Even during the best of times, maintaining a happy, healthy relationship takes effort — nothing new here. But what about during times of challenge and hardship — you know, like a pandemic? How do you improve your relationship then?
We don’t necessarily need research to tell us how much stress that puts on a romantic relationship (and on families in general). As we near a new phase in the pandemic — hopefully a better one in which more people will be vaccinated and lives can get back to normal — we decided it was high time to take a look at what’s happened with relationships.
For all intents and purposes, partners have been cooped up inside with each other and their kid(s) for a year now, and as it turns out, there’s a fine line between “quality time together” and “too much time together” (snort). Yes, all that family time can amount to a brutal look in the mirror.
We recently asked how your relationships have fared since the start of the pandemic, and most of you said one of two things: either your relationship has been strengthened, or… it’s on the fritz.
If you fall into the latter camp, you’re not alone. According to the American Family Survey, “34% of married men and women report that the pandemic has increased stress in their marriage.” In addition, WebMD reports that the sale of online self-help divorce agreements increased by 34 percent during the spring of 2020 as compared to the previous year. And to think that we were first predicting a pandemic baby boom… turns out #covidivorce is a real thing.
Maybe none of this is very surprising.
After all, Covid has upended the very framework of our lives, forcing us to spend unprecedented amounts of time together and re-negotiate our individual and shared spaces (working from home together sounded so cute once upon a LONG time ago, way, way before the pandemic!), our boundaries, our roles and responsibilities within the home, our marriages, and the roles we play as parents.
Not to mention, when we don’t spend any time apart, we don’t get to “miss each other,” which is crucial for the health of relationships. As this NYT piece points out, when couples are together all the time, they have nothing left to say to each other — the thrill of being together goes away, as does the excitement and release of all those “feel good” brain chemicals that occur when couples reunite.
Armed with this knowledge, we turned to relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman, of the Gottman Institute, to learn more about how to strengthen (and for some, perhaps, salvage) our romantic relationships… not just during times of stress — like the transition to new parenthood or throughout a global public health crisis — but always..
The Gottmans have spent over 40 years studying relationships, and as such have a profound understanding of what goes into maintaining a healthy and long-lasting romantic partnership (as well as the main factors that contribute to a relationship’s demise…).
In this article, we’ll offer a quick overview of some of the Gottmans’ most salient theories, such as The Sound Relationship House, the difference between solvable and unsolvable problems and how to manage both, and why you want to keep the uber-damaging “Four Horsemen” out of your relationship.
Later on this summer, we’ll be sharing the highlights from the Gottman’s latest book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, which will give you inspiration for some amazing (and important) convos to have with your significant other… as well as set you up to take our Eight Conversations Challenge! (Get excited! More info on that coming soon… )
You needn’t buy the book to get the gist of what the “dates” entail, or to take our challenge. That said, it is a wealth of insight, so if any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to buy it or check it out from your local library to dig deeper.
Further, you can also check out this super informative video from Family Action Network about the Gottmans’ research and work with couples, as well as an overview of Eight Dates — or listen to Brené Brown’s interview with them on her podcast, Unlocking Us.
Feel free to read through the article in its entirety, or skip ahead to the sections that interest you most. JUMP TO:
- The Sound Relationship House Theory
- Solvable Vs. Unsolvable Problems
- Happy Vs. Unhappy Relationships
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
- The Upcoming Eight Conversations Challenge!
Gottmans’ Tips for a Better Relationship
“Love is an action more than a feeling.”Dr. John Gottman
According to the Gottmans, no matter how comfortable we get (and yeah, sometimes our long-term relationships do start to feel like our favorite cozy pair of worn-in sweats… ), we should never stop putting in the effort to really connect, honor, love and respect our partners.
This certainly feels more challenging after bringing children into the world, and all the stressors of parenthood + the pandemic can definitely increase tensions, stir up old and new animosities alike, and present novel challenges to work through. *Simply being aware of this — and knowing that every stage of parenthood is temporary, and your relationship is the foundation of your family — might prove helpful.
The Sound Relationship House Theory
Like our actual homes, relationships must also be built upon a solid and durable foundation. Enter the Gottmans’ “Sound Relationship House Theory” — seven components (or levels) of a relationship’s “house” that make up a healthy, long-lasting partnership (visual below). When each level is strong and intact, it helps make challenging times — i.e. caring for a new baby, financial struggles, loss, health issues, a pandemic (!), etc. — easier to manage.
Here’s a quick and dirty overview of what each level of the house means…
- Build Love Maps. This is the solid foundation upon which all the other levels of a relationship are built: How well do you really know your partner? According to the Gottman Institute, “Building Love Maps means asking the right questions to learn more about your partner.”
Never assume you know everything about your mate — especially because people are always changing and evolving over time. During the Eight Conversations Challenge this summer, you will be prompted to ask things like: What is your biggest fear in life? Have you ever tried to overcome it?
You may be surprised by the answer… and the answer may change throughout the course of your lives. Each time you learn more about your partner, you can add it to your (literal or figurative) love map. Perhaps this is an upside to all the time at home together? It’s an opportunity to dig a little deeper with each other and strengthen your bond.
- Share Fondness and Admiration. What are the things you love and appreciate most about your partner? Tell him/her often! It feels good to hear why and how deeply you are loved, admired, cared for and respected.
- Turn Towards Instead of Away. It’s important to share your needs, as partners, and to work as you can to meet each other’s needs to the best of your abilities. The Gottmans call this — meeting the needs and desires of your partner — “turning toward.”
Each time you turn toward each other, rather than away, you strengthen your emotional connection as a couple and create a safe space of trust, mutual respect and love.
- The Positive Perspective. Do you see the best in your partner? Does your partner see the best in you?
Rather than focusing on all the less desirable aspects of your partner (i.e. he snores; she never folds the laundry; he interrupts you when you talk; etc.), the goal is to focus more on the things you love about him/her instead (make a list if you have to, and refer to it often!).
We totally get it may be tough to focus on your partner’s positive traits right now as opposed to during more “normal” times; so much time together may have you feeling more irritated by your partner and annoyed by their habits. That said, if you really can’t think of any things you enjoy, admire or love about your partner, consider that a red flag.
- Manage Conflict. There will always be conflict in relationships, but that’s OK — managing conflict in a healthy manner is actually good for your relationship and can bring you to new levels of understanding and compromise.
- Make Life Dreams Come True. Do you aspire to sail around the world? Retire to an artist’s colony? A healthy partnership is one in which you can share your innermost desires and life goals with each other without fear of judgement; and knowing you’ll support each other in achieving your aspirations builds mutual trust and respect.
- Create Shared Meaning. This is the top floor of the relationship house. Similar to the foundation of the house in which you get to know each other deeply on an individual level, on this floor, you “build and understand an inner world as a couple.” This is where you determine what’s meaningful to you as a couple, what kind of life you want to lead together, and what shared goals you have.
Hold this floor near and dear to your heart, and refer back to it often… this will remind you of all the things you love about your partner and relationship, and that your union is strong enough to withstand even the toughest of challenges.
Solvable vs. Unsolvable Problems… and Gridlock
There is always going to be a level of conflict in your relationship. There’s no getting around that fact. And with all the various stressors and concentrated time together due to Covid and general parenthood, that level has been severely heightened for many couples.
The key is to understand the difference between what the Gottmans refer to as solvable versus unsolvable (or perpetual) problems.
Like the name implies, a solvable problem is an issue that can be solved — it doesn’t carry any deeper meaning, it is only about the circumstance at hand. For instance, you may feel frustrated that you’re always the one to take out the garbage while your partner never even offers. As irritating as this is, it’s a problem that can be solved. It’s the kind of thing you can talk about and come to an agreement on.
Unsolvable, perpetual problems are trickier because they arise from fundamental differences in your personalities and/or lifestyle needs — and big stressors, such as the pandemic or having a new baby, may exacerbate a couple’s perpetual problems. Unlike solvable problems, perpetual problems are “here to stay.” And though they cannot be solved, they can be managed.
Some common perpetual problems are differences in:
- neatness and organization,
- activity level,
- religious beliefs,
- attitudes and thoughts on spending and budgeting,
- sociability/social commitments, and
- how to raise and discipline children.
Every couple faces its own perpetual problems that cause recurring arguments. In fact, the Gottmans say that 69% of marital conflicts stem from perpetual problems. What’s important is to accept and manage them, as opposed to becoming gridlocked over them.
Raise your hand if you and your partner keep having the same fight over and over again. That’s gridlock.
You can avoid it by understanding that even though perpetual problems will rear their heads on occasion, if you talk about them, you’ll have a better understanding of each other’s position and needs. The goal shouldn’t be to get rid of your perpetual problems, but to acknowledge them and manage them in a healthy way. Or, as the Gottmans say, “to ‘declaw’ the issue, to try to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of great pain.”
Indicators of Happy Relationships vs. Unhappy Relationships
According to the Gottmans’ research, an important factor that determines if a relationship will succeed or fail, is how the couple talks about one another and their relationship.
It should come as no surprise that couples who talk more positively about each other and their union fare better. The Gottmans say that “couples who are most likely to have happy marriages show the following positive qualities and characteristics when they think and talk about their relationship”:
- Fondness, Affection, Admiration — i.e. positive affect, emphasize the good times as opposed to the bad times; compliment each other; etc.;
- We-ness vs. Separateness — They use words like we, us, or our, as opposed to I, me, and mine;
- Expansiveness vs. Withdrawal — Couples can describe past shared memories vividly and with enthusiasm and energy;
- Glorifying the Struggle — Couples express pride in the challenges they’ve overcome together rather than expressing hopelessness over their hardships — surviving the pandemic, and all the havoc it may have wreaked on your individual lives and relationship, will certainly be one such struggle you should feel proud to have overcome together.
The flip side of this is that the Gottmans also say that when couples express negative feelings about each other or their relationship (both verbally, like through sarcasm, and through non-verbal cues, such as eye rolling, ignoring, etc.) the relationship is likely to be deteriorating. This is important to look out for — both in your own thoughts, words and actions, as well as your partner’s.
The Four Horsemen: Gottmans’ Predictors of Separation or Divorce
Earlier in their career, The Gottmans observed couples arguing in their “Love Lab” and then continued to follow those same couples’ relationships over time. This led to an interesting discovery — the more times a couple displayed the negative communication patterns of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling with each other, the higher its chances of eventually separating or divorcing. Thus, they coined these communication behaviors the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
To learn even more about the Four Horsemen and how they can show up in your relationship, check out this video (below):
Maintaining a healthy, happy and close relationship takes a lot of effort — especially when life gets stressful.
In the last year, the daily monotony of working and spending all our time at home (together!) has wiped away much of the excitement, anticipation, romance, adventure and intimacy many of us may have enjoyed in our pre-pandemic relationship. Add to that our kids being home with us much of that time, too, and, well… let’s just say the quality time (and energy) we once had for connecting with each other may not be as strong.
A note on the upcoming challenge:
As mentioned, stay tuned for information on our summertime Eight Conversations Challenge, in which we’ll present you with the highlights of the Gottmans’ book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
The end goal of following along with our Eight Conversations Challenge is to build a stronger, healthier, spicier and more meaningful relationship. So get excited, friends, because the #EightConversationsChallenge will be awesome!
Our hope is that in learning about and implementing some of the Gottmans’ foundational theories on what makes a healthy relationship, you’ll experience more excitement, energy, romance and happiness in your own romantic relationship.
Good luck and stay tuned!