Several months ago I was on the outer banks of North Carolina, with 22 family members gathered for a week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my husband’s parents. Fifty years! As a couples therapist I spend a lot of time thinking about marriages and relationships and why some last and some don’t. During this week of celebration, I was thinking about it even more than usual. I watched my in-laws as they interacted during the week. The thing that struck me the most is how kind they were with one another.
It wasn’t just the kind of kindness they might have displayed because of the circumstances. As I thought about their relationship over the past 20 years that I have known them, going back over every visit we’ve had together, I realized Jackie and Bruce (not their real names) always displayed this same kind of kindness and consideration. When on the road, if Jackie wanted to stop at yet another new quilting store she’s just found (her favorite hobby), Bruce would amiably agree to walk around the fabric store for an hour or two without complaint. When Bruce wanted to stop at yet another used bookstore to add to his collection, Jackie would accompany him without reservation. Even when not happy with one another, there was always that sense of respect and consideration for one another. When outside stress arose for one reason or another, they still managed to be thoughtful about how theytreated each other amid the stress.
My in-laws seem to understand intuitively what John Gottman, Ph.D, researcher on relationships at the University of Washington, has been researching and writing about for years. One of the key differences between couples who are happy and couples who split or remain together unhappily, is that happy couples have far more positive or neutral interactions during stressful times or during conflict than they do negative interactions. In other words, by showing each other a certain amount of consideration or kindness during stressful interactions, partners are able to keep from eroding the good feelings between them.
Gottman uses the term “positive sentiment override” to describe this process. He says that emotions in a relationship are like a thermostat. They have a set point to which they return when there is too much heat or too much cold air. If there has been a fight and it has gone badly but the emotions between partners are generally positive, the process will self-correct, the partners will get over the hurt quickly and the good feelings between them will be restored. If there is not an overall positive emotional setting in the relationship and fights are often destructive, then the set point is negative and the fight will continue to erode the relationship.
Another analogy is that of a savings account. If you have a large savings account (positive interactions, positive emotions), then even when you make a wishdrawal (a fight or destructive interaction), you will still be in the black and continued kind of positive interactions will act as additional deposits.
How big is your savings account? How often do you make deposits? Are your reserves already low and not sure how to get them higher?
There are three steps you can take to increasing your savings account. The first step: think about what is really important to your partner. If you are not sure, think about what are his or her most frequent complaints about you. Is it that you don’t say, “I love you?” Then make an effort to say it each day. Is it that you forget to enter the check in the checkbook register? Make a point of being meticulous about this each time you shop. Is it that you leave your dirty clothes on the floor? Then start putting your clothes directly into the hamper.
When was the last time you really looked into your partner’s eyes when you told them you loved them? When was the last time you really listened to your partner’s description of the day at work without interrupting, being distracted, or chiming in trying to fix the problem? Pick one or two of these areas for your own focus, or choose something else that is important to your partner.
These are not huge tasks; in time and energy they require little effort. Yet, if you do what you know is important to your partner that you haven’t been doing for some reason, and suddenly you take the small step to do one or two of those things, you will likely be surprised at the results. What it would mean to you if your partner did some of the things that were most important to you? Instead of waiting, be the first to make the deposits.
The second step: when you have a fight or disagreement, take a breath and manage your own feelings so you can avoid blaming, interrupting, defensiveness, name calling or contmptuous remarks. These tactics are tempting but destructive, and over time they really tear at the fabric of a relationship.
The third step: when one of you realizes the fight is not getting you anywhere except more angry, frustrated or hurt, take a planned time-out. Rather than letting the fight grow more destructive, agree to stop fighting to allow both of you to calm down (it takes at least 20 minutes to go from a state of emotional arousal to being calm again). You can return to the discussion at a mutually agreed upon time. Make sure you honor that agreement, and don’t forget to reinitiate the discussion or your partner will experience a lack of integrity on your part.
When you feel the subtle shifts in your relationship toward the positive, you will probably find that it will becomes easier and easier to make these deposits as your partner responds in kind. Start making your deposits today!