Part 1 of 3
One of the great mysteries in life is how to make love last a lifetime. Relationships are hard and conflict is inevitable. We all have to manage stress related to work, family, and daily living. When you are in a relationship you have to find ways to get through these difficult times along with your spouse. You need to learn to express your needs, goals, and feelings even when times are challenging. Do you have what it takes to have Long Lasting Love?
There are three essential areas of a couples’ relationship that separate the master’s of relationships from the disasters of relationships. These three areas are friendship, intimacy, and managing conflict, and John Gottman bases this information on over 30 years of marital research.
When couples don’t have friendship, intimacy, and conflict management skills, they tend to feel lonely, frustrated, and overwhelmed. They aren’t connected to each other emotionally or physically, and they tend to have inevitable periods of fighting and arguing without feeling there’s any resolution. These couples are in gridlock, and fight about the same issues over, and over again without ever feeling heard, or like there can be any real compromise.
In the short term when couples don’t have the skills that they need to manage conflict well, they can become even more disconnected, and each partner feels too unheard to listen, too misunderstood to be understanding, and too hurt by what the other just said to do any other thing then hurt back. In the long term, couples become so disengaged and distant from each other emotionally that they don’t know how to recover, and their perpetual issues seem so overwhelming and unsolvable that they don’t know where, or how to begin to repair them.
They stop reaching out to one another, and confiding their feelings to one another. Their friendship disappears, and friendship is the foundation of a strong successful marriage. Once they reach this point they decide to get divorced, stay unhappily married, or meet their needs outside their relationship, and this is where real trouble can happen.
Meeting their needs outside the relationship could mean being a workaholic, over exercising which we see a lot today, having an emotional or physical affair, focusing too much on the children, possibly using alcohol, or other substances just to fill their needs that they’re not getting that in the marriage. These are just some of the ways that people cope, and ways they express their needs within an unhappy relationship.
Unfortunately, many couples are aware that there are problems early in their relationships, but they overlook it, and they don’t see these issues as red flags. They’re in honeymoon phase, and they focus on the positives rather than the negatives. They underestimate the damage that conflict and emotional distance can create over time.
Eventually, they begin to have separate lives, and treat each other like roommates. Some couples realize there’s a serious problem at this point, and reach out for professional help, but for others it’s possible at this point an emotional or physical affair will begin or be revealed. When this happens it complicates the relationship, and being able to repair the relationship becomes more difficult, not impossible, but more difficult, it complicates things.
You are not immune to these problems! This can affect any couple, at any age, and from any type of family. This problem is so pervasive that it crosses gender, age, culture, and even the length of the relationship. I’ve seen couples in my practice that are in just the first few years of dating or marriage, and some couples that are married for over 50 years.
If couples do not have friendship, intimacy, and conflict management skills, their relationship will be less than satisfying over time. It doesn’t take a lot of time, or any kind of grand efforts to turn things around in a relationship. It’s all about the small things often. If couples spend a few hours a week focused on building these three areas in their relationship they will see an increase in intimacy, emotional connection, and less conflict.
The first step is to enhance your friendship and this requires just three basic things; building your knowledge of your partners internal psychological world, increasing affection and respect for your partner, and turning towards your partner in everyday moments by increasing the amount of your positive interactions versus your negative interactions with them. Healthy couples have a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions during conflict and 20:1 during ever day interactions.
There’s so many ways that couples can reconnect and work on their friendship, but I especially love it when couples come up with their own creative and personal ways to become friends again. I often help couples remember the things that they used to do early in their relationship when they were dating before marriage, and children, and work stress, but here’s some of the things that I encourage couples to work on.
The first is turning towards each other during small every day moments. These are little things. These moments are opportunities for you to build your emotional bank account. So when things get stressful there’s a cushion in that bank.
Turning towards each other can be as simple as giving an unexpected smile, or helping them with a household chore. It’s a touch along the back, or shoulder when you pass each other or simply a hug when you see that your partner needs one. It’s stopping your favorite TV show when they walk into the room to talk to you.
It’s about responding in small verbal and nonverbal ways when they reach out to you to connect. It’s really about small things often, and knowing, and showing your partner that you are there for them when they need you in small ways.
Another way to build friendship with your partner is to increase your positive thoughts and feelings about them, and your relationship when you’re apart from each other, rather than distress maintaining thoughts. It’s particularly important to do this when you’re in your work environment, take time each day to focus on things you appreciate about your partner’s personality. If you want you can even take that a step further, and share what you’re thinking and feeling about them everyday, verbally share that with them.
Another important way to build a friendship is to set aside time to date each other again. On these dates make it a priority to update your knowledge of each other’s emotional world. Talk about your worries, and your stresses, as well as your dreams, your hopes, and your goals. And have fun, get dressed up for a special night out, bring flowers, or thoughtful gifts, you know having fun with each other is key to having a strong friendship.