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4 Keys to Making a Relationship Work


Dec. 13, 2021 Psychology Today

John and Julie Gottman have studied, with unusual rigor and for 40-plus years now, what makes relationships work. Their findings are summarized in the book Eight Dates.

“Eight dates” refers to regularly scheduled meetings in which the couple talks respectfully about big issues: trust, conflict, sex, money, family, adventure, spirituality, and dreams. A few of my clients, as well as my wife and I, have done some variant of the eight dates, and we all feel it’s been worthwhile.

More Gottman Nuggets

Here’s other core advice from the Gottmans, plus my yes-ands and yes-buts.

1. Never stop being curious about your partner. That may seem pie-in-the-sky but it can be realistic. The Gottmans urge us to ask our partner open-ended questions. The following are those I’ve recommended to clients and that my wife and I have discussed to advantage:

  • Tell me a story about you, now or in your past.
  • Do you have any dreams, not necessarily when sleeping but about your future?
  • Do you ever wonder if that’s all there is, I mean career-wise, relationship-wise, otherwise?
  • Your parents don’t display much emotion, and you’re kind of that way. Has that served you well?
  • You want to have kids more than I do. What, deep down, do you think is the main driver of that?
  • I know you’re a Democrat, but why are you a Democrat?
  • You believe in God. In the face of evidence to the contrary, what makes you have faith in God?
  • How are you feeling about your substance use?

Or you could ask something quite general, for example,

  • How are you feeling?

2. Conflict is inevitable. Key is accepting the immutable and attempting to resolve the others in a statesman-like way.

The Gottmans’ research found that 69% of conflicts never get resolved and the key is how to deal with the 31%. Of course, that begs the question of how to figure out whether a conflict is likely to be resolved. Well, here’s an example of how you might constructively have such a discussion:

You: We argue a lot about your spending, my rushing in sex, and my being less enthusiastic than you are about spending time with your parents. Do you think those issues are in the 69% of the 31%?

Your partner: Maybe it’s easiest if we start with the issue of visiting my parents.

You: I think we can agree that your parents think I’m a know-it-all and I think they’re, well, lackluster. Without a personality transplant, do you think either is likely to change?

Your partner: No. So, it sounds like you’re making me mainly go see them by myself.

You: If I had my druthers, yes. But might the statesman-like thing to do be for me to join you when it’s particularly important to you and/or them and, other times, you do go without me? And of course, you can supplement the visits with phone and FaceTime calls. Does that seem reasonable?

Your partner: It depends on how often you think it’s important for you to go. I’m afraid you’ll want to go just once or twice a year. I like visiting them every two weeks.

You: What if we, as an initial benchmark, aim for my going half the time, say once a month. Can you live with that?

Your partner: Well, we can try it. But, in a month, let’s agree to revisit the plan.

You: Fair enough. (If it feels right, give your partner a hug.)

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