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SOURCE: Sheiresa Ngo/The Cheat Sheet

Relationships require a delicate balance of love, respect, and admiration. Part of maintaining that balance is remaining aware of how you react during communication. You can choose a positive, negative, or neutral response, and punctuate those responses with verbal and non-verbal cues. You may not think very much about how you respond, but reactions can have a significant impact on the health of your relationship.

Predicting relationship failure

Psychologist John Gottman investigated the impact of seemingly innocent exchanges. He asserts these exchanges, which he calls bids, can more accurately predict the success or failure of a relationship than arguments. Gottman says these exchanges are more than words; they are emotional signals. The way you react to a bid or signal can make or break your relationship. You can either bid positively, negatively, or in a neutral manner (what Gottman refers to as bidding toward, against, or turning away). He found that the more often couples chose to bid toward, the less likely they were to divorce. Licensed Mental Health Counselor Zach Brittle gave this example:

To understand turning, you have to first understand bids. A bid is any gesture — verbal or nonverbal — for some sort of positive connection with your partner. Bids can be simple or complex and can represent a request for conversation, humor, affection, support, or simply for attention. Most are actually pretty easy to spot and respond to: “How do I look?” “Can you pass the guacamole?” “Will you help me change the bedspread?” Other bids are more complicated: “Want to go to yoga with me?” “Let’s learn how to play the guitar.” “Do you feel like fooling around?”

How you can improve your communication

Gottman says a marriage can be a success if a couple learns to balance their negative and positive feelings about each other, rather than letting negative thoughts consume them:

What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage. … The more emotionally intelligent a couple — the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage — the more likely that they will indeed live happily ever after.

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman outlines seven key principles that can help a couple grow closer and stay together:

1. Enhance your love maps

A love map is what Gottman calls the part of your brain that remembers the details of your partner’s likes and dislikes. He also refers to it as making cognitive room for your relationship. Gottman says it’s important to continue to keep note of what is important to your partner so that you can stay connected:

They remember the major events in each other’s history, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. When she orders him a salad, she knows to ask for his dressing on the side. If she works late, he’ll tape her favorite TV show because he knows which one it is and when it’s on…They know each other’s goals in life, each other’s worries, each other’s hopes.

2. Nurture fondness and admiration

Maintain a sense of awe and admiration for your partner. Always try to find something to love about him or her. Look for ways to remind yourself why you fell in love.

“If a couple still have a functioning fondness and admiration system, their marriage is salvageable,” said Gottman. “Fondness and admiration are two of the most critical elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance…They cherish each other, which is critical to keeping their Sound Relationship House intact and preventing betrayal.”

3. Turn toward each other instead of away

Include your partner in your day-to-day life. Learn to relish the seemingly unimportant activities in life together. For example, instead of leaving your partner to watch the news alone, join him or her on the couch and just snuggle in each other’s arms. Gottman says this is essential to forming a connection:

Couples who engage in lots of such interaction tend to remain happy. What’s really occurring in these brief exchanges is that the husband and wife are connecting — they are human beings turning toward each other. Couples who do so are building mutual trust. Those who don’t are likely to lose their way.

4. Let your partner influence you

Work together as a team and show respect for each other. Also learn to see both sides during an argument and master the art of compromise. Gottman emphasizes that for a relationship to thrive, a couple must form a partnership:

Accepting influence doesn’t mean never expressing negative emotions toward your partner…the problem comes when even mild dissatisfaction on the wife’s part is met by a barrage from her husband that, instead of toning down or at the most matching her degree of negativity (yelling back, complaining, etc.), goes beyond it.

5. Solve your solvable problems

Learn to work on issues in your marriage that can be easily solved. When you let problems fester, resentment will build over time. This can lead to the slow erosion of your relationship. Said Gottman, “Even making just a small and generic shift in the trajectory of your marriage can have a dramatic, positive effect over time. The catch, of course, is that you have to build on the change and keep it going. Improving your marriage is a kind of journey.”

6. Overcome gridlock

Take time to identify what is stalling progress in your relationship. Gottman asserts that gridlock occurs in a union when one has unfulfilled dreams. He says sometimes marriages hit a bump in the road when partners are not addressing or respecting each other’s life dreams.

“It’s natural to make the fundamental error of assuming that the distance and loneliness are all your partner’s fault. In truth, they are nobody’s fault. In order to break the pattern, you both need to admit playing some role (however slight at first),” advised Gottman.

7. Create shared meaning

Draw one another closer by creating your own rituals and special times that belong only to you. Create your own space separate from the hustle and bustle of this harsh world. Provide each other with a sense of comfort and safety. Upon coming home, you partner should feel there is no other place he or she would rather be.

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