Researched Ideas for Improving Relationships
Relationships come in all shapes and sizes, but they can still be a source of stress. The good news is that there are ways you could work towards improving your relationship with your romantic partners, friends, coworkers, family, and children.
So how do you make your relationships flourish?
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to creating good relationships, but some well-researched ideas can help.
In 1990, Psychologist Dr John Gottman set up a laboratory to follow an experiment to study marriage, relationships, and what makes them thrive or not. Gottman and his relationship researchers created a studio, dubbed "the love lab". The environment was homely and kitted out with usual amenities so that married couples could visit for a weekend and live life as they usually would at home. The difference was that it was a bit like a big brother house, where the researchers would observe the consenting couples as part of the experiment. (The Gottman Institute, n.d.), Since conducted years of research and ideas into what makes or breaks relationships. In this blog, I will be describing some ideas from his work that apply to all types of relationships.
How can we Form happy, healthy relationships?
You might think that sharing your deepest, most personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences with another, is the best way to form close, happy, and healthy relationships. According (John Mordechai Gottman and Declaire, 2002), although these elements can ring true, his study revealed the key to developing and maintaining close relationships is not so much about what is said. After all, every day, life includes lots of mundane stuff. What is essential is how we talk about everyday things to each other, which applies to all relationships, whether romantic or otherwise.
By exchanging small, frequent, positive bids for connection with another human being, we can create an atmosphere and level of communication that fosters harmony and growth in the relationship.
#Idea No1: Master your bids for connection.
Gottman defines a bid for connection as anything that attempts to establish a connection with someone through verbal or nonverbal communication. It could be a question, like, "Hey, how is your mum doing lately?" or an exclamation like, "Wow, look at that gorgeous sunset!" or a gesture like; giving someone your seat on the train. It can also be a non-verbal look or a touch that conveys warmth.
The other person typically responds by either turning toward, turning away from or turning against the bid.
Imagine you've just made a favourable bid to your friend, and they give you their full attention and respond with interest, humour or warmth; this would be what Gottman describes as a turning toward a response to your bid. Meaning they respond positively and engage with you.
If the opposite were true, your friend might change the subject, look distracted or blank you. These response types are described as turning away from your bid to connect.
The worst response would be that they respond with hostility and say something abrupt like, you can see that I'm busy! - This is them turning against your bid.
Try this exercise:
Over the next week, become more aware of other peoples bids and your own. Notice how different bids and responses change the mood and atmosphere. Recognise how certain responses have the power to create harmony or discord in your and others relationships.
#Idea No2: Be aware of hidden messages conveyed in small talk
People often skirt around the edges in everyday interactions and talk about anything that avoids how they are genuinely feeling.
Making small talk is a natural way to interact with acquaintances, and to some extent, it is customary with people we don't know well or when we are talking to people in passing.
However, we also do this with people close to us, even when we want to share deeper feelings, desires or objectives. It is common for people to hide things by framing them as something else, which happens in various situations, and Gottman describes it as a way of protecting ourselves. It can be difficult to share things that we perceive will make us look vulnerable or leave us feeling rejected.
In the book, the relationship cure, (John Mordechai Gottman and Declaire, 2002) give the example of a couple; the wife wants her husband to show affection and cuddle her. Instead of saying this to him, she disguises her wishes by saying she feels cold. Advanced listening goes beyond hearing simple words, and it also involves paying attention to what is not being displayed. Listening on this deeper emotional level is a skill that takes time to master. Still, it is great for our emotional intelligence and for picking up on deeper unspoken bids for connection.
Try this exercise:
Over the next week, begin to develop advanced listening skills by really hearing what people say to you and tuning into the verbal and non-verbal language, emotions and hearing potential hidden language that goes beyond the surface level.
#Idea no3: Be open, genuine and non-judgemental towards others.
It can be hard to understand feelings and emotions in ourselves and others. We all carry baggage from our past relationships into the present, which can consciously or unconsciously impact our interactions with others.
Talking about our past experiences can be difficult, but the more we can open up with others and share the whole story of who we are, the more others will open up to us. Being non-judgemental
means that we don't see something or someone as 'good' or 'bad,' 'right' or 'wrong.'
The more others know about your background, and the more you know about theirs. The stronger the mutual understanding will be. When we truly understand this, other things make sense, and we can normalise behavioural responses in others. Not to mention the better you'll be at interpreting interactions and bids to connect.
Try this exercise:
Over the next week, practice being non-judgemental. Notice when someone is opening up to you and consciously tuning in to a deeper self-awareness; be aware of your response. Dial down any criticism or judgements and focus on learning and understanding what has happened to the other person. Additionally, try sharing a bit more about yourself with others when appropriate.
#Idea no4: Soften your start-up
Nobody is perfect, and communicating well with others is not always easy. It would be great to be calm and composed and perfectly articulate.
However, the reality is that the closer we are to people, the harder this can be, particularly when we have to face difficult conversations.
Gottman describes a situation of waiting to have dinner with his family, but his wife worked in the basement. "Hey, Julie," he shouted harshly. "Stop working! It's family time!" Understandably, Julie felt attacked and criticised; and she responded defensively, saying, "I can't! I've got to get this done!"
Instead, the bid could have been much softer by calling out, "Hey, Julie, we miss you! Come up and have dinner with us as soon as you can." The response from Julie is more likely to be softened by this.
Try this exercise:
Over the next week, practice making bids using a softer start-up. Reflect on your underlying needs, and express them through mild language and feeling statements. Avoid staring conversations with "you..." Harsh tones can cause arguments or feel like criticism or complaint towards the other on the receiving end. Instead, try to use "I..." within a feeling statement that softly speaks your unmet need. We find creative ways to express emotional needs instead of arguing or criticism.
#Idea no5: Practice ways to self regulate
The more our emotions run high, the greater the chance of flooding, a term Gottman uses to describe the flight or fight response that kicks in automatically due to feeling under threat. Heated discussions feeling under intense pressure, in conflict, or if we feel like we are being criticised in some way can also trigger this response.
What's more, when feelings of hurt, anger, sadness or fear are involved, communication can be poorly expressed. For example, in a bid for more contact, a friend or loved one might convey this as a bold statement: "Why don't you ever call me anymore" this can feel like an accusation on the receiving end and appear abrupt.
Different factors are at play when it comes to how we feel, think and act in response to certain statements. Having good self-awareness of self and others is good because we take things less personally if someone sounds abrupt. A good level of emotional intelligence helps, too, because we can understand other people's emotions more and understand what might be going on under the surface.
Getting Further Help and Support:
Wellbeing Coaching Sessions
Whether we are conveying a message or on the receiving end, practising soft start-up language and good grounding and emotional regulation techniques can help difficult conversations flow more smoothly. Hence, they become less heated and emotional flooding is reduced.
Private Therapy Sessions
From mild to more complex relationship problems, therapy can help in many ways. Including regulating the fight or flight response, which can be triggered due to past experiences, including infidelity, trauma, PTSD, childhood neglect, some of which lead to poor attachment style in adult relationships. In such cases, various talking therapy approaches are proven to help.
Important Note: The tips outlined in this blog are not recommended for people in abusive relationships. Physical acts of violence, emotional abuse, and gaslighting are serious and should never be tolerated or ignored in any relationship.
John Mordechai Gottman and Declaire, J. (2002). The relationship cure : a five-step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.
The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). The Gottman Institute | A research-based approach to relationships. [online] Available at: https://www.gottman.com.