By Dr. Louis V. Haynes
Many of the couples that reach out to me looking to start couple’s counseling for the first time have one goal in mind: reducing conflict by improving communication. Couples are often overwhelmed with managing their conflicts, a majority of which, are the same conflicts over and over. These couples mistakenly believe the source of their marital dissatisfaction is due to their difficulties communicating. Minimal attention, however, is given to the time the couple spends outside of conflict. The truth of the matter is that learning how to resolve conflicts, argue more effectively, or even avoiding conflict altogether has little to do with what causes us to be satisfied in our long-term relationships (although it can succeed in making miserable relationships more miserable).
If you truly want to improve the quality of your relationship, learning to manage conflict effectively is just an aspect of couple’s therapy; it is not the reason to get help. Effective couple’s therapists understand the foundation of every happy relationship is a solid friendship. Thus, many interventions focus on building emotional intimacy and connection between partners. Here are three tips to help you and your loved one make some improvements in feeling connected to each other.
1. Build Love Maps
One of the world’s leading experts on relationships, Dr. John Gottman, coined the term “Love Maps” to represent our intimate understanding of our partner’s life experiences. The principle behind Love Maps is that by knowing the little things about your partner’s likes/dislikes, hopes/fears, goals/dreams, etc., we build a solid foundation for friendship and intimacy. Through four decades of research, Gottman found that the happiest couples allocate mental resources to recall important dates, significant events in each other’s personal histories, and actively refresh and update their love maps on a regular basis. Simply put, building love maps is expressively taking an interest and understanding of our partner’s world.
2. Share Fondness and Admiration
Taking time to express gratitude and appreciation is a no-brainer. However, truly happy couples transcend this pattern to an even greater degree. The most destructive type of criticism, known as character assassination, attacks the person characterologically. It is an affront to who you are, rather than what you did. Fondness and admiration is just the opposite. It’s just as personal, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. Identifying and conveying the reasons that you believe make your partner as amazing as he or she is has a profoundly positive impact on emotional connection and it is money in the bank!
3. Turning Towards Bids
Couples are constantly making efforts to connect with each other, whether or not they recognize they are even doing it! We call these efforts “bids for connection.” There are three basic ways to respond to a bid. Say your partner is chuckling at something she is reading. You can respond by ignoring it “turning away.” Turning away can also be communicated when she explicitly tells you something. It is passive and uninterested; you are turning away both figuratively and literally. You do not turn towards her, you don’t ask questions, or partake in the emotional reaction. Turning against is even worse. Such a response may poke fun of the content or the person making the bid. Not all turning against is mean-spirited, but the teasing or critical responses can be construed as dismissive and punitive. After all, punishment always decreases behavior and in this case, perhaps discouraging the making of bids in general.
Finally, the best response is to turn towards bids for connection. Striving to be agreeable, turning towards physically turns your body towards your partner, providing them with your undivided attention. This is crucial even when celebrating personal victories in your partner’s life. You ask questions and walk through the experience through an emotional play-by-play. “So your boss just called you out in front of all your co-workers to say you have been doing an amazing job ? What you were feeling at moment? How did you react?” By processing the emotional experience actively, you both get to experience the positive feelings together, thus connecting with each other as well as highlighting the value and significance of the events in each other’s lives (i.e., love maps).
To learn more relationship-enhancing tips, please check out more articles on our website. Want to assess how you and your partner are fairing in these areas? Consider making an appointment today!
J. Gottman (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. New York: W.W. Norton