By Susan Regan, MFT
One of my favorite theorists, Gottman, writes about the sound relationship house. The sound relationship house is a really great model of trying to identify the patterns in your relationships and where the weak areas are. If we think of the relationship as a house, we have to build a foundation and make that foundation really solid before we build the frame. There are 7 basic levels of relationships and we can think of the first three floors as being made up of a friendship system, the basis for a relationship and a prerequisite for handling conflict.
The ground floor is called “building love maps,” which means knowing each other and staying updated on each others’ internal and external world. This requires asking inquisitive questions of each other on a daily basis and really knowing what’s going on with each other.
The second level is of shared fondness and admiration, which includes showing appreciation, gratitude, affection, and intimacy.
The third level is turning towards each other, which means building awareness of how the other person asks for connection and expresses their needs. This is based on an attachment model. When we think about parent and child and how we attached to our primary caretakers, we tend to show attachment in a similar fashion in our relationships. It’s important that you practice turning towards each other. Sometimes when people are upset, they turn away. People turn towards each other many times during the day, trying to get each others’ attention; these are bids towards affection. If the relationship has turned hostile, it’s really hard to turn towards your partner. The more you turn away, and the more your bids to show affection to your partner are received, you start building what’s called equity in a relationship, which means that you have an emotional bank account and this helps your relationship stabilize during times of conflict or stress. If you have a lot of equity, then fights or bickering don’t occur when there are stressors. There is also an idea about positive perspectives and this involves us changing our mindsets. Instead of noticing all the negative things in our partner, we can try to change our mindset to reflect the positive, interesting and thoughtful things our partner does. It’s the small things that make the difference.
The fifth level is the marriage conflict area. Oftentimes in marriages or long-term relationships, there are perpetual or unsolved problems. The couple needs to learn to dialog about these problems. John Gottman shows in his research that 69% of problems couples struggle with in their marriages are irresolvable. It’s important to learn how to talk about those problems with a lot of positive affect, interest, affection, humor, empathy and self-soothing. Even if you’re not able to solve all of your problems or another person’s problems in a relationship, it’s really important to be able to dialogue about them.
The sixth skill for solvable problems is in regards to the way we deal with these problems. This requires that some of the areas are softening, that we’re not harsh when we’re talking to our partners, and we have repair. We look at how to repair ourselves after difficult conversations have happened. This is often seen as being together after a fight and dealing effectively with our own emotional states of mind while we are fighting, because often we get flooded or triggered and we withdraw.
Lastly, it’s accepting influence from the other person. The art of compromise is about being flexible with the other person’s perspectives. The top two floors of the house is about making your dreams come true and having you discuss with your partner what your dreams are for the relationship. There should be long-term efforts made so that both people get to live out their dreams with each other, instead of just living one person’s dream.
Lastly, the most important task is to develop an environment where there’s honesty and each person gets to have their dreams, values, and aspirations acknowledged. The attic of the house is a place to create shared meaning so that we have purpose around the lives we live, that we are attending to our beliefs, leaving a legacy, and exploring and prioritizing our energy and resources in our daily lives. We are also passing on what was important in our lives and the lives we shared with our partner to the world, our family, friends, and children.