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Nate’s Notes 17: Masters of Relationships

By September 27, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

For 20 years, John Gottman predicted divorce. Gottman, as described in the previous episode of Meikles and Dimes, is a professor, therapist, and world renowned expert on relationships. But one day, after two decades of studying why relationships fail, Gottman’s wife asked him if he’d ever considered studying why relationships succeed. “Rather than just predict divorce” she said, “do you think you could save marriages?”

This simple question spurred Gottman’s research for the next 20 years, as he dedicated himself to studying what to do in relationships rather than what NOT to do. And sure enough, he soon recognized several patterns, or principles, as he calls them, for making relationships work.

First, Gottman noticed that in great relationships, couples are intimately connected to each other’s worlds. Gottman refers to this as having a detailed love map. Couples in great relationships know the main characters in each other’s lives. They know who their partner spends time with each day, who is stressing their partner out, and who makes their partner laugh. To help couples enhance their love maps Gottman recommends a number of simple trivia-style questions. For example, do you know your partner’s favorite holiday? Favorite movie? Favorite relative? Favorite book? But of course, it goes much deeper than trivia. Do you also know your partner’s current worries? Their most important upcoming event? Their biggest unmet goal?

Several years ago, Gottman was pitching his book idea to the publisher Random House. He found himself in New York City, describing his book proposal to a room full of executives. Everyone in the room seemed to be on board with the book proposal…everyone except for a marketing executive who sat quietly throughout the presentation. Towards the end of the meeting, the marketing executive finally spoke up and said: “In the next 30 seconds, tell me one thing I can do to improve my marriage.” Gottman thought for a few seconds, and then said, “Honor your spouse’s dreams.”

The marketing exec stood up, walked out of the room, and left the building. Gottman later learned that the exec caught the subway to his home in Brooklyn, walked into his home, found his wife, and blurted out, “What are your hopes and dreams?” The man’s wife responded, “I thought you’d never ask.”

In summary, the first step to having a great relationship is to have a detailed love map…to intimately know each other’s worlds.

The second foundation of a fulfilling relationship is fondness and admiration for one another. Couples who feel appreciated and admired stay connected. And one of the best ways to maintain fondness and admiration is to look for things to appreciate rather than mistakes to magnify. Masters of relationships strive to catch each other doing something right and forget quickly about each other’s mistakes. In other words, they are gentle with each other.

George Carlin once said that there are only two kinds of drivers…the idiots, those driving slower than you, and the maniacs, those driving faster than you. This kind of critical mindset dooms relationships. The better approach is to follow the advice of Dale Carnegie…to be quote “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”

In Gottman’s research, he noticed that in happy relationships, the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions was 5 to 1. However, in unhappy relationships, the ratio was 1 to 1.

Nurturing fondness and admiration, which is the opposite of contempt, is foundational in successful relationships.

The third foundation, and one of the single most valuable lessons I have learned from Gottman, is the importance of turning towards my spouse when she asks for my attention. Gottman calls this accepting bids.

In failing relationships, one person will say something like, “Wow, look at that house” and the other person will just ignore the comment. Or they might say, “Hmm” without ever looking up from their phone. But these interactions are damaging…. one person is asking for attention, and the other is withholding it.

Gottman calls this interaction, when one person asks for attention, affection, or humor from the other person, a bid for attention. The responding person then chooses to accept the bid for attention or reject it.

In fulfilling relationships the partners accept one another’s bids. One person will say, “Do you know if we have any batteries?” And their partner will immediately look up from their phone and say, “I don’t know, let me check” rather than just mumble or shrug apathetically.

According to Gottman’s research, happy couples turn towards each other’s bids 86% of the time, whereas unhappy couples turn towards each other’s bids just 33% of the time.

It turns out, these simple interactions, even mundane moments, when couples accept each other’s bids for attention, are quite predictive of relationship success. Whereas some couples might plan a romantic getaway to reconnect, simply turning towards each other in little ways, every day, is probably more effective. When accepting bids becomes a reflex, couples stay emotionally connected.

Finally, masters of relationships let their partners’ influence them. When Gottman was asked to summarize all of the research he’s done in 35 years, he responded, “Imagine a salt shaker that was filled with all the ways you could say yes. “Good point. Yeah, I agree with you. Yeah I agree with some of what you’re saying. Help me understand this. Yeah that makes a lot of sense.” It’s all in that shaker and you just sprinkle that liberally throughout your life together.”

In summary, great relationships have several commonalities. The couples intimately know each other’s worlds, they nurture fondness and admiration for each other, they turn toward each other’s bids for attention, and they let their partners influence them.

But so what. Why does this matter? I once heard the phrase, “If you want something to last forever, you have to treat it differently.” Gottman has given us the blueprint for how to treat our loved ones, for how to make our relationships last. Given that our greatest fulfillment and happiness often comes from our relationships with others, I hope you will follow Gottman’s advice and treat your relationships with gentleness and care. The steps are simple, but the ideas are profound.

Kids, when it comes to your loved ones, strive to make their hopes and dreams come true.

It’s a simple idea, please take it seriously.

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