Many of us hope the new year will find us growing closer and more secure in our relationships. If you are taking time to think about the kind of partnership you want to build, and what you personally can bring to it — what a wonderful gift. Your thoughtful attention is a priceless present in itself — more unique, important and valuable to a healthy relationship than anything you can put in a box.
We, too, are reflecting on what it means to have a relationship working well. We want to highlight some favorite findings about building secure and happy relationships. Here are our top 5 tips to help love grow and flourish in the coming year:
#1 Give positive motives a chance.
Relationship experts agree, we have a negativity bias when it comes to the way we understand the world around us. It means, we give more credit to darker, more hostile versions of ideas, experiences, and sensations when something unpleasant comes to our attention.
This negative bias is good news and bad news. It’s a good way to stay safe, by prompting us to look out for danger. But it’s a toxic approach to relationships. The same bias can work against our desire for healthy relationships because the brain can assign negative motives to others in their dealings with us. If we believe them — without awareness of our negative bias — we risk devaluing and harming relationships with those who actually do care about us, because we believe in negative ideas without checking to see if they’re true first.
It takes work to find a neutral or positive light in which to view others’ motives. But giving this positive motive a chance is vital to build friendships and close relationships. More on this in an insightful article from Psychology Today: Our Brain’s Negative Bias
#2 Know the happy relationship ratio: 5 to 1
One reason Dr. John Gottman’s research about happy relationships is so popular: he gave us a way to understand healthy love with simple math. He could predict whether marriages would succeed or fail by counting positive interactions versus negative ones over a period of time. If the ratio is at least five positives for every negative, odds are the partnership will last. When positive contact falls below the 5:1 ratio, Gottman’s method almost always correctly predicted divorce.
The positive connections we are talking about include genuine moments of friendship, appreciation, physical contact and kind gestures. Couples who remain happy together maintain these positive actions even when fighting.
“When the masters of marriage are talking about something important, they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections,” Gottman said in an interview, quoted in the article Marriage Math. “But a lot of people don’t know how to connect or how to build a sense of humor, and this means that a lot of fighting that couples engage in is a failure to make emotional connections. We wouldn’t have known this without the mathematical model.”
More on: Marriage Math.
#3 Small is good when it comes to nurturing love.
To take meaningful action that makes your togetherness feel good, you don’t need grand gestures. Small acts of kindness — even unnoticed ones — have a powerful impact.
“The small moments of everyday life are actually the building blocks of relationship,” says the John Gottman Institute. Turning toward your partner for a smile, a wink, a friendly invitation or request are examples. “Turning toward” is one of nine key interactions behind Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House,” his model describing happy, healthy relationships.
How important are these little gestures to your happiness together? Gottman’s study indicates they matter more than you might think. In studies that followed newlyweds who visited his “love lab” over six years, Gottman found that those who remained happily married were couples who more often made friendly gestures toward each other (called bids for connection) than those who later divorced. The happier couples turned toward each other — and accepted each other’s friendly overtures — 86% of the time while in the lab; the unhappier couples only turned toward each other 33% of the time. More on the big impact of small gestures: Turn Towards Instead of Away
Even invisible gestures can have a powerful positive impact on your partner. In studying the impact of relationship support on one partner’s stress, psychologist Niall Bolger looked at actions partners took without their stressed mate’s notice — taking care of chores for example, or making a supportive comment gently and indirectly, rather than obviously. The surprising finding: Partners who received invisible support (which they did not recognize as such) had less depression during the weeks before a high-stress exam. Even though they didn’t recognize the gestures, the impact on well-being was measurable and remarkable.
More on invisible support from: How to Give Support Right
#4 Got differences? Try to be open to your partner’s world.
Dealing with a different point of view from another person is a big challenge for anyone. It can be downright maddening when the different view is your partner’s! A loved one’s contrary ideas are a major source of stress in our closest relationships, but they don’t have to be.
The underlying fear for many of us is that if we don’t agree, our relationship is in danger. We want each other’s acceptance, and we fear losing it over significant personal differences. The fear can fuel escalating fights or withdrawal. What helps — a lot — is calm and enough openness to re-map our understanding of our partner with this new information.
When different views or new thinking sets off alarm bells for you, give yourself a moment to notice the tension you feel in your body, and the thoughts going through your mind. Rather than fight them, worry about them or ‘fix’ your partner, take a breath and look at them. See if you can name what is going on for you. When you’re ready, invite your partner to explore what each of you is experiencing, so you can sort it out together.
A gentle way to explore your differences is to be open and curious, rather than judgmental or fearful. See what you can learn to update your sense of your partner’s inner world. The understanding may help you find new calm and to create new space for an expanded view of your partnership.
Try to slow down the pace of your conversation. Take breaks if emotions get angry or tough to handle. Remind yourself that you’re in this life together as friends, not as opponents. Your loved one can see things differently than you do without either of you being “wrong.”
Rather than trying to convince another to share your point of view, aim to find out what the other is feeling, believing, expecting or bringing from the past. Your conversation can be more open, safer, and deeper this way.
This idea is so important to us, we posted a number of articles on acceptance and arguing with love:
- What Makes Happy Relationships Tick
- 10 Healthy Ways Partners Fight Fair
- 5 Love-Saving Tips When Arguing With Your Partner
- A Science-Based Secret to Resolving Differences with Your Partner
#5 Start softly when making requests, bringing up hurt feelings, needs or complaints.
We are ALL thin-skinned at times. The kind, close attention that heals injuries can only happen when our defenses are down. That is why a gentle approach helps us work out our rough spots together.
When either partner feels attacked, the body’s self-defense systems make it all but impossible to approach hurts with the tender care they need to heal. We need to be calm to think through the conflict to find the common good. To give your love a chance to do its creative best, offer to connect in a respectful, friendly way as you can manage.
It is possible to talk about the missed connections, conflicting needs, rough moments, and even heal the wounds from earlier crossness or anxiety, especially with a softer start. See Gottman’s Rules for Softened Startup from his book Marriage Clinic.
Enjoy the Results
It is true that relationships take work. Discovering helpful relationship ideas and making them your own takes time, thought, practice, and patience! It may be difficult, but the fruits of this work show in deeper and more meaningful connections. We wish you stronger love and greater joy all year long.