I have noticed there seems to be way too much advice about relationships. If you struggle in your relationship, the conflicting opinions can feel frustrating and overwhelming. John Gottman’s recent article, “Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships,” is a helpful resource in sorting through advice that is actually helpful from the advice that causes harm. Over the past 30 years, John Gottman has studied extensively the practices that actually makes relationships thrive.
“I’ve found many myths about relationships that are not only false but potentially destructive. They are dangerous because they can lead couples down the wrong path, or worse, convince them that their marriage is a hopeless case. The notion that you can save your relationship just by learning to communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held misconception about happy marriages, but it’s hardly the only one.” (John Gottman, Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships)
Check out John Gottman’s article by clicking on this link: Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships
I often walk alongside couples struggling to understand what happened to the love they shared early on in their relationship. I find it comforting to know that all couples go through times of disorientation and that moving through this experience together can actually foster deeper love. Michael Fulfiler’s article “The 3 Phases of Love,” explains the transitions that promote growth in love relationships. The good news is that times of conflict and turbulence is a common experience for all couples:
What do you do if you love your partner, but you are no longer in love with your partner? Does the feeling of love transform or change over time? In his new book Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love, Dr. John Gottman explains that there are actually three natural phases of love. His research has shown that being in love is a very complex experience, and he has identified choice points in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place, or deteriorate. (excerpt from The 3 Phases of Love)
For more, click on this link: The Three Phases of Love
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
In his recent article, “The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication,” Guy Harris discusses the impact communication has on the health of relationships. He offers helpful insights into the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive styles of communication and to create healthier conversations.
“Communication breakdowns are a common cause for conflict, and poor communication strategies can lead to rapid escalation. Likewise, effective communication strategies can help you correct these miscommunications to move conflicts quickly towards resolution.
One idea that can help you choose the best communication strategy for the situation comes from what I call the communication continuum.” (Guy Harris, The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication) Read more….
Communication breakdowns happen so easily in relationships. We often try really hard to be what our partner needs, but our efforts seem to miss the mark:
“Stop trying to fix it, I just need you to listen to me.”
I know a couple that created a plan to address this issue head-on. Whenever “Mary” asks “Sam” if they can talk about something, Sam asks, “Do you want me to fix this, OR do you need me to listen?” Mary lets Sam know exactly what she needs.
Sam can stop guessing and relax. He knows when:
- Mary wants his advice. So, Sam puts on his “fix it” cap and they get to work.
- Mary needs a listening ear. So, Sam can let go of the need to fix and practices listening skills.
This little intervention has done wonders for their relationship. Together Sam and Mary work collaboratively to create the best possible communication between them.
The following video is a humorous account of this common communication struggle. Enjoy!
“If one wishes to know love, one must live love, in action.” – Leo Buscaglia
At the dinner table this week, my family had a conversation about satisfying relationships. My teenage daughter wanted to know some things that my husband and I do to help us to keep our love on track. In the moment, I was pretty excited that she was interested in learning from us. As a parent, it is very cool and sometimes rare when teenagers perk up and listen.
So we jumped in and shared an idea: Relationships take daily attention and work from both parties. Not exactly the most romantic notion. But, what kind of work?
I often use a garden analogy when I work with couples. But when I started off with this metaphor, my daughter laughed because she knows that I kill plants. She gave her dad a worried look.
Since our conversation, I read Kate Walker’s recent article, “Make it to Your 50th Wedding Anniversary… Together!” She takes the illustration way beyond gardening:
“To help partners understand this particular kind of work, I ask them to picture a relationship with a plant, a goldfish, a dog, and a human. Plant relationships only need your attention a couple of days a week (and if that’s too much you buy a cactus). Goldfish relationships require a bit more work because you must feed it a couple of times a week and clean the bowl. Dog relationships are more intense because they require daily work: food, training, and entertaining. If you decide to marry (or create) a human relationship, this person is going to need time, attention, physical touch, and words of affirmation every day. This doesn’t make them ‘needy,’ this makes them normal. If that feels like too much work, get a goldfish instead.”
How Do I Work on My Relationship?
In my last blog post, I talked about four ways to build trust in your relationship:
- Learn to listen
- Practice gratitude
- Turn toward each other
- Create boundaries around the relationship
The following practices explore four more ways you can grow love in your relationship:
- Daily Commitment: With Kate Walker’s dog analogy in mind, one important aspect of loving relationships is consistency. The work you put into your relationship should not be based on how you feel at any given moment. If you have a pet, you care for your pet daily, regardless of your own illness, fatigue, stress, or boredom. Likewise, you and your partner need daily reminders that you matter. We all go through challenging times and sometimes do not feel like working on the relationship. But daily commitment is essential for health. We need to keep showing up for each other. As the years pass, moment-by-moment, trial and error, good times and bad, this is how we grow love.
- Limit Criticism. Many of us have a couple of things that irritate us about our partner. Seriously, if you are a human being, you will irritate your partner at some point! But a focus on the negative erodes the health of the relationship. Marriage researcher, John Gottman, found that satisfying relationships have five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions. When something needs to be addressed, make sure your partner knows you care about them first and make every effort to let your partner know the ways they matter.
- Have Fun: Find things to do together that make you both happy. We hear this all the time, but we are often just too busy to get away. I get it. Through the years, my husband and I have found it difficult to break away for date nights or quick weekend getaways. But time together is essential to stay connected. The most challenging time for marriages is the time directly following the exit or launching of the last child. Careers and children often take center stage and life can become too serious. It is common for couples to wake up after the kids leave home and realize, “We really do not know each other any more.” Make time to have fun together and stay connected. To inspire your next date night, check out these “Fun Dating Ideas.“
- Seek Help: Do not be afraid to ask for help when you get stuck. Life transitions, such as navigating in-laws, childrearing, geographic moves, etc., are normal and disruptive to any relationship. When you find yourself stuck, marriage seminars can provide a beneficial marriage tune-up. For more challenging issues, a couples counselor is an excellent source of professional support and safety that allows couples to explore and heal wounds in their relationship. A word of caution: be careful whom you choose to confide in. If you receive emotional support from someone outside you relationship make sure the person is a “friend of the marriage.” If you confide in someone who does not support your relationship, you risk building an emotional attachment that threatens the bond between you and your partner.
I am so glad my husband and I had an opportunity to share some of our experience with our daughter. The most important thing I hope she learns is that she does not have to do relationships perfectly. She just needs a commitment to start over and over again every day. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Satisfying relationships are a learning process. When things get challenging… and they will… keep trying. Compassion for yourself and your spouse goes a long way.
As the garage door closes, our teenagers start their drive to school and my husband and I sink into our respective chairs with a nice cup of coffee. Catch a breath. Sigh. I smile at this moment, grateful for 25 years, a wild roller coaster of dating and marriage.
Twenty-five years… the exhilaration of falling in love, learning about one another, painful moments, fun moments, intense loss, small children, exhaustion, moving to new places, difficult job situations, and so much more. We are different people than we were on the day we met.
I sit here and wonder, “How do we still love each other after all these years?” As I look back, I know it has taken hard work to build trust that we will continue to be here for each other.
Trust is Built Slowly
Trust is built slowly over time. During those first weeks, months, and years, we did not know each other well enough to be sure. We had hopes, doubts, and experienced concerns that are common for any new couple:
- Can I trust you to be here for me when I am upset?
- Can I trust you to choose me over your family and friends?
- Can I trust you not to take drugs?
- Can I trust you to work and co-support our family?
- Can I trust you to help me around the house?
- Can I trust you to be involved with our children?
We needed to keep showing up for each other. As the years passed, moment-by-moment, trial and error, good times and bad, we built a relationship of trust.
How Do I Build Trust in My Relationship?
The following are four powerful ways to build trust in your relationship. The great thing about relationships is there is always room to experiment and grow.
- Listen – When my husband tries to understand me, I feel loved, seen, and heard. “Tell me more” is another way of saying, “I love you.” When we first got married, we did not have a clue how to listen to each other, so we tried a couple’s workshop and practiced some helpful listening skills. We still use those skills, and it helps. There are a number of great communication exercises to try. One of my personal favorites is “L-O-V-E Conversations.”
- Gratitude – Several years ago, we decided to add the habit of gratitude to our marriage. I am not overstating the case when I say that this practice alone has become one of the major contributors to our level of satisfaction. I began to notice the little things that mean so much: a cuddle before bed, an evening walk, the bristle of my husband’s whiskers on my face, the sound of his laughter, the warmth of his presence when I feel sad, etc. A recent Psychology Today article affirmed my personal experience. Gratitude makes a difference:
“New studies support the idea that gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships. As marriages move past the honeymoon stage, couples go from appreciating and loving every little detail about each other to taking each other for granted. Researchers concluded that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.”
- Turn Toward – In a recent lecture, relationship expert John Gottman shared the most important component of trust, “Turning Toward.” This has been such an important practice in my own marriage. Although, I have occasionally missed my husband’s signals, I really try. When he says, “Look at the beautiful sunset,” it is a cue for me to stop what I am doing for a moment and share something that is meaningful to my husband. Or when I say, “I feel sad today,” he has an opportunity to “turn toward” and comfort me with his presence, or turn away and avoid a potentially uncomfortable conversation.
Gottman explains, “Trust is built in very small moments, which I call sliding door moments. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connection with our partner or turning away from our partner. Trust is a collection of “turning toward” moments: turning toward and connecting with your partner, instead of just thinking about what I want. If you always choose to turn away, trust erodes.”
- Boundaries – Creating boundaries around the marriage is essential for building trust. When you talk openly about potential pitfalls, you can create practices that protect your relationship. Let’s be real. At some point, you might be attracted to someone else. It happens. But that does not mean that your marriage has to be put in danger. Talk openly with your partner and come up with ways to be transparent and accountable. When we were first married, my husband knew that he would sometimes be alone with a woman in his office. He purposefully installed a window in his door and made sure that his assistant was present when he had appointments. Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends,” offers a brief list of suggestions to consider:
- Know that attraction is normal. But just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Being attracted to someone else doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong person. One of the measures of true commitment is that you don’t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.
- Don’t let yourself fantasize about what it would be like to be with that other person.
- Don’t flirt.
- Avoid risky situations. (Glass, 2004)
As I take another sip of coffee, I remind myself that trust is an essential element of a healthy relationship. It takes a lot of work. It does not happen immediately and takes intentionality.
In my next post, I will explore four more practices that have been shown to build trust and have been helpful in my own marriage.
Trust is an essential ingredient in healthy relationships. But how do we build trust in relationships? In the following videos, John Gottman, one of the foremost relationship experts, shares why trust is so important and gives some practical tools on how to grow trust with one another.
Gratitude is an essential part of healthy relationships. When we practice daily gratitude with our partner, it is less likely that we will take each other for granted.
Psychology Today explores the benefits of gratitude in relationships in the recent article, “Does Gratitude Matter in Marriage?“
Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples that I work with have found this a useful tool in their efforts to improve their communication skills.