What makes for a happy, fulfilled relationship? While this is a complex question that doesn’t lend itself to a quick answer, there are aspects of successful and lasting relationships that have been studied by experts and many approaches to pick from. The good news is that if you are in a relatively happy relationship, there are some simple things you can do – positive behaviors – that can make your relationship better.
Fortunately, even if you’re in a relationship or marriage that’s heading in a bad direction, there are strategies that can set you and your partner on the right path again. After studying marital success and divorce prevention for decades, my hero is renowned psychologist John M. Gottman, and I’m about to explain why. But first, let’s start with the premise that it’s crucial to examine your own actions and to adopt realistic expectations about your partner’s willingness to change.
Do you spend more time second-guessing your partner’s comments or reactions than examining your own behavior? While I believe it’s important to be vulnerable with your partner – to be open and reveal yourself without fear of rejection – it’s also critical to take responsibility for your own actions. While vulnerability can enhance intimacy between you and your partner, it’s important not to blame your relationship problems on negative traits that you see in them. Dr. Lisa Firestone writes, “The focus needs to shift away from how to “fix” the other person and toward a broader view of how to repair the relationship.”
A typical example is Tim and Megan, both in their mid-thirties and married for seven years. “I’ve been unhappy for some time,” complains Megan. “I’ve asked Tim to be more considerate of my needs, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I’m at the bottom of his list.” To this Tim laments: “Megan just doesn’t make me happy anymore and things just aren’t getting better.” The common thread in these statements is this couple’s focus on “fixing” the other person rather than on taking specific actions to change their part in a relationship dynamic that is undesirable.
Let’s face it, it’s easy to complain about your partner and many self-help articles, movies, and TV shows highlight the merits of fixing other’s shortcomings. For instance, in a recent hit movie, Enough Said, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), seemed happy with her new boyfriend Albert (the late James Gandolfini) until she became friends with Marianne (Catherine Keener) who pointed out her ex’s faults incessantly. One big take away for me was that if we’re relatively satisfied with our partner (as Eva was prior to getting close to Marianne) focus on their positive traits rather than on fixing their flaws (like how they eat or their wardrobe).
After years of research, Gottman has revealed seven principles that will prevent a marriage from breaking up. After reviewing his book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work, I’ll highlight four principles that I’ve seen change the dynamic of a marriage in a positive way. Keep in mind that one of Gottman’s guiding principles for a successful marriage is the five- to-one ratio – meaning for every negative interaction in a relationship, you need five positive interactions.
1. Nurture fondness and admiration: Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities – even as you grapple with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day.
2. Let your partner influence you: Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and avoid the blame game.
3. Overcome a gridlock: Often perpetual conflicts go unresolved when we get stuck in negative patterns of relating such as the distancer-pursuer pattern – a tug-of-war where one person actively tries to change the other person, and the other resists it.
4. Create shared meaning together: Dr. Gottman found that couples who have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, values; and customs for family life – such as rituals for holidays – are generally happier.
In Gottman’s acclaimed book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail he uses a metaphor of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (depicting the end of times in the New Testament) to elaborate on his theory of couples communication. This metaphor can be used to describe the following communication styles to depict the end of a relationship.
1. Criticism: According to Gottman, criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. Consequently, you are cutting to the core of their character when you criticize. For instance, a complaint is: “I was worried when you were late. We agreed that you’d call when you were running late.” Versus a criticism: “You never think about me, you’re so selfish!”
2. Contempt: When you communicate in this manner, you are being disrespectful – using sarcasm, ridicule, mimicking, icy tone of voice, or name-calling. The goal is to make the person feel despised or worthless.
3. Defensiveness: We all get defensive at times – especially when a relationship is on the rocks or we feel we’re being treated unfairly. However, defensiveness is a way of blaming our partner and not taking responsibility for our own actions.
4. Stonewalling: This is when one partner shuts down or withdraws from the interaction. Unfortunately, this becomes a habit and issues that get swept under the rug are never resolved – leaving the partner who feels hurt even more resentful.
In closing, be sure to pay close attention the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner and examine the part you play. Keep in mind Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions – a five-to-one ratio. Next, see if you can spot any of the Four Horsemen and then observe their effects on your partner. Don’t take love for granted or expect that your partner will alter their behavior simply because you’ve asked them to. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness. So next time you feel upset at your partner, check out what’s going on inside yourself – at the very least – pause and reflect before you place the blame on them.
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