In the last post on the Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach attacked the letter B in his Relationship Alphabet column with, “B is for Betrayal.” He started with the following quote, taken from the introduction to Dr. Gottman’s recent book, What Makes Love Last?.
Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship – it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.
As immensely important as it is to remember these words, it is equally important to consider these words in context.
Context: It’s safe to say that, as members of the human race, we all betray and are betrayed at some point. We betray each other and we betray ourselves.
As Zach reminds us, betrayals come in all shapes and sizes, not limited to the most iconic and sensationalized. Though the fascinating ways in which Don Draper and company cheat their way through each season of Mad Men may command our attention more than, say, picking up the dry cleaning on the way home or remembering to schedule a babysitter for Friday night, routinely failing to do these things can be just as dramatically destructive to our relationships.
By failing to turn towards bids and keep commitments, even when they seem inconsequential, we inspire feelings of doubt in our partners. By failing to be consistently reliable, we communicate the message: “You can’t trust me!”
As Zach says, there is a simple solution to the secret of failing relationships. Happy couples respond “Yes” to the question of “Can I trust you?” The trick is learning how to get to Yes. The solution? Bids. In other words, turn towards bids of emotional expression and give each other time, attention, and affection. Connect.
Here’s the thing: sometimes, especially when we have been betrayed, it’s really hard to get to Yes.
To do our absolute best in reaching it, it’s important to know when and how to – lovingly and respectfully – say no to specific requests that will take us away from the ultimate Yes! “No, I can’t pick up the dry cleaning tonight, but when I say I can, you can be sure I will.”
In other words, we have to remember what turning towards our partner really means. If we communicate an inability to commit to a specific request without a reason, we risk betraying them, and we risk betraying ourselves:
Bid: “Can you pick up the dry-cleaning on the way home?”
- Turning Towards: “Sure, you got it!”
- Also Turning Towards: “I’m sorry, honey, but I promised Jamie we’d get ice cream, remember? Can the dry-cleaning wait until tomorrow?”
- Turning Away: “I always pick up the dry-cleaning! Why don’t you do it?”
Bid: “Would you like to go out to the movies on Friday night?”
- Turning Towards: “I’d love to, let’s go!”
- Also Turning Towards: “I really would, but I have to meet a client for dinner on Friday. How about Saturday?”
- Turning Away: “You always pick our Friday night plans. When was the last time we did something I wanted to do?”
Ta-da! Hopefully the alternatives work, and everyone’s needs get met. Whether or not they do, you have communicated care – though you may not be physically available at a specific time, you show emotional availability and desire to connect. That’s what matters. The alternative: You make a promise that you can’t keep, moving decidedly farther away from the Yes!
In healthy relationships, this concept is well understood.
Building and maintaining trust involves being aware not only of your partner’s needs but of your own – being realistic, knowing when you can show up and when you can’t, and setting appropriate boundaries. Deciding not to let go of what matters to you. Choosing not to miss your meeting at work out of guilt and feelings of dry-cleaning-related obligation. Being loyal. Following through. Not just with your partner, but with yourself.
And that’s not easy!
We all struggle with keeping commitments. Relationships are hard work. Sometimes we run out of energy, time, and patience. We over-commit. We under-commit. When we fail to stay attuned to each other as we commit – making promises, setting boundaries – we pave the way to places we may not want to go: breakdown of communication, breakdown of connection, break-up.
And we arrive in these same places when we don’t check in with ourselves.
If these travel plans don’t sound appealing, we suggest the following itinerary: focus on what you can control.
Remember these three things:
1. If you are to win your partner’s trust, you must first win your own – that is, arrive at a firm belief in your ability to keep commitments and make good on the promises you do make (whether they seem big or small).
2. Getting there involves finding sanity and stability – making good on promises to yourself. Having your needs met is a prerequisite for trusting yourself to navigate commitment honestly, for being consistently available to another when you promise to be, showing up.
3. Don’t apologize for being human – be generous with yourself, and be honest as you evaluate each situation. At the heart of every thriving relationship are two thriving heart organs belonging to people who intentionally seek personal health and balance so that they may be capable of giving energy, time, and attention to another.
This Friday, we’re excited to share a Weekend Homework Assignment that can help you do just that!
For now, remember the wise words of Dr. Seuss:
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.