Category Archives: Relationships

Bids for Connection

There are lots of moments throughout every day when we have the opportunity to continue to build a positive connection with our partner.  These are often small, seemingly insignificant moments that offer us the opportunity to increase the overall positive feelings we have for one another.  Throughout the day we and our partner (and children, friends, co-workers etc) make what the Gottmans called “bids for connection”.  These are usually small, and often unconscious, attempts to connect; they could be as simple as starting a conversation, asking how your day was, asking how a meeting went, giving you a smile, or simply touching you.  A bid can be verbal or non-verbal.

When our partner makes a bid for connection we have three basic choices: we can turn towards, turn away or turn against that bid.  Turning towards would be any type of positive response to your partner, responding with a friendly “yes?” when they call your name or making a friendly response to their comment about the weather.  In turning away, you are probably just not going to respond at all, and in turning against you might respond with an irritated “what now!?”

In their research, the Gottmans observed that happy couples turn towards each other approximately twenty times more than couples in distress during everyday, non-conflict discussions.

Check out this great little animation about improving your relationship by making and turning towards bids for connection.  Any ads that might pop up come from YouTube, not from this site.

 

Cheers, Ben Bennett.

The Magic Relationship Ratio That Happy Couples Intuitively Understand.

Whether it’s about not having enough sex, the dirty laundry, or spending too much money, conflict is inevitable in every marriage and committed relationship.

To understand the difference between happy and unhappy couples, Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson began doing longitudinal studies of couples in the 1970s. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes, then sat back and watched. After carefully reviewing the tapes and following up with them nine years later, they were able to predict which couples would stay together and which would divorce with over 90% accuracy.

Their discovery was simple. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.

That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.

“When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”

On the other hand, unhappy couples tend to engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity. If the positive-to-negative ratio during conflict is 1-to-1 or less, that’s unhealthy and indicates a couple teetering on the edge of divorce.

So what’s considered a negative interaction?

The Damaging Negative Interactions

Examples of negative interactions include criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt, or what Gottman calls  The Four Horsemen.  While anger is certainly a negative interaction and a natural reaction during conflict, it isn’t necessarily damaging to a marriage or committed relationship. Dr. Gottman explains in his book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” that “anger only has negative effects in marriage if it is expressed along with criticism or contempt, or if it is defensive.”  The attitude that is most destructive in any relationship is that of contempt because it is usually accompanied by corrosive behaviours ranging from subtle putdowns such as eye-rolling through to the extremes of domestic abuse.

Body language such as eye-rolling, loud sighing, turning away etc are just as destructive as words.  It’s important to remember that negativity holds a great deal of emotional power, which is why it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction. And these negative interactions happen in healthy relationships too, but in healthy relationships they are quickly repaired and replaced with validation and empathy.

The Relationship Building Positive Interactions

Couples who flourish engage in conflict differently than those who eventually break up. Not only do the Masters of marriage start conflict more gently, but they also make repairs in both minor and major ways that highlight the positivity in their relationship. Below is a list of interactions that stable couples regularly use to maintain positivity and closeness.

Be Interested
When your partner complains about something, do you listen? Are you curious about why he or she is so mad? Displaying interest includes asking open-ended questions, as well as more subtle signals such as nods, making eye contact, and timely “uh-huhs” that show how closely you are listening.

Express Affection
Do you hold hands with your partner, offer a romantic kiss, or embrace your partner when greeting them at the end of the day? Expressions of affection can happen in small ways both within and outside of conflict.

Within conflict, displays of physical and verbal affection reduce stress. If you’re having a difficult conversation and your partner takes your hand and says, “Gosh, this is hard to talk about. I really love you and I know we can figure this out together,” you will likely feel better because their display of affection is bound to reduce tension and bring you closer together.

Demonstrate They Matter
Our motto for making a marriage or committed relationship last is “small things often.” The small acts that demonstrate you care are powerful ways to enhance the positivity in your marriage.

Bringing up something that is important to your partner, even when you disagree, demonstrates that you are putting their interests on par with yours and shows your partner that you care about them. And how you treat each other outside of conflict influences how well you’ll handle your inevitable disagreements.

For example, if your partner is having a bad day and you stop to pick up dinner on the way home, you’re showing him that he is on your mind. Those small gestures accumulate over time and will provide a buffer of positivity in your marriage so that when you do enter a conflict, it will be easier to engage in positive interactions that outweigh the negative.

Intentional Appreciation
How you think about your partner influences how you treat them. By focusing on the positives of your relationship such as the good moments from your past and your partner’s admirable traits, you put positive energy into your relationship.

Negativity is bound to enter your thoughts, especially during conflict. Intentionally focusing on the positive will counterbalance any of the moments when you struggle to find something good about your partner.

Now turn your thoughts into action: every time you express your positive thinking and give your partner a verbal compliment, no matter how small, you are strengthening your relationship.

Find Opportunities for Agreement
When couples fight, they focus on the negative parts of the conflict and miss the opportunities for what they agree on. When you seek opportunities for agreement and express yourself accordingly, you are showing that you see your spouse’s viewpoint as valid and that you care about them. An alliance in conflict, even minor, can fundamentally shift how couples fight.

Empathize and Apologise
Empathy is one of the deepest forms of human connection. When you empathize with your spouse, you show that you understand and feel what your partner is feeling, even if you express empathy nonverbally through a facial expression or a physical gesture.

Saying things like, “It makes sense to me that you feel…” will help your partner see that you are on their team. Empathy is a profound connecting skill that all romantic partners can and should improve, and there is no limit to the amount of empathy you can express.

And, if your partner is upset with something you said or did, simply apologise. If you can find a moment during conflict to say “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. That makes me sad,” you will provide a positive and empathetic interaction that reinforces your bond.

Accept Your Partner’s Perspective
An approach that drastically improves conflict is understanding that each of your perspectives are valid, even if they are opposed to each other.

While you may not agree with your partner’s perspective, letting them know that their perspective makes sense will show them that you respect them. One of the best ways to do this is to summarize your spouse’s experience during a conflict, even if you disagree. Remember that validation doesn’t mean agreement, but it does signal respect.

Make Jokes
Playful teasing, silliness, and finding moments to laugh together can ease tension in a heated conflict. Most couples have inside jokes they only share with each other. This highlights the exclusivity a couple has.

However, a word of caution: remember to find a way to joke around that maintains respect and appreciation for your spouse and that serves to bring you both closer together.

Test Your Ratio

Is your relationship unbalanced? Observe how you and your partner interact. For every negative interaction that happens, are there more positive interactions? If not, take it upon yourself to create more positive interactions in your relationship, and also try to notice the small moments of positivity that currently exist there, and that you may have been missing.

Keep a journal for one week that notes the positive interactions, however small, in your marriage. As Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed, the more positive actions and feelings you can create in your marriage, the happier and more stable your marriage will be.

The Four Horsemen.

Once upon a time I was a young man attending university. I went to Massey in Palmerston North, and a couple of times a year I enjoyed a day at the races with my friends. A few days before race day I would buy a copy each of Friday Flash and Best Bets and after a couple of hours study I would have selected three or four horses for each race that I thought, on paper at least, had a chance of placing. Then come Saturday, off I would go to Awapuni with my friends and $20, all set for a day out. Before each race I would watch the horses I had chosen warming up. I would settle on the horse that I thought was moving the easiest and then rush to the “Tote” to place a dollar each way. At the time, it was a fun way to spend a day and after paying for my entry and some lunch and refreshments I usually returned home with change from the twenty, and sometimes a bit extra. My system only worked if I could observe the horses moving, and even then it only guaranteed a fun day out, nothing else.

So what does this have to do with relationships? Well, during my professional development studies I came across a guy called Prof John Gottman, who I have mentioned in previous blogs. Gottman has been able to predict, with 90% accuracy, which married couples are likely to separate sometime in the next five years. Obviously, Gottman is much better at predicting this sad outcome than I was at predicting the winner of the Awapuni Gold Cup. He does this by observing couples interacting with each other over a weekend that they spend together in a special laboratory, set up like a motel, at the University of Washington. The behaviours that he uses to predict relationship breakdown he labels as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”,
taking the term from the Bible, in which the four horsemen respectively represent conquest, war, famine and death.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

  • Criticism. In the sense that it’s being used here criticism refers to describing a problem as a flaw in your partner’s personality, i.e. “you’re lazy” or “you’re a so and so”. Statements starting with “you always…” or “you never….” fit in here too. We all get angry or frustrated somewhere along the way; that’s part of life, but please don’t criticise your partner’s character in anger or use abusive language. Instead, focus on the problematic behaviour and use a gentle start-up
  • Defensiveness. Defensiveness is an attempt to protect ourselves, but it usually comes across as a denial of responsibility with shades of blaming the other person. It can take the form of excuses, denial or counter-attack. The solution is to accept responsibility for at least some part of the problem, no matter how small.
  • Stonewalling. Stonewalling isn’t a common term in New Zealand. It refers to someone withdrawing from or not participating in an interaction directed at them but staying in the same room or in the vicinity of the person trying to talk to them. For example crossing your arms and staring at the ceiling or watching T.V. with no cues that you are listening at all to your partner. Statistically, men do this more than women as part of the distancer-pursuer dynamic. Stonewalling is different to giving the cold shoulder; stonewalling is immediate, whereas the cold shoulder can go on for days or weeks. The antidote to stonewalling is for the listener to keep breathing, stay calm and stay connected and related to their partner.
  • Contempt. With regard to relationship breakdown, contempt is often terminal. It is the single best predictor of divorce or separation in both heterosexual and same-sex couples. Interestingly (well interesting in a morbid kind of way) Gottman can use the measure of a husband’s contempt to predict the number of infectious illnesses his wife will have in the next four years! Contempt is attitudinal as much as it is behavioural; it’s about assuming an air of superiority or condescention and is often accompanied by putdowns and belligerence. The path away from allowing contempt to come galloping into your relationship (right behind the criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling) lies in creating a relationship culture of fondness and appreciation.

Below is a great little animation that demonstrates the “The Four Horsemen” and their antidotes.

Please leave a comment, I’d love some feedback.  Feel free to share on social media.

Cheers, Ben Bennett.

 

How to Keep Your Relationship off the Rocks.

When I was growing up, I occasionally heard the phrase “their marriage is on the rocks”. At that time in my life, my family would spend part of the summer holidays at Ohope Beach, or sometimes up the coast from Gisborne. My dad & I would spend time fishing off some rocky outcrop, with one eye on the line and the other on the sea surging in and out at our feet. Being a visually imaginative kid, the phrase “… on the rocks” always conjured up a painful image of a couple clinging on desperately while the surf battered them mercilessly and their boat called “Marriage” broke-up around them. You probably don’t have to have spent time in boats to know that keeping clear of the rocks is a bit of an imperative.

“On the rocks” isn’t a phrase that I hear much anymore, but that’s not because people aren’t breaking up. A recent article in the New Zealand Herald’s Weekend magazine cited the New Zealand divorce rate as being approximately 33% and research I have read suggests common law relationships probably have a higher separation rate than marriages. The article also stated that several British studies had found that more than 33% of people who had divorced regretted their decision within five years. Most divorce or separation is concentrated in the first ten years of the marriage or a committed relationship and is often avoidable. A majority of divorced people cite the reason for divorce as being that they simply drifted apart.

So how do you avoid drifting onto the rocks? Dr John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has conducted research on marriage for over 40 years, and he reckons that following the seven principles listed below will go a long way towards making sure you steer a course for a happy relationship.

  1. Seek help early. The average couple waits far too long to seek help – don’t be the average couple.
  2. Edit yourself. The happiest couples bite their tongues when discussing touchy topics. They don’t spit out every critical thought they have.
  3. Soften your “start up.” Arguments are often created because of the way a discussion is started. Ambushing your partner with criticism and blame is a surefire way of creating escalating conflict. Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better.
  4. Accept influence. In a study of heterosexual relationships, the man’s ability to be influenced by the woman was seen as crucial to establishing a successful relationship. As a generality, women are well practised at accepting influence from men, so a true partnership only occurs when men can do the same thing.
  5. Have high standards. Refusing to accept hurtful behaviour from one another right from the beginning of the relationship equals a happier relationship later on.
  6. Learn to back-up from an argument and to repair the disconnect. Happy couples have learnt how to skillfully back out of a potentially escalating argument and how to reconnect after they have trodden on their partner’s toes. They are good at initiating and accepting repair attempts and at being patient and considerate while negotiating tricky waters.
  7. Focus on the positives. A good relationship must have a rich climate of positivity. Happy couples focus on their partner’s positive attributes and on what’s going well rather than concentrating on the negatives.

When things are going well in your relationships, either at home or out in the world, what are you doing to create and maintain the positive connections? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear from you.

Do you think you’re a good listener?

Do you do a good job of listening to your partner? If you answered “yes”, my colleague Pete Pearson from The Couples Institute thinks that you might have a bit of trouble convincing him that you are right. He says that a couple of years ago he started asking most couples during their first appointment if they think they listen very well to their partners. The vast majority said, “Yes I think I listen pretty well – but my partner is not so hot!” Now that’s an interesting conundrum; if each person is saying the same thing about their partner, that they don’t listen very well, then somebody’s not listening, right? “Yep, but it’s not me!”

Pete goes on to say that most people have a reasonable idea about what their partners major complaints about them are, and that’s also my experience when meeting with a couple for the first time. However he goes on to say that where a lot of people struggle is in being able to answer the following question with any confidence, “What do you think you do that evokes in your partner feelings of being loved, valued, appreciated or respected?” In other words, what is your partners love language? Pete says that if you not only modify or stop doing some of the things that your partner finds difficult, but also take the time to discover what it is that they appreciate you doing you will be well on the way to creating a much more satisfying relationship.

You can read Pete’s post here.  I think Pete might have a couple of lines missing from the end of his post, so scroll down to the comments at the bottom of his page for clarification. I hope you find his post helpful.  It would be great if you left a comment to let me know what you think.