Half of all marriages these days end in divorce. In our increasingly individualistic society, when we all seem to be over-stretched, over-worked, over-stressed, and overwhelmed, it is harder than ever to make our relationships work. All of us could use a little help in this department. Like most things, the secret to making your partnership a source of support and comfort, rather than additional conflict and frustration, involves constant mindful practice: paying attention to the everyday details.
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman offers a lot of practical, no-nonsense advice to couples, based on substantial research and experience. The following notes are my summary and interpretation of the first three chapters. More to follow.
Get to know each other!
Couples in successful relationships tend to be intimately familiar with each others world. They know one another extremely well. This makes sense: if you don't know someone, how can you truly love them? Love is not an abstraction, nor can it flourish in a vacuum. Gottman terms this getting to know each other 'enhancing your love maps'.
Before someone else can truly know you, you have to get to know yourself. Then you can show yourself to your partner. Many people seem to unconsciously believe that being part of a couple gives them the right to shirk their responsibility for personal growth. The opposite is true. The more we grow individually, the more we have to share, and the closer we can become through the sharing. Referring back to the Johari Windows (my second blog), there is an ongoing shared process of moving material from our unknown, hidden and blind areas out into the open. John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’” Who better than our life partner to share meaning with us in this way?
Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
This is a no-brainer! But how many of us actually, deliberately do it? Simply reminding yourself – every day! – of your partner's positive qualities will help put their flaws into perspective, and prevent a happy relationship from deteriorating. Fondness and admiration are antidotes for that insidious poisoner of relationships, contempt. Even the most jaded of couples fell in love at some point. Positive memories of that happy time can be resurrected and fed simply by thinking and talking about them.
By watching hours and hours of boring video tapes of happy couples, Gottman realized that, contrary to our Hollywood-driven expectations, real-life romance is kept alive not by sweeping gestures, but by trivial little exchanges. People periodically make “bids” for each others attention, affection, humour, or support, often in ways that are so casual and apparently superficial that it's tempting to discount their importance. I might be sitting with my wife and say, “I see the Canucks lost again.” This is a bid. She could react in many ways. She could ignore me completely; tell me how little she cares; snap at me for making boring conversation while she's trying to read; berate me for following such a frustrating team; launch into an in-depth discussion of Luongo's flaws and merits; or make a short remark such as “Yeah, those Bums!”, which shows me she's listening and implicitly agrees, and at the same time suggests that she cares enough about me to make an effort even though she's really not interested in hockey. In countless ways, every time someone makes a bid, their partner can turn toward them, or turn away.
The Emotional Bank Account
The secret to a successful marriage is to turn toward each other in little ways every day. Couples who consistently do so remain emotionally engaged; those who don't eventually lose their way. Whatever our relationship, every time we turn toward each other rather than away, we're putting money into what Gottman calls our joint emotional bank account. By consistently making these small deposits, we build up savings that can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when we're faced with some kind of major life stress or conflict.
The Stress-Reducing Conversation
According to Gottman, the most important conversation a couple can have is of the boring “How was your day, dear?” variety. By having this talk, we help each other to manage the stress in our respective lives that is not caused by the marriage. Who better than our life partner to support, comfort and nourish us in this way?
Here are some guidelines for making this key conversation effective:
- Spend 20-30 minutes per day on this conversation, talking about whatever is on your mind outside your relationship.
- Think about the timing of the chat, and wait until you both want to talk.
- Take turns.
- Don't give unsolicited advice.
- Show genuine interest.
- Communicate your understanding.
- Take your spouse's side. Be supportive. Don't side with the opposition (even if you secretly suspect they might be right).
- Express a “we against others” attitude (even if the “others” are your family of origin).
- Express affection.
- Validate emotions.
- If you don't know what reaction they want from you - a hug, advice, validation, support, a brain-storming session, or just listening - ask them!
Remember, you get very little out of just reading about practices like these: you have to actually do them. Do them until they become a habit.