Have you ever looked at an elderly couple who seem deeply in love with each other and wondered what the secret to their success is? Similarly, have you wondered why 50% of couples are either getting divorced and/or looking for counseling solutions at an alarming rate? John Gottman and colleagues have spent years exploring the question of what accounts for success in long-term relationships. According to Gottman, couples such as these are happy not because they never fought or have the same compatible needs and interests, but because they took the time out to create a positive, enduring, intimate friendship. Gottman’s work has spanned understanding communication and conflict resolution, and has focused increasingly on the central importance of generating positivity in intimate relationships. On the basis of his research, he generated 7 principles that are key to healthy relationships. Let’s explore another one of these principles: Letting your partner influence you.
According to Gottman, happy relationships are characterized by power sharing and mutual decision making. Relationships where couples struggle over who is in charge, or alternatively where one partner surrenders to the authority of the other, are less likely to generate happiness. Gottman holds that husbands are more inclined to impose their will and resist compromise. So according to Gottman’s study, in a situation of conflict, 65% of men are inclined to escalate negativity and are more inclined to impose their will on their partner. In contrast, women are more likely to submit and may match or attempt to tone down any negative emotion that may emerge. Ultimately, solutions that satisfy the needs of both partners lead to increased intimacy and connectedness in a relationship. Relationships characterized by compromise meet with success.
Let’s start with this: when you or your partner has important decisions to make, do you find yourself being open to what she/he has to say? Do you value his/her opinion? Are you interested in his/her concerns and perspective, or do you shy away from engaging with him/her and “stick to your guns”? Essentially speaking, do you accept each other’s influence (Gottman has a great quiz to find out about this here)? You can imagine how making an open and collaborative approach part of your relationship not only makes for the more pleasant and constructive resolution of potentially sticky situations, but also signifies the respect that each partner feels for the other (which ultimately deepens the intimacy in the relationship). This can only serve to strengthen and enhance the relationship in the long term.
So, what do you do if you or your partner is resistant to each other’s influence? The first step is to really understand what accepting influence from your partner means and to buy in to this concept as important to the long-term wellbeing of your relationship (and ultimately to your own happiness and wellbeing). Ask yourself: “What is most important to me – winning the next argument or feeling more connected to my partner?” Read up about relationships and notice how over and over again the research suggests that collaborative, emotionally attuned relationships meet with success and happiness. The next step is the hard work of actively becoming aware of how you respond to your partner, and the impact this has on the level of intimacy and connection in your relationship. Once you have an understanding of this, the clincher becomes your willingness to put in the effort to change, to actively choose communication styles that encourage attunement and open you up to the influence of your partner. Through learning how to truly listen to your partner, you can start to notice and truly receive the person who stands by you, and open up to the value and richness that his/her opinions, values and perspectives can bring to your relationship.
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly-experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. In addition to her private therapy practice, she currently runs E-counseling.com, a mental health resource with self-help guides on stress, anxiety, depression, and many other areas. During her spare time, Stacey enjoys spending time with her husband and children, being outdoors and doing yoga.