In his bestselling book, “The Social Animal,” anthropologist and “New York Times” columnist David Brooks theorizes how people come to success and what that means. He posits these theories through a biographical sketch of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica, from their births, through their relationship, and on to death. Among his many explanations of different social behaviors, he calls upon Dr. John Gottman’s research to explain the fates of his two protagonists.
The downward spiral of disconnection
In his telling of their joint story, Harold and Erica attained nearly every marker of external, professional 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 came at the cost of their relationship. Their intimacy is 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.” Then they blamed each other for everything that went wrong. Each felt personally victimized by the other. Utterly helpless and simultaneously certain that they were in the right, they wondered “if they were losing their minds.”
The 5:1 ratio to the rescue
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 should aim for five positive interactions for each negative one. This ratio works because it gives the opportunity to start seeing each other in a different way, noticing the positive things partners do in place of annoyances. Changing your focus in the moment becomes a habit, and your global attitudes shift. But Harold and Erica’s problems can’t be solved purely by pursuing this ratio. Without a basis in emotional attunement, success is unsustainable.
Friends first: The emotional attraction
Friendship is the missing factor for Harold and Erica, as well as the foundation of emotional attraction. It’s the bond that can make their marriage a safe harbor to return to every night amidst their 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.
What does this mean for you?
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 involves not just 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.”
The way you communicate largely determines your emotional attraction to your partner.
If you communicate well, you are likely comfortable opening up to your partner about your opinions without having to worry about being judged for them. Daily dialogue reaffirms this high level of intimate trust —specifically in a “How was your day, dear?” conversation—but it 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. John Gottman’s close friend and colleague, the late 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 overrun by stress who 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
The cardinal rule of the 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.