As children, many of us were exposed to bedtime stories of a princess who lived happily ever after with her gallant, strong and chivalrous prince. However, real life long-term relationships rarely resemble the stuff of fairy tales. The truth is that living with a spouse or partner year-in, year-out is not always easy, fun, or what we expected when we said “I do” or chose to commit.
The bottom line is, our partner grew up differently to us, whether they were the boy or girl next door, from a different culture or raised in a far-away land.
Each of us is influenced by our family-of-origin in helpful and unhelpful ways, both consciously and unconsciously.
It’s our family who provides us with our first templates that teach us about the dynamics of communication, love, respect, anger, conflict management, expressing feelings, and how our needs are met. These formative years influence future patterns of behavior, which we often adopt in our adult relationships. They can include unhelpful patterns such as withdrawing, criticising, pursuing, attacking, defending, stonewalling, or pleasing.
With these inevitable differences, how is it that any two people can live together for decades in satisfying relationships? Research conducted over four decades by US relationship researcher and academic Professor
John Gottman suggests there are key qualities found in people who thrive in relationships. He labels these ‘Masters’ compared to those that struggle in relationships, known as ‘Disasters.’
According to Gottman, Masters work together, show genuine interest in each other, have shared meaning and purpose. They enjoy friendship, have the ability to repair after arguments and hurt and focus on what’s working in the relationship rather than what’s not. The ability to have a recovery conversation actually matters more than the argument itself.
Meanwhile, Disasters use criticism and blame and tend to diagnose each other’s faults. They are defensive, use emotional withdrawal and turn away from their partner. Most importantly, these individuals often act with contempt towards each other, suggesting they are in some way superior to their mate by using phrases such as “you’re an idiot!”.
Research shows that this is the greatest predictor of divorce. These marriages are vulnerable to divorce and tend to end at one of two critical risk periods: between 5-7 years due to high conflict, or between 10-12 years after experiencing loss of intimacy and connection.
At The Family Peace Foundation, we believe that helping strengthen partner relationships forms the foundation for healthy family dynamics.
Yet many of us park our partner’s needs while we attend to children, work or other pursuits.
If you recognise any of these unhelpful patterns in your own relationship dynamic, put on your Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys hat while you seek to identify the unmet needs that your loved one is struggling with or unable to articulate.
Do they need affirmation, attention, appreciation, validation, support, assurance, or simply to know that they are good enough and loveable. Sometimes it can help foster compassion and patience towards your partner by imagining the little child within, who may be feeling wounded, fearful or hurt, and unable to ask for their needs to be met.
Couples who listen to each other with a view to problem solving or defending their view don’t feel as satisfied as those who listen with a view to simply understanding their partner’s experience. Perhaps Cinders and her royal fella would fare better if they subscribed to some of Gottman’s research findings. These include expressing an average ratio of at least five positive statements to every one negative comment they utter to, or about, each other.
When those tricky step sisters are in the way, our regal lovers would do well to remain curious and compassionate with each other. They need to remember and delight in fond memories of the past, and recalling what they found attractive when they first met at the ball.
Implementing these ingredients, as well as seeking to understand the unmet needs of each other, is no guarantee of ‘happily ever after.’ However, it will do wonders for increasing relationship and family connection and harmony, which surely matter more than ruling a kingdom, riding a white horse, or wearing pretty ball gowns.