By Elizabeth Marglin, Natural Solutions
It’s hard to believe that after those lofty vows of marriage, a relationship could break up because of something as mundane as dishes left in the sink or the protocols of reading in bed. Yet even the most evolved relationships get snagged in the pettiest of disputes. And the current recession only makes things worse, warns Stephanie Coontz, marriage historian and author of Marriage, a History (Penguin Books, 2005). “During economic stress, we tend not to notice what’s going well and what our partner does that makes life easier. We only notice the irritations,” she says.
As the downbeat comments start to build up, you find yourselves going into negativity override, and the default mode of your interactions becomes the blame game. That’s when the fights start to escalate-within the situation-specific “you didn’t take out the trash” remark lurks the global “you never do your share” accusation. Harshness and contempt often incite regrettable words and actions. Each partner is then left alone to lick his or her wounds, no one dares revisit the turf voluntarily, and the feelings that had been ignited are left to smolder until the next blowout.
Monica and Ian Mathews of Madison, Wisconsin, who struggle frequently in their marriage and say they are on the verge of separating, are all too familiar with this scenario. “When we fight, we’re already stressed out, we are running out the door, and we haven’t been communicating for a while,” Monica says. “I’ll usually start with a not-so-skillful intro, and then Ian will get very quiet, which makes it worse.”
It’s a classic disaster pattern, the snowballing of defensiveness, criticism, and lack of communication, and it can suck the lifeblood out of a relationship. That’s the bad news. The good news is that unhappy couples can learn to emulate happy ones by adopting their simple strategies- praise, humor, and affection- even under duress.
John Gottman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington who is renowned for his work on the “masters and disasters” of marriage, has developed a practical- in fact, quantifiable approach to couples therapy. It applies pattern recognition to measuring and predicting marital stability or the likelihood of divorce. “What he found,” says Coontz, “is that it’s not the negative things that make or break a relationship. It’s the ratio of five positive acts of appreciation, love, and respect to every one negative occurrence.”
Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? But when was the last time you gave your significant other five compliments in a single day? You can probably remember effortlessly the last time you let rip at least one criticism (constructive, of course). It may sound a bit facile to believe that the secret to familial harmony is piling on the praise, but statistics are hard to dispute (see “The Numbers Game” on page 75). So we talked to a few experts and some of our own “master” and wannabe master couples (no disasters here) to come up with a simple game plan to help your relationship stay strong even when you feel like you’re losing your foundation.
Express your appreciation
Think of positive interactions with your partner- laughing together, holding hands, committing intentional acts of kindness- as small deposits made to your joint emotional bank account. You want to have a substantial amount of positives in reserve to buffer the withdrawals made by criticism and conflict. This is the single most important thing you can do to nurture any relationship (try it with your kids too). Consistent kindness, especially in the face of conflict, creates a currency of gratitude and goodwill. And you might be surprised how much you need appreciation. Adam Philips, a London-based psychoanalyst, suggests our wish for praise might be even stronger than our wish to be loved or understood.