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Building a Sound Relationship House, Gottman-Style

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Are & Your Partner Masters of Relationship, or Disasters?

Most of us envision "love" as starry eyed glances across a room. Passionate embraces. The certainty that this is The One Who Completes Me. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, folks, but the honeymoon doesn't last forever. We can even put a number on it: Research shows this delicious state of euphoria in a new relationship lasts six to 18 months, tops.

So what to do when the glorious free-fall of infatuation ends, and those endearing qualities that first attracted you to the love of your life start to grate on your nerves? I recently earned Level 1 certification in The Gottman Method of couples counseling, and soon will proceed to Level 2.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman are Rock Stars in the field. In their work together, the couple has compiled decades of scientific research about the challenges and strengths that define intimate relationships. They have created a number of tools couples can use to build what the Gottmans call a "Sound Relationship House." You don't need advanced carpentry skills, just a willingness to do the work.

The method focuses on progressing beyond the stage of being in love to a state of truly loving. They identify a continuum of couple-hood, ranging from the ideal -- what they like to call "Masters of Relationship" -- to the other extreme, "Disasters of Relationship."

Dr. John Gottman is a research nerd, to the extent that he uses pulse-ometers, blood pressure cuffs and video review on the couples he studies and counsels. Not to worry. I don't do that sort of thing in my office, though I do believe the fact that he does gives more scientific weight to his methods. Many of his findings blow the lid off what conventional wisdom has to say about relationships.

Based on an extensive battery of scientific assessments developed over decades of research at his Seattle-based Institute, John Gottman says he can predict with over 90% accuracy whether a couple will divorce within seven years. These "assessments" are like turbo-charged versions of the quizzes often found in newsstand publications like Cosmo, or O The Oprah Magazine -- albeit grounded in science. Here are some of his discoveries:

Think infidelity is the cause of most break ups? Think again. The most common factors in failed relationships are partners gradually drifting apart, or not feeling loved and appreciated.

If a couple says they "never fight," that's not bragging, even if they think it is. When partners no longer care enough to fight, they've pretty much given up on the relationship.

Healthy relationships require a ratio of at least 5 positive thoughts about your partner for each negative one.

Two-thirds of conflicts between couples are unresolvable and perpetual.

Sounds pretty gloomy, doesn't it? Don't start packing your bags just yet. There are some simple strategies to make your house a happy home, at least more often than not. Ready for a tour of the Sound Relationship House? Come on in. We left the light on for you.

The first three levels of the floor plan are about strengthening a couple's friendship:

Level 1: Love Maps

Get to know your partner on a deeper level. In other words, ask questions! What is your ideal meal? Which of your relatives do you like the least and why? What's the best gift you ever received? Most of us think we know our partner inside and out, but we don't. Expressing genuine interest in your partner refreshes relationships.

Level 2: Warm Fuzzies

Make an effort to notice qualities you like or admire about your partner. Then make it a habit to tell your partner what you noticed. Thank you for making homemade chicken soup for me when I was sick. I love the way you can put an outfit together. You are great at motivating your employees! Research suggests that when you are nice to another person you like them better, more so than the reverse.

Level 3: Turning Towards Instead of Away

Answered bids for attention create connection. Ignored bids breed resentment. What does that look like? He's at the kitchen sink doing dinner dishes. She tiptoes behind him to tickle his side. Turning toward = putting down the crusty frying pan and playfully snapping the dish towel at her. Turning away = shrugging off the tickle while scrubbing away with the Brill-o pad.

Fourth Floor: Managing Conflict

The Gottmans have pinpointed four basic ways couples sabotage efforts to de-escalate conflict, especially when it involves the pesky unresolvable and perpetual topics. They call these The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism. Contempt. Stonewalling. Defensiveness. Take heart, because there is an antidote for each. Stay tuned for a future blog post on this subject. There's sooooo much information that if I wrote about it here you would probably "turn away" and stop reading.

Fifth Floor: Make Life's Dreams Come True

Have you always dreamed of competing in a triathlon? Earning a filmmaking degree and becoming the next Steven Spielberg? Establishing a charitable foundation to rescue feral cats?

Often couples become so focused on the logistics of day-to-day life they forget about the long term. Masters of Relationship make it a priority to support each other in achieving their life's goals. Not to mention helping their partner identify what those goals are in the first place.

Top Floor: Create Shared Meaning

The idea is to create rituals -- big and small -- that define and celebrate the unique aspects of your relationship and your family. What's your ritual for greeting each other at the end of each workday? How does your family mark milestone events or major holidays? The rituals can be deeply meaningful or downright quirky, according to your will.

One couple I've counseled made it a tradition to sing the "Happy Birthday" song to each other in a different foreign accent each year. In my family, we have a ritual that on the last night of a vacation, each of us compiles a secret "Top 10" list of our favorite parts of the trip, and then we read them out loud at our farewell dinner to compare and contrast. The point is, these rituals become touchstones that each member of a couple or family can count on, a reminder that this relationship is unlike any other. "We" are special.

Final Thoughts

A quote posted recently on Gottman's blog sums up the philosophy: "There are no perfect couples. Just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other." What's really cool about the Gottman approach is that it doesn't carry with it the expectation that a successful relationship equals a perfect one. There are no blue ribbons or gold medals for Best Couple, unless you count the one we all voted on at the end of high school senior year. In real life, each couple is by definition perfectly imperfect. A relationship that's "good enough" is its own reward.

Not ready to give up on your relationship just yet? You and your partner can learn to be the architects of your own Sound Relationship House. I've got the blueprints. Give me a call. Let's talk.

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor in Weston, Florida. Couples counseling is a special area of interest in her private practice.

Additional resources:


Visit the iTunes App Store and search "The Gottman Institute" for a series of apps that help you put into practice the techniques created by the Gottmans. Several of the apps are actually fun to use, and clients have reported they "re-purpose" them as conversation starters with friends and family, sort of like a party game. (For iPhone only, $1.99 each)

The Five Love Languages, By Dr Gary Chapman

Love and Respect, By Emerson Eggeriches

Undefended Love, By Jeff Psaris

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