Thanks to David at Select Psychology in Tynemouth who asked me to write a short piece for their website for Valentine’s Day. I thought it was the least I could do in recognition of all the fresly brewed coffee and teapigs green tea he lets me drink there!
I’ve seen many couples for relationship therapy over the years: some have managed to part with a better understanding of why they found it so difficult to sustain a loving relationship, while many leave grateful for the opportunity to deepen their relationship and move to the next level of togetherness as a result of facing difficulties.
I’m a Relate trained therapist, and also a big fan of the Gottman Institute’s work in researching thousands of real couples since the 1970s (https://www.gottman.com/about/research/) as I believe it’s important to base therapy on a sound evidence base. I’m a bit of a relationship geek and actually enjoy reading research papers!
Four of the principles from the Gottmans’ work that I find myself using all the time are included in their book ‘The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work’ and their ‘Sound Relationship House’, both of which can be easily found online.
69% of conflicts go unresolved: not every disagreement has to be worked through and many successful couples never address 69% of these. Make it a rule to consciously choose which conflicts are worth working on together and which are not important.
5:1 ratio: often when couples come to see me they’ve become frustrated because in trying to improve the relationship they’ve got to a point where every interaction is negative. This is an easy trap to fall into because humans naturally focus on problem solving, but research shos that every negative or problem solving statement needs to be balanced by at least five positive ones. I think of it like vaccinating your relationship in advance of the bugs of life!
Love Maps: often when we date we stay up all night talking and finding out about our partner, but when things become more familiar we forget our partner is changing all the time. Making time to find out how their day went, whether their favourite colour has changed, where they would love to go on holiday helps to build a shared foundation for togetherness.
Turning Towards, not against or away: when conflict calls there are two really unhelpful ways to manage things, you can fight, or you can run away. The only successful way of managing differences of perspective in a relationship is to turn towards each other in calm moments and find ways to speak and hear each other respectfully and with empathy.
In addition to these, in ‘Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital, Authentic Life’ Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf write about the relationship as being the ‘third body’ that needs to be nourished. I prefer to think of a relationship as a garden that grows between two people. If one (or both) parties neglects the garden then weeds and pests will quickly invade the space and take over, but if both people make space and time to cultivate their shared garden it will flourish and grow as they would wish.
Armele Philpotts is a relationship and family therapist working at Relate and privately in the North East of England. She is a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Association for Family Therapy