Kristen Bell, known for her slapstick humor and lovable flaws in films such as Bad Moms and her TV show The Good Place, isn't the first person you would think to go to for serious relationship advice. But in her recent interview with US Weekly, she shed a surprising light on her marriage. Turns out, her union to actor Dax Shepard is a lot like the rest of our marriages.
Bell has been open about the challenges in her four-year marriage, advocating the benefits of marriage therapy and the rewards of doing the work. She doesn't sugarcoat her relationship but says that she has learned the secret to happiness despite perpetual problems. According to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, perpetual problems are either fundamental differences in your personalities or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs that a couple will return to over and over again. Sound familiar?
Every couple has perpetual problems, even funny and adorable celebrity couples, but what matters is how you deal with them. And that is what Bell and Shepard have seem to have figured out.
Practicing empathy when you would rather make a point, Bell says is the secret sauce to their marital success. "I do disagree with him on 90 percent of the issues on the planet,” Bell admits. “But we have really wonderful, intense valued conversations about things, and I always see his point, even if I disagree. It’s hard to do.”
Gottman describes empathy “as mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know that their feelings are understood and shared” and “the key to attunement” with your spouse. As Bell can attest, empathy takes work but you can become masters with practice. Zach Brittle, therapist and co-founder of ForBetter.com shares the three steps to empathetic listening:
01. Commit to active listening: set aside time to practice really hearing what your partner has to say.
02. Avoid judgement or giving advice: This is the hard part, especially when you disagree. Brittle offers a helpful tip: Practice listening as though you’re planning to write a novel in which your partner is both the protagonist and the narrator. How might that change what you hear?
03. Be a witness: Brittle shares that it's helpful to reflect back what your partner has said to help put yourself in their shoes and really understand. It may mean asking follow-up questions like “Help me understand that a little better.”
Beware of contempt.
You would think that if you love someone, respect would come easily. But for many couples dealing with perpetual problems, it's harder than you might think. "It is not easy to work around another human being," Bell relates in her interview, "but if you commit to it, you can pretty much permanently respect that person...then it doesn’t really matter if you disagree because you still respect that person."
According to Dr. Gottman, contempt or the feeling of superiority that one partner has toward the other, is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” behaviors that will kill happiness in a relationship if left unchecked. This is a common conflict behavior for couples, but it is critical that you recognize them and reign them in. Bell gets this. "It’s all about contempt. Never roll your eyes at someone,” she warns in Us.
There is one thing that Bell does get wrong (I mean, she isn't claiming to be an expert). Bell goes on to say, "You might as well break up right then," if contempt does show up. But this isn't necessarily the case. According to the Gottman Relationship blog, the cure for contempt is building a culture of admiration, affirmation, and fondness in your relationship. Couples who commit to this can have a happy marriage too!
Bell goes on to say, "I’m telling you—I disagree with him on almost everything, but I have intense respect for his critical thinking skills and the fact that we were raised differently." So I guess she naturally gets the whole admiration and affirmation thing, which is also just really cute.