Matters of the Heart

The other day after work  I was at a local store buying a last minute gift for a 3-year-old birthday party the next morning.  As I paid at the front counter, I noticed a particularly sparkly card with the word “LOVE” in large, gold glitter letters splashed across its front.  Perfect birthday card for this particular girl who hasn’t met a sparkle she doesn’t like.  Then I opened it up to read, “Happy Valentine’s Day”.  What?!  Wasn’t it just Christmas?  I took a beat and realized, yes, it was no longer Christmas crimson surrounding me, but Valentine red everywhere.  The store was scattered with the requisite pink as well -- chocolates wrapped in foil, flowery script, candles conveying messages of love, and bottles of bubble bath promising the perfect romance. 

While I do love dark chocolate, the occasional sparkle, and even romantic comedies (which the feminist in me is embarrassed to admit) the merchandising of matters of the heart has left most of us in the dark about how to actually nurture and sustain a lasting, loving relationship. 

Enter the LOVE LAB and the work of John and Julie Gottman, partners in life and work at University of Washington.  Can you imagine working with your partner for the last several decades?  And still being together?!  They’ve made it their life’s work to study what enhances relationships and what predicts their demise.  They’ve worked with and learned from straight and gay couples of all ethnicities and ages, and have developed the ability to predict (with 90% accuracy!!!) which couples will stay together and who will break up. 

One day, they decided why not take all this science, all this clinical experience, all this knowledge about predicting break ups, and turn it into a research-based approach to building stronger relationships for couples and families. They call this approach the, “Sound Relationship House”. Their work is beautiful and deep and nuanced, and USEFUL if you’re interested in enhancing your relationship.  Check it out in detail here

In a nutshell, their research and work with couples has identified three key processes to sustaining rich and intimate relationships: 

  • Co-creating an ever-deepening friendship
  • Managing conflict
  • Developing a shared vision for life

Co-creating an ever-deepening friendship.  This means you take the time to really know your partner and their world– what are their greatest hopes, fears, desires, accomplishments, failures.  Who drives them crazy at work?  How do they ask for connection and express their emotional and sexual needs?  This also means you share fondness and admiration for one another every day – a verbal and nonverbal gratitude practice. This may not sound as exciting as, “50 Shades of Grey”, but these simple (though not easy) practices are proven to develop greater relational and sexual intimacy.  These kinds of practices are like a solid foundation for a house, they build a positive emotional base of commitment, trust, love, and hope.  The store of goodwill developed through these practices is invaluable when navigating the inevitable conflicts that arise in relationships.     

Managing conflict.  One of the best things you can do for your relationship is actually first attend to your heart. When it’s racing, pounding out of control, breath coming shallow and fast, it’s a sign.  We’re having a, “diffuse physiological reaction” – research talk for losing it.  When this happens, the part of our brain responsible for calm reflection, creative problem solving, and connection with others (among other things) – is essentially offline.  Instead, the oldest part of our brain related to autonomic (unconscious) processes for survival – like breathing, fight or flight – is dominating.  Pay attention to these bodily “messenger” sensations, they are important cues that you may be about to go over a relational cliff. 

So STOP, don’t go there. Don’t choose this moment to try to solve the recurrent concerns in your relationship. Don’t choose this moment to tell your partner what you really think about their: mother, hairstyle, housekeeping skills, lovemaking, parenting, intelligence, etc.  Rather, try this brief self-soothing exercise, a powerful breath break.

  • Inhale slowly to the count of four (expanding your abdomen, chest relaxed, listening to breath)
  • Pause for one count
  • Exhale slowly and completely to the count of six (abdomen deflating, shoulders relaxed, listening to breath)
  • Pause for one count
  • Repeat 4 times

This brief exercise will help your natural relaxation response (your parasympathetic nervous system) to kick-in.  Once you’ve returned to a sense of calm in your own body, when your brain is back “online”, you will be better able to apply conflict management and communication skills.  In particular, it will help you avoid the Gottman’s strongest predictors of relationship demise: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (so malignant they’ve named them the “4 Horseman of the Apocalypse”). 

Developing a shared vision of life together. The way we build our life with our partner is full of meaning and reflects our values, beliefs and goals.  How do these show up in your day-to-day rituals and roles?  How do you want to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries?  How do you want to organize mealtimes, wake/sleep times, end of day reunions, weekends, vacations?  How do you broach stressful topics, bring up issues in your relationship, initiate or refuse lovemaking?  It isn’t that this vision has to be exactly the same; rather, what matters is talking about each other’s values together, understanding what makes them meaningful, and finding ways to support each other’s hopes for the future. No matter how “similar” your backgrounds, a relationship is a cross-cultural project.  Within this context of valuing individual difference, a sense of shared meaning and life purpose bonds partners together.

So this Valentine’s Day, enjoy the chocolates and sparkles, watch a cheesy rom-com, draw your partner a bubble bath, AND remember the LOVE LAB.  Bring these principles into your daily life and watch your relationship flourish.