married couple hands with wedding rings

What Makes a Relationship Succeed or Fail?

In my work with couples, I lean heavily on three well respected couples/relationship theorists: John & Julie Gottman (The Gottman Method), Daniel Wile (Collaborative Couples Therapy) and Sue Johnson (Emotion Focused Couples Therapy). In future posts I will talk about Dan Wile's approach as well as Sue Johnson's - both are excellent models for couple work and I love sharing them. Today I will start by laying out some of the basic work of the Gottmans. Their work is easy to grasp, powerful and backed by a mountain of research. I incorporate many of their ideas into my work with couples.

Drs. John Gottman and Julie Gottman, marriage and couple researchers, have come up with the do's and dont's for couple relationships based on decades of research following real-live couples. Any couple wishing to improve their relationship could benefit from understanding the basic tenets that the Gottmans have found.

What Makes a Relationship Lasting and Successful?

First of all when the Gottmans define relationships that work, they are not referring to hollywood-made, hot fuss, caricatures of couples. They are talking about real world couples, people who feel glad to be together and feel satisfied with their relationship after many years - 10, 20, 30 years or more. The feeling quality of a happy couple who last over time is not the intense euphoria - as in the beginning of a new relationship - but rather a secure and satisfying deep connection, knowing the person you are with is the person you would most like to be with for the ups, downs and simple pleasures in life.

In satisfying and lasting relationships, the couple has mastered the following:

  • They know how to be friends
  • They know how to manage conflict
  • They know and support each other's hopes and dreams for the future

The Gottmans have formed a model called "The Sound Relationship House" which incorporates these three findings along with additional information and skills that couples can learn and incorporate into their daily lives. For example in the area of managing conflict, one very effective change that can be made is for the person who usually brings up issues to soften the way they bring things up. This is called "Soft Startup" and it is a skill that can be learned. A soft startup vs. harsh startup has a tremendous impact on how the discussion that follows will ensue.

We Fight All the Time, Are We Doomed?

Couples often enter marriage counseling or couples therapy in a high degree of conflict, therefore we often begin our work with learning skills to help the couple manage and reduce their conflict. When a couple is stuck in a pattern of conflict, it can take time for the conflict to simmer down and adequate space to emerge so they can tend to other aspects of the relationship such as the friendship system and shared dreams. I find that most couples who are willing to work at it can bring their conflict level down.

One finding of the Gottmans research that surprises many couples I work with is that even with successful couples, nearly 70% of their problems are not solvable! So how do successful couples resolve all of that conflict?  What successful couples do differently is they recognize when a problem is not solvable. Next, they accept their differences and move on instead of going round and round, hurting each other. Learning to spot the difference between solvable and perpetual problems often helps couples to let go of the idea that they need to "solve" every difference.

What Destroys a Relationship?

John Gottman is famous for being able to tell with 90% accuracy, within minutes of meeting a couple if they would last or end in divorce. Beyond his keenly honed perception and intuition, I suspect he uses his famous 5:1 ratio. The magic ratio says that successful relationships have a ratio of five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. This just drives home how potent and powerful negativity is - and how much positivity must be heaped on to make up for the damage.

They Gottmans have broken this ratio down into easily digestible dont's, which they refer to as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

These are the ominous negative interactions that destroy relationships:

  • Criticism - Attacks on the character of your partner. The antidote is to talk about your feelings, expressing "I"  statements that express a positive need.
  • Contempt - Expressions of superiority that often come out as sarcasm, cynicism, name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor. The antidote is to cultivate a culture of respect and appreciation within your relationship.
  • Defensiveness - Self protection through righteous indignation and/or playing the victim. A way of blaming your partner. The antidote is to take responsibility for your part of the conflict, no matter how small.
  • Stonewalling - When one person withdraws from the conversation without anything being resolved. Withdrawing can become a habit due to all of the negativity caused by the first three Horsemen. The antidote is to take a break from the conversation for at least 20 minutes and resume when you are both calm.

"Contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship failure." Drs. John Gottman and Julie Gottman

You Don't Have to Wait for Your Partner

Successful long term couple relationships need nurturing and attention. In my experience there are no quick fixes to problems that couples experience and which often drive them into couples therapy or marriage counseling. Frequently their troubles have been building for many years. Satisfaction and long-term happiness in a relationship is possible and - no surprise - it takes work! I believe successful (and honest) long lasting couples would tell you that they have to work at it.

At the same time, understanding more about yourself and how you can be a better partner can go a long way toward improving your relationship. You don't have to wait for your partner to begin making improvements in the relationship. Indeed, you are the only one that you can change! Often when one partner makes a consistent effort at positive change, the other partner picks up on it and things start to feel a little better. It helps if you consider it an experiment - cultivate your curiosity and keep an open mind.

What is one thing you can start doing today to be a better partner?