Let’s continue on the theme of romantic relationships. Chances are that regardless of the state of our own partnership, we can probably do a little better. For those who do not have a partner, I hope the comments below serve as an inspiration to try a new, scientifically supported approach next time, or help in the reflection on where one might have fallen short in the past. One never knows what or who is around the corner, yes?
Previously I introduced you to the first 3 principles that make relationships work according to marriage expert John Gottman. 1. We need to have a detailed ‘love map’ of our partner’s world; 2. We need to nurture our fondness and admiration for our partner; and 3. We need to turn to them in our daily exchanges, acknowledging and responding to their statements regardless of whether these are profound or of little consequence or interest.1
An aspect that belongs to the third principle is whether we can have a stress-reducing conversation with our partner. Gottman explains that a stress-reducing conversation is not about being able to talk about relationship issues without chips flying. It is about providing stress relief for stuff arising from other areas of each other’s life, and giving each other an opportunity to vent, complain, or openly reflect. It’s about being a partner to whom the other can unburden and who in turn will listen to our gripes and disappointments with a supportive ear. According to Gottman, such an ear requires that we don’t give advice unless our partner directly asks for it; that we show genuine interest in what they are saying; and that we make it clear that we understand. Also, in the spirit of emotional support we should take our partner’s side even if we can see their standpoint is unreasonable. Our job in a stress-reducing conversation is not to solve their issue, but to let them express how they are feeling and validate the fact that their feelings make sense. In the same spirit, we should show solidarity and take a stance of ‘us against them’. Lastly, it is important to hold our partner, put our arms around them or otherwise express our affection during a stress-relieving conversation.2
I don’t know how you are reading this, but I am writing it with plenty of reflection on what is going on in my own relationship. Hands up who likes to give unsolicited advice and thinks it necessary to point it out when our partner is being unreasonable? Hmm. Gottman recommends that we remember that at the back of a good response in a stress reducing conversation lies the stance of ‘you poor baby’.3 So let’s try to remember this next time we face an irrational partner we are trying to calm down: you poor baby!
Gottman found that couples who had come to his workshop and continued to improve in their relationship devoted an extra five hours per week engaging in practices that support it. He calls this the ‘magic five hours’. Gottman suggests that the ‘magic five hours’ can be built on the following: 1. Partings and reunions: In parting, communicate a genuine interest in the partner by asking what is happening in their day. On reuniting with them, engage in a stress free conversation. 2. Every day communicate some genuine appreciation and admiration for them. 3. Show affection by kissing, holding, and touching each other. 4. Go on a weekly date that builds the connection between you.4 Thus it turns out that my partner has some good habits, which support our relationship. He is affectionate. His has a custom of making sure we kiss and hug every time one of us goes out or returns, and he always asks how my day was.
Gottman’s 4th principle is that we ought to let our partner influence us. This is about sharing power and both partners being involved in decisions. He stresses that this is something that particularly men need to embrace, since, “statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct”. The vast majority of women, Gottman found, naturally allow themselves to be influenced by their partners. However, he writes, some men insist that taking their partner’s viewpoint into account is equal to handing over their personal power.5 Perhaps the old patriarchal stance is on its way out anyway; it was certainly more prevalent among earlier generations. However, it is worth remembering that if we want our relationships to be fulfilling, we need not only to be willing to negotiate on issues that concern both of us, but also to seriously consider their advice in our personal decisions.
Gottman frequently talks about the term emotional intelligence. Mayer, Salovey and Caruso define emotional intelligence as the ability to accurately perceive and assess emotions to assist thinking; to understand emotional knowledge; and to regulate emotions in order to promote emotional and intellectual growth.6 Gottman argues that emotional intelligence is a key ingredient for a positive partnership, and that women on average have more of it than men. Women know a lot about friendship, Gottman writes, because their orientation toward feeling-based discussion enhances their understanding of other people’s emotions.7
In order to develop emotional intelligence it is important to have a good relationship to feelings. I have a wise friend who holds that feelings are just like naughty children. If you try to ignore them they will run havoc and scream blue murder. Once you give them your full attention, however, they calm down. My friend is fond of saying that we need to accept, embrace and love every feeling, the hard ones as much as the pleasant ones. When we allow feelings to be and don’t mix them with judgemental thoughts or worse, let them prompt us into unconsidered action, we find that there is much to be gleaned from them. If you are afraid of some of your feelings, you might consider tackling them with a psychologist or counsellor. Emotional intelligence begins by accepting and valuing our own feelings, and allowing the insight they provide to help us become increasingly sensitive and wise in our dealings with others.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015