness.
“Gridlocked” meaning it’s a sensitive issue, that’s hard to talk about, and you both feel stuck.
When it comes to marriage, Dr. John Gottman’s research found that 69 percent of the problems that arise between partners are perpetual. It’s only 31 percent of problems that are straightforward or easily solved.He also found that about 15 percent of perpetual problems are typically gridlocked. The lesson here is that you’re not alone! That’s just how relationships work.
Your challenge is to continue to talk to each other about this very important gridlocked perpetual problem, which involves work-life balance and affects your sense of connection to one another.
When you discuss this problem, or any perpetual problem, try to establish a comfortable dialogue with one another.
Pick a time and place where you will be relaxed and have privacy.
Approach the discussion with care, almost like you are both diplomats.
Take turns, one at time, sharing your individual perspectives, i.e. where are you coming from and why. Each person should talk for about 15 minutes or so, while the other listens. Then switch roles.
As you each describe your position on the issue, talk about your feelings, needs, fears, stories, and dreams related to the topic.
As you listen to your partner, try to relate, even if your perspective is different. Try to convey what you relate to. Ask questions that help your partner to elaborate. Try to understand your partner with more depth.
Think of these conversations like passing a ball back and forth without accusing the other of being the problem. Instead, you both describe and understand what the ball looks like to one another.
With most gridlocked perpetual problems, partners need to have ongoing discussions before they can figure out a compromise or way of handling the issue that feels okay to both of them.
People only change and compromise when they feel valued and accepted. You both need to first understand each other’s perspective and to feel understood. Only then will you be able to work together to find a way to balance your work and personal lives that preserves the connection between you.
It’s not uncommon for couples to need the help of a good therapist to learn the skills to turn a gridlocked issue into a healthy dialogue. You can find one here.
More from Asking for a Friend here.