What can you do to improve your marriage or relationship when you feel that it’s heading for divorce or breakup? While this is a common problem, the solutions are far from ordinary. The good news is that you’re in a good position to turn around your relationship since it’s usually the person who seeks advice that’s motivated to set change in motion.
The number one thing that seems to be breaking up many couples is difficulty bouncing back from a conflict or disagreement in a healthy way. According to Dr. John Gottman, the number one solution to this problem is to get really good at repair skills. He tells Business Insider that you’ve got to get back on track after a fight if you don’t want issues to fester.
The most common reason why couples develop serious difficulties is because one or both partners withdraw and go into the “silent treatment” mode due to feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment. In a recent landmark study of 14,000 participants conducted by Schrodt, women are usually (but not always) the ones who demand or pursue and men tend to withdraw or distance.
Then what couples tend to do is blame the other person and a withdraw/demand pattern follows – which intensifies the tension between partners. Couples literally report having the same fights over and over again. After a while, you are no longer addressing the issue at hand and it becomes a vicious cycle of negative feelings that never gets resolved.
While it’s natural to want to throw in the towel when your partner becomes distant, reacting in kind furthers the divide between you. Instead, Dr. Harriet Learner recommends that you take responsibility for warming things up and increase positive reinforcement. This can be done by saying things like “You’re so thoughtful to cook me dinner tonight,” which highlights their positive qualities and things you admire about them.
Further, practicing what Dr. John Gottman calls emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means “turning toward” one another and showing empathy rather than “turning away.” Dr. Gottman recommends a five-to -one ratio of interactions – meaning for every negative interaction, you need five positive ones.
8 Skills to promote success in marriage based on the work of Dr. John Gottman and other experts:
- Avoid character assassinations and attempt to stay in the present. Stay focused on the issues at hand. Ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish? Avoid name-calling and don’t attack your partner personally. Remember anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so keep things in perspective.
- Boost up physical affection. Don’t forget to cuddle on the couch and surprise your partner with a kiss. Even if you’re not a touchy-feely person, increasing physical affection can help you to sustain a deep, meaningful bond.
- Cultivate shared interests with your partner. Try a variety of activities that bring you both pleasure. For example, some couples take up yoga or take a dance class together. Don’t forget to show interest in your partner’s hobbies even if you don’t share them.
- “Nurture fondness and admiration”: John Gottman’s principle works like a charm. 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. Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement.
- Be vulnerable and communicate honestly about key issues in your relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about your concerns. Express thoughts, feelings, and needs in a respectful way. Resentment can build when couples sweep things under the rug, so don’t bury negative feelings.
- Be accountable for your part in the conflict or dispute. One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Dr.’s Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings and promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on.
- Don’t allow wounds to fester. Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about holding onto hurt feelings. When we listen to our partner’s side of the story and process it briefly with them, we no longer need to hold onto hurt feelings.
- Apologize and practice forgiveness. Saying you’re sorry even if you don’t hurt your partner’s feelings on purpose will help you move on after a dispute. Try to remember you’re on the same team. Accept that people do the best they do and try to be more understanding. This doesn’t mean that you accept your partner’s hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view and give them less power over you. After all, we all have flaws.
In sum, try your best to give your partner the benefit of the doubt if you perceive he or she has checked out of your relationship. Instead, the next time you have a disagreement with them, stop second-guessing their reactions and examine your own responses. Your focus needs to be on working on ways to repair hurt feelings and to get back on track. Breaking the cycle of an unhappy relationship dynamic requires a radical shift in mindset and taking responsibility for your part in the issues that cause tension.
Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and,movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry