When it comes to building a lasting marriage, deep friendship can’t be understated.
That was one of the important takeaways from the Infinite Mindcare Talk Series session called “Crazy Little Thing Called Love: Mastering Relationships” at Books & Books on Feb. 17.
“Studies have shown that 70 per cent of your relationship satisfaction boils down to one thing: your friendship with your partner,” said psychotherapist Dallas Dralle, one of two mental health professionals from Infinite Mindcare to lead the session. “It’s the same for men and for women. Friendship is key.”
She said a major part of friendship in a relationship is getting to really know your partner.
“It’s about understanding your partner’s loves, fears, likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams … everything that you’d discuss with a best friend.”
One of the ways to understand your partner better and thus promote better friendship is by actively listening to them.
“Listening does not mean simply hearing what your partner says; it’s listening with the intent of understanding and connecting,” Dralle said. “Active listening means that I’m listening to what you’re saying and trying to understand what you’re feeling.”
Psychologist Lili Wagner, the other mental health professional leading the session, said being curious about your partner is helpful.
“If we come from a place of curiosity [when listening] that makes it so much easier to understand,” she said.
RECOGNISING THE NEGATIVE
In speaking about marriage, Dralle — who specialises in marriage and family therapy — referred to the “Gottman approach” to relationship therapy, developed by psychologists John and Julie Gottman. After conducting four decades of scientific research on thousands of couples in the so-called “Love Lab” in Seattle, John Gottman said he could predict divorce 91 per cent of the time by analysing their interactions over just five minutes. Dralle said Gottman also asserted he could predict with 96 per cent accuracy if an argument between a couple was going to be resolved just by listening to the first three minutes of the conversation. Gottman’s studies showed it wasn’t whether a couple argues, but how they argue that makes the difference in their relationship.
Arguments that began with a “harsh start-up” involving criticism or contempt would almost inevitably fail to lead to a positive resolution of the issue.
Dralle said that Gottman, who co-authored the book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” also identified other relationship behaviours that created negativity and were signs of a marriage likely heading to divorce, including “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” — criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
There’s an important difference between criticising a partner and complaining about something, Dralle said, noting that criticism is a form of attack while complaining in a respectful way about how a partner’s behaviour is negatively affecting you is a better way to resolve issues.
Gottman said that contempt, which is fuelled by long-standing negative thoughts, was the most poisonous of the four horsemen.
“Contempt conveys a feeling of disgust,” Dralle said, adding that sarcasm and cynicism are just two signs of contempt.
Defensiveness in the face of an attack by a partner is also one of the four horsemen, Dralle said.
“No one likes being blamed, but defending yourself just ends up effectively blaming the other person and then no one is understanding.”
The fourth horseman, stonewalling, often occurs when one of the partners becomes overwhelmed — or flooded — by negativity and tunes out as a method of self-preservation.
“Stonewalling is emotionally avoiding the other person and basically checking out,” said Dralle, adding that when a person gets flooded, it’s best for both partners to just take a break from an argument or discussion and come back to the issue later.
EMBRACING THE POSITIVE
In addition to having a strong friendship, there are other ways couples can ensure that positive sentiments about their partner outweigh negative sentiments, Dralle said.
“We want to focus on the positives,” she said. “We can sometimes get caught up in the negatives, so it’s important to recognise the positive things and express them on a daily basis and not take things for granted.”
One way to express the positives about a relationship is to learn and understand your partner’s “love languages” and then address them.
This concept is detailed in a book called, “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.
The love languages include words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch.
“We all express and receive love differently,” said Dralle. Beyond addressing the love languages, Wagner said that another common behaviour of people in long-term, happy relationships is that they “don’t sweat the small stuff” and have a sense of humour about each other’s imperfections. They also maintain respect for one another.
“Respect comes first from respecting yourself and knowing what your boundaries are,” she said.
Dralle said that respect also stems from accepting your partner’s viewpoint.
“Two people can have valid and completely different views on something,” she said. “If your focus is on winning an argument, you both lose almost all of the time.”
Viewing the relationship as a team, rather than two individuals operating alone, is also helpful.
“It’s not me versus you, it’s us against the world,” Dralle said, adding that if the focus of an argument becomes what’s best for the team, then it’s easier to come to a productive resolution.