Sure, having the perfect personality match helps a relationship.
So does the right age difference.
But if you want to have a long-lasting, intimate partnership, you and your boo need to be able to “repair” after conflicts that inevitably come up.
“In every good relationship,” says psychologist John Gottman, couples have “repairing skills, and they repair early.”
It’s the number one commonality in successful relationships, he says.
Gottman’s certainty comes from 42 years of studying relationships, both as a professor at the University of Washington and cofounder of the Gottman Institute with his wife Julie. Together, they have authored many books and demonstrated that human relationships behave in predictable, replicable, and scientifically verifiable ways.
To err is human, Gottman says, but to repair is divine.
“The thing that all really good marriages and love relationships have in common is that they communicate to their partner a model that when you’re upset, I listen,” he says. “The world stops, and I listen. And we repair things.
“We don’t let things go. We don’t leave one another in pain. We talk about it, and we repair.”
That’s where gentleness comes in.
“In really good relationships, people are very gentle with the way they come on about a conflict,” Gottman says. “They don’t bare their fangs and leap in there; they’re very considered.”
For example, he says: “Instead of pointing their finger and saying, ‘You arsehole!,’ they say, ‘Hey babe, it’s not a big deal, but I need to talk about it and I need to hear from you.’ In bad relationships, it’s, ‘You’re defective, and you need therapy.'”
In this way, the most effective repairs rely on making emotional connections rather than scoring intellectual victories. An effective repair doesn’t come from analysing a problem and being right about it, Gottman says. Instead of turning it into a debate and telling them that they’re wrong, you report how you feel.
Gottman says a successful repair might be: “When you walked out of the room, that really hurt my feelings, because I felt like what I was saying was unimportant to you. And I really need you to stay in the room when we talk about an issue.”
Resolving conflict gracefully is a skill in itself.
“To get better at conflict, you have to learn how to talk to each other emotionally — listen to each others’ conversation,” Gottman says. “That’s the skill of intimate conversation, and that’s the key to sex and romance, too. If they don’t have those conversations, over time their relationship will deteriorate. They will be living in an ice palace.”
So if you want to prevent your relationship from freezing over, it’s necessary to get comfortable with the perceived heat of conflict.
Miscommunicating, misaligning, and otherwise disagreeing are all natural parts of relating to another human, Gottman says.
It goes against the popularly held belief that people who are “in love” don’t hurt each other’s feelings and can know what the other person desires without ever talking about it.
Even the most intimate human relationship — that between infant and mother — experiences misalignment.
Mothers and infants don’t naturally fall into a beautiful, perfect rhythm of knowing what the other needs and wants. Developmental psychologists have found that mothers and three-month-olds are uncoordinated 70% of the time, and that it’s up to the mother — and sometimes the baby — to repair the relationship.
As other psychologists have told us, tension and conflict play a major part in a relationship’s maturation.
Gottman says that conflict, or telling the other person how you really feel, is especially difficult for Americans. The American view is that disagreements and conflict are “bad,” he says.
That outlook is many generations in the making, stretching all the way back to before the colonies broke away from England. Because of that history, America has an “honour culture,” he says, so opposition is seen as disrespectful.
“Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to be honour cultures, where any kind of opposition is viewed as a moral affront,” he says. “You don’t tolerate disagreement. You think that disagreement is dysfunctional, and agreement is functional. When someone says you’re wrong, you take it as a moral affront.”
Not every culture is like that.
“In Italy,” Gottman says, “if somebody tells you that you’re full of shit, you say, ‘That’s probably true, but so are you.'”
To get better at conflict, we need to shift our cultural perception of it.
Instead of seeing conflict as a sign that you and your partner are incompatible, you can see it as a natural, constructive part of knowing somebody really well.
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