Leslie Tourish, LPC
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Sometimes relationships can be a lot like art; while we may not know much about them, we know what we like. Or don’t like. We tend to inherently know if our relationships are healthy and growing, stalled and floundering, or have a poor prognosis for survival. While we may be able to recognize the emotional temperature of the relationship, being able to improve an already loving relationship, or pulling a failing relationship out of a death spiral, takes work and understanding.
First let’s look at the ten warning signs of a relationship in trouble: One spouse is physically violent. One spouse is verbally abusive. One spouse is abusing alcohol or drugs. One spouse has a problem with compulsive gambling or compulsive spending. One spouse is a workaholic. One spouse is having an affair. One spouse is depressed. The two of you disagree about having children. You and your partner have stopped having sex. You and your partner no longer enjoy being together.
As you can image, the above is generally the stuff divorces are made from. But whether it’s major or minor problems, the reasons couples seek counseling are generally because their emotional connection is weak, communication is poor, fighting has increased, or they’re experiencing The Four Horsemen of a Troubled Relationship: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (emotionally and physically disengaging from the relationship.)
Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of the book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” writes extensively about the inner-dynamics with couples that either nurture or erode relationships. Dr. Gottman writes that the strongest marriages are built on friendship, and that genuinely liking each other is key. Marriages are made strong when the couple support each other’s hopes and aspirations, and build a sense of purpose together. On fighting, which all couples do (even the healthiest one), he writes:
“Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyles, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage. …you need to understand the bottom-line difference that is causing the conflict between you, and to learn how to live with it by honoring and respecting each other. Only then will you be able to build shared meaning and a sense of purpose into your marriage.”
An exercise Dr. Gottman suggests for strengthening the relationship is to list in writing some of the good qualities your spouse possesses, such as their being loving, sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful, generous, loyal, strong, truthful, sexy, creative, imaginative, fun, interesting, supportive, considerate, affectionate, cheerful, graceful, caring, a great friend, shy, vulnerable, committed, relaxed or a great parent. Pick three or more, and write in a notebook or journal examples of an actual incident that illustrates the characteristic. Share your list with your partner and see if the frost in your relationship doesn’t melt a bit, for both of you.
Relationships are habits, and if the habit is to be loving, then love continues to grow. If our habits fall toward seeing the negative in our partner, then exercises such as the one above are steps in helping us rediscover, all over again, the person who first captured our heart. Because who better to fall in love with, than your best friend?