Success in relationships

The long term success of relationships depends on the tone of numerous tiny day to day exchanges. Dr John Gottman’s research shows that your response when your partner makes an everyday comment like “It’s cold in here,” – and how your partner responds when you make such a comment will either build or erode the emotional connection between you.

In Dr Gottman’s research, people headed for divorce tended to ignore three to four times as many of their partners’ bids for emotional connection as those in good relationships. You can help put your relationship among the successful ones by making more of these tiny positive connections.

Dr Gottman’s book, The Relationship Cure, suggests paying attention to three things: when there is an opportunity to make a connection; how you respond to those opportunities; and how your own words or behaviour can create or destroy opportunities to make connections.

Suppose you come home from work one day and your partner says “I’ve had the most awful day.” Most of us can see that our partner will benefit from some attention in this situation. It’s an obvious opportunity to make a connection. There are three ways to respond. You can “turn toward” your partner by indicating your interest and sympathy, saying something like, “Really? What went wrong?” Or you can “turn away” from your partner by indicating indifference – ignoring the comment and turning on the TV. Finally, you can “turn against” your partner by making an angry comment like, “So what? Do you think you’re the only one with problems?” It’s not hard to see which of these responses is most likely to build emotional connection.

The more often you respond to your partner’s bids for connection by turning toward them, rather than turning away or turning against, the more you will build your emotional connection and strengthen your relationship.

Most bids for connection are not nearly so obvious as this one. If you pay attention, you will also find them in brief touches and small gestures and in reports on people and events – “My mother called twice today” or “The meeting was cancelled” — anything that indicates your partner’s interest in your attention or concern. The more often you respond to these small cues with interest and sympathy—by asking a question or indicating that you understand what this means to your partner — rather than indifference or hostility, the more you will build your emotional connection with your partner.

Facial expressions and body language also reveal emotions such as sadness, anger, and anxiety. Letting your partner know that you’ve noticed these expressions –“you look sad” – has the same positive effect of expressing interest and sympathy.

You can also increase the positive interactions in your relationship by looking at how you respond in trying situations. When you’re overwhelmed with anger or other negative feelings, you may attack your partner by yelling or making hurtful comments. Or you may avoid conflict by keeping your feelings to yourself and not discussing what’s bothering you. Dr Gottman points out that there is a third alternative: disclosing your feelings rather than attacking. Instead of yelling at your partner, “Why can’t you ever remember to take out the trash?” or just sitting on your frustration to avoid conflict, focus the conversation on how you feel. Telling your partner, “I’m feeling angry and frustrated about missing the trash collection again,” is much more likely to lead to a positive interaction.

Look for opportunities to connect with your partner and respond by turning toward them with interest and sympathy rather than turning away or turning against. Face situations that make you upset or angry by disclosing your feelings rather than attacking your partner or avoiding the conflict. You’ll see the rewards in a better emotional connection with your partner and a better chance of a healthy, lasting relationship.