Jun 20 • 15M

Here's what you need for a successful relationship | Just reflections #48

The overarching feature that characterises good relationships is that they’re very gentle with one another. They think about what they are going to say. They care about their partner's feelings.

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There are many traits that can lead to the collapse of a relationship; poor communication, conflicts about money or in-laws, a dispassionate sex life and a lack of emotional intimacy, to name a few. But if I asked you to give only one that’s sure to lead to the collapse of any relationship invariably, what would it be? Well, Dr John Gottman has the answer.

If you could only take relationship advice from one person, then Dr John Gottman is undoubtedly the best choice you can make. John Gottman, a psychologist who’s spent over 30 years studying intimate relationships, is the Michael Jordan of relationship psychology. He is famous for devising a method for predicting whether newly wed couples will divorce within 10 years with over 90% accuracy. All from just observing them in a conversation for 5mins. Gottman’s seminars also report a 50% higher success rate of saving troubled marriages than traditional marriage counselling.

What Gottman does is he hooks couples up to a series of devices to measure biometric fluctuations like heart rate, blood pressure, etc and then records them having a quick conversation. He then goes and analyzes the conversation frame by frame, looking at the biometric data, body language, tonality, and specific words chosen. And then combines all of this data to predict whether the relationship will make it.

His findings are quite interesting. Contrary to popular belief, Gottman suggests that lots of healthy couples raise their voices, have a tonne of conflict, don’t always have a vibrant sex life and don’t always listen well to each other. However, in healthy relationships, there is a golden ratio that balances negative interactions and positive interactions. According to Gottman, you need at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction if you don’t want the negative interaction to cause things to go south.

Gottman disbands the idea that healthy relationships are bastions of open communication, “I” statements and active listening. Sure, these are important, but the bottom line is that if you’re going to have a close relationship with someone, you’re going to have a certain degree of tension and conflict. You’re going to hurt each other’s feelings and when you’re in the middle of a fight, you’re likely going to forget to be good communicators and active listeners in the heat of the moment. You’re pissed off, after all! He acknowledges all of that and identifies three different kinds of stable couples:

  • Validating couples: These are the couples that listen well, validate each other, are supportive and bring up issues healthily. These couples represent the typical view of what a healthy relationship should look like, but they are not the only stable type.

  • Volatile couples: These are couples who argue a lot and are intensely emotional, but they also have a lot of fun with each other. They can tease and insult each other, but they have enough positive interactions to offset the negative ones. They also tend to have less traditional relationship roles.

  • Avoidant couples: These couples avoid conflict with each other. They can live easily and satisfactorily like this, but they tend to have less emotional intimacy and can thus be susceptible to romantic affairs. They are the most traditional in terms of relationship roles and tend to be bound by similar religious or philosophical views.

But this stuff about positive and negative interactions isn’t what Gottman’s method is famous for. He’s instead most famous for what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Gottman narrowed down four things that are particularly harmful to relationships and tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). As I go through these, think about whether you and your partner use any of these while arguing. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are:

1. Criticism

First, Gottman distinguishes complaints and criticism. You have to be able to complain about things when you’re in a relationship with someone, otherwise you’ll end up being resentful. A complaint might be something like, “I don’t like when you leave the dishes at night because I have to do them in the morning” but it turns into criticism when you say, “You always leave the dishes for me to do” or “You never think about my workload” or “You’re so inconsiderate”, you get the idea.

Complaints turn into criticism when you attach the person’s character, use “always” or “never” statements or pile on multiple complaints at one time.

2. Defensiveness

I have a tendency to quickly become defensive in an argument. “I wouldn’t have done that if you weren’t late all the time.” The problem is that defensiveness in a conflict never ends well and it escalates the negativity. It’s not that you can never defend yourself. It’s that when someone is complaining to you, they want you to listen to them before you point out why they are wrong.

Defensiveness is a form of not listening and minimising your partner’s thoughts and feelings. It’s also one of the most harmful of the horsemen since it almost always spirals into emotional flooding. More on that later.

Instead of being defensive, listen to your partner, ask clarifying questions and make sure you understand the entirety of their complaint. A good tip I learnt from Jordan Peterson is to repeat the complaint you just heard in your own words to their satisfaction before you think about saying anything. Emphasis on “their satisfaction.”

3. Contempt

This one is really bad. Insults, sneers, eye-rolling, name-calling, sarcasm. It’s basically fighting dirty and putting down your partner, making them feel inferior. Avoid it at all costs!

4. Stonewalling

This is the act of putting up an emotional wall. It includes not responding, shutting down, walking away or silent treatment. It effectively ends the interaction and eliminates any possibility of a positive outcome.

There’s a distinction that needs to be made, of course, between stonewalling and taking an emotional break.

Here’s that bit about emotional flooding, I promised.

We all have a physiological reaction to conflict. We can feel our pulses quicken, breathing rates speed up and blood pressure rising. This is called emotional arousal. We can still productively engage if we stay within our window of tolerance.

If our physical response gets too high, we go into hyper-arousal, which is when our bodies engage in fight or flight and we can no longer have a rational discussion. At this stage, we become unreceptive to new information and think in a repetitive loop, “You’re misunderstanding me, you’re misunderstanding me, you’re misunderstanding me.”

Sometimes, however, our physical response slows, and we shut down by going into hypo-arousal, which is a freeze response. People who have undergone trauma are especially prone to this.

There is no point in trying to engage someone who has reached either of these levels. Therefore, it's useful to take an emotional break even in the middle of a conflict. It’s different from stonewalling since you’re trying to regain control of your emotions before you can engage again. And you can communicate this to your partner.

So watch your partner as you are arguing. If they start repeating the same phrase over and over. They’re likely emotionally flooded and need some time to decrease their physical response before they can engage productively. Don’t push things, just take a break.

A little more about contempt

You’ll notice that I said little about contempt, that’s because I have a lot more to say, so it needed its own section.

Contempt is, interestingly, the single biggest predictor of divorce, according to Gottman. The masters of marriage—as he calls those who do well—do all the four horsemen as well sometimes, but there’s hardly any contempt in their interaction. And when it happens, they quickly repair it.

The antidote for contempt is also more complicated than it is for the other four horsemen. It is creating a culture of appreciation in the relationship instead of one of criticism. This is difficult because of how the mind of a critic works.

A critic walks into a room feeling somewhat irritable and looks for reasons why they’re feeling irritable. Then they point out people’s mistakes that are contributing to their irritability. The critic is always looking at the relationship in terms of what’s missing instead of what’s present.

They expect people to respond with gratitude for having all their mistakes pointed out to them. And they’re disappointed when people don’t respond that way. And naturally, people avoid them.

When a critic is driving down the highway, they see only two types of other drivers; idiots who drive slower than they do and maniacs who drive faster than they do. It’s a habit of being really involved in people’s mistakes and not at all in their successes.

This attitude of criticism is likely a spillover of self-criticism and it has become a habit that they apply everywhere. They look at themselves and think, “You’re not that smart,” “you’re not that good-looking,” “you don’t deserve that promotion,” and this self-dialogue ends up spilling over to the surrounding people.

The antidote is to not be involved in people’s mistakes—let them make mistakes—but be involved in scanning for what’s working and what they’re doing right. Gottman says the best relationships have what is called “Positive Sentiment Override.” Being irrationally biased towards the positive when it comes to your partner. If they do something negative, you see it as fleeting and situational. They must be having a bad day. But, if they do something positive, that’s a reinforcement of the fact that that’s who they are.

Obviously, some disclaimers apply here. If you’re in an abusive relationship, maybe you don’t want to use positive sentiment override.

How to improve the odds of your relationship’s success

To really make a relationship work, you need three factors; friendship and intimacy, making conflict constructive and developing a sense of shared meaning and purpose together. Honouring one another’s life dreams. So, if you want long-term relationship success, first, stay firmly away from the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Second, Gottman suggests some things you can do to make things better:

  1. Edit yourself: Filter what you say and how you say it. Be kind. We all have critical thoughts about our partners, but don’t say every critical thing that enters your mind. And treat your partner with respect.

  2. Soften your startup: Be aware of your own tendency towards criticism or contempt. Bring complaints gently and without blame.

  3. Accept influence: Make sure you’re not being dictatorial or inflexible. Create an atmosphere of power-sharing. Understand when your partner is sacrificing to do something for you and let them be involved in and influence your decisions and thoughts.

  4. Focus on the positive: Remember, you need five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Focus on the good stuff, say nice things to each other, have fun, laugh and be affectionate. You’ll be amazed at how differently your conflicts might go if you raise the number of good interactions you have together.

I’ll go into more detail on these and more in a separate article.

According to the research, an average of 69% of couples’ problems will never get resolved, so it’s actually counterproductive to try to solve all your problems. So the important thing is how you approach not solving the problem. Do you bring up a talk with criticism or patience? When your partner is open with an issue, are you open to hearing it? Are you defensive? If you and your partner are having a bad day, are you able to table the conversation until you’re both in a better mood? Are you practising positive sentiment override?

Here’s the bottom line. People in good relationships still fight. Things aren’t great all the time. They also get alienated from one another and they sometimes don’t like each other. Things aren’t always so good in the bedroom. They fight and they make up. But the overarching feature that characterises good relationships is that they’re very gentle with one another. They think about what they are going to say. They care about how what they’re going to say will affect their partner’s feelings.

I’ll close with this quote from one of Gottman’s lectures:

“In our research, we’ve been able to identify the real differences between the masters of relationships and the disasters of relationships. The basic finding is that the masters of relationships are very gentle with one another. They’re kind, they’re affectionate, they have a sense of humour, they have perspective and they really are considerate of their partner’s feelings. As a result, they wind up staying good friends throughout the whole course of the relationship. In fact, they get better and better. And they make romance, passion and great sex a priority in the relationship. They make playfulness and having fun a priority. They continue courtship across the whole life course.… The other thing that really discriminates the masters from the disasters is that the masters really build trust and commitment in the relationship by cherishing their partner and really communicating when their partner hurts or is in pain or angry with them that they’re right there and ready to listen. That’s a huge thing because they can repair the times when they hurt each other’s feelings. They can really revisit hurt feelings and stop and say, ‘you know, that really sucked,’ and they fix it. That’s a big thing that’s different between masters and disasters.” — John Gottman

I find Gottman’s work enlightening, plus he provides lots of real, tangible things you can do to improve all your relationships. If you want to learn more about Gottman’s work, I recommend these two books as a start:

  1. Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail And How to Make Yours Last: This is the book that most of the thoughts for today’s article came from, and

  2. The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work: This is the book that most of next week’s thoughts will come from. (If I don’t get distracted by something else)

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2022 Resolutions:

Weight: Get to 75kg by April 28 and 70kg by July

I’m really struggling to break that 77kg line. It’s not a complete surprise though coz I spent the entire week sitting at my desk working with barely any movement. It was a hectic week. I need to find my way back to my daily caloric deficit.

Sleep: Consistently sleep avg. 8 hours per day

Averages this week:

  • Duration: 5h 10m.

  • Avg. bedtime: 02:51.

  • Avg. wake-up time: 07:50.

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