As people, we’re wired to connect with each other. We want to communicate, to feel valued and respected. And we want healthy relationships that make us feel good, both mentally and emotionally.
It’s fair to say all good relationships have things in common, like being well-matched and showing each other respect. In our ‘Keys to a Good Relationship’ section, we’ll chat about these and look at how we can bring them into our relationships. We’ll also share tips on what we can do to make our relationships as good as possible.
“Making a relationship work requires commitment, and commitment requires sticking it out through the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. It requires that partners do small positive things often”
Dr John Gottman
Leading US psychological researcher and clinician
Perspectives and Power
The research tells us tells us that there are ways we can get to and enjoy healthy relationships – and it starts with understanding ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Power and Control’.
We all have different perspectives or views. You and your partner might wash the dishes in a different way. You might feel differently about who does what around the house. It might even come down to how often you catch up with friends.
Whatever the case, our own views are usually influenced by our individuality, those we look up to and what was ‘normal to us when we were children. And for us, the way we see things is the right way!
That usually means that the other person is ‘wrong’. Neither of us is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We just have different perspectives.
Rather than defend our rightness and try to change our partner’s point of view, we need to try to understand it.
We’re the only ones who are responsible for our thoughts and behaviour – and if we all stuck to that rule, we would all be respectful of the other person’s views. We might even let go of some of our views for the good of the relationship.
If we think about the important relationships in our lives, do we value and respect our partner’s points of view? Do we listen to them rather than defend our position or, worse still, force our thinking on them?
We need to be aware of those moments when we might be controlling; and be tuned into any issues that arise from your partner’s perspective.
We can all improve our relationships by:*
- having relaxed 30-minute chats each day to share important, interesting and exciting events – it’s also a great way to reduce stress
- going on weekly dates of about three hours each, where we both open up about our worries and stresses as well as our hopes and dreams
- looking into each other’s eyes during everyday events – and by making the most of these thousands of moments each year, we’ll enjoy a far better emotional connection
- raising issues as they come up and discussing them within a day or so, in a calm and caring fashion
- having positive thoughts about each other and our relationship when we’re apart. It’s good too, to connect positively once a day, either by text or phone.
* Adapted from material by The Gottman institute
Power and control happen when one of us in the relationship always wants things our way.
We believe we are always right; we don’t listen to the views of our partner – and the result is an unhealthy relationship.
When we both have equal control, there’s mutual respect, we discuss things, we take a bit and give a bit.
We understand each other and our needs. And those niggly things like who washes the dishes and the way they do them, disappear.
The Importance of Appreciation
Appreciating each other is important throughout a healthy relationship, especially in the years after the initial crush fades.
The early days of most relationships are generally positive. We’re in love and there’s a strong sexual attraction to each other.
That’s the hormone oxytocin at work. Also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’, it’s around for about the first two years of a relationship. It deepens our love, our bonding and our wellbeing.
The trouble is it has a ‘use by’ date. And when it expires, the real work of love begins. While our ‘puppy love’ needs to grow into something stronger, it doesn’t mean the end of romantic attraction. It just means romantic attraction alone cannot keep the relationship going. New couples, especially, need to prepare themselves for this day – and it’s best we start at the beginning.
What do we appreciate about each other? What are our different strengths and positive qualities? Let’s recognise and appreciate these, let’s become a team and be happy when we’re together.
The respected relationship research team of John and Julie Gottman have developed something they call the ‘Sound Relationship House’, and one of the foundations of this is ‘fondness and admiration’ for each other. When we remind ourselves what we like about each other, we develop an admiration for each other that keeps us going long after that ‘cuddle hormone’ is gone.
It’s great to say things like ‘I’m proud of you’, ‘I’m attracted to you’, ‘I’m impressed by you’ and ‘I like you’ – but it’s much better when we explain why, for example:
- I’m proud of the way you (do whatever it is you do)
- I’m attracted to your (looks, fairness, or whatever it is)
- I am impressed that you (did whatever you did)
- I like how you (do whatever it is you do)
- Thank you for (doing whatever you have done)
- I really appreciate the fact you (behave in whatever way you behaved)
By regularly sharing these feelings with our partner, even if we think they already know this stuff, we can be sure they’ll enjoy hearing it said aloud.
We should also think about adding ‘thank you’ to our conversations, starting with thanking our partner for the things they do for us, such as ‘thank you for making the bed’. The next step is to thank them for who they are, for their positive qualities like being practical, caring, gentle, reliable, responsible, honest, kind etc.
And when we do this regularly, week in and week out, we will have real admiration, real appreciation and long-term love in our relationship.
Note: This article is based on the research of John and Julie Gottman www.gottman.com
Calmness is Essential
Calmness is the key!
We’ve all been told to ‘calm down’ at some time or other, and we know it usually has the opposite effect.
However, staying calm when we become angry or emotionally overloaded is important.
The science – neuroscience – tells us so.
When we become escalated emotionally, our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol, which causes us to fight, run away or freeze. Thinking clearly becomes difficult and we can say nasty things we do not mean.
The Gottmans call this ‘flooding’ – our emotions are escalated, and our bodies become filled with stress hormones – we can’t have a healthy conversation and we need ‘time out’.
For some of us, it may last five minutes before we settle down; for others, much longer. Some may need to sit quietly and breathe deeply; others might go for a long walk or listen to relaxing music.
Flooding is often associated with anger, especially as anger often covers up feelings such as embarrassment, sadness and hopelessness. We need to be calm if we are to identify the feelings beneath the anger.
If someone, let’s call her Chloe, has a partner who is ignoring her and continues to tap away at his laptop, she might lash out by saying:
“I’m so angry when you ignore me and focus on the computer. You make me feel like what I say is so unimportant to you.”
The feeling beneath the anger here is ‘unimportant’. Once identified, she can explain this in words her partner can understand. She can invite him to fix the situation rather than become defensive. Instead of starting a fight, they respectfully discuss her feelings and, importantly, she’s asking him to be on her team.
The first of the attached handouts expands on flooding and offers some ideas to manage it, while the second shows an anger iceberg with the many emotions which lie beneath its surface.
Note:This article is based on the research of John and Julie Gottman www.gottman.com, along with references to Dr Dan Seigel www.mindsightinstitute.com. Both have extensive books, YouTube videos and online courses which can be accessed.
Buttons to handouts
- Don’t Let Emotional ‘Flooding’ Ruin Your Relationship
- The Anger Iceberg
Your heart speeds up, adrenaline starts to flow. You’re filled with the stress hormone, cortisol, unable to think or communicate clearly. You may even have sweaty palms and high blood pressure.
At a heart rate above 100 beats per minute, we cannot hear what our partner is trying to tell us, no matter how hard we try.
We’re in the middle of a classic case of what Dr John Gottman calls flooding – and the only remedy is to take a break, to calm down and to soothe ourselves. We want to return to normal.
It helps if we can learn to recognise the physical signs of flooding in both ourselves and our partners. It may be that we feel we’re becoming defensive or can’t listen to what they’re saying. Another sign is your heart rate, which can shoot up when we’re in this state.
We should then end the conversation and tell our partner we need a break. It’s best to do so in a gentle way by saying things like, ‘Let’s take a break’, ‘I’m feeling flooded’ or ‘Let’s leave this for a time when we’re calmer’.
It’s important that we tell our partner that this is a break, not a decision to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable matter – and we can do this by stressing that we will happily return to the conversation when we’re both ready.
During the break, we should do something that helps us get back to a relaxed state. We might go for a walk, listen to our favourite music or read a magazine. What’s important is that it works for us. And as we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths when flooded, it’s a good idea to do the opposite. Take slow, deep breaths while watching our tummy gently rise and fall.
We should also shut out negative thoughts as they will only add to our flooding. It’s better to reflect on all the good things about our partner.
We shouldn’t set time limits on when we’ll return to the conversation as we might be ready in an hour, our partner in a day or more. Once we have both calmed down, a gentle touch of and kind word to our partner can help with the healing.
As flooding is bound to occur from time to time in our relationships, we should chat about these occasions and what we each need to keep the conversation healthy. When flooding again occurs, we will both know what to do – and we will find that by working through these sensitive issues, our relationship has grown.
This article has been summarised from the material of Dr John Gottman and RPA Psychology.
Handout 2 – Anger Iceberg
Communications is so important – but what does it mean? It’s one of the things many couples want to be able to do better. This section looks at what communication is, what we need to do and what we need to avoid for good communication.
We all get into areas of conflict with others – it might be about house work, spending time online, how much money we give or spend on family. It’s normal to have differences but we need to have healthy ways to communicate about these and share our hearts at an emotional level.
This section builds on our earlier work regarding ensuring we are calm. We can’t communicate well if we are overloaded with stress and our emotions are escalated. If the conversation begins to get too heated we need to be able to call time-out.
Topics covered in this section of Communication include:
- Picking our battles
- The do’s and don’ts of communication
- Avoiding criticism and defensiveness
- The importance of listening
First, it’s important to pick our battles as some people argue over every little thing. The dishes on the benchtop, the amount of screen time spent, the grocery list, the finances, how clothes are hung on the washing line all become major issues. It can feel like a battleground in the home! We need to prioritise our battles and avoid arguing over everything. We need to think ‘Does this really matter? Is it worth having a home with continual conflict?’
So what are the do’s and don’ts of communication?
John and Julie Gottman over many years have observed thousands of couples as they deal with conflict situations. Through that process they identified ‘master’ and ‘disaster’ couples. The ‘master’ couples had relationships that worked well and endured, while the ‘disaster’ couples did not last the distance.
So what was the difference between the two groups? The Gottmans found that there were some key factors to avoid in a relationship, and some key things do to help improve a relationship.
|Things to Avoid||Do this instead|
This often takes the form of verbally attacking another person’s personality, character or behaviour. It often includes blaming or accusing the other person of something. It often starts with a statement like, ‘you never do…’, or ‘you always…’ or you ‘never listen…’.
|Use a gentle start up
Use our voice for a soft gentle start-up and use ‘I’ statements to talk about our feelings and a positive need we have. We could gently say, ‘hey can we catch up to have a chat about something’. Then have a conversation about how we may be feeling about an issue, rather than accusing the other person, for example say, ‘I feel frustrated when I don’t have help to clean up – can you please help me when we finish dinner?’, instead of saying ‘you’re so lazy, you never help me clean up’.
When we are criticised, we often feel under attack and victimised so we reverse the blame to feel better. For example one person may say, ‘you always leave your shoes on the floor’, and you respond with ‘well, it’s your fault that you tripped over them’, prompting the other person to return fire. This attack-defend-attack exchange can go on and on and is destructive.
|Take responsibility and listen without interruption.
Take responsibility for our side of a disagreement – there are always two sides to a story. Accept the feedback we are given and apologise for any wrong doing without returning fire. Listen without interruption to the other person and make sure we understand the intention of what they are trying to say.
Contempt is an attitude that says underneath everything ‘I am better than you’ in some way. It is intended as an insult and can be delivered through a verbal putdown or even name-calling’, sarcasm – biting humour at the other person’s expense or body language, for example eye rolling.
Showing appreciation is important because it helps raise someone up. It makes both people feel good about the positives. Remind ourselves of our partner’s positive qualities and tells them their value.
Sometimes we can feel ourselves starting to shut down or withdraw from a conversation because we are becoming overwhelmed. In these situations, a person may seem disconnected, but their heart rate is high and their body physiology is escalated.
|Time out to self soothe
Take a break from the situation and do something to distract and relax a little, then return to the conversation when more in control and able to express your feelings calmly.
The importance of listening.
For better communication we need to be able to really listen to people, rather than just focus on getting our point across. We often react to what we heard them say, and not to what they have actually said. To ensure we have heard correctly, summarise and replay back to them what you heard. Check whether we have understood correctly.
Managing Conflict in a Health Way
Jess pops in unannounced to visit her friends, Emily and Josh, only to find them in the middle of an argument.
“How can you not see it my way?” yells Emily. “It’s the truth and you know it. You’re just too stubborn to admit it!”
Josh looks miffed and fires back:
“C’mon, that’s not what happened. How can you not see that? I’m right, you’re wrong. How about you admit it?”
Jess decides to step in.
“Hey, I’m going to stop you both. This discussion isn’t helpful.”
They both look at her as Emily demands, “Well, who is right? Me or him?”
“You both are,” replies Jess, “and here’s why…”
“Your argument highlights one of the most common problems during conflict. You both feel like you are on different teams, both trying to score points against each other by attacking the other’s position and defending your own. There can never be a winner.
“Conflict discussion is all about a win for both of you, even if you need to give a bit, take a bit. And that can only happen when you listen with understanding to each other’s views.
“It’s not easy, but don’t automatically see your point of view as superior. It’s better to respect each other, accept that we each hold views that we believe are correct.”
Jess then shares what she calls ‘Fair Fight Rules’ when working through a conflict.
- Conflict in relationships is part of life; our job is to find ways to manage it.
- There is always a right time and place to discuss conflicts – and that’s when there are no distractions, we’re not tired, angry or stressed and are able to talk in a calm fashion.
- We should always start by identifying the problem, whether it’s who does the household chores, who needs to communicate better or whatever else.
- We must allow each to have their say and, when starting a difficult discussion, think about using ‘I messages’. Statements like ‘I feel…’ give us ownership of our feelings.
- We should listen to our partner without interrupting them.
- We should stay calm and try not to make the other person feel guilty.
- Always speak in a polite and respectful tone.
- Avoid mind games, name calling or attacks on our partner.
- Stick to the issue being discussed. Don’t bring up the past and don’t add new issues until the one we’re discussing has been settled.
- And finally, always remember the advice surrounding flooding, and if it occurs, follow it.
We all hold points of view for a reason.
In relationships, we need to put our personal agenda aside and do our best to understand where our partner is coming from.
Managing the gridlock
That doesn’t mean you always give in. Indeed, John and Julie Gottman have found that agreement doesn’t necessarily make couples happy. In fact, the happiest couples are those who disagree on about 69% of issues, among them important matters like politics and religion.
It’s all about managing the gridlock – and that starts with understanding and respecting the views of those in our lives, no matter how different they might be.
It’s not easy, especially with big issues like education, the in-laws, parenting, religion and social justice. When our views cause us to feel ignored and alone, our limbic system – that’s the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses – is threatened and we become defensive and angry.
We can avoid this by listening to what our partner is saying, and understanding why they hold a particular point of view. We might discuss our different approaches to parenting by sharing how we were parented as children. We might not agree, but we respect the differing perspectives.
The concept of compromise
These conversations should also seek to reach some sort of compromise. When the gridlocked issue crops up time and again, maybe a temporary compromise – with a promise to review the issue regularly – is the best option. If, for example, you have difficulty being in the same company as your mother-in-law, the compromise might be to attend the family Christmas event and to review it again after Christmas Day.
Those conflicts that are less gridlocked tend to have longer-term compromises and are managed easier.
Regardless of the conflict, most can be settled through honest and open conversation, where we listen and hear our partner’s viewpoint, without judgement.
The importance of listening.
We tend to think communication is about talking, but carefully listening – and without interruption – is just as important.
Most of us could be better listeners. One way to improve is to summarise what we believe our partner is saying and then get them to confirm we’re on the right track. We might say something like, “Let me see if I have heard you right – you’re frustrated that the dishes are on the kitchen benchtop and would prefer them being placed in the sink?” Our partner can then confirm whether we have heard them correctly.
It’s not easy, but it we practice taking the time to listen to and understand the story behind the differences we have with our partner, it will be well worth the effort.
Ref: John and Julie Gottman www.gottman.com
The Friendship Base
The Gottman Method tells us that friendship is the foundation of every good relationship. Happy couples know all about each other, their hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes, fears, stressors, best and worst memories. And it leads to intimacy, passion and great sex.
The Gottmans call this a love map. It goes much deeper than the trivial questions and uses the answers to build a mental encyclopaedia of our partner’s world, like a map of their heart.
While more information on love maps can be found by downloading the free Gottman Card Decks App, we share just a few examples of the types of questions asked:
- What is your partner’s favourite musical group, their favourite musical instrument?
- What are your partner’s favourite hobbies and why do they have them?
- What personal improvements does your partner want to make to their life?
- What was one of your partner’s best childhood experiences?
- What is your partner’s favourite way of being soothed?
Love maps also require regular updating as our interests and passions tend to change over time. Keeping up with these changes, especially if we’ve been in the relationship for years, will ensure that our love map is current and filled will knowledge of those closest to us.
There’s not a relationship counsellor out there who has not come across couples who complain that they no longer share common interests and have grown apart.
We all grow and change as the years pass. That’s how life unfolds – and to keep the relationship healthy, we need to develop a ‘We’ rather than an ‘I’ attitude.
We need to find new common interests, things that neither of us have done before. Whatever it is, it’s even more rewarding when it involves learning a new skill or taking a risk while trying something new. And the joy you’ll get from completing the activity together will be far greater than the risk associated with the new challenge.
A word of warning: while children can be defined as ‘common interest’, don’t list them as one of yours. They mature, move on, create their own lives and you might be left behind, feeling isolated from your partner and very much alone.
Take an interest in your partner’s interests
Without being nosy, it’s important to show some interest in the things that make our partner tick. For when we do – whether it’s sport, a particular TV series, coffee catch ups or understanding issues they’re having at work – we send a strong message that we’re an ally, we’re there for them, on the same team.
A strong friendship allows us to better deal with conflict. And when it’s done in a healthy manner, we will inevitably feel more positive about each other and our relationship.
We can all benefit from finding some quiet time to reflect on what we can do to grow the friendship base with those most dear to us.