Can a marriage therapist be a superstar? With seven books (and counting), psychologist Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, is proof positive.
You might say she was born to it. “My family had a fair number of problems, and from about 8 years old, I seemed to be the designated therapist onsite,” recalls Gottman with a laugh.
I spoke to her on the phone while she was at home on Orcas Island, north of Seattle, where she lives with her husband of 34 years, John Gottman, PhD. He’s the other half of the founding team of the renowned Gottman Institute.
“I really enjoyed listening,” she continues. “I was shy and withdrawn as a kid and didn’t have a lot of friends. But I seemed to take on a ‘caseload’ — kids with problems sought me out, and I tried to listen and be as empathetic as I could.”
Then tragedy struck: Gottman contracted polio. It left her with a paralyzed leg for several years — and lots of time for reading. A slow, difficult recovery ensued, and she came out of the experience with a reputation for academic excellence.
“So, I went to India and spent a year traveling, working in Kolkata feeding kids. One night, I was sitting on a train. There was a single light on the platform, and a boy in rags came into that circle of light, using a crutch. He had one leg. He passed through the light and into the shadows. His alone-ness, his deprivation, his poverty struck me. I’d grown up with all the food I needed, a heated home, great privilege, college — Disneyland, essentially.”
The experience threw her into an existential crisis. “How could I justify my existence? If you think about the idea ‘Of those to whom much is given much is required,’ how could I give as much back?
“After furious writing and thinking, I concluded that helping as many people as I can with whatever counseling skills I developed would be my way to give back all the world has given me. But even with all the opportunities for sharing what I know, it only equals giving back the tiniest amount compared with all I’ve been given.”
Here, she shares a few ways she stays grounded and connected.
“I came from a very athletic family, and before I got polio I participated in a lot of sports. Recovering from being paralyzed gives you a lifelong appreciation for the power of your body and the movement of your muscles, and you never take that for granted again.”
Rituals of Connection
“John and I have breakfast and dinner together every day. We have our little rituals — John makes the coffee, we sit at our kitchen island, we watch the birds. Then we are off to our separate offices. In the evening we meet again for dinner and connect about what’s on our minds, what’s in our hearts. We recommend these ‘rituals of connection,’ as we call them, for couples — finding ways to continue to connect in predictable ways that feel meaningful for both of the people. It’s a great way to feel grounded in the day, and then later wind down for the evening.”
“I’ve had many injuries over the years — two replaced knees, seven herniated discs, and shoulder surgeries. I have to be diligent about keeping my muscles strong. I even had COVID twice, and I’ve had to build up my lungs again with that, too. So, I listen to Sara Bareilles and work out with weights in a tiny basement room nearly every day.”