How is your relationship with your partner going? Are you feeling connected, loved and having fun together, or do you find yourself arguing and never coming to a compromise? When was the last time you actually sat back and thought about whether your relationship was working for you? Have you ever considered what it takes to make a relationship work? Well, this month we are going to be looking at the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman, PH.D. and Nan Silver.
Let’s get started. What makes a relationship work? According to John M Gottman PH.D. the heart of any relationship is a deep friendship, meaning there is mutual respect for one another, and enjoyment of each other’s company. Each person knows the other’s likes and dislikes, their quirks, hopes and dreams. They also express their fondness not necessarily in significant ways but by doing small things during the day.
Why is having a friendship so important to the health of your relationship? Well, life is going to happen and there are going to be days that we may not like our partner too much. You know those days. Yet because of the friendship we have with our partner, we build what is called a “positive sentiment override.” This means the positive thoughts we have about our partner and our relationship, supersede any negative thoughts that may arise. For example, your partner is annoyed and snaps at you. You realize that work has been stressful, they have not been sleeping well and are most probably just tired and irritable. You are not snapping back saying “what did I do wrong?”
As partners get to know each other and bond, they actively construct what John Gottman, Ph.D. refers to as the Sound Relationship House. They compose many floors and levels within this house, which comprise the seven principles that we will be discussing over the following weeks. Trust and commitment form the walls of this house and are indispensable for the success of love. According to John Gottman, Ph.D., assuming the best in our partners, acknowledging their perspectives, showing empathy, and being attuned to their feelings are the characteristics that establish trust.
When we develop a friendship with our partner, it certainly does not mean that we will never argue. There will still be arguments, but what these couples are able to do is make sure the arguments do not get out of hand. Apparently, this is the secret weapon for relationships; the repair attempt, meaning any statement or action, whether it is silly or otherwise, stops the argument from escalating. It could be a joke, or saying “hey I am sorry I just got upset then”.
One last thing I want to discuss, which is so important in any relationship is The Four Horseman, yes criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. When these turn up in any relationship it could lead to resentment, anger and eventually separation.
We all have complaints about our partners. But when we start to criticize, it will cause our partners to become defensive. That is when arguments can start to happen. So instead of criticizing we can complain, which focuses on a specific behavior or event. It goes like this (1) How I feel (I’m really angry) (2) About a specific situation (you did not fill the car with gas) (3) when I need to (would you mind filling it up today). Instead of “why do you never remember to do anything? I have told you a thousand times to fill the car up with gas, but do you ever remember?
Contempt is on the other end of the spectrum of criticism. This is when we start to become sarcastic, eye-rolling or sneering at our partner. In a relationship this is where we develop a sense of superiority over our partner and it leads to being disrespectful. Long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner fuel contempt. This is one of the leading causes of separation and divorce. So how do we stop our contempt for our partner? The antidote is simply to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and find gratitude for their actions.
Defensiveness is a result of criticism and contempt and it is where we are trying to defend ourselves, but at the same time take none of the responsibility for what has occurred. Let’s face it, in any argument we can find something that we can take responsibility for and apologize for it.
At the other end of the spectrum is stonewalling which is where after experiencing criticism and contempt we end up just tuning a person out and stop responding. We are no longer defensive but just shut down when our partner is talking to us. This is also a way that we self-soothe, going into ourselves and blocking out the world. A way to combat this is to try and self-soothe in a more positive way such as using mindfulness techniques, taking a break and then coming back and talking about the issue, exercising, or distracting yourself until you are feeling calmer.