In a previous post we looked at some signs that suggest your relationship or marriage is in trouble according to relationship expert John Gottman. Gottman also describes seven principles that can help you get your relationship or marriage back on track.
1. Enhancing Your Love Maps: Love Maps are the part of your brain where you keep information about your partner’s life. The more familiar you and your partner are with each other’s world, the more detailed your love maps. You know each other’s histories, day-to-day life, friends, values, interests, dreams, etc. You know how things are going in in their life, at work, whether they’re having a bad day or week, what’s been on their mind, anything that’s troubling or worrying them, and important things that are coming up in their life. You also know the little details like their favourite foods, books, movies and tv shows. You keep track of what’s important in each other’s lives, and in so doing become closer and more intimate with each other.
2. Increasing Fondness and Admiration: When things are going rough in a relationship, you can sometimes lose track why you fell in love in the first place and forget the things about your partner or spouse that you value, admire and love. Instead of focusing on your partner’s flaws and the ways in which they annoy you, when you remind yourself of their good qualities, you keep the positive feelings alive in your relationship. According to Gottman:
Fondness and admiration can be fragile unless you remain aware of how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage. The simple reason is that fondness and admiration are antidotes for contempt. If you maintain a sense of respect for your spouse, you are less likely to act disgusted with him or her when you disagree.
By nurturing your fondness and admiration for each other, you make it more likely that when you do disagree or argue, you’ll do so in ways that lead towards resolution rather than escalation.
3. Turning Towards Your Partner: Turning towards your partner involves connecting with your partner in little ways on a continual and ongoing basis. This forms the basis of a strong friendship, which is the basis for a strong relationship.
Turning towards your partner is as simple as doing things together like cooking or cleaning, asking about each other’s days, going for walks together, or taking a few minutes out a busy day to offer support to each other. When your partner looks for attention, affection, humour or support, you are there for them.
Turning towards your partner is how you forge an emotional connection, and is the basis for romance, passion, and even a good sex life. When couples turn towards each other they stay emotionally engaged and remain together; when they don’t, they end up drifting apart.
Gottman finds that in turning towards your partner you build up an “emotional bank account,” storing up affection and goodwill that helps get you through conflicts hard times. More importantly:
Turning toward your spouse in the little ways is the key to long-lasting romance. Many people think that the secret to reconnecting with their partner is a candlelit dinner or a by-the-sea vacation. But the real secret is to turn toward each other in little ways every day. A romantic night out really turns up the heat only when a couple has kept the pilot light burning by staying in touch in the little ways.
4. Letting Your Partner Influence You: Instead of needing to get their own way or be right all the time, people in strong relationships show an interest in their partner’s opinions. They learn to listen respectfully to each other, even when there’s disagreement, and are willing to find compromises.
This doesn’t mean always giving in to your partner. Rather, you are able to come up with solutions that both of you can agree on and that consider both of your opinions, wants and needs, which is key to maintaining a healthy relationship. Sometimes you may benefit from “yielding in order to win,” and let your partner have their way even if it’s not your ideal solution, because it’s preferable to continually fighting or arguing about an issue.
Gottman finds that if you’re a man in a heterosexual relationship, letting your partner influence you is particularly important, as “The wives of men who accept their influence are less likely to be harsh with their husbands when bringing up difficult marital topics, which in turn increases the odds their marriage will thrive.”
5. Solve Your Solvable Problems: Gottman recommends five ways to resolve conflict in a relationship, which we’ll look at in more detail in a post about how to handle a conflict. These five ways are:
- Softening your startup when bringing up difficult issues
- Learning to phrase issues as complaints rather than criticism or blame
- Being able to make and accept repair attempts when disagreements are escalating
- Finding ways to soothe yourself and each other
- Learning to compromise and being tolerant of each other’s faults
6. Overcoming Gridlock: Not all problems are solvable. Some conflicts don’t have a resolution. Unsolvable problems can include things such as how clean the house needs to be, how often you go out together, how often you have sex, your religious beliefs, how to raise your children, or whether or not you want children in the first place. Every couple has a set of unresolvable problems, and relationships are successful to the extent that you learn to cope with these issues.
Gridlock occurs when you start having the same argument over and over, you become more extreme and entrenched in your opinion, and every time the issue comes up you wind up feeling hurt, frustrated, and rejected by your partner. Gottman says that “gridlock is a sign you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other.”
In order to navigate around gridlock, you need to find out what these dreams entail. Then you’ll become able to to move away from gridlock and towards dialogue, and talk about the issue without hurting each other. Even though the issue isn’t resolved, it doesn’t need to create dissatisfaction with the relationship. Ending gridlock involves:
- Discovering and respecting the dreams behind the conflict
- Determining what is non-negotiable for each of you
- Finding areas within the issue where there is some flexibility
- Coming up with temporary compromise
- Continuing to engage in respectful discussions about the ongoing conflict
Following these steps won’t end the conflict, but the issue will no longer hold such a powerful negative grip on your relationship, and your relationship will still be able to thrive despite these differences.
7. Creating Shared Meaning: Gottman says that if you manage to adhere to the first 6 pinciples above, it’s likely you have a good, stable relationship. However, relationships can also have a deeper dimension in which you and your partner create an inner life together. It’s possible to create a culture within your relationship full of rituals and customs that link you and your partner together.
In essence, each couple and each family create its own micro culture [with] their customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of each baby), and myths–the stories the couple tell themselves (whether true, false, or embellished) that explain their sense of what their marriage is like, what it means to be part of their group.
Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead there is a meshing. They find a way of honoring each other’s dreams even if they don’t always share them. The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams…. When a relationship has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is much less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.
If things are already going well in your relationship, you may be doing a lot of these things already. By making sure you continue to keep doing what you’re doing and working on some areas that could use improvement, you can help inoculate your relationship from problems down the road. And if you’re going through some problems, learning to implement these principles in your relationship can help you turn things around.