Some of you may be familiar with John Gottman, psychologist and relationship guru, and his life's work on predictors of success (or failure) in marriage. His work is fantastic, largely because he looks at patterns that tend to shorten the shelf life of couples, regardless of their age, backgrounds, nationalities, or even what they are fighting about. He focuses on the "how" of fighting - "the process rather than the content," as we call it in the therapy world.
His research informs my work with couples, and I also find myself utilizing many of his concepts when working with families and with parenting concerns that may arise. Recently, I started to think more about it, and realized that his (and some of my own) "relationship make-or-breaks" can actually be applied to all relationships. Read on for tips to stay successfully engaged and open with all the people you love, romantically and otherwise!
1) Turning Towards vs. Turning Away
Through a six year analysis of couples in marriages that were either successful for the long-haul or headed for divorce, Gottman found that one major indicator of trouble brewing was how a person responds to their partner's "Bid" - a term he uses to describe any attempt offered from a person to their partner for positive connection, interest, affection, affirmation, or even just attention.
We all have different interests. You may internally roll your eyes every weekend when your partner insists on calling you over to peruse the travel section of the Sunday paper. You'd much rather continue restringing your guitar, and you also hate planning travel ahead of time. Avoid the urge to ignore, minimize your partners request with a quick "Mmhm, cool," or actually roll your eyes!
This is a "Bid" disguised as a simple act of calling your attention: Your partner is making an attempt to share something he or she enjoys with you. It may seem mundane, but these are the tiny moments throughout our day that signify connection for the people we spend time with. Relationships do not fail overnight - they fail due to lack of tending, the presence of judgment, or a vacant oblivion or lack of caring that makes us ignore our partner's bids, time and time again. Ignoring these bids is the act of subtly turning away from our partners. By walking over and looking at the paper, it signifies to your partner that you are turning towards him or
her - "You like this; I hear you; I am with you and will create space for this moment even if it's not my thing."
This one is so, so relevant to parenting, too, or any friend you may not have much in common with. It can be very difficult for adults to remember what it's like to be a kid or teenager, and their concerns may seem a million miles away. But in their world, the bid they are offering to you might be the most important thing in the universe. Turning away indicates rejection, because our little tiny bids are actually what compiles us as whole people, with distinctive interests. They are, in essence, who we are. We don't have to understand the bids of others, but we do need to be open to them.
2) Openness to Repair Attempts
We all have that one person that comes to mind when someone throws out the word "Stubborn." My person is myself. And my mum..and my maternal grandmother...And I could probably add a few more people in there, too! Heck, we are all a little bit stubborn, and I think this is one of the things that can make apologizing so difficult.
Successfully apologizing is kind of an art to begin with, and there's a double-layer depth to it: Not only are we admitting some (or all) fault when we apologize, which pertains to the actual content of the argument, but we are also allowing ourselves to be vulnerable through the act of coming forward to seek out resolution. I believe that it's actually this second layer that can make it feel so hard to apologize at times. As I am writing this and considering what I'm trying to say, a phrase popped into my head: "We've gotta give credit where credit's due!" Think of it this way:
Step 1) Fight is intense, both people are hurt by things that are said. Step 2) One person gathers courage to try to reconcile and apologize. Step 3) Other person totally burns "apolgizer" as they are beginning to apologize. Step 4) Aforementioned apologizer is even more mad than before and also regrets ever trying to apologize and swears off apologies forever. ...See where I'm going here?
Apologizing is a courageous act. If you don't accept the apology, that's okay. But be open to perceiving the act of the apology itself as some sort of an olive brach - it takes guts, and it was likely attempted in honesty and in good faith. By keeping ourselves open to repair attempts in any shape or form, we signify to our friends, families, and partners that when things get rough,
it is still both safe and worth it to try to repair them.
3) Rituals of Connection
Ahhh, rituals of connection. What the heck are rituals of connection?
Think of a friend, family member, or charming lover that you spend time with. Now close your eyes and picture yourself really connecting with that person. Not just hanging out with them, but fully connecting. Are you drinking coffee in a cozy place, taking a walk, laying in bed, or sharing old memories? Or are you somewhere totally random, but you're both laughing hysterically? This is your "ritual of connection," it just usually has a simpler name attached to it.
If you asked that same person what their ritual of connection is when they close their eyes and think of you, they may have a completely different answer. Neither is wrong. Both are essential to keep your relationship strong.
We often don't make time for rituals of connection, and one of the biggest reasons why can be summarized by the statement, "Oh yeah, I see that person all the time." Sure...You do see them all the time. You see them rushing to give you a quick peck on the cheek before cooking dinner and changing clothes just in time to rush back out the door again - Repeat x7 days a week.
Time spent is not always time connected. This applies just as much to roommates, siblings, and friends we've had since birth as it does to romantic partners. Remember this, and create time as much as possible in your relationships for your rituals. Again..friendships and relationships do not just end overnight. The slow demise is often due to a lack of connection, and just spending lots of time with a person does not mean that we are fully connecting with them.
4) Considering Intention
This one's pretty simple, so all I will say is this: Your friend or partner or child or family member has a behavior that drives you insane. When it happens the tenth time in a week, you feel yourself boiling over and are about to really lay into them. The repetition of this terribly annoying thing that they do has you feeling resentful and THEY FINALLY NEED TO KNOW about it!
I beg of you, give yourself a full 3 minutes to consider their intention before you choose to tell them off about their behavior. "Is he doing this to hurt me?" "Does she even know this thing drives me crazy - have we talked about it yet? And if not, what has prevented me from bringing it up in a rational way?" "Is this a product of something else, such as busyness, differences in personalities, the way he/she did it in the last place they lived in, etc.?"
Formulating a deeper understanding of intention, even if our theory of what the intention is may not be correct, helps us empathize rather than explode. The behavior may still be unnerving at the end of the 3 minutes of considering intention, but now we realize that our partners and our friends are human. They love us, and they probably aren't trying to hurt us with their behavior. They may not even know it's an issue. It can and probably should also still be addressed, but considering intention helps us cool off and formulate a better way to address an issue without taking it too personally. Because most times, it isn't.
All relationships require consistent maintenance in order to stay on track, and sometimes it's the little things that give them the tune-up they need, rather than the grand gestures or a heavy 4 hour conversation. Make it a daily practice to turn towards your friends and loved ones rather than away, allow openness to repair past hurts, take the time to make connections, and consider intention before getting too angry.
After all, your favorite people will always have your best interests at heart.