Two people fall in love and want to live together. They may have fallen in love at first sight or been pulled along by the current of “chemistry.” Sometimes friends and family try to convince the lovers that this kind of rather unrealistic, illogical love won’t last.
For others, love might be a meeting of minds or hearts, or even cultures or religion. Two people just get along so well that it’s a supportive and practical love, a relationship of best friends, with the addition of romance. It’s the kind of love many people think is a good foundation for a lasting relationship, one that can get through the trials and tribulations of life.
No matter how the couple relationship begins, there often comes a time when the honeymoon is over, the flame has flickered or the responsibilities and troubles of daily life have made the joy of being together evaporate, or even turn to anger or hate.
That’s a time to ask the questions posed by renowned marriage counselor John Gottman in his article “The Science of Togetherness” in Psychotherapy Networker. Gottman says we have to answer two key questions about relationships.
Question #1: What causes trouble between people?
Question #2: What helps two people not merely survive together, but actually rekindle love and delight?
To find these answers Gottman points to insights about relationships discovered in the “Love Lab,” an “apartment laboratory” with cameras that helped newlyweds discover their negative and positive patterns of relationship.
Let’s say Mary, for example, would go to the window and say, ”Oh it’s so pretty out there. There’s a beautiful boat.” Then John might say, “Oh, yes it is.” Gottman describes John’s positive response as “turning toward” the relationship.
But if the partner has no response, Gottman calls that “turning away.”
These tendencies “toward” and “away” are often intensified in a long-term relationship.
Research in this lab showed that newlyweds who “turned toward” each other for more than 80 percent of their interactions were still together six years later. Those who “turned away” for about one-third of their interactions were divorced in six years.
This recognition of the partner’s presence, the respect and acknowledgement of the partner’s thoughts or comments is a key element in keeping the flame of love at a healthy simmer.
Trust is a necessary foundation for a healthy and deepening relationship. Gottman’s research showed that one important ingredient that builds trust is “attunement.” That’s when one partner listens compassionately and nondefensively when their partner expresses a negative emotion.
“The motto of high-trust couples seems to be, ‘Baby, when you’re upset, the world stops and I listen’,” said Gottman. Trust deepens when one partner listens, even if that person is the target of a complaint or criticism.
One partner might say, for example, “I’m angry because you’re on your cell phone at dinner, instead of spending time with me. I want us to spend that time being really together.”
A partner who knows how to build trust would say, “O.K. That makes sense. I’m listening. What do you need? What would you prefer that I do?”
A divorce may be in the future if the partner answers, ”Well, you aren’t so perfect either. You bounced that check last week.”
Gottman’s research found that this essential element of trust is created when each partner comes from a point of mutual interest, rather than self-interest. This helps keep the relationship tipped in a positive direction.
Conflicts are bound to arise in any relationship. It’s important to stay away from the attack-and-defend pattern. That leaves a negative shadow over the relationship.
The key is to begin a conversation about a conflict gently and for each partner to take responsibility for at least part of the problem, according to Gottman.
The long-term wisdom from the research is that minimizing blame during any conflict and being able to come to an understanding and move forward maintains a sense of love that can create delight in just being together.
Gottman, John, “The Science of Togethness: Making Couples Therapy More Effective,” Psychology Networker, September/October 2017