Another influence on how I think about my work is John Gottman’s research on marriage and relationships. Dr. Gottman and his research teams have observed thousands of couples as they have everyday conversations, including conflicts. In several books written for the general public, Dr. Gottman has distilled these observations into a set of principles to help marriages thrive.
Because there’s so much in this research and theory, I’m providing links to read more details below. In this post, I want to highlight a few of the concepts that I have found especially useful.
First, there’s the idea that it’s not arguing that’s the problem, it’s how you argue and just as importantly, how you repair after the argument that predicts relationship success. What Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, these are the ingredients that are toxic to a relationship. Too much of any of these, but especially contempt, predict divorce. Having an effective repair strategy, which is how a couple deescalates the tension during and after a conflict, is another important ingredient in a successful marriage.
A second concept that I like is the importance of being receptive to your partner’s “bids” for your attention. Dr. Gottman describes this as turning toward each other instead of away. Think about the difference in how you feel when your partner turns towards you and is interested in what you are saying and how it feels when your partner continues to look at the television or computer screen when you’re trying to engage them. These failed bids over time chip away at your feelings of connection and good will. Creating a positive climate in the relationship, what Dr. Gottman calls “positive sentiment override”, helps buffer the relationship from the inevitable failed bids and disconnects inherent in any relationship.
A third idea is openness to your partner’s influence. Dr. Gottman found that the happiest marriages were those where the spouses shared decision making and actively searched for common ground. Putting being connected over being right is a key to marital satisfaction.
Of course, all couples have problems/conflicts/points of disagreement. Dr. Gottman suggests that disagreements are either solvable or unresolvable.
What is a solvable issue for one couple is an unresolvable for another. For example, dividing household chores can be a non-issue for some couples, while for others, it’s an ongoing source of difference and tension in the relationship. Solvable issues are dispensed with through respectful negotiation (Dr. Gottman offers clear direction to each partner for increasing your chance of successful resolution) while unresolvable issues need to be accepted as ongoing struggles.
All couples have unresolvables. These issues need extra attention by both partners, especially talking with a respectful tone, accepting that there is no one “right” answer, but that the partners have two contrasting points of view. Keeping the conversation open and ongoing is one key to managing the unresolvable issue. Avoiding the Four Horsemen described above is another.
If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Gottman’s research, click here. For a nice summary article about the principles for making marriage work, click here.
My name is Carol J. Tadeusik. I am a licensed psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. I invite you to read my blog and get to know me and a bit about how I think. And by the way, I love comments!
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