A roadmap to a better relationship
If you are in love, you understand the importance of taking good care of your precious relationship. You are willing to put your heart and soul into having the best relationship you can have, but you might not know where to start.
Most people wait too long to go to couples therapy. The average is six years after the first onset of symptoms. This isn’t surprising, because it’s very hard to find a relationship specialist, and even harder to find one you can afford. It makes sense to try to fix things on your own, and the cheapest and easiest way to do this is with Google.
We live in a time when we want quick fixes. And for better or worse, there are a lot of science-backed quick fixes that are going viral on the internet that will work.
There is no shortage of brilliant writing about love.
Many people won’t ever need to consider entering a couples therapy office as a direct result of the education and inspiration that they found online.
The Worst Thing About Online Relationship Advice Is Not the Spread of Misinformation
Bad relationship advice is usually just vague and anecdotal, and unlikely to cause harm. People are smart. They try out the tips and tricks and if they don’t work, they won’t keep doing them.
I’ve got two major concerns about the four-minute blog culture when it comes to relationship advice. The first is the focus on problems and solutions instead of strengths, and the second is pathologizing normal human mistakes. The headlines are seductive and it’s kind of fun to play armchair psychologist.
“5 Signs You Are In Love with a Narcissist”
“What To Do When You Are Being Gaslighted”
“Warning: Your Relationship is Toxic if You Are Seeing These 7 Danger Signs”
The one thing that you can’t get from a blog post is a thorough assessment of your relationship.
No one likes an intake. It’s boring, time-consuming and you don’t need all that anyway. You have a specific problem or question and you want a solution. I feel the same way. I hate filling out forms in the waiting room before going to a new doctor. I have to look up phone numbers and addresses and call my mom to ask her what horrible diseases run in our family. I compliantly answer all the questions about past surgeries and infinitely long check-lists of symptoms. Mostly, I’m sitting there wanting antibiotics for the thing I’ve self-diagnosed as strep throat.
As an evidence-based couples therapist who has been helping people save their marriages for 28 years, I know what it’s like to be sitting in the other chair. I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit that I find assessments fascinating and it’s not an exaggeration to call them life-changing. There are really only two goals when it comes to a relationship assessment:
- To notice what’s working so you can keep doing it
- To notice what’s not working so you can change it
Taking a 20,000-foot view of your relationship allows you to focus on the things you might be taking for granted instead of just the problem that you’re looking to solve. It also helps you do a personal inventory. When you’re not in the middle of a fight, it’s much easier to take accountability for your contribution to the things that aren’t going well.
The Magic of Paperwork and History-Taking
I make my couples go through a torturously complex data-driven four-hour assessment. As a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist and researcher, I am a stickler for science and I won’t give advice that’s not backed by research.
I start asking questions on the first phone call and then just keep going. We have a 90-minute joint meeting, two individual psycho-social histories, 63 pages of questionnaires, and a treatment planning session. They also do this while wearing monitors that beep when their heart rates go over 100 beats per minute.
As much as most people dread this kind of assessment, something extraordinary begins to happen every single time.
Couples initially reach out to me because they see me as the expert in the room. They look forward to hearing me tell them what to do to make things better. But ever so slowly, they begin to see the big picture as they answer my 10 million questions.
As they start telling me their stories, their tone begins to change. They tell me about the first moment they met, they tell me about how and why they fell in love in the first place. As they share how they fight, how they grieve, and how they spend their Sunday afternoons, they slowly begin to see that they are the experts on their own relationship. Just by asking a series of very pointed questions, I am bringing them on a journey to remind them of what they already know.
When we hyper-focus on a problem, it is so easy to forget what we do well. Back when I was obsessing about my sore throat, my doctor noticed that my resting heart rate had gone down significantly since my last visit. She asked me what I was doing for exercise. When I told her I had started training for a half marathon, she told me to keep up the great work because I had already started improving my cardiovascular health.
Maintenance and prevention are always better than intervention, but rarely what keeps us up at night.
How We Know What Makes or Breaks a Loving Romantic Relationship
At the time of this writing, there have been approximately 2,000 studies on relationship stability, and only a small handful have successfully shown statistically significant results.
The Gottman Institute collated this immense body of research and organized the data into these nine categories that make up the Sound Relationship House.
These seven levels of the house represent the original New York Times bestseller, 7 Principles For Making Marriage Work which was originally published in 1999. Trust and Commitment were added as the walls later to reflect the ground-breaking research by Dr. Sue Johnson on attachment in adult relationships.
The Life-Changing Power of a Series of Questions
Now I’d like to take you behind the scenes of the couples therapy assessment process. If you want your relationship to be better than it already is, the best place to start is to improve your self-awareness. A self-assessment will help you maintain the balance of staying aware of the wonderful things about your partner as well as taking a look at the things that you can do better. It is a great reminder that you are 50% of a two-person team.
Private, one on one evidence-based couples therapy is not accessible to many people, so the remainder of this article is my attempt to provide the same information that leads to 94% positive results for free. Reading an article is not psychotherapy, and in no way can it replace the value of a private assessment with a licensed professional. I am hopeful, however, that taking a deep dive look at the kinds of questions I ask my couples might help you learn what changes you can make in your desire to be the best partner you can be.
I recommend starting by contemplating each question, then follow the following three steps:
- Think about whether you see this as a strength in your relationship.
- Reflect on your role in the pattern, resisting the urge to analyze your partner.
- Decide whether you’d like to try the recommended tip.
Each question will reflect a different level of the house, starting from the bottom and working up and then out.
1. How well do you and your partner know each other?
The very first level of the Sound Relationship House is referred to as Build Love Maps and is about feeling deeply known. We often ask a lot of questions on first dates, and then as time moves forward we can forget to keep current with the ins and outs of one another’s lives.
It feels good to see and be seen, and it is more important than you might think when it comes to relationship health. It’s worth talking about what your life was like in third grade, how you like your coffee, and which family members are getting on your nerves right now. The easiest way to maintain the closeness that comes from feeling known is to start interesting conversations.
Tip 1: Get in a regular habit of asking open-ended questions. These are questions that don’t have one right answer.
Example: What has been frustrating you at work these days?
2. Do you feel liked and appreciated? And do you express fondness and admiration toward your partner?
The second level of the house is Share Fondness and Admiration. It’s not just little kids who like to be thanked for emptying the dishwasher. You work hard and do a lot. So does your partner.
Sometimes we hold back compliments because we feel people shouldn’t be praised for doing things that they’re supposed to do. Or, if we’re annoyed about something that happened yesterday, it’s hard to say something positive. Our brains can play tricks on us. It’s irrational to believe that telling your loved one that they look cute will somehow give them the message that it’s OK that they forgot to take out the trash.
Tip 2: Express gratitude with free-flowing generosity.
Example: You’ve got such a great sense of humor. Thanks for making me laugh!
3. What’s your relationship like on a Tuesday afternoon?
The third level up is Turning Towards Instead of Away. Dr. Gottman’s research revealed a huge surprise to the academic community of research psychologists. We learned that day to day interaction between two people is way more important to marital stability than the things we previously thought led to divorces, such as infidelity, gender differences, and a lack of conflict resolution skills. The worst mistake any couple can make is to underestimate the importance of how you treat one another on a daily basis.
There are infinite opportunities to connect throughout the day. You can remind your partner they are a priority in your life with small simple gestures such as cute emoji texts, physical affection, and bringing them their coffee. Making these gestures is a way to invite your partner to be close. And when your partner reaches out to you, you can accept the invitation, or let them down with gentle grace.
Tip 3: Reach out to connect with your partner, and let them know you noticed when they reached out to you.
Example: I noticed you were up late turning pages in your new book last night, what was happening?
4. Is there a raincloud hovering over your relationship?
The fourth level up is The Positive Perspective. When things are going well in a relationship both partners feel that they are given the benefit of the doubt. Both make mistakes and both are forgiven.
The annoying thing about being in a relationship with a human is that your feelings will be hurt at times. When we forget that this is a normal part of being in love, we can start to see our partners as adversaries instead of good people who mess up. There will be both negative things and positive things that happen in your relationship. Happy couples embrace the positive and normalize the negative.
Tip 4: Take a step back and reset when you notice you’re feeling annoyed.
Example: As you’re driving home, you notice a full conversation happening in your brain. You’re anticipating that the house will look like a war zone, so you’re practicing your lecture in your head.
Instead, hit the pause button before you open the front door so you can greet the person who is actually there, not the one who already screwed up before even saying hello.
5. Do you speak your truth with kindness during and after conflict?
Now we’ve reached the Conflict Management section of the house, which is the fifth level up. 100% of couples have conflict. The difference between couples who stay together and those who separate is not the absence or presence of conflict; it’s having a respectful way to manage differences. Couples therapists used to teach conflict resolution skills. Now we know that some problems can’t be solved at all, and the work is to understand and accept differences.
If you and your partner fight a lot, I recommend taking a deeper dive than the scope of this article. There are three functional ways to manage conflict (not to be confused with resolving conflict), and the recommendations for improvement depend on the nature of your specific challenges. There is no cookie-cutter approach to conflict management. There is, however, one fundamental piece of advice that applies to all situations.
If you twisted my arm and asked me to narrow down all my conflict advice into one communication skill, it would be to take a break when things begin to escalate. When we are emotionally overwhelmed we say and do things that we regret. It’s better to let our heart rates settle so that you can talk about difficult issues when both parties feel grounded.
Tip 5: Manage your conflicts when you are calm.
Example: You are furious at your husband for forgetting your daughter’s medication. She gets it every single Thursday, you left a note on the table, and texted a reminder. You want to yell at him and tell him you knew this would happen, and that you have no idea how anyone in this family functions without you.
Instead, you turn on your effing meditation app (which you really don’t want to be doing because you have a million other things to do). You listen to the sexy Australian guy telling you to breathe while you ignore him and continue the lecture in your head about how you knew this would happen and should be able to go out with your friends without a catastrophic crisis.
Then you obey the instructions to let your thoughts float away. 12 minutes later, you’re no longer seeing red and somehow are reminded that your husband is not the devil. That’s how you know it’s time to pick up the phone to problem-solve.
The first four foundational levels of the house are about building an intimate friendship, the middle is conflict management, and now we are in the attic which is the part of the relationship that accounts for values, rituals, and dreams.
6. Do you support one another in reaching for your dreams?
The sixth level of the house is Making Life Dreams Come True. When we slow down and look, we all have hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations. When this part of a relationship is going well, couples make sacrifices so that both people can pursue their passions. Sometimes we need someone to hold down the fort so that we can do whatever it is that brings us joy.
When you love someone you want them to actualize their dreams and they want the same for you.
Tip 6: Find out what your partner cares deeply about and support them in their passion.
Example: What are five things on your bucket list that you haven’t accomplished yet? Let’s make them happen!
7. Are you planning a life of fun together?
The seventh level of the house is Shared Meaning. This is how you and your partner both fulfill your joint dreams together. You are building legacies, traditions, and rituals. It’s important to take an inventory to make sure you are spending your time doing the things that are important to your mutual development so that you can grow both as individuals and as a couple.
Couples who stay together long-term make time to assess the big picture of their lives. Just as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Are the ways that you are spending your time consistent with your core values?
Tip 7: Reflect on how you spend your time. Are you both feeling content? If not, discuss what changes you’d like to make.
Example: You two decide you feel like there’s more chaos in your home with many ships passing in the night. You agree to a weekly family dinner on Sunday night where everyone leaves their cellphones off for a solid hour.
If you take another look at the infographic, you’ll see that we have now discussed all 7 levels of The Sound Relationship House and have come to the pillars on the sides of the house that represent Trust and Commitment.
When trust and commitment are solid, they positively impact every aspect of a relationship in a positive way. The same is true if there is a breach of trust or commitment. This is why they are depicted as the walls that hold the entire house up and together.
8. Do you trust that your partner has your best interest at heart?
It’s important not to throw the word trust around too freely. When you trust someone you know they are in your corner. They care about what happens to you. Their world will stop if you are in pain, and they will celebrate your success right by your side.
When someone agrees to do something and then forgets, I encourage you to think about that as frustration, and not as a betrayal.
Trust is built slowly over time as a result of being mutually vulnerable with one another. When you let someone see the things you are not proud of, that allows them the wonderful opportunity to love you anyway. This is a deeper kind of love.
Tip 8: Be authentic, transparent, and vulnerable with your partner.
Example: You allow yourself to cry in front of your girlfriend after getting reprimanded at work. You express your insecurities about all the ways you believe you are failing and are unsure whether you’ll be able to keep this job.
9. Are you willing to keep cherishing your partner in your lifelong journey?
The final weight-bearing wall of this house is Commitment. If you believe in the concept of for better or worse, it will be infinitely easier to focus on that which is better.
If you expect your relationship to be a constant source of entertainment, you might begin to look outside of the relationship for more excitement. If you want to stay together long-term, this won’t end well.
Tip 9: Try not to compare your partner with real or imagined others. They are your person and they are worthy of being treasured exactly as they already are.
Example: You enjoy playing tennis with your co-worker and silently wish your partner was more athletic. You take a step back and remind yourself that your sweetheart is loyal, generous, and really good at talking about their feelings. You remember that for you, these are the things that are more important in a life partner.
Long-term relationships are hard work sometimes. And other times they bring extraordinary joy. But most of the time they’re kind of boring. No one is going to make a reality TV show about what actually leads to long-term love because the most important part isn’t sexy or dramatic. It’s just being there for one another every single day.
You’ve got your roadmap — now all you need to do is pat yourself on your back for the things that you’re already doing well, and strengthen the areas that need some work in your journey to becoming the best partner you can be.
Having a primary romantic relationship is a tremendous gift you both deserve.