Written by: Robert R. Cassman, LPCC-S
One of the key steps in the world-renowned Gottman Marriage Counseling program is the idea of “turning toward one’s partner” and not away. This creates more “psychological intimacy.” This intimacy is the kind that one has for only a very select few persons in the world. This is more important than physical or sexual intimacy because it is deeper and longer lasting. An older couple who are never sexual intimate but are psychologically intimate can still be healthy. The more we turn towards our partner the more we deposit in our emotional “bank account.” And just like a bank account, we can withdraw from our relationship. Excessive withdrawal from our emotional bank account can lead to stress and even a breaking of the relationship.
Depositing in our emotional bank account can be expensive such as a pricey gift, or free such as an act of sacrificial kindness. When we do things for the relationship then we have made a “deposit.” If we have deposited on a regular basis, then we are in less danger of getting charged an emotional “overdraft” fee. This can happen when we have been withdrawing over and over without properly depositing. For instance, if I fail to take out the trash once but I do other kind things for my wife, then I am not in danger of “overdrafting.” But if I routinely do things that hurt the relationship then I am endangering the relationship.
Another major step to greater psychological intimacy is having “stress-reducing conversations.” These conversations, if done properly, should increase psychological intimacy and reduce conflict. Here are some tips to stress-reducing conversations:
- Take turns. This is easier said than done, but allowing your partner to finish what he was going to say goes a long way. While you are listening….listen! Don’t simply be preparing your reply.
- Show genuine interest. We show interest in those things that we like. If you like your partner then you’ll like what she likes. Show this through proper attention. Do not play on your phone while she is talking; don’t interrupt or do other unnecessary things while she is talking with you. Be careful about your body language as well.
- Do not give advice. Unless it is explicitly asked for, do not give advice to your partner. Just because she is complaining about something does not mean she wants you to “fix it.” Sometimes the “fix” she wants is simply to be heard and supported.
- Communicate you understand. Understanding is vitally important. But it needs to be communicated! This can be done by paraphrasing and summarizing through active listening. Active listening is when we consciously and purposely listen. Hearing is done by our ears but listening is done by our mind. We communicate our partner is important by showing we paid attention to him.
- Take your partner’s side. A major step to have a healthy relationship is being on each other’s side. So often I hear in counseling that one partner undermined the other or spoke ill of the other or did not stand up for the other. When given the opportunity take your partner’s side. Even in cases in which you disagree with your partner, you can still show support without completely agreeing. Do not be okay with others tearing down your spouse. You can defend your spouse’s honor without agreeing with your spouse.
- Express affection. One-way people feel lonely is not receiving an adequate amount of affection. This can be done physically but it can also be done verbally, emotionally, and psychologically. Affection can be shown through the five love languages discussed here.
- Validate emotions. Show you understand your partner by supporting or validating her emotions. Don’t call her emotions “stupid” or “childish.” This only increases the hostility during the conversation. Her emotions are her emotions. Period. Discuss the issue but don’t talk negatively about her emotions.
- It’s “we against the world.” This is the proper extension of number 5. Having a common goal and a common “enemy” helps bring people together. If your relationship is the most important thing in your life, then all the other issues can be dealt with, because you’re not alone. Standing with your partner when no one else does shows him how important he is to you.
Turning toward our partners when we converse is one of the key indicators of a healthy relationship. When we turn away it is a major red flag that something is wrong in the relationship. Following these steps can help improve our conversations as well as the relationship.