Here's what it really takes to weather those storms ...
Most of us face times when we feel like our partner just doesn't understand us, doesn't want to spend time with us, or sees everything else in their life as a higher priority than we are.
It's possible that in these stages the real issue is the lack of continuing connection with each other that is necessary not only to create, but also to maintain, a foundation solid enough for you to both stand on together — even during the most difficult moments.
Individuals in relationships based on true connection may not be perfect, but they do know how to express what they feel, how to understand their partner, and how to make themselves understood. They know how to have conversations about things that really matter, rather than either brushing difficult issues under the rug out of fear of being rejected or withdrawing from the perceived risk of potential conflict.
Psychologist John Gottman is perhaps most well known for his landmark study on marital stability, within which he and collaborator Robert Levenson divided subjects into couples considered either "masters" or "disasters."
According to one article in The Atlantic, "The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages."
Gottman found that the masters' relationship success was based on each turning towards, rather than away from, the other's "bids" for connection.
Bids for connection are described as, "Any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection" — even the most subtle, seemingly inconsequential ones.
They can take the form of simple questions or comments, for example:
- “How was your day?"
- "How do I look?"
- "My boss was so grumpy today. Ugh!"
When a bid is met with a show of interest — such as, “My day was great. My friend just got back into town, so we had lunch together at that new place that does great Paleo food I was telling you about. How was your day?” — a connection is made.
This connection opens the door to a potentially engaging conversation that brings your partner deeper into your world. And when you meet their bids for connection with an equally engaging response, you both go deeper as a couple.
“Oh yeah that’s right! How was it? Was the food great? Everyone has been raving about that place. And how is Helen? What's happened with her since she was here last?"
On the flip side, the disasters would be more likely to turn away from rather turn toward their partner's bids.
Within a disasters' relationship, "How was your day?" might be met with a bland, clipped remark, such as, "Good."
While this isn't an outright act of one partner ignoring the other, it indicates little interest in sharing or feeling that which your partner may be interested in. In other words there is little depth in the interaction.
In some cases the way a partner turns against the other's bid for connection might even indicate feelings of contempt, such as, “What do you care about my day? You’re only interested in yourself."
This not only shuts down the potential for conversation immediately, but is also likely to instigate an argument based on unresolved conflict — which are probably still unresolved due to the overall lack of connection within the relationship.
This doesn't mean you have to be a bright and engaging butterfly in response to each and every bid for connection from your partner.
It does mean you should make every attempt to respond to your partner's bids in a way that invites your partner into your world.
If it's been a rough day for you, the conversation may look something more like this:
“How was your day?”
"I don’t even know where to start. It’s been so stressful. In fact, may I please take half an hour alone to wind down and collect my thoughts? I just feel so overwhelmed right now.”
“Sure honey. Can I get you something? How about a nice cup of tea?”
Masters are continually deepening their relationship as it evolves for both parties, bringing each an ongoing sense of fulfillment. Each person feels loved and understood by the other.
It is important to remember that a bid for connection can be a subtle as touching your partner on the shoulder, or making a random comment over breakfast, like, “Have you seen Jack lately? He looks so out of it. I wonder what’s going on for him?”
Gottman's research also showed that partners' ability to read each others' behavior is an indicator of relationship success.
So in a scenario when one person asks, “What do you want for dinner?” and receives a response along the lines of “Nothing. I’m not hungry” ...
A master might follow with: “Seems like you’ve had a rough day, darling. Do you want to talk about it?”
Whereas a disaster may conclude with, “Jeez, I was just asking a question! You don’t have to snap at me. What is your problem?”
By taking time to become aware of the subtle cues your partner makes in an attempt to read where they are at emotionally, you are then able to respond in the most appropriate way in each moment.
This type of supportive communication helps couples weather even the most difficult of moments.
And, by observing and reading what is going on for another, we in turn become masters of relationships ourselves.
Kate Chorley is a psychotherapist, life coach & marriage counselor who sees her primary role as assisting her clients to raise their awareness of themselves and the world around them. From this state of being they are more empowered with knowledge and understanding of the choices they can make that will best serve them. She uses a range of therapeutic counseling techniques such as Person Centered, Solution Focused, Gestalt and Narrative Therapy. To learn more, visit her at www.katechorley.com.au.