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In the dating world, most intimate relationships don’t turn into long-term commitments. This happens for different reasons: Some loving partners can’t get past the challenges that ultimately end their commitment to each other. Some give up early, not wanting to waste time on something that is already problematic; they just aren’t willing to put energy into a relationship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Others, determined to make the relationship work, hold on to the bitter end, hoping that their continued efforts will eventually succeed.
Many of these frustrated relationship seekers come into therapy to try to understand what they might be doing wrong. They’ve made their best efforts and still can’t make a relationship last. And they’re aware that some couples face the same odds, yet stay together. They want to know what these people do differently that keeps their love alive. Are they just lucky people who have magically found the right person, or do they make relationships work no matter what? And if they do, what is their formula for success?
After four decades of working with couples, I have to say, yes, they are different in some ways. Although they face the same issues, couples that remain together approach their problems in unique ways that don’t damage their relationship. It is remarkable to watch these couples face situations that might unravel another relationship, and yet consistently come out caring more deeply about each other.
Stay-in-love couples each have their own style, but they also have a lot in common. These six qualities are the most notable. It is my hope that they will inspire others to find their own successful paths.
1. How they resolve their conflicts.
Every couple argues. If they are honest and authentic, they accept the fact that they will never see eye-to-eye on everything. They know that differences of opinion can add interest and intrigue to a relationship—if those disputes are worked through successfully. They also know that unresolved repeated conflicts can threaten and ultimately damage relationships, and make it much harder for them to get back what they’ve lost.
In contrast, stay-in-love couples ache when their disagreements drive them apart. After a conflict, they strive to resolve the situation and make up as soon as possible. Rather than needing to win, they want to understand why they disagreed and how they could have done it better. Judgment is not an issue—inquiry and learning are. Even when they are hurt or angry, they still want their partner to feel heard and supported.
2. They refuse to assign blame.
During a conflict, so many couples blame their partner for what’s going wrong. It’s hard for anyone to look at his or her role in conflict during the middle of strong emotions. Perhaps to avoid guilt or feeling righteous, some people try to make the other person into the bad guy, hoping they will win the argument that way. Many people will cave in when they feel badly about themselves, and counter-accusations sometimes successfully win the argument.
The sadness in assigning blame is that it doesn’t work in the long run. There are always two sides to every story, and more than one way to see the truth. Every intimate partner aches to be heard and understood, even if there are conflicting realities. When intimate partners use blame to get their way, they are likely to push their partners into defensiveness, anger, or withdrawal, and risking their capacity to keep their love alive.
Stay-in-love couples know that their partner’s views must be respected and honored, especially if they are different from their own. They strive to understand them to find a truth that allows for both. That doesn’t mean they will always agree, but they know that every connection and every disconnection must be the responsibility of both. It is a “we do this to each other,” and never, “This is your fault because you’re obviously the problem here.”
3. How they respond to requests for connection.
An important part of every quality relationship is the ability for both partners to authentically agree to honor the other’s feelings and thoughts, especially when they are trying to work through difficult emotional issues.
Many partners automatically treat each other this way when their relationship is new, but as their relationship matures, they may come to feel burdened or disrupted by continuous requests for connection, and not want to be immediately available anymore. In trying to dismiss their partner’s desires quickly, they may resort to trying to “fix” the situation without taking the time for deeper inquiry. Or perhaps a preoccupied partner will minimize the other’s feelings to try to neutralize them. An irritated partner may reply in with sarcasm or even withdraw.
Partners who remain in love do not ignore a partner who wants to connect for any reason. Even if they are distracted or preoccupied, they take the time to understand what their partner needs, and decide together how they should handle it. If that cannot happen at the time, both partners make an agreement as to when they will resolve it. And they do not mock, minimize, or disregard the other’s desire to connect.
4. How they parent each other.
In every intimate love relationship there is always an underlying “criss-cross” interaction between the symbolic parent in one partner and the symbolic child in the other. It is impossible to be open and vulnerable to another human being without those interactions happening from time to time.
People are never just the age they are in the current moment. They are a composite of all the ages they’ve ever been. If a partner had heartbreak in childhood and a situation causes it to re-emerge in the present, his or her partner can help ease, and even heal, that pain by acting as a nurturing symbolic parent.
Those automatic responses are notable in the early stages of a love relationship. Intimate partners often refer to each other as if they were talking to young children. They call each other “baby” or “sweetie-pie,” and every couple knows what their unique, tender words mean to both of them. It is a normal interaction.
As relationships mature, many partners begin to feel less willing to give that kind of unconditional nurturing, and might not be as automatically available when the other slips into a younger place. When no longer loved in that tender way, the needy partner may feel abandoned or rejected. They may feel they must behave more carefully, having lost the confidence that anything they say or do will be automatically supported. The symbolic parent-child safety net that was available at the beginning of the relationship is no longer always extended.
Stay-in-love couples understand how important it is to never let those special “sweet spots” die. They know that their partner will sometimes need to feel that guaranteed comfort and safety, and are more than willing to act as the good parent when asked. They know that it is natural for people to feel insecure and young at times, and they want to be there for each other when that happens.
5. How they deal with control.
Many relationships fail because one partner attempts to dominate the other, or fears being controlled by the other. Many people had childhood experiences in which they felt unimportant and were expected to submit to whatever was demanded of them. They often bring those trauma–memories into their adult relationships, fearful of being controlled again. Those fears can lead people to push for a partner’s automatic compliance, to allay that anxiety. Many partners alternately pull a partner close and then push him or her away, fearing that intimacy and commitment will lead to entrapment and being controlled.
Stay-in-love partners know that the need to feel in control at times is natural. It allows a person to be fully respected as the stronger one in the relationship at that moment. The other partner has confidence in his or her own autonomy to not react defensively or take it personally. He or she doesn’t feel the need to either counter-control or to automatically submit. Comfort with the situation allows them to seek understanding about what may be driving those behaviors. They also know that they will need to be the need-to-control partner at other times, and will receive the same understanding and respect.
These couples also know how quickly interactions can deteriorate if both want to be in control at the same time. When those situations arise, they work to stay centered and calm, agreeing to take turns listening to what each other need and feel. When they fully understand what both of their desires for control are about, they decide how to best help each other get their underlying needs met.
6. How they respond to urgency.
Newly-in-love couples are most often each other’s first priorities, so they respond immediately to their partner’s distress signals. As life’s obligations intervene and the couple resumes their normal routines, those requests must be absorbed into other priorities. Even though they may realize that being the center of someone’s life naturally somewhat diminishes over time, many partners feel neglected when that happens. They may become more demanding or feel neglected, and begin to blur the line between truly important requests and less urgent ones, fearful that neither may be met.
Stay-in-love couples are authentic, open, and self-reliant, but they also urgently need one another at times. They trust that the other will never take advantage of that immediate availability, and that when an urgent S.O.S. call goes out, their partner will rapidly respond without question or challenge. They trust that those requests are not expressed fraudulently or without concern for the other’s needs. Stay-in-love partners understand the sanctity of personal boundaries, and take pride in their own autonomy. They have learned that one of the most important qualities any person can have is the ability to love again after loss. That drives them to practice forgiveness and humility when a conflict is over. Their mutual goals are to resolve and to reconnect, leaving distress behind as soon as possible.
They know that love must include always living in each other’s hearts, whether they are together in the same place or temporarily separate. They know that the future is unwritten and that they can be taken from each other at any time. The acceptance of that truth continuously reminds them that their relationship is only as good as they are able to re-create it in each present moment.
By Randi Gunther Ph.D.
When John Gottman talks, I listen.
Actually I’ve never heard him talk, but when he writes, I read.
So when a newly revised edition of his best-selling “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” (Harmony Books) hit my desk this week, I cracked it open immediately.
Gottman is a psychology professor at the University of Washington and the founder/director of The Gottman Institute, a marital research and counseling center in Seattle.
Maybe you’ve read about his theory on “master couples” versus “disaster couples.”
Co-authored with Nan Silver, “Seven Principles,” which has sold a million-plus copies, was first released in 1999 — before Tinder, before Facebook — heck, before some of us even had cellphones.
The updated version (out next week) offers tips for dealing with digital distractions, including Gottman’s suggestion to agree on rules of tech etiquette: How much are you comfortable with your partner sharing on social media? When is texting/posting off-limits (mealtimes, date nights)? Do you create cyber-free zones in your home?
Most compelling of all, though, is Gottman’s “magic six hours” theory, based on interviews with couples who attended marital workshops at The Gottman Institute.
“We wondered what would distinguish those couples whose marriages continued to improve from those whose marriages did not,” Gottman writes. “To our surprise, we discovered that they were devoting only an extra six hours a week to their marriage.”
If your first thought is, “Only? Where am I going to find an extra six hours in my week?” — I hear you.
If that was not your first thought, forget I said anything.
Anyway, back to the winning formula.
Couples who saw their relationships improve devoted extra time each week to six categories.
First up: Partings
“Make sure that before you say goodbye in the morning you’ve learned about one thing that is happening in your spouse’s life that day,” Gottman writes. “From lunch with the boss to a doctor’s appointment to a scheduled phone call with an old friend.”
(Two minutes per day for five days, for a grand total of 10 minutes per week.)
Gottman recommends greeting your partner each day with a hug and kiss that last at least six seconds and ending each workday with stress-reducing conversation that lasts at least 20 minutes. (About 1 hour and 40 minutes per week.)
Third: Admiration and appreciation
Spend five minutes every day finding a new way to communicate genuine appreciation for your spouse, he says. (35 minutes per week.)
“Show each other physical affection when you’re together during the day, and make sure to always embrace before going to sleep,” he writes. (Five minutes per day, seven days a week: 35 minutes.)
Fifth: Weekly date
For two hours once a week, Gottman recommends one-on-one time, during which you ask each other open-ended questions. “Think of questions to ask your spouse, like, ‘Are you still thinking about redecorating the bedroom?’ ‘Where should we take our next vacation?’ or ‘How are you feeling about your boss these days?'” (2 hours per week.)
Sixth: State of the union meeting
Spend one hour a week talking about what went right that week, discussing what went wrong and expressing appreciation for each other. “End by each of you asking and answering, ‘What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?'” he writes. (1 hour per week.)
All of it adds up to six hours per week.
Some of these suggestions sound a tad awkward. “What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?” reminds me a little too much of the last time I bought a car. (“What can I do to earn your business today?”)
But I like to think of marital advice like the food pyramid: You’re not going to adhere to it every day, but it’s an instructive guide to shape your habits around.
Forgo the dinner and a movie and go straight to really connecting with your spouse. Love is not self sustaining but requires constant maintenance. We can often get stuck on surfacey conversations but need to work hard at diving deep in to heart level conversations. Don’t talk about this kids soccer schedules, your crazy boss, or your never ending to do list. Instead take these questions with you on your next date night and take turns answering them. Spend the time listening to your spouse’s heart and soul.
What is your favorite memory as a child?
What’s my best physical feature?
If you could change one thing about your looks, what would it be?
What is your favorite memory of us dating?
Which of your parents are you most like?
What are your top 3 strengths?
What’s a new hobby you’d like to try?
How often do you prefer sex?
What was the first thing you thought of me?
If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do?
What do you like most that I do in bed?
How would you describe an ideal day?
What is something I can do to make us feel connected even more?
What do you think we need to work on the most in our relationship?
What can I do to make sure you feel safe with me?
What’s the happiest you’ve ever felt?
What do you want to do when you retire?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
If you could meet one famous person, who would it be?
What’s another career that you think you’d love?
If you could go back in time, what age would you be?
Are you an optimist, pessimist or realist?
What was your favorite date night you’ve ever had with me?
What can I do that best says, “I love you.”?
In what areas are we the same?
Tell me a time when you felt really close to me?
How are we different?
Who do you know that has the best marriage? And what can we do to get there?
What’s your biggest regret in life?
If you bought a boat, what would you name it?
When did you first know you loved me?
How have I succeeded in our marriage this week?
What fears do you have?
What brings you the most joy?
How can I show you love this week?
If you gave money to charity, which one would you pick and why?
What turns you on?
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
What things do I do for you that refresh you the most?
What’s a question you’ve never asked me?