As a couples therapist, I was thrilled to see my effectiveness with couples dramatically increase after I studied and implemented the research of John Gottman, Ph.D.
Dr. Gottman is a social science researcher at the University of Washington who has researched couples for decades and has been able to pinpoint the causes of relationship success or failure.
I believe that his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is one of the best self-help books ever written. Of course, research shows that self-help books are rarely effective in helping people make and sustain meaningful, lasting change, though they do help create awareness. Dr. Gottman’s work gives you a road map of what healthy, happy relationships look like. I encourage you to read it.
Below is a combination of my interpretation of some of Gottman’s principles and my own observations based on twenty years of working with couples.
1. Attack the problem, not the person.
Complain, don’t criticize. What’s the difference? Complaining identifies the situation or the behavior as the problem, where criticizing identifies the character of your mate as the problem, and conveys that there is something just plain wrong with him or her. Sometimes criticism can be subtle. It can be in the tone of your voice or in body language that shows contempt rather than affection. It’s the difference between “You know, the problem with you is. . .” and “You know, I think we have a problem we need to solve.” Where complaining is actually good for a relationship in that it identifies areas that need improvement and encourages the couple to team up to solve a problem, criticism is like a slow-acting poison that eventually destroys the good feelings you have toward each other.
2. Keep the Walls Down.
If you feel attacked, you tend to defend yourself. If your mate says, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you ever remember to shut the door?”
you may be tempted to retort, “Why can’t you ever remember to shut your mouth?”
Although, in the moment, it might feel good in to defend yourself, Gottman’s research reveals that it is not helpful to long-term relationship success. Instead, try something like, “It hurts my feelings when you talk to me that way. I’m happy to shut the door, but I’d like it if you’d talk to me more respectfully.”
If your spouse responds unhelpfully, it’s time to call the counselor!
3. Accept each other.
In most cases, we can’t change our partner and we need to take a deep breath and simply accept. If you can’t accept some important aspect of your spouse, this could be a major problem down the road. This is where shared values make a big difference.
While there is wiggle room for many differences in a happy relationship, some values are non-negotiable. For example,
- if you are a spiritual person and your spouse has nothing but contempt for your spirituality, it is going to get in the way because you will feel looked down upon.
- If you value honesty but your mate has no problem with gaining advantage by employing a strategic lie here and there, that is going to be a problem because it will diminish your respect.
When I’m counseling premarital couples, we look long and hard at shared and unshared values. If some of your partner’s values are different from yours, ask yourself if you can accept those differences for the rest of your life. And remember, the rest of your life could be a very, very long time. People’s basic values rarely change much over time.
I remember, as a young woman, dating a man whose values didn’t jibe with mine. I thought, “That’s okay. I can change him.” Guess what? No, I couldn’t, and I went through a year of frustration before we called it quits. (In my defense, he was really really cute!)
4. Recognize and admit it when you’re wrong.
Dr. Gottman once remarked (and I paraphrase) “Ever at the lips of a happy couple are the words, “I could be wrong.” It takes character to take a look at your position in a conflict and acknowledge that you need to adjust your perception or attitude. Not everybody can do it, but it is essential to good problem solving. And good problem solving is part of what makes a good marriage.
Ask yourself, “Would I rather be right, or would I rather be happy?” This doesn’t mean that you cave in just to have peace if you sincerely believe in your position. It does mean that winning just for the sake of winning has absolutely no place in a healthy, happy relationship.
5. If it’s a problem for your mate, it’s a problem for you.
Frequently a spouse comes in saying, “I have been complaining about this or that for years and years, and he/she has blown me off for years and years. I’m just done.” Sometimes couples come in for therapy when one of them has already given up and is headed out the door. The partner who is still invested in the relationship is looking shocked, as though this is the first time they have heard how unhappy and fed up their spouse is.
The deer-in-headlights partner usually says something like, “Yeah, I know he/she wanted this or that change, but I just didn’t think it was that important.” It’s very frustrating to feel like your partner has decided that what you need is not important. If something is important to your spouse, make sure that he or she is important enough to you to do something about it. Because unresponsiveness to needs makes people feel unloved and disregarded, and that can end your marriage.
6. Sexual problems are often about something else.
Healthy, happy, active sexual relationships start with chemistry, but are sustained by feelings of fondness and mutual respect and trust. Sometimes couples come in with problems that are related to a true physical or psychological sexual dysfunction. More often, though, I find that sexual problems between people are an outgrowth of some other problem in the relationship such as emotional alienation or ongoing hurt, resentment or anger. If there is a problem in your sexual life, it can be helpful to look outside the bedroom for its source.
7. Be each other’s best friend.
One of the first questions I often ask the couples I work with is, “Who is your best friend?” If they answer that they are each other’s best friends, I know that there is a foundation upon which to repair their relationship.
If, on the other hand, the couple tells me that they don’t think of each other as friends at all, I know I have my work cut out for me. A best friend is someone you feel safe with, someone you trust with the good, the bad and the ugly of who you are, someone who knows you inside and out and who accepts you nonetheless.
A best friend is someone who has your back in life and whose back you have – someone you can really, truly count on. A best friend is someone you just plain like spending time with because you feel fond of that person and that person’s very presence makes you feel happy. A best friend is someone who will hang in there with you and work through problems.
Most of all, a best friend is someone you admire and respect and whose presence you feel blessed by in life. Couples who feel this way about each other tend to be successful. Couples who don’t may be missing the most important cornerstone of a happy marriage.
8. Make sure you have a lot more positive than negative encounters.
Dr. Gottman talks about filling the emotional bank account of your relationship. He says that positive interactions are like putting money in your emotional bank account that can act as an emotional cushion when things aren’t going so well. In his research, he has discovered that, for every negative interaction, a couple withdraws five positive interactions. So if you are having four positive interactions to one negative, you are overdrawing your emotional bank account. Five to one, and you’re just breaking even. Imagine the condition of your relationship if you are having five negatives to one positive!
9. If you break your partner’s trust, it will take approximately ten thousand times longer to reestablish it than you think it should
Couples often come to see me after some major breach of trust, such as infidelity. I have noticed that the person who has broken trust often feels that his or her partner is refusing to “get over it” and is losing patience with the person he or she has betrayed (which, of course, only adds insult to injury).
In the meantime, the partner whose trust has been broken is often still in the first stage of the grief process, in utter shock over what has occurred. For the offended party, it’s like suddenly living with a stranger. “How could the person I thought I knew like the back of my hand do something like this?” “What else don’t I know about my partner?” “Do I know my spouse at all?” “What else has he/she been lying about?” “What’s wrong with me that he/she would do this to me?” “I must be unlovable.”
All these questions needs to be sorted through, not just one time, but many. It takes a long time for the offended party to come to terms with “the new normal.” Here’s the truth: Once trust has been broken in a big way, a marriage will probably never be the same. Period.
The surprise is that, with the right help, it may very well be even better than it was before the breach. I have seen many couples come back from the breaking of trust more serious and committed to their marriage.
Sometimes a mended break is stronger than before the break occurred.
10. Recognize when you need help and get it sooner rather than later.
I can’t tell you the number of couples in the last 20 years who have told me they wish they had come in for help before things had gotten really bad. It is important to find a counselor whose style works for you and who has the knowledge and experience to help you get from where you are to where you want to be.
Research shows that couples counseling saves relationships. I have found that the most effective approach is more of a coaching style in which I do a lot of skill-building, give direct and honest feedback, and give my couples homework assignments.
Couples often tell me that they never thought saving their marriage would actually be fun. The thing I love most about my work is seeing couples become empowered to be the experts of their own relationships.