Dr. John Gottman is at it again with a fantastic angle on relationships.
Think about your relationship like a bank account — a kind of trust, that, if consistently funded with deposits of positivity, will keep your marriage in the “black” your whole life through.
Couples can fight a little, or a lot, and still be happy.
A couple can be bad at communication/conflict resolution and still be happy (arguments can get heated and violate at least half of the rules of “clean communication). Learning the ins and outs of “clean” communication and how to effectively make your needs known in a relationship can indeed be beneficial.
Gottman’s research shows that couples lose their tempers, don’t practice “active listening,” don’t couch their complaints in “I” statements — but are still happy.
High expectations – good for your marriage.
Donald Baucom of the University of North Carolina has found that people with the greatest expectations for their marriage usually wind up with the highest-quality marriages. You are far more likely to achieve the kind of marriage you want.
Nearly 70% of marital conflicts are perpetual and unresolvable — they’re ongoing and last the couple’s entire lifetime. Spouses tend to butt heads over the same things year, after year, after year. Gottman’s research says that friction is a natural part of the ying and yang of life in general and that some negativity in a marriage is actually healthy.
As long as it’s balanced by positive aspects.
Gottman formulated a ratio for stability and happiness: 5:1. A couple that has at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones will ultimately succeed. Gottman calls this dynamic “positive sentiment override”.
If a couple’s relationship bank account is running low on “funds” (there’s been more negative interactions for a while than positive ones), then each “withdrawal” (conflict) brings the balance on the account closer and closer to zero, or even towards an “overdraft.” Thus each argument feels weighty and fraught with peril — like it’s moving the relationship towards the brink of “bankruptcy” — a break-up or divorce.
If a couple’s account is overflowing with positivity, on the other hand, then they can afford to make occasional “withdrawals” without any danger of the funds going into deficit. Since there’s an ample safety cushion in place, when a withdrawal is made, it doesn’t feel like the stakes are all that serious. An argument is just a dumb argument, and nothing more.
The difference between couples in “positive sentiment override” as opposed to “negative sentiment override,” is that while the former “communicate to each other every emotion in the spectrum, including anger, irritability, disappointment, and hurt, they also communicate their fundamental fondness and respect. Whatever issue they are discussing, they give each other the message that they are loved and accepted, ‘warts and all.’”
Gottman reports that one of the ways an ample relationship bank account most crucially strengthens a marriage is in the way it leads to the quicker and more frequent use of “repair attempts.” Repair attempts are little signals in the form of gestures or words — a smile, a laugh, an apology — by which one partner tries to break the tension of a conflict and keep it from spiralling out of control. In turn, when a couple’s relationship bank account is flush, the partner on the receiving end of a repair attempt is more likely to recognise it as such, and respond in kind. If you’ve ever had a heated argument with your significant other in which she smiled, then you smiled, and then you both laughed and were able to calm down and talk things out normally, then you’ve experienced how a repair attempt operates.
Couples with well-funded accounts can squabble and yet have so much positivity left over, they retain their love, admiration, and fondness for each other; they can fight and still like one another plenty.
As long as you keep a reserve of positivity in place, you can fight “poorly” and still remain thoroughly committed and smitten with one another. How “good” you fight simply isn’t as important as the overall goodness in your marriage. This is quite advantageous, and a real relief, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to remember to make “I” statements when you’re about to blow your top.
You don’t have to divide up and work on each of your conflicts/issues separately. In fact, you don’t necessarily have to try to resolve your sticky conflicts at all — another relief when the vast majority would never have been solvable in the first place! People rarely change; they can get a little better in managing their flaws, and together you can learn strategies for coping with them, but an issue that’s there at the start of marriage will probably be there until your golden years.
When your relationship bank account is in the black, your disappointment with your partner not living up to this or that expectation will largely be overridden by your admiration, respect, and fondness for the things they do well and that you cherish. While you do lower your expectations in some areas, you raise them in others, so that you still have an elevated, grateful, optimistic view of your marriage.
Though the bank account approach to marriage makes it possible to live with conflict instead of fixing it, it does sometimes resolve issues outright. And it does so indirectly, without spouses having to work on the problem directly.
A good example of this is sex. If there are problems in the bedroom — say, one spouse feels like sex isn’t happening enough — simply talking about its lack of frequency is often a less effective approach to addressing the issue than what Gottman recommends: “Instead of isolating sex from the rest of your relationship, try a change in attitude. Stop thinking that sex is about orgasm and consider everything positive that happens between you as part of sex.” A reserve of positivity can go a long way towards enhancing what goes on the bedroom — and do so naturally and indirectly; as the slogan Gottman puts on t-shirts and mugs at his clinic declares:
“Every Positive Thing You Do in Your Relationship Is Foreplay.”
When you view your relationship like a bank account, instead of working on what’s wrong with it, you strengthen what’s right, so that the positives overwhelm the negatives, diminishing their significance and impact on your love and happiness.
“The key to reviving or divorce-proofing a relationship is not simply how you handle your disagreements but how you engage with each other when you’re not fighting.” By setting up a kind of insurance policy during the good times, you can weather the bad ones, and even prevent some storms from arising in the first place.
The real beauty of the “bank account” approach to a sustaining a healthy, happy, stable marriage, is that it doesn’t require working directly “on” the relationship. Instead, you set up a trust fund that you and she each contribute to, which in turn produces dividends that flow back into your relationship. And as we’ll see, making deposits to this fund is more enjoyment than work.