Structure of a Health Relationship (Section 1)
What is a Healthy Relationship?
“The Sound Relationship House” – Developed by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman
Having a sound relationship house is the goal. You may be asking yourself, “What is a relationship house?” A sound relationship house is not by definition a perfect house, but rather a house that is functional. It has good days and it has bad days, but overall the house functions, is safe, and is a place where a family or couple can thrive. There are four components of the Sound Relationship House. These components include:
- Positive Perspective
- Managing Conflict
- Supporting each other’s hopes and dreams and having a shared understanding of the meaning
- Friendship: Friendship is based on how well we know our partner. The Gottman’s defined the term for how well we know our partner as a love map. Each of us has a love map. Truly knowing our partner is knowing their love map. Knowing our partner equates to understanding their likes and dislikes, knowing about their history and goals (including past traumas), and being knowledgeable about how they will act in given situations. It is also about knowing their interests and enjoyments, such as their favorite types of movies, favorite foods, and their hobbies. In addition to knowledge that comes with knowing someone in an intimate relationship, there are many other tools that help us gain an understanding of our partner – tools such as personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs, which tell us a lot about how our partners perceive and understand the world.
How can you work to build your love map with your partner? Understanding and knowing your partner as described above is a big step in building your love map. Ask yourself, do you admire your partner and express fondness toward them? Do you turn toward your partner? For example, do you spend time together, do you express an interest in your partner’s perspective, do you share values, do you listen, is he or she your best friend? Getting to the point where you answer yes to all of these questions is a great way to build a strong love map.
- A Positive Lens: Just like we know that a positive attitude can improve one’s reactions to life in general, research has found that those with a “positive lens”, or positive perspective, toward their partner created a substantial positive difference in their relationship toward the positive compared to those with a negative lens or negative perspective. With a steady positive attitude, partners typically gives their partner the benefit of the doubt when their spouse or partner makes a mistake. And when their partner does something pleasing, the partner on the receiving end sees this behavior as confirmation that their partner is a great person. On the other hand, couples who regularly experienced hurt, misunderstanding, anger, disappointment, unjust accusations, frustration and personal attacks develop a negative lens. This results in thoughts of leaving, getting even, or protecting themselves. Developing a negative lens leads to a downhill slide in a relationship. With a negative lens, once one’s partner acts unjustly or inappropriate, one views this as confirmation that their partner is not trustworthy or not right for them.
- Managing Conflict: Couples that are able to understand and manage their emotions and behaviors, as well as understand how their partners respond to conflict, are significantly better equipped to have functional relationships. This is related to what is known as Emotional Intelligence. The Gottman’s have found that couples that are able to manage conflict do well, whereas those that don’t manage conflict well often divorce. The Gottman’s uncovered four behaviors that are exhibited during conflict that either sustain conflict or lead to even greater conflict. I will discuss each of these behaviors, labeled the Four Horsemen, and also provide antidotes for each, below.
- CRITICISM – The first of the four horseman. According to John Gottman, most relationships have an element of “criticism”, but it is imperative that couples work on reducing the level of criticism that they give to their partner. Further, when a relationship become negative or highly conflicted, most feedback is perceived as negative. In fact, even constructive criticism is considered negative. Research shows that for every one criticism given, five positive statements are needed to counteract the negative effect of this one statement. This makes it difficult when a relationship is already negative, as it becomes extremely difficult to have positive interactions. The goal is not to be critical, which will help prevent a downward spiral.
- DEFENSIVENESS – The second of the four horsemen and a major offender in relationships. It is one of the most frequent behaviors that I observe in couples therapy when there is conflict. Defensiveness is often a reflex action to criticism or to perceived criticism. Sometimes there is no criticism but just feedback stated. However, the individual on the receiving end responds by blaming the other for doing the same thing, denies their responsibility in the matter or whines and makes an excuse for their behavior. When the original speaker experiences the defensiveness of the receiver they often feel invalidated and alone and the couple becomes more distant. Antidotes to defensiveness are the following: (1) Remind yourself that a relationship is about being part of a team (not two individuals working against each other). (2) Rather than seeing your partner’s words as an attack, see them as strong expressions of feelings about the topic being discussed. (3) Acknowledge that you are not perfect. (4) Remind yourself of the positive qualities of your partner. (5) Most importantly, take some responsibility for the feedback your partner is expressing. Don’t apologize for something you have not done. Accepting even 10 percent of responsibility, if it is due, will de-escalate tension, improve communication, and build trust.
- STONEWALLING – The third of the four horsemen. Stonewalling is just as it sounds. It is an avoidance or refusal to address or communicate about an issue or conflict. To the other partner, stonewalling often feels as though they are “talking to a brick wall”. In his research, Dr. Gottman found that 85 percent of men used stonewalling as a way of dealing with conflict, yet they did not realize that this was a very destructive strategy. Men often use a distancing technique to cope with high levels of emotion. Remember that withdrawing from an argument does not solve it and “parallel living” has been found to be a consequence of this behavior over the longer term. Parallel living leads to a pulling away from a relationship, leaving it vulnerable to outside forces. Also stonewalling leads to increased conflict and major melt downs when the non-stonewaller begins to chase the stonewaller about an issue. At some point the stonewaller reacts with rage, often leading the couple to a regrettable incident. Antidotes to Stonewalling are as follows: Resist the temptation to withdraw –stay with your partner emotionally. Look for the good in each other. Make time for positive experiences. Don’t ignore your partner and give some sort of response even if it is just a nod or a brief reply. Further, it is important to practice good self care to avoid stonewalling. We often stonewall because we are anxious about conflict. Conflict causes many of us anxiety. Again, in order to better manage the anxiety of dealing with difficult issues, it is important to practice good self care like getting a good night sleep, exercising frequently, and maintaining a healthy diet. Avoidance is okay in a relationship as long as you are avoiding stonewalling.
- CONTEMPT – The fourth of the four horsemen (belligerence is a term used by Gottman to describe a stronger form of contempt. Belligerence is also known as the cousin of the four horsemen). Gottman believed that “contempt” was the most dangerous of the horsemen and he found that “contempt in a relationship” was predictive of divorce in 86 percent of cases. “Contempt” can be described as any behavior which causes your partner to feel “put down”. Examples include belittling your partner, treating them with disdain, eye rolling, sneering, insults, name calling, mocking and cynicism. Contempt can be as simple as having disdain or disgust with your partner in how they chew gum, eat, drive, or snore at night. Warning signs of “contempt” include: You no longer feel admiration for your partner. It is difficult for you to remember your partner’s positive aspects. You feel that your partner has severe personality deficiencies. Antidotes for contempt include: Focus on your partner’s positive qualities. Use “time-out” when you recognize that the situation is becoming heated. Watch your tone and facial expressions. Focus on the behavior and not the person. Most importantly, gain an appreciation of where your partner is coming from. Often when we are able to put our partner’s behavior in context, we have a greater appreciation of the cause or causes of their behavior and as a result, better see that their behavior is about them rather than about us.
Additional Tools to Resolve Conflict:
It is imperative that both partners accept the “influence” of others. Typically in relationships there is a top and a bottom, and the top has ultimate veto power. Relationships are most effective when each party has equal veto power with most issues. Further, Dr. Gottman found that in the happiest of marriages, men accepted the “influence” of their partners. Examples of “influence” include: a belief that you can learn from your partner, not rejecting their opinions and believing that they can also come up with good solutions.
Partners that make effective repairs have functional and successful relationships. This means that functional parties resolve problems or arguments during the argument. When couples resolve each argument, problems are resolved at that time and do not become additive and resurface during a future argument. Further, having a partner who has the ability to say they are sorry is crucial. Being able to say you are wrong takes courage and trust and is helpful in reducing conflict and having a loving relationship. Creating an atmosphere where one can break the negativity is helpful. One can use humor or offer their partner a cup of coffee or tea after the argument, ask their partner for a hug or make light of the argument without invalidating the other. Make-up intimacy also helps make peace and reconnects the partners. Moreover, having a sense that your partner will accept your efforts to improve the situation and vice versa is paramount.
Making compromises is key in building trust and commitment and ensuring safety. Having a sense that your partner will give way on things if there is a disagreement ensures safety. “Black and white thinking” – such as “I’m right so you must be wrong” – is dangerous. Couples must be able to give and take in an argument and share power.
Also, couples need to fight with the end in mind. So what should the end in mind consist of? The end in mind should focus on resolving the issue and simultaneously ensuring your partner feels good during and after the conflict. Both partners must control their stubbornness. Couples should practice calming techniques, meaning they should pay attention to their heart rates. When we have a heart rate above 90 to 95 beats per minute, we are emotionally flooded and have difficulty being rational in arguments and are in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. When we are flooded, we should pause or take a time-out for 20 to 30 minutes from an argument and then resume discussion in order to resolve the conflict. Just as we should not spank our children when we are angry or emotional, we should not argue or discuss important matters with our partner when we are angry, or we will inevitably say or do something that we regret. Most importantly, if you need a break from an argument, take a break, but resolve the issue immediately following your break.
Watch for signs of flooding – like feeling overwhelmed, not being able to stay calm during arguments, wanting distance, and small issues becoming big ones. If you are flooded, take a break.
Finally, I have illustrated Safe Talking Techniques that have been adapted from Markman and Stanley in “Fighting for your Marriage.” These techniques enable each partner to speak without interruption.
- Use of a jointly valued item such as a talking tool (for example, a wedding ring or a photo of the family or the couple).
- Each person takes turns to hold the item and the person who holds it also holds the floor.
- The person listening then repeats back what they have heard and checks that it is correct.
- The other person then takes hold of the talking item and speaks while their partner summaries.
Dr. Gottman has developed a five step tool to discuss an issue or major problem that needs to be resolved. Remember the goal is to gain a greater understanding of where your partner is coming from rather than to win the argument. When I work with couples, I want them both to feel like they have been heard, understood, and are accepted for their position. Often achieving the above deescalates the situation and the couple finds resolution. Couples that get along and don’t have conflict easily agree to disagree. Couples who have high conflict are threatened by disagreement.
In using the five steps below, couples should work through each step together.
- Feelings: Share how you felt about the situation. Do not say why you felt that way. Avoid commenting on your partner’s feelings. Stay in your lane.
- Realities: Describe your “reality.” Take turns. Summarize and validate at least a part of your partner’s reality. Remember, their reality should not be a threat to you. During conflict we have selective attention and therefore partners remember the same situation differently.
- Triggers: Share what experiences or memories you have had that might have escalated the interaction, and the stories of why these are triggers for each of you. Own your own trigger. Don’t blame, criticize, or minimize your partner’s triggers.
- Responsibility: Acknowledge your own role in contributing to the fight or incident. This is the opposite of defensiveness. When we take a little responsibility this is deescalating for our partner.
- Constructive Plans: Plan together one way that each of you can make it better next time. Now that you both have a better appreciation of where your partner is coming from, you have been heard, and you each have taken some of the responsibility for the regrettable incident, you are better able to find a resolution with your partner.
- Shared meaning of the relationship: Supporting each other’s hopes and dreams and having a shared understanding of the meaning brings us to the last section of the Sound Relationship House. If we are able to achieve friendship, see our partner through a positive lens, and resolve conflict, then we are ready for this last component. This component involves having shared rituals, goals, roles and symbols with each other.
- Rituals: Finding shared rituals is important. Rituals bring us together, give us security, and provide us with an activity that we look forward to. Ask yourself what type of rituals you would consider creating with your partner. What are the rituals that you engage in within your family? Do you eat dinner together, are there special celebrations that you all value, do you share values regarding television, education, time spent together?
- Goals: Just as it is important to have developed rituals, successful couples have shared goals and visions for their lives and the relationship. An effective relationship is one that supports each person achieving their own personal goals as well as the goals of their partner. Ask yourself and your partner, do you honor each other’s goals, do you have similar financial goals, do you have compatible life dreams, do you each value the accomplishments of the other, and do your life paths fit well together?
- Roles: In an effective and functional relationship, each person has an agreed upon role or roles that are supported by the other. Ask yourself, do you support each other in your role in the family, does one of you have an expectation that you hold a particular role that is not shared by the other? How does this impact your relationship?
- Symbols: In a functional partnership, individuals understand their partner’s meaning behind symbols and factors related to daily living. It is not necessary to have the same understanding or meaning with symbols but it is paramount that we appreciate what the following mean to our partner. It is also important not to just appreciate but to honor our partner’s meaning and reality of these symbols. Some key symbols include:
- The home
- The meaning of family
- The role of sex
- Fun and play
- Personal freedom
- Sharing power
Spend 30 minutes as a couple and complete the following exercises.
- Share something with your partner that they don’t know about you.
- Each of you share something that you admire or find amazing about the other.
- Commit to each other that for today you will practice moving toward each other and be open to the other’s expressions of affection and desire to communicate.
- Explore together how the balance of power may be improved in the relationship. Do you both share equal power related to spending, children, future plans, and domestic responsibilities?
- Use one of the techniques above to discuss an issue that has created conflict (Gottman or Markman and Stanley).
- Together discuss a personal goal that you would like the other to help you accomplish, create a new ritual that will define you as a couple, and discuss personal values that you each have that you would like to follow as a couple.