In his bestselling book The Social Animal, anthropologist and New York Times columnist David Brooks calls upon Dr. Gottman’s research to explain the fates of his two fictional protagonists. At this stage in the story, Harold and Erica have attained nearly every marker of external success available to a couple in their middle age, barring one: their marriage. The global admiration each garners through achievements of single-mindedly pursued career-goals have come at the cost of their relationship, which now disintegrates in all of the usual ways. Their intimacy gone with the wind, Harold and Erica pass by each other like ships in the night.
At this point, as Brooks explains, the couple “wanted to return to the old days, when they were spontaneous and loving around each other, but were afraid they would be rebuffed if they tried… so they just withdrew,” and blamed each other for everything that went wrong. Each felt personally victimized by the other and utterly helpless, simultaneously certain that they were in the right and “wondering if they were losing their minds.”
If you’ve been reading our blog postings, this will sound familiar. It’s the downward spiral of disconnection. As the rift grows wider, trust breaks down, and turning away (rather than towards) becomes the rule.
It is just so in Brooks’ fictional marriage:
As the years went by, they fell out of the habit of really talking, or even looking each other in the eye. In the evening, she’d be on the phone in one part of the house, and he’d be behind his laptop in another. Just as sharing everything had been a habit when they were first married, now not sharing had become a habit. Sometimes Erica would have some thought she wanted to express to him, but their relationship now had a written consitution. It would now be inappropriate to rush into his office with some enthusiastic notion or curious fact.
Brooks suggests that Harold and Erica might benefit from the liberal application of a simple principle: Dr. Gottman’s 5:1 Ratio. And this may well be true. Any couple may benefit from aiming to have five positive interactions for each negative one. This ratio works because it gives us the opportunity to start seeing each other in a different way, noticing the positive things our partners do in place of annoyances. Changing our focus in the moment becomes a habit, and our global attitudes shift. But David and Erica’s problems can’t be solved purely by pursuing this ratio, simply because without a basis in emotional attunement, success is unsustainable!
What Harold and Erica are missing is friendship. They are missing a foundation of emotional attraction, a bond that can make their marriage a safe harbor to return to every night, a steady source of fulfillment amidst the bustle and stress of otherwise tumultuous lives. Divergent interests and busy personal schedules don’t have to dictate the course of a marriage – after all, pursuing independent goals is far less lonely (and often far more successful) with a partner’s caring support.
“Great,” you might be thinking. “Sounds beautiful, but how do we get there?”
Here’s how you can start. Below, you’ll find an exercise designed by Dr. Gottman to increase emotional attraction by having stress-reducing conversations!
Building Emotional Attraction
First of all, what is emotional attraction?
Emotional attraction means being attracted not just to your partner’s body, but also to their hearts, minds, and dreams. It means valuing them for who they are and what they stand for. While you may be sexually attracted to your partner’s physical appearance, developing deeper emotional attraction will make these feelings much stronger.
For example, you might find it pretty sexy that your partner can carry out an intellectual conversation, or talk about a novel or current news story that you’ve both read. This kind of attraction goes much deeper than the physical. Think of it as an expansion of “looks aren’t everything.”
Your emotional attraction to your partner is largely determined by the ways in which you communicate.
If you are communicating well, you are likely comfortable opening up to your partner about your opinions without having to worry about being judged for them. This high level of intimate trust is reaffirmed in daily dialogue – specifically in a “How was your day, dear?” conversation – but you may be surprised to find out that this conversation doesn’t always have a positive effect!
The Stress-Reducing Conversation
What this conversation does (or ought to do) is to help each of you manage external stress in your daily lives so that it doesn’t spill over into your relationship.
According to Dr. Gottman’s close friend and colleague, UW’s Dr. Neil Jacobson, one of the key reasons for couples’ relapse after problem-solving in marital therapy is “discord caused by stress from other areas of their lives.”
In other words, outside problems (at work, with friends, with family members) often end up coming into relationships to fuel the fires of conflict.
Couples who are overrun by stress and fail to talk about it with each other see their level of emotional attraction drop, and subsequently see their relationships suffer.
On the other hand, those who talk about the stresses of daily life with one another and help each other to cope keep their relationships strong.
Many couples have this sort of conversation at the dinner table or while undressing for bed. Sadly, this discussion does not always have the desired effect. Instead of decreasing stress, it actually increases it. While there is a time to talk about issues with your partner, discussing those that affect your relationship at this time is, to put it gently, inadvisable.
For starters, think about the timing of the chat. Some people want to unburden themselves when they’re barely through the door. Others need to decompress on their own for a while before they’re ready for discourse, but may want to talk before it gets late and they feel too tired. Talk to your partner and find out their preference!
The cardinal rule in having a stress-reducing conversation: only talk about stress outside of your relationship.
This is not the time to discuss areas of conflict between the two of you, or point fingers of blame. It’s also not the time to instruct your partner on how to fix the problems they’re facing. It’s an opportunity to support each other emotionally regarding other areas in your lives.
Remember: understanding must precede advice.
Though these conversations don’t center on your relationship, they directly improve it. They allow you to connect on an intimate level. How? Emotional attraction (and transitively, sexual attraction) grows when you feel your partner is listening to you, respecting and accepting your perspective, and expressing genuine care.
Good luck, and have a great weekend!