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You may have heard of the Gottman Institute and its co-founders, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman. The husband-and-wife team have received accolades such as the 2021 Psychotherapy Networker Lifetime Achievement Award and authored over 40 books such as The Man’s Guide to Women and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
With that kind of resume, it’s no wonder psychologists and researchers constantly turn to the Gottmans for inspiration for their own work. Case in point is an article in Psychology Today by Mark Travers, Ph.D., 4 Habits to Keep Your Relationship Strong, which uses Gottman’s material as his basis.
Travers starts with the simple notion that many people have that good relationships are a little magical — some notion of soulmate entering the picture, or perfect chemistry between a couple, so that the relationship exists in a perfect state of equilibrium that requires no input or work to maintain. Excuse us for introducing a bit of reality into this scenario, but the truth is, as Travers points out, “all relationships take work, and we should always be striving to be better partners.” He goes on to discuss those four habits every partner in a relationship should be aware of.
Be gentle, not critical.
Some people challenge the very notion of offering an opinion about their partner’s behavior — “there’s no such thing as constructive criticism!” While this is an obvious over-reaction, there’s a grain of truth in it. “Criticism is a direct attack on someone’s character or behavior,”Travers writes. “It may be expressed as an accusation or judgment about one partner’s personality rather than a specific action or event.” That’s why you need to take care when you want to make what should be an objective comment about your partner. A good place to start is by reframing whatever statement you want to make. Travers’ example is: “Criticism sounds like, ‘You never help around the house!’ instead of ‘I feel frustrated when you don’t help with the chores.” Same message, but it’s hard to argue with a statement about your own feelings no matter the cause of your feelings.
Appreciate instead of being contemptuous.
Contempt in a relationship is a serious matter. According to the Gottman Institute, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. That’s why it should be taken so seriously. Contempt can take many forms of expression: mock sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, eye rolling and other negative forms of body language are all forms of contempt. You can start to break a habit of using contemptuous signals by looking for things in your partner that you can express appreciation for. But if there is a fundamental problem where you focus on the negative in your partner, it may be time to reach out to a professional. Please call us if you think you are in this situation.
Take responsibility instead of being defensive.
It should go without saying but we’ll say it anyway — nobody’s perfect, including you. So if you catch yourself being defensive — throwing out one-liners like, Why are you always blaming me! — it’s time to take a step back and take responsibility. You may be surprised at how well your partner reacts by simply admitting that you bear some (it doesn’t have to be all!) of the responsibility for a confrontation.
Try self-soothing in place of stonewalling.
No matter how difficult it is, communication is the fundamental basis of a good relationship. That’s why it is so counter-productive not to communicate, with stonewalling being a primary form of non-communication. “Stonewalling occurs when one person withdraws emotionally from an argument in order to avoid further conflict,” Travers writes. “This can take many forms — such as avoiding eye contact, walking away from discussions before they’re resolved, refusing to talk about certain topics altogether, and shutting down conversations if things get too heated.” To keep the line of communication open, you may need to compose yourself before continuing. You can do that by being honest with your partner and asking for a little break before you continue talking. Then do exactly that — breathe deep, take a short walk, give yourself a little face massage, anything to calm yourself before you go on.