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Gottman’s model for Flourishing Relationship
The art of making a relationship flourish has received significant media interest in recent years thanks to extensive research by world renowned relationship expert John Gottman. Gottman brought relationship into the lab and developed ingenious methods to assess thousands of couples. His findings are confronting to the traditional ways of thinking about how to make marriage work.
Gottman is unique because he chose to focus large amount of his research on those who do very well in their relationships. He calls them relationship Masters. For this reason he is regarded as a pioneer in positive psychology research.
So what can we learn from those relationship masters?
I would summarise the main findings in one sentence: the masters firstly do the ‘good’ very well before they can do the ‘bad’ well. That means, the masters intentionally invest in what creates the pleasant emotions that bring them closer: affection, sex, care, laughter, appreciation and just spending good time together.
And what is the return on investment?
These emotions are like solid foundations of the house as they strengthen the relationship and make it more resilient when bad weather arrives. Gottman called his model “The sound relationship house”.
If you are a couple in distress here is the crucial message for you: The real issue is often not the recent hard feelings that have just been createdbut the good feelings that had notbeen created for a while. It is very easy to ignore that because it is out of sight. Gottman uses the metaphor of emotional bank account: our conflicts are the debit and our moments of connection are the credits. When partners are caught in the daily struggle with problems they tend to forget the big picture: maintaining connection and friendship. In Gottman’s words: “The foundation of my approach is to strengthen the friendship that is at the heart of any marriage”. I totally agree and this is why I sometimes suggest to couples to spend the money of next session on a night out.
How to create the "Sound relationship house”?
Gottman’s house consists of 2 ‘pillars’ and 7 ‘bricks’, or essential practices. The pillars are the Trust and Commitment.
In close relationships we take risks:being rejected, judged, exposed, controlled, betrayed and more. To
work with these vulnerabilities we need to trust. Trust is like daring to do the acrobatics and commitment is our safety net. During hard times the trust become fragile and it is essential that we don’t damage it by causing hurts, disengage or threaten to separate. Staying committed to the long term vision, to core values (e.g. respect) and to the friendship will give a sense of security.
Now let’s have a look at the 7 research-based practices for flourishing relationship:
1. Know each other well
An essential contributor to a sense of connection is how well you know the details of the life of your partner: daily events and experiences, likes and dislikes, sources of pain and of joy, hopes and dreams, etc. This is how you show your care. Gottman says that the masters take 20 minutes each day to share and get updated with their daily events.
2. Focus on each other's strengths and good deeds
This means to demonstrate more encouragement, appreciation and gratitude. New research shows it matters far more how you respond to good news than how you respond to bad news. To sound enthusiastic and involved is a great boost while sounding dismissive and unenthusiastic is damaging.
3. Stay engaged and connected
The common unhelpful way of coping with hard feelings is when partners turn against each other by way of criticising and attacking or turn away by way of avoiding and disengaging. The challenge is to always turn towards and stay engaged by way of talking, using humour, gestures of kindness and more. Continuing to stay engaged after an angry exchange is a strong predictor of flourishing relationship.
4. Learn to share power and accept influence from each other
Gottman has two key messages to partners who argue over important matters: To the man – be open to accept influence and learn to share your power. Let her feel she matters. To the woman – turn softly and learn to ask for what you want. Blaming and attacking will get him on his defences and you lose him.
5. Realistic attitude to problems
One of the most interesting finding in Gottman’s research is that about two third of couple’s problems are perpetual. Now, does it despair you?! In flourishing relationship partners get real with life and apply adaptable approach. They expect improvement and then make peace with what can’t be changed. They apply a healthy dose of acceptance and letting go in ways that do not compromise their core values.
6. Empathize with each other's vulnerabilities.
When partners are stuck in positions they blame each other and want to be right. To get out of the stuckness partners need to understand the fears, deep needs and old wounds that keep the other in the fortress. They need to acknowledge the longing behind the hurt so they can offer the right support.
7. Create shared meaning
In flourishing relationship partners create a family culture that includes their dreams, goals, values and traditions. The see themselves as part of something bigger and become involved in community affairs or spiritual practices.
About the author:
Guy (Hagai) Avisar is a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience helping people with relationship issues