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

Outsiders and Insiders

By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist

Step-families are much tougher than I expected. Divorce rates are reported to be about double, and both parents and kids are affected in ways that I have never realized. One way to understand the challenge is to identify the perspective of two groups, and each family member can be part of either group at different times. The two groups referred to are Insiders and Outsiders. Both insiders and outsiders are marked by loss, fueled by jealousy and can potentially isolate step-family members. It affects both the marriage and parenting, and both parenting with our spouse and parenting with our ex.

Insiders are connected with biological bonds that are automatic in both defending the bond and desire to connect. They are based on a lifetime of shared experiences and values. You know the feeling of falling in love? That really never goes away with your children. It is big enough to endure in sickness and in health and for better or for worse till death do you part. If you criticize the child you criticize the parent and vice versa.

Outsiders often feel like Intruders. They have to earn their way to build a bond. It takes years and sometimes does not happen. They can feel alone, invisible and inadequate. There are so many ways they give as a parent would but may not be recognized as a parent would.

Loss is an undercurrent behind typical blended family issues. The loss of a marriage, and time between parents and kids will appear behind the scenes in a blended family. It’s like a two-sided coin where enjoyment with one side of the family is accompanied by sadness. Kids and parents often don’t have the language to express this well because it is going on behind the scenes.

I know that my stepdaughter felt this way when we were having fun she missed her dad. It happens for parents too. For example a couple of weeks ago I came home one night really looking forward to spending some time with my son because I hadn’t seen him. When I got home he was not there and I was disappointed and when my wife was having fun with her kids I felt sad and jealous. My wife said she was in kitchen with her daughter and they were laughing and I walked in and she threw a carrot at me. I turned around and walked away. She used to get annoyed with me because it seemed I went into hiding. She is thankful though when I shared what I was feeling with no blame. She was “on the top of mountain” with her kids but also feeling low in a valley because her high equaled my loss. She used to think she wasn’t allowed to show that I was having a nice time with her kids. Usually when care is shown, feeling can dissipate and bonding can occur.

Other losses include loss of attention and space in the home. Sharing a home with another parent and other kids can be tough. It is often too much change too fast.

Insiders have a dream that their new spouse will be a better parent then their ex. The reality is that kids are not looking for that. They may live under the same roof but still have to be reminded to say hello, while it is natural for a biological parent. Patricia Papernow, a stepfamily expert, said, “Even the best artificial limb can’t replace the real one.” Loss is helped by striking a balance between insider and outsider time for both parents and children.

Parenting involves a balance between attempts to connect and attempt to correct. With biological and insider bonds there are millions of connections that have already been made that can withstand a large number of corrections. For stepparents without the complex network of connections, corrections will be far less effective. Even if a stepparent can get the child to comply with rules, the chance of a close relationship is reduced.

Sadly, step parents can feel more comfortable with correction and parents feel more comfortable with connection. Actually, the reverse usually works better. In many mature thriving stepfamilies, step parents do not ever step into a disciplinary role.

One night my wife and stepson had an argument and she had asked him for his phone and he refused and was disrespectful. She got scared and called me for back-up. She was wishing for me to ask her son to hand his phone over. I came in at a different angle and suggested we calm down first and then sit down and talk. She did not feel supported and got angry at me. Now we were all angry. We needed to calm before we could work it out.

Unlike becoming a parent, becoming a stepparent is a choice that can be undone. The challenge is overwhelming at times. I had to give myself room to accept this, and find support.

Ex-spouses are also insiders and outsiders and impact stepfamilies. Understanding the three levels of co-parenting relationships with an ex helped me set boundaries. The ideal levels for the benefit of the kids is to be cooperative. The second best would be to maintain a parallel parenting relationship. The worst on kids is a high conflict co-parenting relationship. I would say from the beginning years up until high school I had a cooperative relationship with my ex. In high school our value differences became wider. There were times I got blamed by both my ex-wife and my current wife for problems. Those were certainly my lowest points.

Communication involves both sides talking about both sides. It is not the point and counterpoint of an argument. Accountability involves asking another person for something without trying to convince them. If the other person refuses then you make another offer or set a boundary. A boundary is the line between what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do.

Understanding how insiders and outsiders impact parents, kids, and ex-spouses can alleviate a lot of pain and resentment. The losses are real, but may be covered by anger. Without the language describing the emotions and fears underneath the pain, battle lines can be drawn and years can be in turmoil.

For more information: What to Expect When Blending a Family and Blending Family Myths.

Redemption Story: Blending Families

By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist

The challenges of remarriage and blending families after the wounds of divorce or the death of a spouse is likely to be more stressful than the loss of the first marriage. Many hungering for a second chance are yearning for intact family stability, but there are differences between original families and blended families. Loving your biological family is automatic and natural; learning to love a new family takes an extra “step,” a choice to treat non-biological kids as you would your own. Another difference between the original biological family and the blended family can also occur. With biological families, the best thing you can do for the kids is love the other parent, and that does not change even when divorced or after death. With blended families, showing affection to the new spouse may be difficult for the kids, and may cause a sense of loss and possibly resentment. Protecting time between the biological relationships can provide relief to counter natural feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and resentment. Finally, another difference between the two kinds of families are indicated by the stressors. For the original parents, security is threatened most by financial or intimate issues. For blended families, parenting issues are the top problem reported. Being aware of the issues unique to blended families can save years of struggle due to unrealistic expectations.

Blended families are complex, and complexity is stressful. Stress can strengthen biological bonds and weaken other bonds. Over time as blended families forge a new identity they remain vulnerable but are strengthened by overcoming opposition together. This takes flexibility, adaptability, and a sense of humor when needed. The key to building new bonds is low pressure, giving kids all the time in the world to connect, and finding middle ground when there is a culture clash. Bonds are built best when there is no demand for it. In addition, Susan Papernow, a renown researcher on stepfamilies, uses the terms “insider” and “outsider” to reflect biological bonds, and step-bonds. Ron Deal, in his book “The Smart Stepfamily,” refers biological bonds as having auto-responses, like auto-acceptance, auto-access (my space is your space), and auto-patience and grace to one’s own kids, and that an extra step may be needed to provide that in step-relationships. In step-relationships, three weeds can prevail: jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment. These natural feelings in normal people are fed by a sense of loss. These feelings of loss, including loss of time with biological parents and kids, appear throughout life especially at major life events. When there is uncertainty, fear or resistance in stepchildren, kids are often feeling the loss. It must be acknowledged and expressed. Stepparents have to learn to not take it personally.  The other biological parent may have to give some kind of permission to develop a step-relationship. These efforts on the parent’s part may take a lot of pressure off the kids and reduce their anxiety about step-relationships. Though step-bonds are different than biological bonds, both kinds can grow strong, and are often the strongest after the kids are grown.

Since a healthy marriage is crucial for a healthy family, the best thing you can do for your kids is invest in your marriage. The top-down trickle effect impacts kids. Kids will benefit from a secure marriage. That means the marriage comes first, but biological bonds are not neglected, and step-relationships benefit from these prerequisites. Kids don’t want to be in the middle of a contest for a biological parent’s attention.

When it comes to parenting, biological parents are the most effective, but declaring your loyalty to your spouse can enable the stepparent to back you up. The biological parent has relational authority and the stepparent has positional authority, but is ineffective without the biological parent taking the lead in family routines and discipline. Since there probably is some sort of family culture clash, meeting in the middle when it comes to parenting decisions is probably the best. The toughest time reported by Deal to start a step-family is between the ages of 10 and 15. Error on the side of protecting your marriage to limit the struggle.

For more information: What to Expect When Blending a Family and Blending Family Myths.

The challenge to build new relationships with a new spouse and new kids and parent together in a blended family is hard enough but some feel out of place or even ostracized by their religion when faced with divorce and remarriage. Also, stepparents can feel like second class citizens in religious communities. Churches have forbid leaders who have been divorced. The Bible, though, is marked by dysfunctional people and families even in the “faith hall of fame” (Hebrews 11).  God divorced Israel at one point and Christians refer to His remarriage to the Church. Even Jesus had a stepdad.

On a personal note, when feeling trapped, choose trust. God may not always be seen, but we know from the Bible that he does not forget. Throughout Scripture we see the gradual unfolding of God’s plan, even though like any good movie there are times where hope is lost. Hanging on to your faith is sometimes all you got. God is in the business of redeeming all our pain and using it to change lives.