Jun 27, 2022 • 21M

How to improve the odds of your relationship’s success | Just Reflections #49

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Bhekani Khumalo
Impactful ideas that challenge my thinking. I hope they'll challenge yours too.
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Last week I wrote about one of Dr John Gottman’s books, “Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail And How You Can Make Yours Last.” That book lays out most of his foundational ideas about marriage, including the four horsemen of the apocalypse; Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. And the different kinds of stable couples. If you’re hearing about all this for the first time, it’s probably worth reading that article first. Here’s the link.

This week I will talk about his other more prescriptive book called “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” The principles he shares are based on the extensive research that he’s done on couples in his “Love Lab” in Seattle, Washington. I’m mentioning this to signal the idea that it’s not based on his hunches, but on well-researched data.

Before we get into that, let’s take another look at how Gottman predicts divorce.

The signs

Last week, I explained that Gottman can predict with over 91% accuracy whether a couple would stay together long term. Here are the signs he looks for.

  1. Harsh Start-up: How a conversation begins often predicts how it is going to end. So if someone starts a discussion with criticism, blame, sarcasm or accusations, it likely won’t end well.

  2. The Four Horsemen: There’s more detail on this in the previous article. Gottman looks for these horsemen in the couple’s arguments.

  3. Flooding: If either partner gets psychologically or emotionally overwhelmed during the argument, it doesn’t bode well. It’s worse if the other doesn’t pick up on this and drags it on while the counterpart is now flooded.

  4. Body language: Crossed arms, leaning away from each other, not making eye contact and not mirroring each other’s movements. These are all signs that things aren’t going in a good direction.

  5. Failed repair attempts: When tension rises in a conflict, sometimes a partner will attempt to de-escalate with anything; a silly comment, humour or even directly saying we need to take a step back and cool down. Those are called repair attempts and they help to prevent emotional flooding. If those attempts don’t work to de-escalate the situation, it is a bad sign.

  6. Bad memories: Things were not always bad. The problem is that when bad things are happening, couples rewrite the past negatively, forgetting all the good memories and remembering all the bad ones. They can’t seem to remember that earlier magic even when they’re asked how they met, about their wedding day or other special moments. Everything is negative.

  7. Withdrawal: When one partner is distant, calm and completely emotionally disengaged during arguments that’s a sign that the end is near.

Is there anything a couple can do to fix things at this point? Yes! Gottman gives seven principles. The seven principles are not about focussing on these areas of negativity and difficulty. Rather, each of them builds trust and friendship, which is the bedrock of successful relationships.

The seven principles for making relationships work

Most relationship advice focuses on the same old pointers; better conflict resolution and communication skills. According to Gottman, getting couples to disagree more “nicely” might reduce their stress levels while they argue but frequently it’s not enough to revitalise marriages that are on the rocks.

In fact, after studying many couples whose relationships made it through troubled times he realised that they were never perfect unions. They still had significant differences in temperament, interests and family values. They had frequent conflicts, they argued over money, work, kids, housekeeping, sex and in-laws as much as the failed couples.

“At the heart of the Seven Principles approach is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other's company. These couples tend to know each other intimately-they are well versed in each other's likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but through small gestures day in and day out.” — Dr John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Gottman’s principles focus on increasing the number of positive interactions that happen in a relationship. This is because he discovered you need to load up several positive interactions to counteract the effects of one negative interaction. In fact, there’s a magic number here. According to the research, you need five positive interactions for every negative interaction.

Here are the principles.

1. Enhance your love maps

Know your partner better. Know what they like, who they like to talk to at work, what they do all day, what their passions are and what their history is. Good couples are intimately familiar with their partner’s world, which makes them able to weather the storms when they arise.

With how busy life is these days, I think this is one area that needs to be watched closely otherwise we’ll discover that we’ve been estranged from our partners. So even if it’s not your favourite thing, teach yourself to take interest in the things your partner loves. You may not care much about spoken word poetry but if that’s what your partner loves, you lose nothing by learning it enough to have a stimulating conversation with them about it. If you don’t know where to start with learning it, ask them to teach you. I’m sure they’d love that and it will create an opportunity for you to bond.

“… Although he's not religious, he accompanies her to church each Sunday because it's important to her. And although she's not crazy about spending a lot of time with their relatives, she has pursued a friendship with Nathaniel's mother and sisters because family matters so much to him. If all of this sounds humdrum and unromantic, it's anything but. In small but important ways, Olivia and Nathaniel are maintaining the friendship that is the foundation of their love. As a result, they have a marriage that is far more passionate than do couples who punctuate their lives together with romantic vacations and lavish anniversary gifts but have fallen out of touch in their daily lives.” — Dr John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

It should go without saying that learning to relate to your partner’s interests and even learning to love them will improve your friendship overall. And couples who are good friends experience a lot of positive sentiment override. Their positive thoughts about each other and their marriage are so pervasive that they tend to supersede their negative feelings. Therefore it takes a much more significant conflict to cause them to lose their equilibrium.

I’m not suggesting that you should know as much about football as their Sunday social football teammates, but each interest of theirs that you choose to ignore is a connection opportunity missed. And it’s one area of the love map of your relationship that you’ve chosen to be unfamiliar with.

2. Nature fondness and admiration

You need to cherish each other and honour what is good and true and positive about your partner. After all, you chose them for many positive reasons. Try to remember those. The absolute foundation of all relationships is fondness and admiration and if you don’t have those, the relationship will not make it.

“Fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance. Although happily married couples may feel driven to distraction at times by their partner's personality flaws, they still feel that the person they married is worthy of honor and respect. They cherish each other, which is critical to keeping their Sound Relationship House intact and preventing betrayal. If fondness and admiration are completely missing, reviving the relationship is impossible.” — Dr John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

It’s very easy to forget or stop noticing your partner’s good qualities, especially if you’ve been together for a long time. When you forget these, the negatives will start to seem more glaring and if you’re not careful, after a while that’s all you’ll see. So talk about your partner’s good qualities, tell them what you like about them. Complement them often. When they do something you particularly love, tell them about it. Reminisce on your past; how you met, what you felt on your first date, and what you told your friends when you first realised that you love this person. Even long-buried positive feelings can be exhumed simply by thinking and talking about them. This will help you keep that fundamental sense that your partner is worthy of being respected and loved. You’ll need this during the storms of life.

Finally, it’s important to tell them about the things you love about them in private, but it is also important to tell them in public. Make your fondness and admiration publicly known. No one wants to only be loved behind closed doors.

3. Turn towards each other instead of away

A rare commodity in today’s world is attention. Focus your attention on your partner when they make a bid for your attention. Listen without distraction, be helpful and be present. Sometimes bids for attention are wrapped up in anger or blame. When this happens, focus on the ask and not the negativity. Your attention is the most precious thing you can give to someone.

I get particularly irritated when I’m try to get my partner’s attention and they listen while on their phone or they turn to me while keeping their phone in their hand, the screen on ready to scroll to the next post in the feed. That irritation is heightened if they immediately reach for their phone the moment I stop talking. I know I’m overly sensitive because I’ve put a lot of intention into making sure I put my phone away during any kind of quality time so I feel like I deserve that in return. Especially in the moments when I clearly need my partner to be fully present with me.

“In marriage, couples are always making what I call "bids" for each other's attention, affection, humor, or support. Bids can be as minor as asking for a back rub or as significant as seeking help in carrying the burden when an aging parent is ill. The partner responds to each bid either by turning toward the spouse or turning away. A tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life. Comical as it may sound, romance is strengthened in the supermarket aisle when your partner asks, "Are we out of butter?" and you answer, "I don't know. Let me go get some just in case," instead of shrugging apathetically. It grows when you know your spouse is having a bad day at work and you take a few seconds out of your schedule to send him an encouraging text. In all of these instances, partners are making a choice to turn toward each other rather than away.” — Dr John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

If you ignore your partner’s pleas for attention, eventually they will stop asking.

4. Let your partner influence you

This is also called power-sharing. Let your partner’s feelings, thoughts and ideas influence your decisions. Co-operate and yield. Marriage should always be a partnership, not a dictatorship. According to Gottman, this is a problem that’s most prevalent in men than in women.

If you’re in a relationship and you’re only looking out for what matters to you, regardless of how it affects anyone else then you need to reconsider that if you want your relationship to survive. Being in a relationship comes with sacrificing some of what you want to make space for what your partner wants. That’s how you make a life together. And that’s how you ensure your lives grow in the same direction. A marriage can’t work unless both parties honour and respect each other. This is true regardless of your belief system.

5. Solve your solvable problems

Every relationship is a union of individuals who bring to it their own opinions, personality quirks, and values. All conflicts in relationships fall into one of two categories: either they can be resolved or they are perpetual, which means they will be a part of your lives forever in some form or another. Once you’re able to identify and define your various disagreements, you’ll be able to customize your coping strategies depending on which of these two types of conflict you’re having.

Gottman’s research reveals that 69% of a couples’ problems are perpetual. You want to have a baby but your partner says he’s not ready yet and doesn’t know when he’ll be ready. She wants sex far more frequently than he does. He’s very lax about housework and rarely does his share until she nags, which makes him angry. Despite these perpetual differences, couples can remain satisfied with their relationships if they learn to deal with their unmovable problems in a way that doesn’t make them overwhelming. One solution to perpetual problems is to learn to live with them and approach them with good humour.

“At times it gets better; on occasion it gets worse. But because they keep acknowledging the problem and talking about it, they prevent it from overwhelming their relationship. These couples intuitively understand that some difficulties are inevitable, much the way chronic physical ailments are unavoidable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow. We may not enjoy having these problems, but we are able to cope by avoiding situations that worsen them, and by developing strategies and routines that help ease them.” — Dr John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

The remaining 31% are solvable problems. Work to solve these through compromise. Gottman gives a process for solving these which includes softening your startup, not including blame, criticism or contempt, making some repair attempts, de-escalating away from emotional flooding and compromising by finding common emotional ground.

6. Overcoming gridlock

Gridlock occurs with problems that haven’t been solved well and have hardened into uncomfortable sore spots. This mostly happens with perpetual problems which centre around fundamental differences in personality or lifestyle needs.

For example, we have what I believe to be a perpetual problem around how we spend leisure time. I like to be out and about around people and I gladly welcome any opportunity to do so without batting an eye. My wife is a homebody. She will take any opportunity to be at home relaxing and watching TV. So, whenever we go out somewhere, I get on edge at some point because I’m enjoying and would love to stick around till the end but I know I’ll be getting a text soon about going home. And when we’re home, anytime we have some free time, I’m sure she gets similar anxiety knowing I’ll come saying let’s go outside for a walk or I’ll tell her of some invitation I just accepted somewhere. Now, I can obviously go out on my own and she can also relax at home on her own. The problem is that both of us don’t want to be doing these things alone and we’d rather do them with each other.

Many times gridlock happens when you have aspirations, desires and dreams that have not been acknowledged or respected by your partner. So, try to uncover those dreams with respectful and open questions and curiosity. Understand those differences so that you won’t continually bash your heads in situations where you can’t find a satisfying compromise for. You’ll find it easier to accept them and even have some inside jokes around them.

Perpetual problems are like an allergy, they’re not going away but you can treat them so that they don’t ruin your life.

7. Create shared meaning

“We got along okay and really loved each other, but I didn't feel that connected to Kevin. It was like we were roommates who made love." Helen, a "devout feminist," had always prided herself on her independence. At first she thought it was great that she and Kevin had their own lives-separate careers, interests, and friends. But the longer they were married, and especially after they had children, the more she felt something was lacking. She didn't want to give up her strong sense of individual identity, but she wanted more from her marriage. After attending our workshop, she realized what it was: she wanted to feel more like she and Kevin were a family.” — Dr John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Sometimes what is missing is a sense of shared meaning. People are happiest when they have meaning in their lives. Relationships are no different. In addition to everything else, relationships also have a dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together—a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you and that lead you to understand who you are as a couple. Without that, you may feel lost, like your happy relationship isn’t going anywhere.

So how do you create shared meaning? Develop shared couple-based rituals, something that you do together and that holds meaning for the two of you. Be supportive of each other’s roles. Discuss shared goals and understand the values and symbols that uniquely define your relationship.

We usually think of culture in terms of large ethnic groups. But culture can also be created by just two people who have agreed to share their lives. Each couple can create its own microculture. and like other cultures, this small culture can have its own customs (like Saturday dinner out), rituals (like watching every new Marvel movie together regardless of circumstance), and myths—like the stories the couple tell themselves (whether true or false or embellished) that explain their sense of what their relationship is like and what it means to be part of it.

Developing a shared culture doesn’t mean you’re aligned on everything. Instead, it’s about creating a mashup that honours and incorporates each other’s dreams. And it is flexible enough to grow as you grow. When a relationship has this shared sense of meaning, conflicts will be much less intense and perpetual problems less likely to lead to gridlock.

Final thoughts

It might seem like a lot of work but happy relationships are beneficial to almost every other part of our lives. From our mental, physical and emotional health to our financial and community wellbeing. So they’re worth the extra work. Gottman has a variety of worksheets and questionnaires in this book so if you want to give his method a shot, you’re guaranteed that a lot of work has been put into making it simple and practical.

Gottman recommends intentionally spending time working on your relationship. He recommends at least six hours a week. I know that all seems a little textbookish for something that is supposed to be smooth and enjoyable but well, that’s what the experts have found to be what works. And I’m sure none of us needs to be told that relationships can make our lives really, really miserable if we don’t put in the time to make them work.

Finally, don’t let negativity slide. Better to address it early than to wait until it has turned into something way worse.

Let me know what you think. I always appreciate comments and SubStack has a nice comment feature right on the article. But if you would rather keep your comment private, email me.

2022 Resolutions:

As the number of subscribers to the newsletter is growing. I’m disliking the way the resolutions section looks on this platform. I also don’t want to create noise for people who don’t know what it’s about or don’t care. So I’m thinking of a way to do it differently. I’ll probably create a small micro-website for it and then include a link here to that site so that we keep this high signal. For today though, I’ll just include the chart and sleep summary.

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

Sleep: Consistently sleep avg. 8 hours per day

Averages this week:

  • Duration: 4h 27m.

  • Avg. bedtime: 04:51.

  • Avg. wake-up time: 09:18.