Monday, November 28, 2011

Committing to Each Other

Couple discussing financial obligations.
        Last week, we discussed the importance of building trust with one another in your relationship and gave you strategies to help strengthen your emotional connection through intimate conversation. This week, we want to help you improve the lovemaking in your relationship by focusing on commitment.

        We have seen many couples in our research who are married and who have a home and children together, but who never truly married.  Earlier we were talking with John about this subject and he recalled this one couple, Jane and Harry, who were married for 7 years and had two young children. After a few sessions the husband announced to John that this would be their last session. Since they had already paid for the session, John asked them if they would be willing to stay and talk to him about why the therapy wasn’t helpful to them. They agreed, and started talking about a fight that they had had in the past week.

        They had been at a party and he was engrossed in conversation with a woman when his wife said that she was tired and wanted to leave. As they drove home he told her that he found the woman at the party not only more attractive than her, and but also that he had enjoyed the conversation a lot more than talking with his wife. She became furious, telling him that he was immature and irresponsible for not realizing that they had two young children, and that the reason she was tired was because she had to constantly care for the two young kids.

        John then told them that he now understood why his therapy wasn’t working, and they could go now. They wanted to know what John had observed. He told them that, although they had married, their commitment to one another was conditional.

        When they were unhappy in their relationship, they engaged in negative comparisons of their partner with real or imagined other people. Those negative comparisons lead to a cascade of unfortunate events. Here are some examples of the cascade following the pattern of using negative comparisons when thinking about our partner’s traits, leading to conditional commitment:

Picture of couple cut in half, separating the couple.

  • Trashing Your Partner and Nurturing Resentment.  This is often the first step towards conditional commitment. Trashing and resentment start when the individual dismisses their partner’s negative feelings and begin to emphasize (in their minds) their partner’s negative qualities, gathering evidence that these negative characteristics overweigh their partner’s positive traits. They focus on these negative thoughts, finding “evidence” everywhere to support them. They begin “trashing” the partner in their mind, emphasizing what is missing in the partner and nurturing resentment about what he/she doesn’t have. 
  • Trust Erodes. Mutual trust means that each partner is looking out for the other’s interests. In lay terms, with mutual trust they each “have each other's  back.” Instead, when trust erodes, they begin negotiating with their partner for the best deal they can get, regardless of the impact that deal has on the partner. They also see their partner as selfish, which is the most common first negative attribution people make about their partner in every laboratory that has studied couples. 
  • Caring Crodes. Over time they invest less and less in the relationship; less time, energy, money, interest in the other person, they turn away from their partner’s needs more often, become less vulnerable, invest less empathy, and become even more impatient and dismissing of their partner’s negative emotions.
  • Dependency Crodes. Over time they become less dependent on thinking that they can get their needs met within the relationship; instead, they start exploring alternatives for meeting their specific needs.
  • Self-Disclosure Erodes. They begin hiding their negative feelings and their needs in order to avoid starting that horrible absorbing-state conflict; they then start having secrets from their partner. 

        It is not hard to see how sex also suffers from negative comparisons and conditional commitment. If a couple loses trust and mutual respect for each other in their relationship, their lovemaking will be impersonal and unsatisfying. On the other hand, consistently making positive comparisons in a relationship leads to an entirely different cascade of events. It leads to real commitment instead of just conditional commitment. These are examples of the elements in the cascade toward trust and loyalty:

Couple turning towards each other and embracing in bed.

  • Cherishing the Partner and Nurturing Gratefulness. People begin to emphasize (in their minds) their partner’s positive qualities, gathering evidence that these positive characteristics overweigh their partner’s negative traits. They begin “cherishing” their partner in their minds, emphasizing what they have, and nurturing gratefulness for what they have with their partner. They have cherishing thoughts even when they are not together. They feel so lucky to have this special person in their lives; cherishing may become ritualized so it becomes articulated and a regular part of the couple’s interactions.
  • Trust Builds. Mutual trust means that each partner is looking out for the other partner’s interests. In lay terms, they each “have one another’s back.” As trust builds, each of them begins negotiating with their partner for the best deal that both of them can get, emphasizing the impact that deal has for the partner.
  • Caring Increases. They invest more and more in the relationship; they invest more time, energy, interest in their partner, turning toward more, and invest more empathy, and become more patient and try to understand their partner’s negative emotions, realizing that the goal in conflict is understanding.
  • Dependency Increases. They become more dependent on getting their needs met within the relationship, and the relationship becomes a safety net for getting all these needs met (like having the partner be a confidant); this implies that if the relationship is not meeting one person’s needs, that person will talk about it with the partner, and not to someone else about the partner.
  • Self-Disclosure Increases. They begin strongly expressing their negative feelings and their needs in order to get them met within the relationship; sometimes this is not pleasant, but these conversations lead to greater understanding about how to love one another better over time.

        There is therefore a distinct and deterministic pathway toward loyalty and a very different distinct pathway toward betrayal. Once we see these two pathways clearly we can both prevent betrayal and know how to heal a relationship after a betrayal. 

         If you would like to read more about the science and research behind this post, you can read John’s book, The Science of Trust. Improve the sex in your relationship this week by making the decision to fully commit to your partner.

The Gottman Institute  

1 comment:

  1. This was very poingant.Possibly my favorite post.


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