An expert from the Gottman Institute offers advice on making your romantic partnership the best it can be.
Making a relationship work can be challenging. Careers demand more and more of our time, kids demand our attention, and our growing to-do lists keep us under pressure. Sometimes marriages and partnerships can get lost in the shuffle.
How do we reclaim the quiet intimacy we used to share with our partner amid all the noise and rush of modern life? What's the secret to building a stronger relationship, whether you've been married for 30 years or dating for six months?
For expert tips on keeping relationship bonds intact, we turned to Dr. David Penner, Assistant Clinical Director of the Gottman Relationship Institute, a world-renowned therapeutic and research facility founded by Drs. John Gottman and Julie Schwarz-Gottman. The Gottman Institute focuses on the intensive, long-term scientific study of what makes marriages succeed or fail, and it trains mental health professionals on how best to intercede and support couples. Dr. Penner shared some of the components to strong relationships that are foundational to the institute.
"The strongest relationships are based first on friendship," Penner says. "Friendship sets the stage for romance, sex, facing challenges together, and working out conflicts constructively." At Gottman, couples explore the building blocks of friendship and learn how the fundamentals apply to romance. Dr. Penner outlines the four foundations of building a strong romantic friendship with your partner:
1. Know your partner's world
Being aware of what's going on in your partner's life and understanding each other's challenges and victories is the first step in strengthening the bond of friendship. The Gottman Institute calls it having an accurate "love map" to your partner's world: The strongest couples share a detailed "street-level" view of each other's lives, understanding the day-to-day issues that bring joy or add stress. The most challenged couples only have a high-level, "topographical" view of their partner's world. The high peaks and broad valleys are the only information visible because of the distance between them.
Showing genuine interest, sharing joy and being compassionate can remake a love map. That aerial view can come down from the clouds when romantic partners ask each other questions, remember details, and work to understand each other's separate but shared worlds.
2. Demonstrate fondness and admiration
It may seem simple, but showing admiration is essential to forging a strong bond. And details matter. The Gottman mantra is "Little things, often." Notice details like a new haircut, compliment an amazing meal, a parenting victory, or a gesture of kindness. The small events in life are not so insignificant—they're what we remember. Creating an environment where admiration is demonstrated and compliments are shared builds a positive and generous relationship.
3. Accept bids for connection
We've all listened to our partner with only half an ear—especially after a long day. Or worse, we've snapped after walking in the door, and then delivered up the silent treatment. But attempting to engage in conversation—asking questions or starting a discussion—is really a bid for connection. As Penner explains, "Our partners want to engage with us at this most fundamental level, and we can either turn toward them at these moments, or shut them out and turn away."
A Gottman study analyzed how couples communicate over dinner, closely monitoring the number of bids for connection that were offered, accepted and rejected. Couples who had the strongest relationships offered and returned conversational bids an average of 86 percent of the time. Couples who later divorced accepted each other's bids for connection only 33 percent of the time.
4. Structure time to talk and listen
Beyond accepting your partner's bids for connection, Gottman research suggests that couples set aside a specific part of their day in order to take turns talking and listening to each other. This structured time doesn't need to solve anything. It's simply about communicating and listening to each other. Likewise, the topic doesn't have to be monumental; it's less about content and more about communicating and being heard. When you're the speaker, discuss what's on your mind openly and honestly without an agenda. When it's your turn to listen, listen actively and offer support.
Healthy relationships are nurtured by the day-to-day attention we give them. The clichéd romantic gestures we see in movies—the dozen roses, the box of chocolates, the surprise vacation—don't succeed in isolation, neither do they balance out a relationship that's lacking in genuine intimacy. But when they're reinforced by our daily efforts, these more dramatic gestures add to an already rich romantic partnership and can become cherished memories. When it comes to relationships, the strength is in the details and, as we've learned, "little things, often."