Wendy Warner is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in private practice at Trinity Family Counseling Center. In addition to working with couples, children, and individuals, Wendy also enjoys teaching the premarital classes for all couples planning to marry at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Macomb.
Are you married, or part of a serious couple? Then you, like the rest of us, crave the following dynamics in your relationship: closeness, emotional safety, respectful responses and availability.
Unfortunately, when we desire to be understood by our spouse and feel they aren’t responsive, we get a little louder in our attempt for connection. It often comes across as being critical or demanding of our partner. This will not tend to draw our spouse near. Instead, it can lead to our spouse retreating to a safer place, away from their critical spouse! This becomes a sad cycle of one partner demanding attention and the other partner withdrawing, a cycle where nobody feels close or respected.
John Gottman, a psychologist and marital expert, provides instructive insight to couples through his research. He found two key factors that increase the likelihood of each spouse feeling connected and emotionally safe, even in the midst of conflict: These factors are: 1) a soft start up to a discussion, and 2) keeping a friendship in the relationship.
Soft Start Up
If one spouse begins a discussion with criticism, the other spouse is much more likely to respond with a defensive or critical response, and it escalates from there. It can either get uglier and louder or become achingly silent in the house. Discussions that begin critically have a low possibility of problem solving because the receiving partner feels attacked or accused. Most people when attacked respond negatively, ignoring the original concern of their critical partner. However, if one partner begins with a softer approach, using neutral or even respectful words, it increases the chance their partner will hear the issue being spoken. A soft start up can provide an atmosphere for the relationship where each spouse cares more about the other’s concerns. Sound appealing?
Gottman provides us with the following phrases to lead a soft start up:
I feel (emotion) about (what, not who). I need_______________, would you please.
For example: I feel ignored about my requests to load your dirty dishes into the dishwasher. I need you to load your own dishes, please.
Notice the phrases get at what is bothering the speaker without attacking the spouse. They also supply the needs of the speaker (politely), so the spouse gains insight on how to meet their spouse’s needs.
Keeping a Friendship
Gottman’s research has identified friendship building behaviors observed in successful marriages. If you want to stay connected in spite of conflicts, he suggests these seven principles:
Enhance your love maps. Love maps guide the way for partner A to connect to partner B. This is critical to each partner feeling “known”. Do you know your spouse’s dreams, fears and interests? Learn your partner’s love map with a couple open-ended questions on date nights.
Nurture your fondness /admiration. When you see something good in your spouse, tell them. Look for positives in your spouse every day. “I admire how you get up early to work out. You are really committed to staying in shape.”
Turn toward each other instead of away. This is a choice to connect in the small moments, and it says “I’m seeking you” or “I’m available to you”. Pat their leg during the commercial, offer to fold clothes together, look at them when they are talking to you.
These first three are foundational for a good friendship. It will be hard to connect with your spouse without these three principles happening regularly.
Let your partner influence you. If partners are open to suggestion from the other, it conveys respect, giving value to each. “It is really stressful to me when you gasp while I’m driving. I would prefer you stop doing that.” “Okay, I will try to keep my gasps to myself.” Avoid, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
Solve your solvable problems. Perpetual problems typically have to do with personality differences. One of you is punctual and the other, always late. Develop systems where each compromises toward the middle ground.
Overcome gridlock. When there are major issues that cannot be resolved because both partners’ views are so different, the goal is to seek to understand the other person. Respectfully discuss the issue, gain insight and empathy with your partner's view, and agree to disagree.
Create shared meaning. Connect with your partner through a shared value system, activities and traditions. Co-lead a group at your church, learn a new hobby together. Support your spouse in their values, and find a way to share some.
How are you doing? Could you attempt a softer start up? Implement a friendship principle this month? You can begin today to create a closer, more fulfilling relationship.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York, New York: Three Rivers Press.
Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection. New York, New York: Taylor Francis Group, LLC.