'Reviving Your Relationship by Strengthening The Positives'
One of the most interesting findings of John Gottman's research also has important implications for how couples therapy should be structured. It is as follows: just because we can identify the key behaviors that are associated with unsuccessful couples doesn’t necessarily mean that we can turn them into successful couples just by attempting to directly change those behaviors.
“Positive Sentiment Override”
Gottman observes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that “I was not able to crack the code to saving marriages until I started to analyze what went right in happy marriages”. His research shows that successful marriages are characterized by a “positive sentiment override” which allows couples to give each other the benefit of the doubt, accept repair efforts in the midst of a fight and even bring in humor when discussing a gridlocked issue.
On the other hand, if someone is in “negative sentiment override” they appear to have a chip on their shoulder, are often unwilling to accept repair efforts, and generally behave as if their partner is an enemy rather than an ally.
Once a couple is in “negative sentiment override” they cannot be easily convinced to shift into a more positive stance. Something deeper needs to change. Just attempting to regulate negativity is not enough; couples therapy must also help couples build the positive feelings that create “positive sentiment override”.
The Importance of the Friendship Foundation
Ultimately it is the strength of a couple’s friendship that creates "positive sentiment override" — and the quality of this “friendship” is the best predictor of how couples manage conflict over the longer term. We need our partners to respect us, show genuine interest in us, and turn toward us — and then we are much more tolerant of the inevitable conflicts or disappointments that will exist in any intimate relationship. This friendship foundation also holds the key to maintaining romance, passion and good sex in a relationship once the initial infatuation subsides.
Listed below are the three principles identified by Gottman that, taken together, determine whether a couple is in "positive sentiment override". These principles are the basis of the friendship foundation:
- Love maps. “Love maps” refers to how well you really know and understand each other — being “intimately familiar with each other’s world”. It includes knowing basic things, such as who our friends are, how we like our coffee, our favorite movies, what we liked and didn’t like about high school, etc. — but we also can know the nature of each others hopes and dreams, our greatest accomplishments and greatest disappointments or traumas, how these experiences have affected our lives, and what life goals we have yet to realize. Truly understanding another person also means knowing how they feel about emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, affection and joy--and how these emotions were (or were not) expressed in their original families.
- Fondness and admiration. Some glimmer of fondness and admiration is essential if a relationship is to survive; there must be a sense at the deepest level that the other is worthy of being respected and liked. Just as a child needs to see the glimmer in the mother’s eyes, we need to feel, cherish and express our fondness and respect for each other. And because fondness and admiration is an antidote for contempt, it also shields our relationship from the most destructive, negative forces.
- Turning towards each other instead of away. A person is “turning toward” when they respond to and accept the “bids” that the other person makes for their attention, support or affection. By turning toward rather than away, a person is investing in an “emotional bank account”. This provides extra goodwill, a kind of “emotional savings” — money in the bank that is available in difficult times. Turning toward can be as simple as responding to a question, laughing at a joke, inquiring further about a hard day your spouse had, or finding a way to show that you enjoy your partners interests, even if they are different from yours. It is often about the little things that you do for each other on a day to day, minute by minute basis.
Strengthening the Friendship Foundation
Perhaps the most powerful step that a couple can take to improve their relationship is to acknowledge the importance of the above three principles and make a conscious effort to strengthen and celebrate these principles on an ongoing basis. Making a commitment to get to know our partner more completely, to think about, focus on and talk about the things we like and respect about each other (rather than dwell on what we don’t like), and to practice turning towards rather than turning away — this is what will activate the joy, romance, passion and connection that we all want more of in our relationships.
Fortunately, we have many concepts and tools to help us in this process. One of John Gottman’s greatest contributions is that he has used his extensive research to develop a wide range of questionnaires and exercises that can help couples nurture these “friendship” principles and create rituals of connection that can be brought into our daily lives. It always takes some discipline to change behavior, even the small steps that are recommended here, but it is a discipline that is well worth the effort!
How to Fan the Embers
But what if you are thinking that discipline alone is not enough, that it may be too late for you? If you are concerned that it is too late, think back on what originally attracted you to your partner. Can you still remember some of the positives and why you selected them in the first place? If your fondness and admiration system has become deeply buried, you may need couples therapy to help you fan the embers and recreate the sparks — but as long as the embers are still there, your relationship has a chance of flourishing.
Many couples find that they have become emotionally disengaged over the years. One or both of you may have given up trying to express your views, and you end up handling things on your own, living parallel lives, and feeling lonely and alienated. You may have been successful in eliminating much of the conflict in your relationship, but you have lost the positive feelings as well.
If this is the case, it may be necessary to first reestablish communication and begin to air some of the grievances and built up resentments — even if it means getting into a fight. Couples therapy can help structure these communications and keep them safe. Then, once things are out in the open again, you can practice hearing and understanding each other and begin to build back the friendship bonds.
How to Address Imbalances in the Desire for Intimacy
Other couples find themselves stuck in the turning toward process because one person consistently makes bids while the other turns away. This is sometimes simply a mismatch of styles between two people with very different needs for connection versus autonomy. Because there is a wide range of normal preference when it comes to the amount and intensity of connection that people want and need, such mismatches are not uncommon. These relationships can still work, but it is essential that both people deeply understand each other and communicate effectively so as to avoid hurt feelings.
In other cases, people may actually want or need more intimacy (or recognize that something is missing), but be blocked from achieving it due to fears (often unconscious) about expressing vulnerability or neediness. Traumas or deprivations from childhood leave many of us out of touch with (or feeling shame about) deeper parts of ourselves that nonetheless long to be seen and expressed. Sadly, we often end up hiding these parts of ourselves from the ones we love.
Fear of intimacy can be readily addressed in couples therapy by sensitive coaching on the part of the therapist to help bring out thoughts and feelings that are not normally expressed. In fact, a relationship is often the ideal vehicle for identifying and healing childhood wounds.
Not surprisingly, when we explore our areas of greatest conflict, we often find that underneath the hostilities are the hurts and vulnerabilities that define our deepest longings. And, miraculously, our partner is often the perfect person to help us heal those wounds — we may just need a little help in getting there. (See my article “Turning Conflict into Intimacy”.)
Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW | Relationship Realizations™
180 East 79th Street, Suite 1A, New York, NY 10075
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