Dr. John Gottman has been studying couples for the last four decades to understand why some relationships are like ticking time bombs that result in chronic dissatisfaction or divorce, while others are fulfilling, happy, and remain stable over a lifetime. What has Dr. Gottman’s research taught us about what works and doesn’t work in relationships? The key findings really boil down to three things: treating your partner like a good friend, handling conflicts in gentle and positive ways, and being able to repair after conflicts and negative interactions. How partners treat each other when they’re not fighting is predictive of their ability to manage conflict and repair negative interactions. With that in mind, here are three research-backed tips to keep your relationship in the healthy and happy zone.
- Stay Curious
Sometimes, we forget to check in with our partner or fail to respond to their attempts to connect. Over time, this can create serious distance between you that damages to the relationship. To prevent this, always make an effort to know what’s happening in your partner’s world. Ask questions that show you’re interested in their day-to-day life. It can be as simple as asking, “How was your day?” Deeper levels of connection are possible when you make it a habit to ask open-ended questions about your partner’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears.
- Be gentle in conflict
Avoid criticism or blame, and instead focus on your own needs. For example, instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” focus on what you do need by stating, “The house needs cleaning and I would really appreciate some help.” Avoid statements of “You never…” or “You always…” A core research finding was that happy couples remained positive in conflict by listening to their partners without criticizing, becoming defensive, shutting down, or acting superior. Make a commitment to yourself and each other to handle conflict with mutual respect, humor, interest, and openness.
- Repair negative interactions
Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, so when couples make mistakes, hurt one another, or argue, it’s essential to have techniques to repair the relationship. One such technique is taking responsibility, even if it’s only for part of the problem. Conflict can deepen intimacy and bring couples closer together. As Dr. Gottman notes, “conflict is an opportunity to learn how to love each other better over time.” The ability for couples to repair is directly related to the strength of their friendship (see tip #1). Distressed couples have as many repair attempts as happy couples, it is just that repair attempts are often unsuccessful when partners don’t feel close, accepted, or safe enough.