Seven Keys to Relationship Success

In a conversation about relationships recently, a friend in Maupin was telling me how much she liked the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by Dr. John Gottman. I replied that I love that book too, for its clear, sensible, effective guidance and advice. Our conversation inspired me to review Gottman’s findings and advice, and to share some of these with you.

Sharing a life with another person requires much more than the initial attractions that bring a couple together: it requires learning and practicing the kinds of skills that develop and strengthen relationship bonds. Gottman, a psychologist and research scientist, has spent the past 40 years researching and teaching the specific skills and behaviors that help and hurt relationships.

The 7 behaviors below, which come from Dr. Gottman’s research and counseling experience, can go a long way toward helping to build and maintain a strong and loving relationship, and to turn around an unhappy one.

1. Seek help early. The average couple waits 6 years before seeking help for relationship problems. Since half of all marriages that end in divorce end in the first 7 years, this means that the average troubled couple waits far too long before seeking help.

2. Edit yourself. The happiest couples avoid expressing every critical thought in their heads when discussing hot topics. Justifying a judgmental opinion by saying “I’m just being honest!” is to say something that actually isn’t true: “honesty” is always about self (“I’m feeling really angry right now”), not about the other person (“You never listen to me!”). A related tip: vow to banish “always” and “never” from your argument vocabulary. No-one “always” and “never” does anything, and we lose credibility in a discussion right away by accusing our partner of “always” or “never” being this way or that.

3. Be mindful of your “start up.” Discussions often escalate into arguments because one partner heats up the conflict by making a critical or biting remark. Introducing a topic (“I’d like to talk about the housework”) without judging the other person or assigning blame (“You never lift a finger to help with the cleaning!”) is much more likely to lead to a successful conversation about problems.

4. Accept influence from your partner. Brace yourselves, guys: Gottman’s researchers found that marriages between men and women succeed to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. For example, a woman says, “I know you were planning to go out with the guys after work on Friday night, but Mom is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready. Would you come home instead?” At this point, a husband who digs in his heels “on principle” might not be serving the best “principle:” the one that will help both him and his wife to feel equal in their influence in the marriage, that is. While it may not seem to be the case, research has shows what women know: that women are already well-practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership occurs only when a man is secure enough to do the same.

5. Have high standards. Happy couples have high standards of respect for themselves and each other. Sarcasm and criticism passed off as “I’m only kidding!” is still sarcasm and criticism. Low levels of tolerance for emotional and physical disrespect and abuse in the beginning of a relationship leads to a happier couple down the road.

6. Learn to repair and to exit the argument. Happy couples have learned how to exit an argument, or how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Examples of repair attempts: using non-sarcastic humor, soothing your partner with a caring remark, making it clear you’re on the same side (“We’ll tackle this problem together”), backing down (in marriage, as in the martial arts, you sometimes have to yield to win), and expressing appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way. If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break, and agree to approach the topic again when you are both calm.

7. Focus on the positives. In a happy marriage, Gottman found, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones, when discussing problems. For example, starting a discussion about bringing more joyfulness into the relationship by saying “I love it when we laugh together” builds on what’s positive, while “we never do anything fun” simply adds the weight of one more complaint.

A good marriage grows by cultivating the positive, not by focusing on the negative. Giving too much to attention to complaints in a marriage is like planting a garden, then watering and fertilizing the weeds while spraying herbicide on the tomatoes. The weeds will grow bigger from all that attention, while the tomatoes wither from abuse and neglect. Besides, well-fed and well-watered plants are often strong enough to crowd out the weeds anyway, over time.

Happy gardening!

(Some of the material above was edited and/or excerpted from the article, “The Top 7 Ways to Improve Your Marriage,” at Republished with permission, courtesy of the Gottman Institute.