Article by: Bob Navarra, PSY.D., MAC

Consider the following three tips to strengthen your relationship with your partner

Dr. John Gottman has been studying couples for the last four decades to try and understand why some relationships are like ticking time bombs that result in divorce or chronic unhappiness, while others work well, are satisfying, and remain stable for a lifetime. Social scientists do not have a good track record predicting individual behaviour, but it turns out that predicting relationship behaviour isn’t really that difficult if you know what to look for. Dr. Gottman’s best prediction rate for divorce was 94%.

Dr. Gottman’s research, from 1972 to today, has involved over 3 000 couples in 12 different longitudinal studies – seven of which were prediction studies – that has allowed him to identify specific behaviour patterns in couples he has termed the ‘Masters’ and ‘Disasters’ of relationships. However, it wasn’t until he teamed up with his brilliant wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, that the Gottman Method was developed to prevent relationship meltdown.

What have the Gottmans taught us about what works and doesn’t work in relationships? The key findings really boil down to three things: Treating your partner like a good friend, handling conflict in gentle and positive ways, and being able to repair after conflicts and negative interactions. How partners treat each other when they’re not fighting is predictive of their ability to manage conflict and repair.

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Based on this, consider the following three tips to strengthen your relationship with your partner:

1. Express interest

Learn what is happening in your partner’s world. Ask questions that show you are interested in their day-to-day life. We sometimes forget to check in with our partner or fail to respond to their attempts to connect. Over time this can create serious damage to the relationship. It can be as simple as asking, “How was your day?”

In Dr. Gottman’s research, the Masters responded to their partner’s attempts to initiate conversation or connect 86% of the time. The Disasters only responded to these bids 33% of the time. Deeper levels of connection are possible when you ask open-ended questions about your partner’s internal world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, etc.

Conflict can deepen intimacy and bring couples closer together

2. Be gentle in conflict

Avoid criticism or blame, and instead focus on your own needs. For example, instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” focus on what you need, by stating, “The house needs cleaning and I would really appreciate some help.” Avoid statements of “You never…” or “You always…”

A core research finding was that the Masters remained positive in conflict by listening to their partner without criticising, becoming defensive, shutting down, or acting superior. Instead, the Masters handled conflict with mutual respect, humour, interest, openness, they accepted influence, and they acknowledged their partner’s ideas and feelings. These positive responses were found to be consistently at a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative, as opposed to the Disasters, who had a positive to negative ratio of 0.8:1.

3. Repair negative interactions

Take responsibility, even if it’s for only part of the problem. It can be difficult to admit being wrong or making a mistake, but Dr. Gottman holds repair as one of the most important relationship skills.

We can’t always avoid conflict, we are not perfect, so when couples make mistakes, hurt each other, or have fights, it is essential to have ways to repair the relationship. Conflict can deepen intimacy and bring couples closer together. Dr. Gottman says that, “conflict is an opportunity to learn how to love each other better over time.” The ability for couples to repair is directly related to the strength of their friendship as identified in number one. Distressed couples have as many repair attempts as happy couples, it is just that these repair attempts tend not to work because distressed partners don’t feel close, accepted, or safe enough.