Dr John Gottman says, “More relationships die by ice than by fire.” What does he mean? Through Gottman’s research, he found that couples who stopped talking together, who were ‘too busy’ to make time for each other, or who simply ‘got on with the everyday business of life’, ended up emotionally disconnected from each other.
When these emotions stir, we can find ourselves internally questioning:
In searching for answers we frequently resort to silent mind-reading and make negative assumptions about what our partner is thinking and feeling. The following story follows Andrea and Jim, a couple married for 23 years, and their slow separation.
Andrea tells me she suggested to Jim that they take some time this weekend to go for a walk in the botanical gardens; something she and Jim used to do and enjoy when they were newlyweds. Jim responds with “sounds good”.
As the weekend rolls around, Jim doesn’t say anything about the walk, so Andrea thinks to herself:
“He must not want to spend time with me, or he would have asked me what time we were going.”
She feels hurt and invisible. However, rather than talking to Jim, she avoids him.
Jim, on the other hand, figures Andrea has changed her mind since she seems to be keeping to herself and keeping busy around the house. He too feels disappointed. Similarly, rather than talk to Andrea, he thinks to himself:
“Other things are more important to Andrea than me.”
He is scared that if he reminds her about the walk, she will reject him. So, he stays silent and sad.
This pattern of lost communication continues to repeat itself. On a constant loop, Jim and Andrea slowly put less and less effort into the relationship out of fear of rejection. As a result, this allows resentment to grow and foster to the point where one or both begin thinking “maybe this relationship isn’t right for me anymore.”
The longer this cycle continues, it is more likely that they will slowly, and relatively silently end up separating. In Jim and Andrea’s case, it took 23 years together, with around 15 years of slow disconnection, before Jim decided to leave when their youngest child finished high school. At this point in the relationship, he believes the decision to leave his relationship with Andrea would make him happier.
Andrea said a part of her was relieved when Jim decided to leave. She too was grieving the relationship they once had and lost. If Andrea and Jim had learnt the skills of friendship, intimacy building and maintenance, this whole scenario may have been avoided.
Dr Gottman followed over 3,000 couples for more than 25 years and observed that couples who were successful in their relationship ‘processed everything’. In other words, they talked. They talked about their day; they talked about their feelings; they talked about their worries, their joys, their failures, their successes. They talked about their fears; they talked about their fights and repaired the issues together. They didn’t let a misunderstanding go by without talking about it and apologised for their part in the misunderstanding. These couples continuously shared their dreams, wants, needs and desires over the years. This allowed them to keep up to date with how their partner was changing and growing over time. They stayed attuned to each other.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, this takes a lot of work and understanding to make a healthy relationship work and grow to be long lasting. Gottman said, “It is the small things” that often keep a relationship strong. The things we do and say every day, such as the 5 minutes we spent listening to our partner’s frustration at work; or the struggle they are having with their friend/parent/sibling. It could be the 30 seconds we devote to giving a really comforting hug or the 6 seconds we spend purposefully kissing each other.
It is the uncomplaining way you help each other out in nightly routines from meals, to kids, to even pets, just so you can both sit down at the end of the night and cuddle on the couch. It is the willingness to understand how we unintentionally hurt our partner’s feelings, but to apologise even when we accidentally hurt them. It is the paying attention to the things that make your partner feel loved and doing them.
It is simply- lots of small, thoughtful, significant things we can do for our partners, often.
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