Kalen and Kari Hammann of Largo enjoy a closer relationship because of techniques and habits that Kalen now teaches other married couples as a “relating coach.”
LARGO – Kalen Hammann’s quest to discover how couples interact and build happy relationships began in his childhood.
Ironically, Hammann isn’t the type of psychologist who makes a habit of delving deeply into his clients’ past. But his parents’ divorce, which happened when he was 4, had a profound impact on him.
“It never made any sense to me at all that two loving, well-meaning people couldn’t make it,” he explained. “I wanted to understand what goes on with people. I wanted to find ways to help people connect better with each other.”
The pursuit drove him into the field of social psychology. He had earned a doctorate in the study from the University of Michigan and operated a private practice in Massachusetts for about 16 years, counseling couples and families. He had learned some things that were useful, he said, but it wasn’t enough.
“Sometimes it was very helpful, but I didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing. Sometimes it wasn’t as helpful as I’d liked it to be,” Hammann said.
His career changed to working with business executive teams, teaching skills like win-win negotiating, effective team leadership and empowering management. Though he was teaching others to build better relationships, the knowledge hadn’t penetrated into his own marriage with his second wife, Kari, whom he wed in 1980.
“It was going along OK, like a lot of marriages … Every so often we would have horrible fights, but mostly not,” Hammann said.
He described the relationship as cordial, but with a problem at its foundation.
“We had gotten into living parallel lives,” he said.
About a year ago, Hammann, who currently lives in Largo, stumbled onto the research of psychologist John Gottman. The result was a shift in thinking that not only promoted him to return to counseling couples, but has improved his own marriage.
“Since learning and applying what I now teach, we’re connected again,” Hammann said. “Our marriage has gotten a whole lot more satisfying.”
Gottman’s work focuses on developing habits practiced by couples who actively build long, satisfying relationships. Through observing married couples and tracking their long-term progress, Gottman learned to pinpoint behaviors that were consistent in relationships that eventually ended in divorce, to the point where he could predict the couple’s fate with a high degree of accuracy.
“And that caught my attention,” Hammann said.
Gottman postulates that strong predictors of divorce include the existence of contempt and criticism of a partner’s personality. How a couple handled conflict and differences determined their long-term fate. Happy couples were gentle with each other by framing a request for change in a positive light instead of harsh words. They also took responsibility rather than acting defensively.
Using this perspective, Hammann now sees himself as what he calls “a relating coach,” instead of a therapist or a counselor.
“I’m not just teaching communication skills. I’m not just helping people deal with the emotional burdens of their past,” he said. “I think a lot of reasons couples are unhappy is not because of some longstanding pain from their relationship with their mother or their father, but because they don’t have the habits of doing the things that will work.”
Now, Hammann helps develop positive habits, just like a coach helping somebody learn to swim. His practice, based out of his home in Largo, is a departure from how he described his methods in the 1960s, when he was a “hippie therapist.”
“I figured, if you get all of the harshness and conflict out of the relationship, then health will naturally emerge,” he said. “I thought my job was to be a super problem solver. People would bring me their problems, and I would solve them and then they would go off and be happy.”
But building a relationship means developing the capacity to be more effective together, he said. Graceful ways to handle conflict are not difficult to understand; they’re just not patterns of behaviors that most people are used to.
“Most don’t have models for that unless we happen to be children of a really happy marriage, where people invented it on their own,” Hammann said.
Just as important as dealing with conflict is actively building friendship and doing things that build a positive atmosphere, he said. That involves asking open-ended questions that help people “map their tpartners’ internal world” and expressing fondness and appreciation of each other.
“When Kari started saying ‘thank you’ for taking out the garbage, it felt really good. And when I would thank her for cooking a really good dinner or for something she was doing in her job, that felt good to her,” Hammann said. “It’s not rocket science, but it makes a huge difference.”
The difference comes out in little ways that leave a huge impression. Hammann reflected on a specific moment in which his wife stopped him as he was rushing out the door, just to say “I love you.”
“The level of warmth and love her voice and in her eyes, that’s new,” he said. “That would not have happened three years ago.”
Underneath the surface of many conflicts and misunderstandings is the sentiment that the other partner must not care on some level, Hammann said. However, most people don’t express such vulnerability and if they do, their partner usually only knows how to respond with a defensive, “Of course I do!”
“Partners don’t think of saying, ‘What is it that gave you that impression? Because of course I do (care), and I want you to know it. In what language could I express that to you?’ That’s not the way people talk,” Hammann said. “But it’s one of the things that I help people learn how to do.”
Hammann said he isn’t specially trained to deal with bigger problems that might be plaguing a couple, anything from addictions to serious past abuse. If deep emotional pain comes up, it can be dealt with, but it’s not the focus.
In fact, for most couples, developing a happy, satisfying relationship is not as hard as the culture makes it seem, Hammann said.
“When you get married, what you’re doing is choosing the set of perpetual problems that you’ll be living with for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” he said.
Happy couples understand that and are much more relaxed about tackling those issues by looking for ways to operate together, despite their differences, he said. They develop little ways to connect and keep at it, like tending a garden.
“A lot of what the happy couples do, a lot, are the things that almost all couples do when they’re dating. You know you don’t know the person, so you’re interested,” he said. “After people have been married for a year, two years, three years, they stop asking questions like that because they think they know each other.”
One of Hammann’s own clients summed it up nicely, he said. The woman and her husband live in Pass-A-Grille and often make an effort to watch the sunset. Thinking you know your partner after many years is like concluding that since you’ve seen sunsets before and know for a fact that the sun descends beyond the horizon every day, that there’s no reason to watch them anymore. But you couldn’t be more wrong, she said.
“If you really watch, if you’re really there, the sunset is different every single day. If you’re really present, your partner is different every single day,” Hammann said. “It’s tremendously satisfying for both people if you keep exploring that, if you keep discovering each other.”
For more about John Gottman and the Gottman Institute, visit www.gottman.com. Hammann, trained and certified in Gottman Method Therapy, hosts periodic local workshops as well as one-on-one couple counseling. Call him at 733-2178.