Before I lose all readers who are currently single, please allow me to present Gottman’s fifth and sixth principles that make a relationship successful. These are: solving solvable problems and overcoming gridlock. Hopefully anyone single will find these indications helpful for maintaining positive friendships and family relationships.
According to Gottman, conflict in relationships is inevitable. Some arguments, he writes, are as mundane and simple as whose turn it is to take out the rubbish; others are complex. He separates marital conflict into two categories: solvable and unsolvable. The bad news is that he found that 69 percent of marital arguments are unsolvable. The good news is that relationships can thrive despite ongoing unsolvable problems between partners. The fact is, Gottman points out, that whenever we choose a long-term partner we also unwittingly choose a set of unsolvable issues; and the success of the partnership depends on how we cope with these.1
The logical suggestion is that we set out to fix the solvable problems. However, there seems to be an art of differentiating which type of issue we are in fact facing. For example, if you had a windfall of a few thousand dollars and disagree on how to spend it, it could be a solvable issue. However, if your argument is over how much to tip waiters and taxi drivers, it might be perpetual as it may reflect two completely different attitudes to money. Or perhaps you disagree on nights out with friends. If it concerns the weekday at which this takes place, it is a whole lot more solvable than if it generally makes one partner feel abandoned. Housecleaning can be either about who does what, which is solvable, or about standards, which is most likely ongoing. One of you might yell during arguments or when upset whilst the other finds this unbearable; it takes some reflection to see that this is an unsolvable issue.2
The thing is that we all have our peculiarities, don’t we? Gottman describes us humans as “complicated creatures whose actions and reactions are governed by a wide array of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories.” In order to see how deep an issue runs Gottman recommends reviewing one of our recent emotional reactions. Did this recent argument in fact have something to do with our past? Did it make us feel strongly due to a mistreatment, trauma, injury, injustice, shattered dream or disappointment, which we have experienced in the past in our family, at school, or in a previous relationship or friendship? Could it reflect a long-held fear or insecurity we carry in us? Is it reminiscent of an old nightmare or catastrophe we haven’t been able to shake off?3
This link to our past and who we have become is an essential consideration if we want to improve our relationships. At the same time, positive psychology is very much about who we can be. For example, my childhood left me with an abandonment neurosis, something I came to understand with the help of an excellent psychotherapist. Despite working consciously on my issue for many years, it remains an insecurity that wants to raise its ugly head in my relationships. To manage it I practice meditation, pursue activities that bring me positive emotions, and reach out to my friends when I need them. Knowing and owning my psychological red flags, which can potentially bring forth irrationalities, helps me to be who I want to be. It is also a more honest approach than just blaming my partner for making me feel insecure. I’m convinced that in order to have a good relationship, we need a willingness to own our ‘stuff’.
Gottman further advises that regardless of which type of problem we face, we need to remember one fundamental necessity for human interaction: If we wish to influence another’s perspective, we need to first of all communicate understanding and acceptance for who they are. Any time we fail to do so and move straight in with advice, criticism, or demands, we encourage the opposite, namely the other feeling ‘under siege’ and thus needing to dig in their heels to protect themselves. Gottman argues that he has learnt from his research that “no-one is ever right”, that there is “no absolute reality in marital conflict, only two subjective realities”.4
Thus in order to respectfully clear up solvable conflict, Gottman recommends: 1. Soften the start-up; 2. Learn to make and accept repair attempts; 3. Sooth yourself and the other; 4. Make compromises; and 5. Be tolerant of the other’s faults. Gottman asserts that in many ways it comes down to treating a partner with good manners, and being as courteous as one would with an acquaintance.5 For a soft start-up, remember to complain, not blame; be clear and describe what is happening without judgement or evaluation; and remain polite and appreciative.6 Keep in mind that stable partnerships are characterised by a couple’s ability to make use of repair attempts during arguments before one of them becomes emotionally flooded.7 Be prepared to be influenced by what the other is saying and accept that in a relationship, one cannot have it all one’s way. Be open to the other’s perspective and look for the common ground, which helps toward making compromises that feel good. Lastly, it is no good kidding oneself about the ability to change someone; it will be necessary to make peace with their shortcomings and negotiate a way around these.8
Gottman’s sixth principle deals with overcoming gridlock, which stands for situations in which nothing can move or proceed in any direction. Gottman argues that the goal for gridlocked issues is not to solve them but rather to renew the dialogue. The key to navigate them is to deepen our understanding of our partner, and in particular, consider their dreams, hopes and aspirations. Gottman notes that “gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by the other”. Deeper dreams can be hidden and unspoken, and often originate in childhood. However, a characteristic of happy couples is that the partners understand each others’ dreams and help to realise them. For gridlocked issues it is important to keep talking, Gottman advises, and, in particular, aim to detect the dream that has been threatened.9
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016