By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “Bridging the Couple Chasm” by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
Marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, likens building a strong marriage to building a house. Both require a specific set of components. How the base components are constructed affects the integrity of what is built later. And both will collapse into a heap without maintenance.
You put together these first three components to build the “friendship” story of the relationship house.
1. Build Love Maps
A love map is what you know about your partner. You fill it in by asking your spouse questions. Like any map, it needs to be updated. Get to know your partner by asking them questions about their life before they met you, whether there is anything stressful going on in their life right now, their dreams and goals, etc. You could make a game of it by making a list of questions, and trying to answer them for one another. Sharing your answers will help you find out what you know and do not know about one another. (42)
2. Share fondness and admiration
This is the “antidote for contempt,” as Gottman says. A sign of a doomed marriage is that neither spouse has anything good to say about the other. You avoid that by looking for your mate’s talents and positive traits. Everyone has their flaws, and there is nothing wrong with addressing hurtful behavior with your spouse, but endeavor to focus on their positive qualities, rather than be overwhelmed by the negative. (42)
3. Turn towards (42)
Few moments hurt worse than when you reach out to someone you love and they ignore you. Reciprocating what Gottman calls “bids for emotional connection” is crucial to building a strong relationship. Most of these interactions are insignificant, such as a hug before one of you leaves for the day. But their gradual compounding builds the foundation of the relationship. Think about how hurt you are when your spouse uses a lousy day as an excuse to snap at you . Pool enough of those, and they can destroy a marriage like termites in a log cabin.
Fellowship is essential for marriage. But, sometimes you get busy. It can be easy to take your spouse for granted, and leave them waiting in the background. This is not the model scripture sets for us, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25 NIV) Make a point to spend time with your spouse. Boost their spirits with praise and sincere compliments.
When put together correctly, the first three components lead to this fourth.
4. The positive perspective (43)
Your attitude toward your marriage influences how you approach discussions and attempts by your spouse to make up during and after disagreements. If the three previous listed components of your relationship are not well constructed, odds are you are in what Gottman calls Negative Sentiment Override. You interpret everything as a slight, even compliments. Marriage is a chip on your shoulder. Gottman says the solution to this is not to get the spouse to alter their perspective of the relationship, rather to improve the friendship between the spouses. They see the relationship negatively because they see their partner as an adversary. The only way to fix this is to overhaul the previous three components, and build a friendship between the spouses.
The next two skills make up the “conflict management” story of the relationship house. The better your friendship, the easier it is to put together this part of the “house.”
5. Manage conflict (43)
Some problems can be solved in relationships. Some cannot. What spouses need to do is figure out what they can solve, and develop methods for doing so that retain the integrity of the relationship. For this, Gottman recommends four steps:
- Softened Startup
- When approaching your partner with a complaint or problem, be gentle. Don’t explode in anger or begin with personal attacks. One effective way is to go to them as you would a coworker or a stranger. You would not go up to them in a huff, and scream in their face. You would politely, yet firmly, state your case; so as not to immediately alienate them.
- Accepting Influence
- Marriages involving a spouse who refuses to hear their mate’s entreaties about hurtful behavior, or allow them input during decision-making do not last long. It is crucial you try to hear what your spouse is saying, and consider whether you ought to act on it.
- Coming together after arguments is crucial. You do not have to agree with everything they said, but you ought to at least repair any damage caused during the argument.
- Keeping arguments from becoming blowouts makes for fewer ugly memories during marriage. It also makes it more likely your conversation about the problem will lead to actual change.
- Decisions belong to both of you. It is important to incorporate both spouses’ wishes as much as possible.
For problems they cannot solve, couples need to learn how to rehash these disagreements throughout their marriage without creating resentment. Healthy couples deal with perpetual issues with humor, affection, and by showing their partner they accept them. As Gottman quoted another researcher, “There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.” (53)
6. Make life dreams and aspirations come true (44)
There are few things more gratifying than a spouse who believes in you and supports you. Understanding each other’s dreams, and what they mean to you both is essential to avoiding gridlock over those disagreements you can never seem to resolve. (Typical examples include how to spend your money, and what to do with your free time) Gridlock is not a lack of resolution, so much as it is an embittered entrenching of each spouse. Both have given up on attempting to compromise, and the subject triggers an ugly fight whenever someone raises it. To avoid this, you must discuss why you hold the positions you do on these issues, and find compromises that satisfy both parties, while still allowing spouses to achieve their dreams.
Example: Jill desperately wants a dog like she had growing up, but Steve hates the idea of an indoor pet. After arguing about it over and over for months, one of them finally gets the bright idea for Jill to start pet sitting in the owner’s home. Once she builds enough references she can scale back her hours at work, and replace that income with her dog-sitting money. She can get her pet owner fix while also making money, and Steve won’t have to go anywhere near the animals. It is a win-win.
The most important thing to remember during a conflict, or when approaching someone with a problem or criticism, is to humble yourself. Consider the example Esther set– “Esther again pleaded with the king, falling at his feet and weeping. She begged him to put an end to the evil plan of Haman the Agagite, which he had devised against the Jews. Then the king extended the gold scepter to Esther and she arose and stood before him.” (Esther 8:3-4 NIV) I’m not saying you have to fall sobbing at your spouse’s feet. But launching into a tirade will get you nowhere. Your emotions need to make it clear to your spouse that this issue matters to you, but you are also willing to hear what they have to say.
Gottman refers to these final components as the “attic.” The attic is where you store the trappings of your marriage– scrapbooks, traditions, beliefs, and aspirations.
7. Create shared meaning (44)
Gottman likes to talk about the “culture” of individual marriages. He is referring to the shared beliefs, experiences, and goals of a marriage and what they mean to the couple. You develop a certain way of doing things (holiday gatherings, Sundays after church). You have goals (taking a specific trip, sending your children to college). This is why it is called “building a life together.” What do the various components of this life mean to you both? It is how you adapt the cultures you bring into the marriage (your families, yourself) to create a new culture based on your experiences and aspirations for this relationship.
8. Trust (45)
Most people have received that chain email about little kids defining what love is. Billy, a 4-year-old, said love is, “You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” Now, every spouse on the planet has been guilty of running down their beloved to someone else. But, what makes it love is that this anger is temporary. At that moment, you may feel like wringing their neck, but you would still beat the tar out anyone else who tried to do it.
You and your partner may get mad at each other, but you know you ultimately have one another’s backs. That is what Gottman says trust is– “When a person knows that his or her partner acts and thinks to maximize that person’s interests, and maximize that person’s benefits.”
Marriage is a contract you make with your fiancee and with God. Gives it a whole new level of gravity to the relationship when you think of it that way, doesn’t it? You not only promised your spouse that you would uphold your marriage vows, you promised God. Now that is a commitment.
Commitment means not taking the times of bliss for granted, and putting your hand to the workbench to repair the bad. It means cherishing and being thankful for their lovable qualities, rather than focusing solely on what you would like to change. It means treating them the way you would like to be treated.
Christian counseling for couples to build a strong marriage
If you are unsure of how to incorporate these building blocks into your marriage, or if it is even possible for you, consider making an appointment with a professional Christian counselor. Like a building inspector does with a nearly-completed house, a professional Christian marriage counselor will identify the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship. They can advise you about how to repair problems, and support you with Biblical encouragement.
Fix-your-marriage-problems Flickr user bigbirdz
Build-a-strong-marriage Flickr user Bryn Pinzgauer