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Building better romantic relationships

Relationships can be tricky for everyone. We never realise how much emotional work they demand until we are knee-deep in them.

No one ever taught us that love wasn’t meant to be easy – so how could we ever assume it not to be? Hollywood and magazines create a false representation of relationships, with both partners constantly feeling loving and happy. It’s only now that we are beginning to realise that this can’t be entirely true.

Healthy relationships are important for a magnitude of reasons. Notably, they significantly predict positive health outcomes, such as decreased mental stress and increased life longevity. They are a core and integral human need, so here begs the question: how do we become good at them? Luckily, the Gottman Institute (a relationships research facility) has gone to quest for these very answers. Here we have summarised of a few of their findings on how couples can improve the quality of their relationships.

1. Manage conflict, rather than resolve it

Gottman research has established that conflict in relationships is natural and inevitable. This means that it is unattainable to avoid conflict, and to endeavour to always resolve it. Instead, Gottman recommends couples to learn to manage conflict.

Two notable ways of doing this are:

  1. Take turns between being the speaker and listener. Avoid persuading your partner to see your point of view until they have fully had the chance to express theirs.
  2. Be aware of your own emotional injuries when trying to understand your partner’s perspectives. Any past emotional trauma can often get in the way of listening to your partner, making you feel more defensive, and them less heard.

2. Be mindful of your thoughts and feelings during conflict with your partner

Gottman encourages couples to be aware of their stress response during conflict. The stress response manifests as feelings of increased heart beating, sweating, muscle tension, and feelings of anger, defensiveness, or hostility. At these times, conflict resolution is not effective, as the logical part of your brain that would normally help you mediate it has shut down. Additionally, the part of your brain that is on alert for threat becomes activated, which forces the subjective perception that your partner is dangerous. During times like these, it is best to step away from the conflict and calm yourself, so escalations can be prevented.

3. Increase positive affect in your relationship

The Gottman Institute says that couples can begin to do this by communicating affection and respect to each other. For example, tell your partner things they are doing right, and qualities about them that you like. Additionally, it is important to take time to understand your partner’s inner psychological world by overcoming the assumption that you already know everything about them. Instead, Gottman recommends taking each day as an opportunity to learn something new about your partner and pay close attention to it. This will allow both you and them to feel more seen and heard. Finally, you can increase positive affect by running towards, not away from, your partner for connection. This might look like showing them specific interest, physical affection and/or sexual contact, rather than avoiding and dismissing them.

This blog was written for you by Mai Mendelson, psychology and biomedical science student and Mindful Psychology receptionist.

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