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.
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 Tess and Kevin, both in their mid-forties and married for six years. “I’ve been miserable for some time,” complains Tess. “I’ve asked Kevin to be more sensitive to my needs, but he doesn’t seem to be trying. He always puts others before me.” To this Kevin says: “Tess just doesn’t accept me for who I am. She needs to be more tolerant of who I am.” The common thread in this couples statements is their focus on “fixing” their partner.
After 40 years of groundbreaking research, John 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’m listing 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.
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.
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I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry