Wholeness Healing Today

The Glue to Healthy Relationships

In our last newsletter (January/February 2015) I wrote about John Gottman’s work with couples and his research that allows him to predict with 94% certainly whether couples will stay together. Gottman merely looks at the interactions couples bring to the relationship to come up with this prediction. The specific interactions he looks at are kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism and hostility.

He identifies the couples who have handled marriage as “masters” as they have a way of scanning their environment and looking for ways to appreciate and thank their spouses for things.  In doing this, the “masters” are able to build a culture of respect and appreciation very deliberately.  Opposite to this, the “disasters” are scanning the environment to look for their partners’ mistakes so they can find what their partners are doing wrong, allowing for criticizing.  It is easy to see why these interactions would impact relationships.  (Gottman, 2009)  Maybe not so easy to get out of this cycle if you are the one in it. But there is more.

The number one trait that really impacts couples’ relationships negatively is contempt.  Individuals who set out to find their partner’s least attractive attribute and bring it forth to put it out in front of their partner do the most damage to the bond between them. When people are  focused on criticizing their partners, they miss 50% of the positive things their partners are doing and Gottman found they see negativity when it isn’t there. Gottman also found that people who give their partner the cold shoulder (deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally) – damage the relationship by making the partner feel worthless, invisible and not valued.  Plus using contempt might really harm the partner physically. (Gottman, 2009)

Treating your partner with contempt and criticism not only “kills” the love in the relationship but it “kills the partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancer.” Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser studied couples with her husband, Dr. Ronald Glaser, an immunologist and associate director at Ohio State University Medical School.  They studied couples who were asked to resolve an issue of disagreement in a laboratory where continuous blood monitoring for 24 hours allowed their immune responses to be measured during and after the discussion.  These results showed that couples who had the most hostility and negativity during the discussions showed a drop of eight immune measures for the next 24 hours.  The more hostile you are during a marital argument, the harder it is on your immune system.  (Goleman, 1992)  And they found the opposite to be true as well. The good relationships seemed to protect the human immune system from stress. Those who reported close relationships with family and friends have a stronger immune response. (Goleman, 1992)

Kindness is the trait that glues relationships together. This comes from research beyond Gottman.  Kindness and emotional stability are the most important predictors of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. The masters of relationships tend to see kindness as a muscle that you work with to build and strengthen.  So when it isn’t easy, the Masters still work the muscle.  In other words, they know that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.  As Julie Gottman states, “When your partner expresses a need and you are tired and stressed, or distracted, then a generous spirit comes in when your partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”  (Gottman, 2001)

The most difficult time to practice kindness would be during an argument, but this would be the most important time as well.  Choosing to let go of contempt, criticism and aggression and fight with your spouse in a way that is still informing your partner how you feel, but taking the kinder path is working the kindness muscle.  Leave out the mean spirited name calling and express how you feel without being assaultive on your partner’s essence.

Another way to practice kindness towards your partner is to be generous with your partner regarding his/her intentions.  This is what Gottman means when  he writes  that often a person who is using contempt will see negativity even when it isn’t there.  In other words, the partner will assume something is done on purpose rather than it just being done absentmindedly.  Interpret your spouse’s intentions and actions generously and don’t assume the worse about why something happened.  This can soften the blow to the conflict. This is using the kindness muscle.  (Gottman, 2009)

Another powerful kindness strategy is sharing joy.  This is another way Gottman delineates between the disasters and the masters.  The disasters don’t connect over the good news shared.  When one person shares the good news of something going on in his/her life, the other would respond dismissively or without shared excitement.  Being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality than being there for each other when things go bad.  Responding to that good news has dramatic consequences for the relationships.  Research shows that when romantic partners respond to positive event disclosures in a supportive manner, disclosers report feeling closer, more intimate and generally more satisfied with their relationships than those whose partners respond in a nonsupportive way. (Gable, 2006).

So roll your sleeves up, pull out your awareness monitor and start paying attention to how you interact with your significant other.  Start working on strengthening that kindness muscle and open your generosity towards your spouse by being kinder and giving him/her the benefit of the doubt in his intentions with something that hurt your feelings.  Be attentive to your partner, share his/her joy with him/her, fight in a kinder way by sharing your feelings but leaving the hostility and contempt out of the mixture.  Find five things to be grateful for regarding your partner on a daily basis to help you start to notice those moments when your partner is doing something kind also. Kindness and generosity makes your partner feel cared for, understood and validated.  If you and your partner are in a vicious circle of contempt, be the first one to step forward out of this cycle.  There is a great deal of evidence showing that the more kindness one receives, the more that person will be kinder to themselves and to his/her partner.  Eventually what comes around, goes around.  If not, exhaust the possibility as there is power in this and it might just make a huge difference in the relationship that matters the most in your life.

Works Cited

Gable, S. G. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 904-917.

Goleman, D. (1992, December 15). New light on how stress erodes health. Retrieved from NYTimes.com.

Gottman, J. a. (2009). Bridging the Couple Chasm. Seattle: The Gottman Institute.

Smith, E. E. (2014, June). Masters of love . Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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