Local experts share the latest information and resources on all things mental health.
Posted: September 12, 2016 by Jenny Kepler
Did you know that couples spend an average of six years feeling unhappy in their relationships before starting couple’s therapy? You read that correctly, six long years of knowing things could be better and not getting much-needed help. Maybe you’re not ready for couples counseling; very few people actually want to invite a therapist into their marriage. Good news: there is actually a whole bunch you can do to improve your relationship now, before you head to couple’s therapy.
According to Drs. John & Julie Gottman, revered researchers in the kind of romantic relationships that last the test of time, partnerships that span decades share one fundamental mindset. While they may vary widely in terms of the types of relationships they have, the couples who are “masters” in lasting relationships all create a culture of kindness and generosity between them. What this means is that they build a culture of respect and appreciation into their marriages, even during conflict.
This may be very hard to imagine doing if you are currently in painful place in your marriage. But with a little practice, you’ll find it actually is doable. Chances are you both want the relationship to improve. The idea is to create a loving bubble of kindness and generosity around you two, one that protects your relationship even during the hard times. You might be shaking your head with incredulity. But here you go: The Gottmans found that the masters “turn toward” each other in many small ways all the time. This means that when everything inside you is screaming “get me out of here!” the thing to do is to actually lean in, and find a way to connect with your partner. In an argument it could go something like, “I completely disagree, but how about we take a deep breath and you tell me what is most important to you in this situation.”
And it’s as simple as responding to what’s known as a “bid for connection” – the little things you say to each other throughout the day (“Hey, I just finished the crossword puzzle!” “Looks like the neighbors are doing some work to the house.” You get the picture…) How often do you hear these remarks and let them drop? Can you instead pick up the thread and respond? (“Wow! I haven’t completed a crossword in years!” “Are they? Cool!” etc…) By responding to your partner you are picking up the thread and making a stitch. You are actually strengthening the culture of kindness between you. Give it a try and see how it goes.
Another thing that relationship masters do is notice the things they appreciate about their partners and share them. Doing this can feel very odd when you are not in the habit. But do it. If you are facing the six-year mark and you need things to change – what have you got to lose? I can tell you that couples who more often share grievances through criticism or passive aggression – those guys are suffering and don’t have to. Remember? You probably used to appreciate your partner a lot more, and somehow with all of life’s stresses, you’ve stopped. Or maybe you figure they know already, so you don’t have to share. A lot of people do. The good news is you can actually start turning it around this very minute. Send your partner a text message right now about something you love about them. What have they done lately that you appreciated? Don’t keep that stuff to yourself!
Remember this when you are in conflict: There is the two of you, and then there is the problem. The problem is outside your bubble and you can work on it together. It takes two to tango, and rarely is a fight 100% the other person’s fault. Most likely, your partner does not want to hurt you or to feel hurt by you. This is not to minimize the very real divide you may be experiencing right now. Conflict is a big subject that couples work really hard on in couples counseling. But if you are looking for changes to try on your own, then adopting this mindset is essential: the problem is outside your bubble and you guys can solve it together. By viewing your partner as a team member, and not the enemy in a fight, by remembering the problem is outside you two, by trying to understand the other’s point of view and offering validation, you turn towards your partner. And this we know, contributes to a more satisfying lasting relationship.
This is not a cure-all, but it’s a start. There are a myriad of ways to turn towards your partner, and they can help build a culture of kindness and generosity back into your relationship. While this will not necessarily address deep-rooted issues that have grown between you, they may soften the ground making the bigger stuff more pliable, and possibly even more amenable to change. And if it’s not enough, couple’s therapy is a quality-of-life investment in the longevity of your marriage, one that couples rarely regret.