Gottman’s Sound Relationship House

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Depression, anxiety, and divorce are continuing to rise. The fallout on marriages and parenting is immense. It may be time to get back to core values of marriage and family. One question to ask yourself: “Is my home a place to get support and reduce stress?”

Luke 14:28-30 says that strong families don’t just happen on accident – it takes intentionality. Proverbs 24:3-4 adds that our goal is to build our house on wisdom.

One of the best resources for relational tools is Dr. John Gottman. He is the leading researcher on marriage and family relationships. He’s “the guy that can predict divorce and family break up with 94% accuracy.” He has provided the blueprints for what he calls a “Sound Relationship House.” A sound relationship house is made possible by two support beams: trust and commitment. Based on his research, Gottman outlines seven levels that predict healthy family relationships, which are highlighted below.

1. Build love maps.

There’s an advantage to knowing the best ways to love each individual in our family. Here are five tools.

Gottman love maps for couples and kids
List of favorite things or ways to feel loved
Love Languages
Our Moments card game (or similar game based on personal questions for each other)

What if once a day you did something for each family member that made them feel loved?

2. Share fondness and admiration.

This is known as the care and feeding of the relationship. What if once a day you shared fondness or admiration with each family member? Remembering your partner or family member’s positive qualities strengthens bonds. Keeping the positive in a conversation is key. To maintain respect amongst each other, avoid what Gottman calls The Four Horsemen: contempt, criticism, defensiveness stonewalling.

3. Turn towards instead of away.

Now what does that mean? Family members often make bids for connection, looking for a response. Examples of bids are making a statement, asking a question, expressing affection, or even doing work around the home. People wanting a connection are looking for a response. Will it be a positive response or a negative response? Turning towards the other means a positive response at a minimum of a 5 to 1 ratio. For every time that a bid for connection is missed or criticized, there needs to be five or more positive responses to maintain a healthy balance. Healthy relationships respond well 86% of the time while relationships breaking down respond positively only 33% of the time. Ask yourself what are some ways that your spouse or kids bid for connection?

4. The positive perspective.

94% of the time, couples who put a positive spin on their relationship’s history are likely to have a happy future. When disagreeing with a family member, taking an understanding approach from the other person’s perspective is better than taking it personally. This is challenging and may be impossible if feeling defensive. Seek to understand without judgement. It’s possible one has to take the first step towards looking into a positive way to connect.

5. Manage conflict

First signs of tension are arguments or trying to fix another person. Warning signs that the conversations about to get worse are criticism and defense. Danger signs for any relationship are the presence of high resentment or putting up a wall.

Instead, before you resolve anything, take turns using the acronym ACE. Ask questions, Clarify what the other person is feeling and thinking, and Empathize. If you notice you’re getting defensive when you disagree, it is likely time to disengage (and re-engage later).

Just make sure each side feels understood, then focus on making future agreements while allowing for your differences. The best agreements are based on good disagreements. 69% of conflict is due to personality differences that will not change, but good agreements and understanding can overcome this challenge.

I have found that the more I am able to disagree with someone comfortably, the more I’m able to empathize and appreciate them. Just because we may disagree does not mean that we don’t care. The hardest part is usually being able to let go of one’s ego and one’s need to be right.

6. Make life dreams come true.

What is important to our spouse and kids and how can we help? Can you identify what each family member is passionate about and contribute to it in some way? Sharing dreams together gives strength and connection to the relationship. “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else” (Erma Bombeck).

7. Create shared meaning

Over time families develop their own ways of doing things. For example: What is your family morning routine? How do you spend your evenings and weekends? What do we do for holidays or celebrations?

Maybe pick one step to practice at a time. No need to rush, and each step is meaningful in its own way.

For Christians, this is like a triangle, in which as two different people slowly become one as they each move toward God.

Marriage is the foundation of family and is symbolic of God’s love for the church. To quote author Russell Moore, “Let’s talk about marriage the way Jesus and the apostles taught us to — as bound up with the gospel itself, a picture of the union of Christ and his church.”

The gospel answers three questions.

Romans 3:19-20 says that the point of Old Testament law is to realize that you can’t fulfill it.

Galatians 2:21 says that we can’t add to what Christ did on the cross.

Romans 7:14 through 8:1 reveal that I should not be surprised when I sin. In light of our sin, there is no condemnation.

God’s love is freely given and unconditional. This is the model we’re given for marriages in Ephesians 5. Here’s a couple of verses from Proverbs and a couple of verses from Paul that are great reminders for family relationships.

Proverbs 12:18 says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Proverbs 19:11: “Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs”.

Paul says in Philippians 2:14, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.”

Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 4:29. “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encourage­ment to those who hear them.

More support for marriages can be found here:

Making Marriage Work

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

AffairsDarling, you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be there till the end of time
So you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

This classic song from the Clash resonates with everyone at some point in their lives. It is especially poignant and painful after infidelity. Many who have experienced the dark world of cheating may initially say goodbye, but actually most change their mind and decide to make it work. This is a tough decision to make.

Affairs start in the mind and do not necessarily end in bed. They do often break hearts. There are subtle signs that lead to both an affair and recovery.  Signs of cheating should be all taken into account before making an accusation. Unless you have proof in hand, it is better to address the already evident: less investment in the relationship and a much greater investment in other activities, personal changes to increase one’s own attractiveness, and evasiveness about spending time or money.

Cheating is sensational. It is guaranteed to sell the news. It is something that everyone can identify with but is easily judged as betrayal. What is not so easily judged is the small ways that we betray our partners. John Gottman says in his book “What Makes Love Last?” that “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship.” Not being there, not following through, putting the kids or career ahead of the marriage are examples.

John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, describes the deterioration of the marriage leading to an absorbing state of negativity called negative sentiment override. This is the stage in a relationship where one partner cannot do enough to make things right. Even positive  attempts fall short or are interpreted negatively. He compares it to a roach motel, where once you check in, it is hard to check out.

Add this to another critical element in the demise of a marriage: comparing your spouse unfavorably to others, even comparing to imaginary spouses that are better than your spouse. These are like nails in a coffin. These are usually kept to oneself, along with crossing boundaries. First comes secret-keeping, then comes cheating.

Deciding whether to stay or go depends on the ability to rebuild trust with someone who becomes trustworthy. Signs of someone who is changing a character trait is complete honesty (minus the brutal details which cause obsessions) with nothing to hide. Next, recovery depends on an ability to step outside the self and one’s own pain, and enter into your partner’s pain (without beating yourself up). It is the ability to feel what your partner is feeling, and on that basis fully regret your actions and betrayal. It involves making personal and relational changes that benefit both partners that stand the test of time. These changes are determined by essential relational skills: empathy instead of defensiveness, asking for what is needed instead of criticizing, and setting personal boundaries on what you are not willing to do, and at the same time what you are willing to do for your partner. Deciding whether or not your partner is being honest depends on these criteria, along with your own instinct about what your partner is like when he or she if faithful, and what he or she is like when she is not. Although this may be a confusing process, it can be used to decide if he or she is an acceptable risk. Verification of honesty may be required. Finally, there may be need for a clear consequence to future betrayals.

Is this painful process worth it? Are you able to overcome negative sentiment override? One idea involves writing down as many positive traits of your partner. Can you still have fun? Look back over your story. Is there regularity to the energy put into making the other feel loved? Are there examples of admiration for each other? Is it marked by “we” decisions or “me” decisions?  Is that enough to overcome the pain of recovery? Most people also consider the pain and effect of divorce, and realize that there is no guarantee that the next relationship will end up in a better place, and decide that because of shared history and children that it is better to stay together. Some researchers find that over time when all things are considered, the next relationship is not a huge jump in happiness. If trust is unable to be rebuilt though, there is little to sustain a relationship.

Feeling Empty in Marriage

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Marriage Counseling

As a marriage and family therapist I have learned techniques to help marriages and family relationships work. The one that works best by far is the use of unconditional love. How that works out in the marriage is my next question.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I would have an argument with my wife, we would have spirited discussions about the same old topics. Often for us, it was about the use of time. We have lots of kids and a lot of work falls on her. We also have lots of bills and that weight falls on me. For you, you might argue about something that happened that you are having a hard time forgiving.

Unconditional love is impossible without humility. My relationship with my wife started by being selfish, thinking about how the qualities of my wife would benefit me. Then I gained my wife’s love by impressing her. However, this is not unconditional love. I cannot depend on a love that depends on my ability to impress. Certainly, it is not the kind of love that can last.

Turning toward our own ability to love someone, have you felt, as I have, that there are moments where you just do not feel like you have love to give? Often when I feel this way I criticize my wife and defend myself, or I act like a victim and run away. Then I dwell on what is right and wrong in order to think of a way to get my needs met. Then I present my argument to my wife, but it seems to have the same impact as if I am saying to her, “I don’t love you.” I am not saying that, but I wonder how if this is what she feels when I argue with her.

I remember the time my wife was telling me about the frustrations of her day and I was tired but attempting to be empathetic. I recall an instant turn in my emotions when she unexpectedly added, “And if you were around, this would not have happened.” It ignited anger in me, so I retorted, “Do you really want this to blow up?” Luckily I came to my senses enough to walk away. “Empty” is the word that came to mind as I retreated. “I’ve got nothing more to give.”

Greg Baer in his book Real Love compares arguments to feeling attacked while drowning. When someone is drowning they lash out. In fear, someone drowning may hit you or grab onto you and pull you under, resulting in two victims. When we are arguing, we are drowning and lashing out. Research shows that similar events are occurring in our brain when we argue as when we are drowning.

When I realize that I feel like I am drowning when I do not feel loved, and I am feeling empty and alone, how can I respond with unconditional love?

First, I remember that my wife may also be drowning, feeling empty and alone. If I view my wife who at times lashes out at me as drowning, my anger at her is reduced. I feel less interested in criticizing her and defending myself, but I still feel like a victim and want to run away. I am drowning and need to get back on solid ground myself.

My wife nor I may be able to unconditionally love at any moment. If someone was overwhelmed and upset, or stressed, or maybe has had a lifetime of not feeling loved, there will be times that person will not be able to love. Unconditional love means I am accepted with my faults, struggles, and weaknesses. So it falls on me to search myself and speak the truth about myself to someone, (not the opposite sex of course) that will accept me for who I am. Then I may have the energy to improve myself.

So I reflected on my own emptiness and thought about ways I can restore my energy for unconditional love. This may involve self-care, for which we are responsible, and seeking care from others. I thought of this acronym, “ACES” to remind me of ways to restore energy for unconditional love.

“A” stands for a sense of accomplishment.

“C” stands for the connection I have to God, family, and friends, that I need to seek out to feel loved enough to love my spouse.

“E” stands for enjoyment, the “small” parts of life, often overlooked, that I need to remember in gratitude.

“S” stands for self-care, sleep, diet, exercise and other needs for which I am responsible to meet.

Most importantly, I needed to confess to someone my struggle and feel their acceptance. If I am loved for what I do for others, what is that? That is a performance-based love. That is how we got married in the first place. But I need the kind of love where someone who sees me for who I am and then accepts me. I need this kind of love in order to love others.

I may have seek this out on a regular basis. It takes courage. Who wants to talk about their struggles and faults? I would rather talk to someone and they tell me I am in the right. But that is back to performance-based love. So I turned to my “ACES,” and turned to a friend to whom I can admit my faults. He still liked me, and accepted me as I am. With time I was ready to understand and give to my wife.

What are some ways I can unconditionally love my spouse? Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends. Perhaps consider “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, how their relationship died. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and… you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.”

A common need for a man is to feel their spouses’ respect. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

Let me conclude by asking if love is the goal in marriage, and unconditional love is what makes marriage work, then what does unconditional love look like for you? Everybody may have a different definition. For some, unconditional love may mean that they set boundaries so that harm does not occur in a relationship. For others, love is characterized as giving without getting. Immediately, when I hear this definition, I think, “But what about me? What about my needs?” I guess the better question is, what is the best way to meet my needs? If I am angry or disappointed in my partner, I am thinking of myself and my needs. I may be feeling empty, overwhelmed or drowning. Here’s a lifeline: confession. It is speaking truth to someone who accepts and loves us as we are, faults and all. I think that is better than finding someone who agrees with you that you are in the right. I do not know about you, but being right has not inspired me to be more loving. Feeling loved has inspired me to be more loving.

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