Book Review: "Eight Dates" by Dr. John Gottman, et al.
Gottman, J., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D. & Abrams, R. C. (2019). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. Workman Publishing Co.
“Every great love story is a never-ending conversation” is both the first line of Eight Dates and a concise and inspiring summation of the pages to follow (p. 2). Love and relationships take vulnerability and curiosity, effort and commitment, trust and acceptance, and above all, making intimate conversations a priority. Foremost relationship experts, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman and co-authors Doug Abrams and Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD assert that not only long-lasting, but truly happy relationships, are predicated upon the regularity and quality of conversations that are best approached through a practice of skillful listening and sharing. The authors refer to the statistic that more than half of all marriages end in divorce. Despite these odds, they offer an optimistic and seemingly achievable objective: “The goal is to be able to love your partner more deeply each and every year you’re together” (p. 6). They maintain that through this practice couples can stay in love forever and they offer a compelling and detailed plan on exactly how to do just that. Eight Dates is an important guidebook for partners seeking to add to their repertoire more tools and advice to help them navigate through critical conversations that undeniably impact the longevity and happiness of any relationship. The authors do a particularly superb job at providing readers with an ample number of valuable questions for each date that would undoubtedly prompt a depth of self-reflection and mutual sharing. It is no wonder that so many couples who have gone on these dates report feel closer as a result (p.218).
The ideas and exercises that comprise the eight dates were derived from multiple sources. For over 40 years the Gottman Love Lab has collected data from thousands of couples who were observed, recorded, and interviewed, with their every word, tone, movement, and facial gesture analyzed in order to understand what couples most struggle with and what makes love last. The authors also collected feedback and stories from a diverse pool of 300 couples (married and unmarried, straight and queer) who volunteered to go on the dates outlined in the book. Lastly, the authors called upon their own experiences in long, loving relationships—the Gottmans have been married for over 30 years and the Abrams for over 25. Clearly the book’s ideas and advice are drawn from a massive knowledge base.
In terms of the book's organization, the introduction is significant to the subsequent chapters in that it prepares readers in how best to proceed through the eight dates. It addresses core truths and values regularly referred to in the book, such as: Differences between partners are normal, every relationship has conflict, accepting our partners for who they are is vital, couples who speak, think, and feel positively rather than negatively about their partner is the single-most determinative predictor of whether a marriage will succeed or fail, and happy couples make repairs with one another after fights and connect with one another on a daily basis. These form a strong foundation for what’s to come.
The authors round off the introduction with two sections of essential skill building. “The Four Skills of Intimate Conversation” includes instructions advising the sharer to state their feeling and why they might be feeling that way and the listener to ask open-ended questions, make exploratory statements, and express understanding and empathy towards their partner (pp. 28-33). “The Art of Listening” section advises readers who are in the listening role to be attentive (putting away all distractions and showing interest), to be present (emptying one’s mind from assumptions about what their partner might say next), to ask questions (embracing one’s curiosity and desire to understand their partner), to tune in (not dismissing or or trying to change their partner’s feelings), to witness (repeating back their partner’s feelings), to avoid judgment (refraining from criticizing or offering unsolicited advice), and to magnify acceptance (accepting and cherishing their partner) (pp. 34-36). While many readers will undoubtedly find these skill building sections to be indispensable, others may find them too mechanical and unnatural to follow to the letter. Still others could feel constricted by what may appear to be a list of rules that are so specific and numerous as to be unattainable.
The remainder of the book is organized into eight dates that the authors recommend all couples partake in no matter if they are just forming a relationship and in the process of deciding whether or not to commit long-term or if they’ve been together for decades. A date is simply defined as “a preplanned time where the two of you leave your work life and your work-in-the-home life and spend a set amount of time focusing on each other and really talking and listening to each other” (p. 22). The dates are organized by topic, one topic per chapter, based on the areas of relationship the authors have found to be most critical to building successful long-term relationships: trust and commitment, conflict, sex and intimacy, work and money, family, fun and adventure, growth and spirituality, and dreams.
The chapters are highly organized in a formulaic, self-help style that is easy to read and follow. Each begins with a short, intimate story of an actual couple who went on that date for the study and what came up for them. This is followed by additional teaching on the subject, one or two exercises, and a chapter summary. The exercises—which often consist of a rating scale or a series of statements where readers circle all that apply—are highly engaging and effective at encouraging healthy self-reflection around one’s history, feelings, and values in relationship. Many of the exercises are filled with a plethora of useful examples whether that is a list of fun things to do together, common differences between partners, suggested rituals of connection, or affirmations one can give to one’s partner. Finally, the chapter concludes with guidelines and suggestions for the date itself and an affirmation partners are advised to read to one another.
In terms of the merits of the content explored, there are gems of truths and advice dotted throughout the book. For example, the authors’ encouragement of couples to cherish one another, to make their relationship a priority, and to be vulnerable as “vulnerability creates trust, and trust is the oxygen your relationship needs to breath” are just some of the riches offered (p. 50). Additionally, ideas such as: Mutual understanding is the ideal goal of conflict, playfulness and humor are necessary ingredients to a healthy and happy relationship, and “amazing things happen in relationships when a couple can grow and change and accommodate the growth of the other person” are priceless (p. 186).
Potential gaps in the book center primarily around the chapter on conflict. While the recommended date questions for this chapter, which center around learning more about each partner’s conflict styles and their origins in childhood, as well as the authors’ discussion of differences, are commendable, their strong bias towards acceptance falls short in helping partners truly work through their differences and the conflicts that ensue. “At the core of managing conflict … is accepting your partner for who they are. When you accept what you can’t change, you accept each other” (p. 74). While acceptance is a necessary and beneficial attitude to have in relationship, when it is impulsively adopted without further consideration, it can lead to resignation, disempowerment, and even hopelessness around the possibility of making any changes in one’s relationship. It can tie up the hands of partners who do not yet have the skills to work through conflict effectively and this can breed destructive resentment underneath.
What follows is only a sparse explanation concerning extended conflict. The authors discuss what they call “gridlock” which occurs when couples continue to fight ad nauseam about their differences, rightly suggesting that “conflict can bring you closer” if partners are willing to seek understanding of one another rather than seeing each other as the enemy (pp. 74-75). However, they overlook that many couples are unable to work through conflict effectively without more help than simply encouraging them to be understanding. Similarly, there are only two pages devoted to fighting fair and repairing relationship after particularly damaging fights and an additional two pages to triggers which they define as “old, enduring vulnerabilities that occurred before this relationship began and have left emotional scars that can get activated” (p. 83). Getting triggered is incredibly common even for otherwise happy couples and working with triggers is a monumental and crucial task for partners both individually and collectively. To be fair, this book does not have the objective of addressing triggers or conflict in a comprehensive way, however it still communicates an overly simplified perspective towards prolonged difficulties through the minimal time it spends dedicated to such critical and weighty subjects.
Additionally, when the authors say, “You have to be brave enough not to hide parts of yourself” they fail to address the fact that many individuals in relationships—even in happy ones—do not feel free to be their authentic selves at all times. This complication risks causing readers to question their ability to adhere to the standards set forth while also remaining true to themselves and not mistakenly regard themselves a failure if they are unable to always achieve both.
While Eight Dates is an invaluable read for all who are moved to seek out a lifetime of love, it should be used in conjunction with other relationship manuals to round out what’s truly needed to navigate the complex world of romantic relationships.
California Institute of Integral Studies