Michael Fulwiler is the Chief Marketing Officer of The Gottman Institute, the world’s leading relationship well-being company. He’s spent the last seven years helping millions of people have healthier relationships through science.
We asked Michael a few questions about his experience with heartbreak and he shared how understanding what relationships work has helped him stay #onthemend.
If you think back to the first time you were heartbroken, what advice would you give to that younger version of yourself?
This too shall pass. When you’re heartbroken, especially when you’re young, it’s really hard to have perspective on the situation because it feels like the world is ending. It’s not. You’ll live, I promise. Give yourself time to heal. It’s a process that won’t happen overnight.
I would also tell myself to get out of bad relationships sooner, which is advice from John Gottman. Have high standards for yourself and how you’re treated, because if your partner isn’t treating you well, someone else will. You deserve that.
What has heartbreak taught you about yourself?
It’s taught me what I want and don’t want in a partner, and ultimately in a relationship. If we can see breakups as an opportunity to learn instead of as a failure, it helps to turn pain and heartbreak into something more productive.
In that way, heartbreak has also taught me to be more curious in dating. I have a sense of what I’m looking for, and I seek out those qualities in someone else. That doesn’t mean I’m looking for someone with similar interests. Research by Eli Finkel and Samantha Joel shows that no two preferences predict whether people will actually like each other when they meet. Instead, look for someone that you find interesting.
What are your rituals during a breakup? What things/practices/people helped you mend?
Understanding what makes relationships work (and not work) has helped me mend. I read everything I can get my hands on. When I look back at my past relationships, knowing what I do now, I can identify certain destructive patterns and behaviors on both sides.
Probably the most famous concept that we teach at The Gottman Institute is the Four Horsemen, which predict a breakup with more than 90% accuracy. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This knowledge has not only helped me process my breakups and move on, but it’s also better prepared me for future relationships. So I would encourage everyone to learn about the research on love.
Thinking back to breakups you’ve had, did you have any breakup vices (checking your ex’s Insta, etc) and how do you conquer them?
Who doesn’t check their ex’s social media after a breakup? I’m certainly guilty of it. It’s okay to unfollow, unfriend, or block them. Certified Gottman Therapist Laura Heck recommends a “six-month break from your ex by mutually unfriending one another on social accounts.”
Remember that social media is not an accurate depiction of real life. Your ex probably isn’t as happy as they look on Instagram, so it’s not worth obsessing over. Focus on yourself instead.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about love so far in your life?
I’ve learned that you can’t force love and you can’t convince someone to be with you. I’ve always been a romantic so this was a tough lesson for me. Mark Groves says, “It’s okay to fight for someone who loves you. It’s not okay to fight for someone to love you. There’s a huge difference.” I wasted a lot of time and energy when I was younger trying to convince an ex to get back together after a breakup.
I’ve learned that love is all about the small, everyday moments. In relationships, people are constantly making what we call bids for connection. I pay attention, and I put my phone away when I’m at the dinner table.
I’ve learned to understand and empathize before giving advice. This was a difficult one for me because, as a man, my first reaction is to problem solve. Instead, I just listen and ask, “What do you need?” It goes a long way.