Making Spousal Relationships Work

You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly. — Sam Keen

This Valentine’s Day, along with the cards, flowers and dining out, let us give our ourselves and spouses, who are often our stressed caregivers, an additional gift—seven conversations on the art of strengthening our relationships.

The work comes from psychologist John M. Gottman, Ph.D.*, with the University of Washington. His findings are research based. He and his colleagues have studied hundreds of couples interviewing and videotaping their interactions, noting what they say and how they say it, monitoring stress levels by checking physiological indicators such as their heart rate, sweat flow, blood pressure and immune function.

Gottman is considered by many to be the country’s foremost relationship expert. Based on his empirical observations, he can predict, in manner of minutes, which couples will divorce with a 91% accuracy.

But more to our point of interest, his research has identified the basic components that keep a marital union together.

If you are so inclined, then, pick up a copy of John’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and, along with your partner, treat yourself to seven evenings of conversations and activities that will heighten your relationships. Here is a preview.

1. Enhancing your love maps
Successful couples take notice of each other’s preferences, moods, states of being—and this a map they keep expanding.

  • What stressor is your partner currently facing?
  • What would your partner say are your dearest hopes and aspirations?

2. Nurturing your fondness and admiration
These are two of the most important elements in a satisfying and long-term relationship.

  • List three or more of your partner’s positive characteristics and describe an occasion in which they embody each quality.
  • Read your lists to each other.

3. Turning toward each other instead of away
Real life romance lives and thrives in the little things of our everyday life. It creates goodwill and positive sentiments that brighten the day and helps smooth the way when the rough times hit.

  • Romance is finding time to talk, without interruptions, attentively, mindfully, acknowledging each other.
  • Romance is helping each other with housework, which is our work; not just your work.

4. Letting your partner influence you
Successful couples are considerate of each other’s perspective and feelings. They make decisions together and search out common ground. They share power.

  • Between the two of you, who is more invested in having an opinion prevail and win an argument?
  • List five important lessons you have learned from your spouse.

5. Solving your solvable problems
Gottman asserts that there are two types of relationship conflict: resolvable and perpetual. The former are more transitory, situational. The latter are intense, gridlocked, underlying, serious issues. Gottman devised a five-step model for resolving solvable conflicts.

  • Begin the conflicted conversation without criticism or contempt.
  • Make and receive attempts to deescalate tension.
  • If you feel emotionally overwhelmed by the conversation, let your partner know and take a break. After you have calmed down, help soothe your partner. Ask each other what would be the most constructive way to proceed and follow that course.
  • Compromise. Take your partner’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Make a list of your negotiable and nonnegotiable points. Share them with each other and look for common ground.
  • Be tolerant of each other’s flaws, or compromise will not be achieved.

6. Overcoming gridlock
The approach towards addressing perpetual problems asks couples to “move from gridlock to dialogue.”  This is facilitated by partners coming to understand that the presence of gridlock signals the existence of a personal dream or striving that is not being fulfilled.

  • Determine the dream or dreams that are causing you to hurt.
  • Make peace with the problem; try to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of great pain and, therefore, intransigence.

7. Create shared meaning
Marital life has a spiritual dimension.  Out of both our dreams, as spouses we create  an inner life, a culture, rich in goals, values, symbols and rituals. We develop shared meaning.

  • What are your and your partner’s views on faith?
  • What value do you assign to work and leisure?

In sum, a marital relationship that works is one between lifelong friends. Happy Valentine!

* Gottman, J. and Nan Silver (1999), The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. Three Rivers Press: New York.

NWPF-plus-PRO-Logos_292x147This post was originally published by its proprietor, the Northwest Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. It is reproduced here with their permission.

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