How to Create a Strong Foundation for Your Relationship
By Kendall Sandage
Three qualities that are essential for creating a healthy, enduring relationship are: respect, friendship, and trust. When we hold respect for our partner, we foster a feeling of esteem and admiration. We feel good about who they are. We see them in a positive light. And this positive factor has been proven to be a critical determinant in the health and welfare of a couple. John Gottman, who has directed the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington in Seattle since 1986, has a 90% accuracy rate at predicting which newlywed couples choose to stay together vs. those who divorce 4-6 years later. This exceedingly high prediction rate is based on his extensive research using observation, biofeedback, and other scientific measurements.
Gottman’s results were surprising to many. The predictor was not the degree of conflict. In fact, he came up with three styles of conflict in couples. There is the “hot” Mediterranean type couple who have dramatic fights and passionate making up after the fights. There is the more northern clime couple whose tempers run cooler and there is less intense passion. A third style, which he calls the validating couple, has a conflict range that is between these two extremes. All three styles work.The predictor that Gottman found for couples who stay or part turns out to be a RATIO, a ratio of 5:1. That is five positive interactions for every one negative interaction and includes both verbal and non-verbal exchanges.
When we have respect for our partner, we maintain a positive regard for them so that our exchanges lean towards those that foster connection and caring which are predictors for success on the long term. With the quality of mutual respect, a couple can also hone the ways that they are equal but different. Respect can dull the need to be in a one up power position. And respect can elevate someone with low self esteem from their one down position. Respect for Self is as vital and necessary as respect for one’s partner.
Friendship is the second quality necessary for a healthy foundation. Friendship grows out of intimacy which is the willingness to know and to be known. Friendship is like a garden and grows by tending. It blooms when we nurture that sweet spot in our heart where we feel tenderness for the other. Think of how you feel when you see the rare elderly couple who are walking into the grocery store with smiles on their faces, holding hands. We can see that they have found their way towards each other through the joys and the hardships of creating and living a life together, and the love that matures from this caring can be inspiration for us all. Our heart’s most pure longing is for true friendship.
But we don’t always like our partner. In fact, sometimes we treat our Beloved worse than we would treat any stranger. We react so heartlessly because there is no one who can trigger us as profoundly and easily as our partner. They can take us into the deepest parts of our shadow side, far under our mask of civility and politeness and social graces, down to the waters of hatred, rage, and the primal instinct of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is here, in these dark depths, that we have the opportunity to grow and become more conscious of our choices and less reactive in our behaviors. It is here that we can choose to cultivate or nurture a friendship rather than hold our partner as an enemy or foe. Sometimes it helps to hold an image of your partner-as-the-Beloved who is standing behind the person in front of you that you despise at the moment. This maintaining of a quality of friendship takes continual vigilance and choice.
Trust is the third quality and is the cornerstone of these three elements. Without trust, there is no space for safety, no way to lean in towards your partner, no place to rest. When trust is lacking, the heart protects itself by shutting down. When the heart shuts down, respect and friendship suffer. Trust is not a static quality. It is not something that you get and hold onto. Rather, it is dynamic and every day, with your attitudes and actions, you are either adding to it, or taking it away. It is like money in the bank. You want to build up a reserve for those more difficult passages, those big expenses. Some events, like an affair, explode trust. The couples who find their way back from this explosion to a new, healthy connection are the ones who slowly but deliberately rebuild their trust in both their own being, and in their partner.
Trust is fostered when we do not hold secrets from our partner. We all know the cost of hiding the big secrets. But there are little moments that go unspoken or unshared that can create a secret life, almost without knowing it, that can poison the well of the relationship. Sometimes you decide that you are just too tired or frustrated to share something important with your partner, so you put it in your back pocket. Sometimes you silence your voice to prevent a fight. Over time, resentment and bitterness and even fury can grow out of this unshared, secret world. This doesn’t mean we have to share everything (because who cares about every little thing?). But we do have to share with our partner, no matter how difficult, anything that is creating a world in us that locks our partner out and is causing us to move away from the relationship or that makes our heart close down. We also don’t have to speak at the first whisper of something. Incubation time is necessary for clarity and focus. Finally, the timing and the way we share our truth makes a difference. Dropping a bomb at bedtime does not yield favorable results. The bottom line is to keep our pockets empty so that there is an openness and flow where trust flourishes and carries us.
These three qualities of Respect, Friendship, and Trust are foundational elements and need to be cultivated and sustained for a relationship to prosper. Ask yourself: how am I tending to them, and where am I falling short? What can I do to enhance the Respect and Friendship that I have for my partner? How can we rest together in a Trust that is at the core of our connection?