what makes relationships last | made of lovely

The Blueprint: A Detailed Guide on Dr. Gottman’s Teachings

If you recall from my last post, The Five Golden pieces For a Lasting Relationship, one of the elements is: The blueprint for your house. 

I like this analogy of a blueprint because a blueprint really gives you a good overview of what to do and what not to do. 

It’s a solid plan for success. And while a plan doesn’t necessarily include instructions for what to do in specific trouble-shooting circumstances, or why certain things are still going wrong (more on those in up coming posts), it’s nonetheless a very important piece.

In other words, this is not the ONLY piece. It is 1 of 5. Knowing this stuff is great, but I’m not convinced it’s all you need to know.

The blueprint for success is laid out in the teachings of Dr. John Gottman.

If you study anything related to relationships and psychology you will likely have heard about him.

But for those of you who haven’t…

Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist, professor, and researcher who operates from a research-based approach to relationships. He studied 3,000 couples over 40 years. And uses other research to draw conclusions. He’s a huge proponent of evidence vs. a psychologist’s experience and subjective opinion. Because of the research he’s done, he’s able to predict divorce/separation with a 94% accuracy rate! Not only can he predict IF a couple would split but he could also predict WHEN. (Which is pretty unprecedented. Right?!)

The best part: he shared how he can do that. (Which means you can do something to create lasting love! Yay!)

So that’s what we’re going to dive into today.

Heads up: Get cozy, be prepared to “save your reading spot”, because this is going to be another deep dive! (You know how I love having ALL the info in one place. lol)

The Masters vs. The Disasters

In his research he found a clear distinction between two different types of couples. One type seemed to create an atmosphere of disconnection, negativity, and constantly miss opportunities to connect. He called this group The Disasters.

The other group, while not perfect, tended to have more relational skills, positivity, and connect in small ways so that the pair grew together in love. He called this group of people The Masters.

So what are the core principles that Gottman identified in these couples that can either lead to the death or the success of a relationship?

What is Love?

The best place to start is by knowing what you’re aiming for. Gottman defines love as revering each other and having gratitude that you are in each other’s lives.

“Love is the most sacred experience we can have. True love is woven out of honoring and understanding each other’s unique gifts, vulnerabilities, and eccentricities. Your journey is not going to be like any other couples. Being in love isn’t static – it deepens over time. Falling in love is also falling into knowledge. Endearing love comes when we love most of what we learn about the other person, and can tolerate the faults they cannot change. A long-term committed relationship will hit bad patches. We’re going to have to accept the detritus of mistakes and regrettable incidences we are going to create.”

– Dr. John Gottman

At the most basic level, the things that kill relationships, can be distilled into two simple things: Deception & the yearning for emotional connection that seems unavailable from the partner. 

So let’s dive into the specific things that either kills or builds lasting love.

#1. Negative vs. Positive

One big thing that Gottman noticed between the disasters and the masters was an outstanding tendency towards being positive (aka nice) vs. negative (aka hostility, anger, meanness, etc.). When in conflict, the masters would have a 5:1 ratio of positivity. They would crack a joke, briefly change the subject to re-regulate, or do things that were defined by Gottman as a “repair” attempt.

He also noticed that when in conflict, these couples would often remain neutral (vs. mean –  which is what he calls being in their naughty box). So even though these couples may go into the naughty box for brief moments during conflict, overall they spent more time in the neutral or nice boxes.

 Further, when these couples were just hanging out the ratio of positive to negative jumped to 20:1.

The thing about staying in the negative is that it starts to create what Gottman calls, negative sentiment override (NSO for short).

Negative sentiment override is when your bad thoughts about your partner overrides/distorts any positive or neutral thoughts about them. Present AND past experiences get ‘over-written’ as dark, lonely, negative despair. Negative sentiment makes it all feel hopeless, and there is constant doubt about the relationship.”

– Dr. John Gottman

When you’re unhappy you don’t notice 50% of the good things that your partner does (Robertson & Price)

What’s more is that the Zeigarnick effect means that naturally you tend to forget things that are ‘done’ or are ‘finished’. This is why positive things tend to be forgotten quickly, while negative things leave more of an “open loop” in our minds. This finding shows us that positive emotion has a shorter “shelf-life” and doesn’t tend to be as powerful as negative – it takes a great deal more positive to cancel negative!

This is why that equation of 5:1 is not balanced. 

Negative has more power/ability to affect pain/damage. Whereas it takes more positive to heal.

For the disasters, Gottman began to recognize that while these couples had an overall trend of staying in their naughty boxes & a propensity towards negative sentiment override, some very specific negatives were most corrosive to the relationship.

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

He called the most corrosive negatives, The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse as these led to a couple’s demise if they happened a majority of the time.

  1. Criticism

Criticism says, “There’s something wrong with you. You are defective.” This looks like blaming your partner and making them wrong. The focus is on them.

Example: “You know I’ve had a stressful week, but you haven’t even stopped to ask me how I’m doing. You don’t care about me at all. You only care about yourself. And I’ve told you a thousand times that a messy kitchen adds to my stress, but you still left a huge mess! Like I’m your maid! You always do this.”

  1. Defensiveness

Criticism leads to defensiveness in the other partner (due to feeling attacked because they were being made wrong). Defensiveness is meeting a complaint with a counter complaint, or whining about what you think you do/did.

Example: “ I do too clean up my messes! Just last week I cleaned the entire kitchen and unloaded the dishwasher. I haven’t checked in with you because I’ve been busy too. You’re not the only one who pays for bills around here, and I can’t just cater to you all the time.” OR whining, “I do too clean up my messes. I was going to do it. I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal to you.”

  1. Contempt

Contempt is holding the position that you are smarter / better than your partner. This can come out in a variety of ways, but here are some common forms of contempt: name calling, insults, mockery, sarcasm, & correcting the person (aka grammar).

  1. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is emotional withdrawal from the partner & the conflict. This is turning away, no longer making eye contact or looking at your partner, no longer listening, or responding to them.

The Counter to The 4 Horsemen

The masters on the other hand implemented the opposite of these four horsemen. Which are:

  1. Vulnerability

The opposite of criticism is being vulnerable. It’s using “I” statements that share and reflect your emotions and inner world. It’s asking for what you need without making your partner wrong.

Example: “Hey honey, I’ve been having a really stressful week. I miss talking with you. I always feel so much better when you listen to me talk about my day. When would be a good time for you to support me? Also, when the kitchen is messy, it really makes me feel stressed. Would you help me clean the dishes tonight?”

  1. Accountability

When a partner is met with vulnerability, instead of criticism, they can be more responsible/accountable for the part that they did play.

Example: “I did leave the kitchen a mess, I’m sorry. I love you, I don’t want to add to your stress. Let’s talk now. How did your day go?”

AND if you can keep in mind not to become defensive EVEN when your partner started off by criticizing you, you can can break the pattern!

So, it’s not to say that you can’t give a “reason” when accepting responsibility for the role you did play, but it’s best to validate your partner’s experience/feelings. (WARNING: don’t do the pendulum swing here, “You’re saying I just have to sit here and take whatever my parter is dishing out??” Nope. That’s on the other side. Come back to center.) 

Example of staying center while giving a “reason”: “Good point. You know I had a bad day today, and I don’t think I was listening to anyone all day. So you’re right. I probably wasn’t listening to you either… how was your day?”

  1. Fondness & Admiration

Contempt comes from scanning the environment for what is wrong. It’s seeing the bad in what your partner does & who they are. So obviously the opposite of that is creating a culture of appreciation and respect.

This looks like saying thank you for small things (even when it is the partners turn/“job”). This is a different habit of mind, where you look for things to appreciate and praise. And most importantly you verbalize/communicate those things! 

  1. Staying Present (or Asking for a Time-Out)

The opposite of stonewalling is staying present. It’s listening to your partner & their negative feelings. You stay physically and mentally engaged. Your body is open facing towards them, you nod or make facial expressions, and giving those small responses that indicate that you are listening. In cases, where you are perhaps feeling flooded (particularly true for insecure attachment styles – more on that in an up coming post!), you ask for a time out so that you can re-regulate your nervous system, and return to be present again with your partner.

I think that it’s important to note that these things take practice and little bit of time. If you and your partner are used to doing the 4 horsemen, then they may be a little skeptical at first about what’s actually going on when you change your behavior. 

However, you’ll see that if you can keep sharpening your relational skillset it’s mind-blowing how simple shifts can get you exactly what you’ve been wanting! (We’ll dive into practical skills in one of the next posts! So you’ll have some very concrete things to do vs. just an understanding of concepts.)

I also have to say that with “Accountability” there is a new life lesson to be learned. Which is: both you and your partner can be right at the same time! Two realities can exist. And you UNDERSTANDING & EMPATHIZING with their side DOES NOT MEAN that your feelings are now invalidated, that your perspective is wrong, or that you are only catering to them.

Shift your perspective to this: My feelings are valid, AND I can validate my partner’s experience of this situation because I love and care about them.

photo credit: Unsplash @tabithabrooke

#2. Quality of Friendship

Another core principle of the master’s relationships was their quality of friendship with their partner. We all have a deep need to feel seen, accepted, and known. The masters knew how to get those messages to their partner. 

In doing what the masters do, the tendency is to go into positive sentiment override.

“Positive sentiment override is a buffer for conflict. It creates the feeling that you will both work on things together. You tend to see your partner as just ‘having a bad day’ vs. them ‘being like that’. There is humor, fun, intimacy, and empathy for your partner.”

– Dr. John Gottman

Here’s how the masters do it:

Enhancing Love Maps

Love maps are essentially an inner roadmap that you keep on your partner’s inner world. It shows that you care about them and that you’re interested in them.

This love map helps you truly know what your partner’s dreams, hopes, values, & fears are. You know the important people in their life, etc.

You build love maps by: asking open ended questions & create a habit around doing so.

(psst, Gottman has an app for this! If you have an iPhone here’s the link to download the app.)

Creating A Culture of Fondness & Admiration

We talked about this already in the counter to the 4 horsemen, but this is something that the masters are doing MOST OF THE TIME — which means not just during conflict.

They say thank you for small things (like your partner making dinner or taking out the trash). They express compliments & gratitude for their partner.

This is OFTEN, and expressed in small ways by saying things like: thank you, I’m proud of you, I really admire you, I respect you, etc.

Noticing & Turning Towards Bids

Gottman defines little moments where your partner was trying to get your attention, affection, conversation, support, etc. (aka moments of connection) as bids. 

It could be something as simple as your partner looking out the window and saying, “Oh look! What a pretty boat!” or even at dinner, “Would you please pass the salt?”

Or a bid could be more profound like, “I really need you right now.” when going through a troubling medical diagnosis.

These are all the moments of emotional connection that help build up a person’s love bank. 

When the bank is empty, there becomes a chip on the person’s shoulder (taking everything personally, hyper-vigilant for put downs, & they are in negative sentiment override). 

Gottman noticed that the disasters only turned towards these bids about 40% of the time. While the masters turned towards bids 80% of the time. Many bids will be missed or get misinterpreted. So it’s not about being “perfect” but it is about mostly turning towards.

In the example of, “Oh look! What a pretty boat!” Turning away would look like not acknowledging your partner at all. Turning towards would be moving to face your partner and simply saying, “Huh.” (even THAT minimal response is better than turning away).

While turning away is not good, turning against is the worst. And that would look like, “Shut up! Can’t you see I’m watching TV. I don’t care about those damn boats.”

It’s important to understand that most people will not try to re-bid. The lack of connection is very painful.

All of these bids create what Gottman calls sliding glass door moments. When a person is asking for support/connection, in either words or deeds, the partner can either slide open a door and walk through, or keep it shut and walk away.

An abundance of closed doors, without any follow-up conversation about the pain it caused, then creates “regrettable incidents”. Which, ultimately contribute to negative sentiment override.

However, the masters do something entirely different from those three options.

They enthusiastically turn towards. Which looks like: them getting up, going to stand by their partner to look out the window at the boat, and taking active participation in the conversation, “That is a nice boat. Why don’t we rent one? We’ve always talked about it. Now that we’re in a financial place to do so, it’d be fun!”

Hopefully, you can see that turning towards bids, & repairing hurt from missed bids add to the emotional deposit in the love bank.

Shared Meaning & Purpose

A successful relationship is about more than marriage, kids, paying bills, or getting chores done. Partner’s who can create a shared dream or vision for life helps couples stay focused on the big picture, and strengthen the bond.

When the individuals share their hopes and dreams, and can find support with a partner it helps people feel happier. And when couples can create their own rituals of connection, the intentional time spent connecting can ignite passion, and also keeps their bond strong. 

#3. Ability to Communicate & Repair

In Gottman’s research he found that the same conflicts were perpetuated (ex: neat v. sloppy) – meaning, that it’s not really about a couple being able to completely resolve a conflict, or get rid of the problem, but more about their ability to repair the disconnection. 

(Psst. We’re going to dive into repairing disconnection specifically when we get to Dr. Sue Johnson’s work.)

And these are what Gottman found the masters are doing to communicate and repair:

Opening Up Dialogue for Compromise

Gottman says, “Friendship is the basis of regulating conflict.” The masters found a way during conflict and disagreement to cope and to compromise (if you don’t like that word, then use ‘collaborate’). 

They would work through the issues together; even if that meant discussing it several times. The couples who eventually separated were always stuck in grid-lock when it came to compromising.

Softening Startup

The masters share their negative emotions/feelings and ask for what they need, but they were able to present them & the issue in a gentle way

Hard startup example: “I’m upset that lately you’ve been emotionally unavailable to me.”

Soft startup example: “Lately, I’ve been missing you and feeling lonely.”

A big part of a soft startup is complaining the right way; which looks like you making your feelings and needs known with tact.

Here’s Gottman’s FORMULA for complaining the right way:

  1. Start with: “I” + Feeling (ex: I’m upset, I’m angry, I’m sad, etc.)
  2. State factually what you’re upset about. Essentially describe the situation (e.g: “I’m upset that the trash hasn’t been taken out.”)
  3. Say what you need. Remember, this is not about making your partner wrong, instead consider how your partner could help you, or how they can shine for you (e.g: “I’m upset that the trash hasn’t been taken out. I need you to take out the garbage.”)

So the formula looks like this: I + Feeling + The Situation + What you need

This helps you transform criticisms into wishes.

This: “I’m upset that the trash hasn’t been taken out. I need you to take out the garbage.”

NOT this: “I’m mad that you never take out the trash. You don’t care about me.”

(Psst. I actually found even better/more effective communication skills which I’m going to share in that upcoming post I keep referring to! lol But if you at least can take criticism out of your requests you’ll be on the right track!)

Accepting Influence (For Men To Do)

Research conducted by Dr. Gottman and Dr. Jacobson showed that men who accept influence from their female partners tend to have happier and more satisfying relationships.

This doesn’t mean the man says “yes” to everything, and has no mind of his own. But rather, by accepting influence, you are acknowledging that your partner has a valid point of view. You welcome a different perspective, are willing to be influenced, and you consider changing your perspective.

Accepting influence says, “You’re important. You and your opinions matter to me — even if (and bonus points for this) I don’t agree with you.”

Ability to Soothe Their Partner’s Nervous System

While Gottman’s work doesn’t tell us a whole lot on the how to do this for yourself (Don’t worry I’ll tell you how all in good time. I told you this was a series. lol), he did observe a difference from masters and disasters when he had them hooked to heart-rate monitors in the love lab (this was one way he studied the 3,000 couples I mentioned before).

They tested to see what would happen when couples who were having a heated conflict conversation, took a pause and calmed down. They did this by having the couples take a little break because the “equipment was broken”. 

It wasn’t broken. They told the couples to resume the conversation once their heart rates were back to baseline. The observation was as if a completely different couple came back! They became more friendly, creative, and better able to reach a compromise. 

This gave a crucial insight that people go into self preservation mode when their nervous system is highly aroused (aka fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). This cuts off the person’s ability to think critically, clearly, have humor, compromise, listen, solve problems, or understand another’s emotions, etc.

So, the better that we can stay calm and regulated, the better we can handle & repair conflict.

Repairs

Earlier in this post we talked about three boxes couple go into during a conflict (nice, neutral, and naughty).

You don’t have to stay in the nice box the entire time (that would be incredibly hard to do anyways) but being able to slip into the nice box every once in awhile during a conflict discussion is key.

The couples in a 6 years study who could display some capacity to slip into the nice box during a conflict, not only predicted whether the couples were going to be together at the end of the study, but whether they were still happy

In the midst of conflict these couples find a way to respond, at least for a brief time, in a soothing and loving matter – it takes a large amount of trust to be able to soothe a partner.

Well-timed repairs tamp down tension and soothe the partner (unless the partner is already in negative sentiment override). Well-timed repairs are part of the dance of two people who know and trust each other – the repair comes at the intuitively perceived time of the partner’s physiological distress.

In a healthy relationship, repairs lower the recipients blood pressure and heart rate.

Repairs are the life jackets of all romantic partnerships, their effectiveness determines whether a relationship will live or die. 

Here’s some common repairs:

  • Making a joke
  • Giving a compliment
  • A hand squeeze
  • A big cheesy grin

If a couple’s conflicts always escalates despite repair attempts, using the wrong repair isn’t their problem. The couple’s history of scaring unhealed conflict is (see: “The Roach Motel” outlined in number 5).

photo credit: Unsplash Karsten Winegart

#4. Level of Safety

For new couples, second marriages, or even those who are experiencing rockiness in their relationship, Gottman found that most of the conflict discussions centered around questions like:

  • Will you choose me over your friends/job/family when I need you?
  • Will you be there for me when I’m upset?
  • Will you remain sexually faithful?

Trust and trustworthiness are key components in a relationship feeling safe (which is a key component for longevity).

Trust & trustworthiness might sound like splitting hairs but they are different and they are both necessary.

Trust says,

I am willing to change my behavior to benefit you. We look out for each other. We have each other’s back. I can’t be happy if achieving my payoffs hurt you.”

Trust is how deeply the couple is in it together & have each other’s back.

Trustworthiness indicates a person’s willingness to sacrifice for the relationship — to sometimes put his/her needs on the back burner because the relationship matters most.

While these two metrics may seem like they go hand in hand, it’s possible for a couple to rate high in trust but low in trustworthiness. Or even vice versa.

In time, trustworthiness can elevate, if their relationship is sound.

The couple’s who eventually separated tended to have low trust & trustworthiness. They were in it for themselves. Thinking in terms of “me” vs. “we”. Sometimes if the partner was “losing”, they were even happy about it – in other words, they only cared about their individual payoffs.

In contrast, Gottman saw that the couples who thrived in lasting love adopted the mottos:

  • Motto #1:Your payoffs are my payoffs. I will work to get you the biggest payoff. (e.g. both partners choosing the course that would give their partner the biggest payoff). Example: “I’ll clean the kitchen because I know Jenny worries about becoming a drudge like her mother. I don’t want her to feel like that. “ vs. “I better clean the kitchen so Jenny doesn’t get upset and refuse to have sex with me.”

  • Motto #2: “Baby, when you’re hurting the whole world stops and I listen. I want to know what you’re feeling and what your needs are. Even if they are negative feelings about me.”

What Builds Trust?

A natural way to build trust is to listen to your partner’s negative emotions about you or anything. Building trust is really a result of attunement. 

“Attunement in adult relationships is the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world.”

– Dr. John Gottman

It’s about understanding your partner’s emotion, accepting all their emotions (anger, sadness, happiness), showing empathy, and displaying support.

Here are the steps for attuning to your partner (which Gottman refers to as “The Art of Intimate Conversation”):

(*Some of these you’ll notice are repeated from above, which I hope just shows you how important they are!)

  1. Put your feelings into words. Do not deceive your partner by hiding your true feelings & needs to avoid conflict. This does not mean you always have to enter into an argument (aka persuasion), but expressing your inner world is important in building trust & connection.

  2. Ask open ended questions often. Yes, you can do this during conflict to better understand your partner and to encourage discussion (ex: “You seem upset. What’s going on?” vs. “Are you upset?”). But you can also get into the habit of asking more questions like these daily. Remember the love maps? This is it. Big topics, small topics, & daily topics. (ex: “What was it like at work today?”, “What did you think of the movie?”, “How does the book your reading compare to the last book you read?”, etc.)

  3. Follow up with statements that deepen connection. Reflect back your partner’s thoughts/feelings, in an understanding manner.

  4. Express compassion and empathy. Which looks like you being on your partner’s team! Not giving unsolicited advice or opinions. (ex: “You’re right that does sound frustrating!”, “Gosh. I bet that was scary.”, “Yea, and that hurts.”, etc.)

  5. Remain Neutral in Conflicts. If you are able to lower the heat when necessary to prevent overload, that’s a sign of a high trust metric. Likewise, by working on your ability to make repairs you can elevate the level of trust between you. Neutral means remaining physiologically calm & unemotionally charged. Happy couples spend 70% of the time here when in the conflict. Moving towards less emotional exchanges is a worthy goal, because the relief of being in the neutral box may be the ultimate expression of relationship trust. However, neutrality takes a long time to get to. Couples need to first know that the other will make (and respond to) repairs at critical times during conflict— but the neutral zone is often where a happy relationship ends up.

These are the things, when done continually & consistently, that make partners feel like you have their back. Like you have their best interests at heart. That you understand & know them. 

And it gives you the power to make decisions that reflect your consideration of their needs, wants, fears, wounds, and pain.

Bottom Line: Build trust by being there for one another.

(Take the Trust Metric Quiz from Gottman’s book “What Makes Love Last?”)

What Builds Trustworthiness?

Trustworthiness is really all about how you show up and your willingness to put the relationship first (maybe not all the time, but most of the time).

If over time there is no reliability with these 5 things, then a partner cannot be deemed trustworthy:

  1. Honesty: Do not trust someone who lies to you. Too often we come up with excuses for their behavior. Does your partner tell the truth to you and to others?
  2. Transparency: Your partner should be an open book without secrets. Does your partner invite you to meet family, friends, colleagues? Do they confide in you about major stressors, ambitions, and goals?
  3. Accountability: Doing what one says they are going to do. Is there proof that your partner keeps their promises?
  4. Ethical Actions: Just and fair conduct. Their values are in-tune with yours. Does your partner display just and fair conduct with consistency?
  5. Proof of Alliance: Shown in small ways, and does not form coalitions against you. Does your partner have your back? Are they on your team?

#5. Commitment

You may think that getting a title, living together, getting married, or having children shows that a person is committed to you – but a person can be with you in all of these ways, and not actually be committed to you.

Commitment is conviction, cherishing your partner, & denigrating alternative matches. 

Commitment says, “I can rely on you to meet my emotional needs, and losing you would be catastrophic. This is where I want to be, and you are the only one I want to be with.”

Commitment tends to start as an intentional choice, that’s either grown through positivity or destroyed by negativity. These cycles perpetuate due to comparisons. There are ultimately two comparisons that can make or break a relationship: negative comparisons & positive comparisons.

True commitment amplified by positivity leads to positive comps. Positive comps then lead to more commitment.

Conversely, a lack of commitment amplified by negativity leads to negative comparisons. Negative comps further weakens commitment.

So, let’s take a look at these cyclical patterns.

We’ll begin with the path that leads to negative comparisons…

The Roach Motel

Couple’s who land themselves in what Gottman calls, “The Roach Motel” will be perpetuating the feelings of loneliness & despair (which are a result of disconnection) — and may ultimately be setting themselves up for betrayal. These are the steps that lead to feeling more and more disconnected:

  1. Accumulation of closed sliding door moments. This is a lack of turning towards bids, and not repairing hurt from missed bids. This begins the inner narrative of: do I come first? Or does something or someone matter more? Is my partner selfish? Can I risk continuing to trust?
  2. A regrettable incident occurs & the corresponding hurt is never repaired. The pattern of turning away followed by an inability to acknowledge & repair the breach leads to..
  3. The Zeigarnick Effect kicking in. The hurt remains in active memory, to be be rehashed over and over. The hurt played on a repeating, never-ending loop, causes negativity. Then..
  4. NSO takes over. The views of the partner and the history of relationship change to be seen through a negative lens. What once was good now seems bad. This festering of negativity calls..
  5. The 4 Horsemen to show up. These egg-on the negativity even further — and that keeps you trapped in this negative downward spiral.

Negative Comparisons

Negativity is the breeding ground for negative comparisons. It’s negative comps that ultimately lead to betrayal (e.g. infidelity, non-sexual affairs, lying, collations against the partner, etc.). 

It’s the sense of disconnection from constantly being turned away from joined by thoughts like, “I’d be happier with someone else” that opens the door to negative comps.

Negative comps is where the partner gets compared to another person, or even a situation, and the partner LOSES. (e.g. “My ex girlfriend never treated me like this.”, “My sister’s husband is so much more understanding than mine.”, “This new girl I just met is so much smarter and prettier than my wife.”, etc.)

The issue here is that the couple hasn’t committed to each other – which shows up as the relationship being treated as conditional and marginal (e.g. fantasizing about other options when negativity is present).

The act of a relationship being treated as conditional and marginal is what allows him/her to be selfish, her/him to feel abandoned, and both are “justified” in turning away from each other… after all, “things can be so much better with someone else.”

This is what, and where, Gottman says “the germ of betrayal” begins to infect the couple. It leaches onto & perpetuates this toxic pattern:

  1. The partner turns away… This resulting hurt leads to..
  2. The other partner not sharing feelings (aka A lack of sharing the self, which is a form of deception), then they begin..
  3. Negative comparisons

It’s a downward spiral of getting stuck in negativity, and therefore, even more likely to entertain more negative comps.

This spiral is then likely to lead to what Gottman calls, “The Cheater’s Cascade”.

The Cheater’s Cascade

Attack forces against the relationship gear up when the germ of betrayal invades. 

  1. Secret keeping. Partner’s stop confiding in each other. Silence may deepen when a set of regrettable incidents weakens the partner’s commitment. Partners are constantly reaching out for connection, but when the partner is missing, disappointment and loneliness will prevail. If the couple doesn’t discuss the regrettable incidences properly, it leaves the partner(s)’s hurt unaddressed and never repaired. Once this history of ignoring/dismissing each other’s emotions, and a subsequent decline in their trust metrics, couples begin to avoid conflict — shoving issues under the rug. They are no longer being vulnerable and sharing what’s going on in their inner worlds. The secret keeper feels lonely.

  2. The sound relationship house walls & windows reverse. There is a concept of a sound relationship house by Shirley Glass, which states that happy couples tend to erect walls around the relationship, and windows between the individuals. This is a safe refuge. But since the couple is no longer confiding in each other, the secret keeper begins to confide in “another” outside of the relationship about troubles with the primary partner. But the issue doesn’t stop there. The secret keeper doesn’t want to loose the “new person” who offers solace/connection, so they begin to build walls around that new partner to keep them safe from the primary partner. 

  3. Coalition with someone other than your mate. This is where the secret keeper begins to trash their primary mate & relationship. It’s almost inevitable that the secret keeper’s perspective changes. A switch gets flipped, NSO kicks in, and the history of the couple gets re-spinned towards the negative. The partner’s negative qualities get focused on, while their positive qualities get minimized. Where they were once cherished, a future together was imagined, shared goals were part of the dream, and gratitude to have them in their life, gets flipped around. The opposite of those fond memories/desires now cloud the secret keeper’s mind. This turnaround is what makes them susceptible to sexual overtures. 

  4. The future cheater starts to distrust the partner. You would think that the opposite would be true, but keeping a secret creates distance. The more disconnected the cheater feels, the less they believe in their mate. Because their view of themselves vs. their behavior doesn’t match up, cognitive dissonance begins. They start to blame their parter in order to fix their own contrary thoughts (e.g. “It’s not my fault.”, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”, “I was forced into this position..”)

  5. Permission to cross small boundaries (at a glacial rate). Many cheaters never would have foreseen what they ultimately end up doing, and it is in large part due to the fact that infidelity is not related to lust, but rather, disconnection coupled with small seemingly innocent/insignificant choices. It all started at the negative comps, and now inch by inch boundaries begin to be crossed (ex: Talking about “innocent” intimate subjects “I don’t know why someone as gorgeous as you wouldn’t be able to get dates.”, confiding in the new partner, fantasizing, etc.) Small self permissions, build to the ultimate decision of betrayal.

The Antidote to Negative Comps

If you’re reading all the above and you start to panic because you (or your partner) may be stuck in negativity and doing negative comps, let’s remember what Dr. Gottman said:

“Loyalty is about nurturing gratitude for what you have. Cherishing your partner involves both people making conscious decisions to minimize their partner’s negative qualities and maximize the positive qualities. Masters of relationships have a way of scanning their environment to catch their partner doing something right.”

Devote some effort to be aware of your thinking, correct negative thoughts, and train your brain to see things differently (FYI more to come on that topic!). It helps to see the traits in yourself when you’re being a bit judgmental about your partner (eg. “Yes, my partner is being selfish right now. But I’m selfish sometimes too. I suppose we can both be selfish at times.”).

So the antidote to negative comparisons is: positivity, sharing your inner world, bringing up concerns, reframing your complaints, working on building trust & trustworthiness, etc. All of the things we’ve already discussed in numbers 1-4.

Positive Comparisons

Gottman refers to studies by Dr. Rossenberg when looking at the commitment level of a couple. What she found was that in the early stages of the relationship, positive comps reinforce the conviction that, “This is the relationship for me.” 

Positive comparisons go something like this:

Lily meets a friend for lunch. During their conversation her friend describes her partner as someone who is emotionally distant and rarely physically affectionate. Lily thinks to herself, “I’m glad Luke isn’t like that. Even with his quirks, he is always very loving and affectionate towards me. I am so lucky to have him.”

A positive comp is where the partner gets compared and WINS.

Partner’s begin to cherish each other to an increasing degree and feel grateful for their partner’s positive qualities. Simultaneously, minimizing negative qualities.

Couples who have an overall positive comparison denigrate alternative matches, creating an “us against the world” attitude. Their number of pro relationship thoughts in turn increases, as the dependency on the relationship to meet each other’s emotional needs grow. 

They come to believe that losing each other would be catastrophic. These accumulated positive comps are what help them pull through a rough time or big life event.

photo credit: Unsplash Alexander Mcferon

TO SUM IT ALL UP

Hopefully you can see that an accumulation of the wrong behaviors will trigger negative thoughts and patterns that ultimately lead to unhappiness, betrayal, and separation.

And positivity, connection, empathy, and vulnerability ultimately lead to happiness & long-lasting love.

Tying it back to my relationship house blueprint (we now have thanks to Dr. Gottman!) says:

Be aware of yourself, your thoughts, your patterns, and your behaviors.

AVOID THESE:

  • Being negative and allowing negativity to infect your mind, behaviors, and relationship. Negativity KILLS relationships (aka Negative sentiment override, the 4 horsemen, staying in the naughty box during conflicts, rehashing of pain because ‘The Zeigarnick effect’, secret keeping, & negative comps).
  • Turn away from (or against!) your partner. You don’t have to be perfect at catching EVERY bid, but the least you can do is not miss the bids you do notice by not being so focused on your own world.
  • Shutting down/ closing off your inner world. Talking about feelings (both positive & negative feelings) is IMPERATIVE, as this gives your partner a chance to be there for you and build trust with you.
  • Shove problems under the rug. Trying to minimize hurt/pain and ignore things that are causing internal turmoil will not work out in anyone’s favor. Have the courage to be vulnerable and face conflict head on.
  • Operate from a place of “me, myself, and I”. A relationship requires that you treat it with care. That you treat your partner with care. This means you can’t only be concerned about yourself, your payoffs, your dreams, your desires, etc. You must be willing to put the relationship first.
  • Lie and form coalitions against your partner. Goes hand and hand with the bullets above, but a relationship is a team. It should be ‘you guys vs. the problem’, not ‘you vs. them’. Or worse ‘you & someone else vs. your partner’. You need to be on their team so they can be on yours. Lying, keeping secrets, & lacking integrity will not give your partner the message that they can trust you, which is essential in forming that “team”.

YES, DO THESE:

  • Be positive, and train yourself to scan the environment for the good. You are what you think. Perhaps you can thank confirmation bias for this, but keep that relationship soil healthy so that you can grow a beautiful and thriving relationship.
  • Improve your quality of friendship. Turn towards your partner (or even better: enthusiastically turn towards!), build love maps, create a culture of fondness & admiration, and create shared meaning & purpose. TALK & GET TO KNOW your partner inside and out. These are important parts of building connection with your partner.
  • SHARE your feelings & inner world. People are not mind readers, and in order to be able to support you they have to know what’s going on. Which means you have to tell them! (Of course, there’s a better way to do this than just overloading your partner with negative feelings. I’ll share how to do it better in one of the next posts!)
  • Learn to communicate and repair. This means having difficult conversations, expressing empathy, listening to & accepting your partner, have a willingness to compromise/collaborate, soften your startups, accept influence, aim to remain neutral & nice when you can during conflict vs. mean, accept responsibility for your part & apologize, and make repair attempts during conflict. 
  • Put your partner & the relationship first. (Be careful about the pendulum swing: this is not permission for self-betrayal, or neglect) But this mentality does mean that your partner & the relationship are special to you. Your partner’s gains are your gains, their loss is your loss. You value and cherish what you have so you’re willing to display that in your actions. It’s more of a “We & Us” mentality.
  • Revere your partner. Make an intentional and conscious conviction to your partner & denigrate alternative matches. Have gratitude for them and their qualities. Instead of fantasizing about a “better relationship” communicate your needs, wishes, hopes, fears, and dreams with your partner.

“Love, romance, and trust are conscious decisions to cherish what is wonderful about your partner and nurture the gratefulness for what you have. What people frequently do instead, is nurture resentment for what they don’t have.”

– Dr. John Gottman

I know there was a lot here to read, but I truly hope that you got a lot of value from it!

In this post, I’ve only scratched the surface of what you can learn from Dr. John Gottman. If you’re like me and you want to learn AS MUCH AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN, then don’t you worry, I’ve got you. 

Here are my top recommended resources that will help you gain an even deeper understanding of what we went over in this post:

*Disclaimer: some, or all, of the products in this are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission.

  1. (Book) What Makes Love Last?
  2. (YouTube Video) Making Marriage Work
  3. (Book) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage work

Other resources that you may find helpful:

  1. (Book) The Science of Trust
  2. (Book) Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a lifetime of love
  3. (Book) The Relationship Cure

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