03 Mar Relationship secrets: what the marriage research tells us

If you found yourself sitting next to a marriage counsellor at the quiet end of the table at a dinner party, and you got chatting, what would be the questions that you’d want most to ask?

Would you be curious about what really goes on in a marriage counselling session? What sorts of people come in? Perhaps you’d want to know the most common relationship mistakes people make? Or why some couples enjoy a great relationship whilst others are stuck with mediocre, or blatantly unhappy marriages? Maybe you’d ask why there are so many broken relationships, and why something that begins with so much mutual attraction and love can so often end in tatters.

If I were asked what relationship mistakes people make, of course I’d say that relationship mistakes are as varied as the people and couples who make them. Every partnership is unique and deserves to be regarded in it’s own right. Yet thanks to the work of marriage researchers, there is an ever growing body of evidence-based knowledge that helps us understand the do’s and don’ts for healthy and rewarding relationships. This evidence is so compelling that anyone with a genuine interest in creating healthy and happy relationships really needs to stay informed.

At the forefront of evidence based research is the work by Dr. John Gottman and his team at The Gottman Institute in Seattle, who have been studying married couples for decades, with the aim of identifying what couples do that either helps or harms relationship health. By observing real couples in a domestic environment, Gottman’s team, for example, has been able to pinpoint the following short-list of four behaviours that are statistically proven to be bad news for happy partnerships. See if any of these are familiar to you:

Criticism: Very common in relationships, criticism becomes a serious problem when it becomes habitual and pervasive. There’s a difference between making a complaint (“I’m not happy about you forgetting to pay that bill”) and a criticism, which is more blaming and global (“You are so forgetful! You’ve let me down again”).

Contempt: Develops when criticism becomes cruel, and includes sarcasm, cynicism, passive aggressive behaviour, mockery, and hostile humour – all designed to convey disgust. When partners engage in contemptuous talk, they aren’t focussing on the common good, but rather, on “winning”, making a point, “dressing down” and belittling the other person.

Defensiveness: Often intended to justify a certain behaviour, but usually ends up escalating the conflict, because it implies that the problem “isn’t me, it’s you!” It avoids taking personal responsibility whilst aiming to shift responsibility (or blame) back onto the other person. “I can’t be on time because I’m spending so much time cleaning up after you” would be a defensive response to a complaint about poor time management. A healthier response may be “Yes, I agree, I am often running late. Can we please work together to make sure these tasks get done, so that I can be ready on time?”

Stonewalling: This means tuning-out, shutting down, ignoring or avoiding interaction. It’s usually a strategy aimed at avoiding conflict. Disengaging may seem like an effective solution, but it’s not. Healthy relationships are connected relationships. Even if issues are confronting and tough, learning how to stay emotionally connected is essential for ongoing relationship satisfaction and growth.

These are invaluable starting points for the many couples who together decide to turn bad relationship habits around. Couples can and do turn around unhappy relationships simply by attending to these four behaviours alone. Further information about Dr. Gottman’s extensive and worthwhile research can be found at www.gottman.com

Contact Pamela If you want to learn more about how Gottman’s marriage research may apply to you and your own unique relationship, book an appointment; schedule a complimentary (and confidential) phone assessment; or request more information about fees, services, and relationship workshops on the Sunshine Coast.