Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Repairing Your Relationship – A 7 Step Process

From many studies of successfully married couples, we know that in order to repair your relationship, there are three essential changes to be made:
1. We must increase your positive emotions overall
2. We must decrease the negative emotions you have during disagreements
3. We must increase the positive emotions and repair efforts made during a disagreement

In order to achieve these essential changes, there are seven steps, each with their own goals and tasks, that must be successfully achieved. These goals and tasks are summarized below:

Step 1 - Reconnection
Getting to know each other again
Devoting time to the relationship
Friendship building activities
Increasing positivity
Healing begins

Step 2 - Shared Fondness and Admiration
Expressing appreciation
Increasing gratitude and positive communication
Praising your partner for doing well
Encouraging relationship enhancing thoughts
Expressing fondness and admiration in everyday life

Step 3 - Deepening the Connection
Building an emotional bank account
Working as a team
Turning towards each other, as opposed to turning away
Allowing your partner to influence you

Step 4 - Positive Sentiment Override
Managing and reducing stress
Challenging distress maintaining thoughts
Negotiating power
Starting rituals of connection
Processing failed bids for connection

Step 5 - Conflict Management
Differentiating solvable problems from perpetual problems
Catching the 4 Horsemen
Softening the start-up
Structured listening; communicating without blame
Learning to repair and soothe
Accepting influence
Compromising and understanding triggers
Dialoguing peacefully about perpetual problems

Step 6 - Creating Shared Meaning
Establishing connection rituals
Establishing goals and plans
Sharing dreams, ideas, values
Honoring each other

Step 7 - Relapse Prevention
Thanksgiving and appreciation
Spending Time together (magic five 30-minute segments)
Emotional Communication
Using solid repair strategies
Markers of divorce are all reduced

Rules for relationship repair: We must increase the positive before working on the negative.

Many people come to my office and want to immediately work on their problems. This is great and this is indeed a goal, but as you will see from the chart above, it is not the first goal. Why not? Solving the problems and managing the conflict is an emotionally draining process. In order to successfully manage conflict, you must have enough positive emotion built up that you can work through the conflict and still have a bit of positivity left over. For this reason, we cannot start therapy by focusing on solving problems. Rather, we must start by building up some positive feelings and some positive regard. Think of your emotions like a bank account: positivity adds money to your account; negativity drains it. Managing conflict is a very, very expensive process. In order to afford conflict, you need to have a couple of weeks with a positive cash flow and some savings before you can spend it on conflict.

Constant fighting is not as worrisome as numbness.

If you and your partner are fighting all the time, this is not as worrisome as you may think. It is not fun and it certainly does not feel good, but fighting is a form of communication. While you are fighting, you are still trying to communicate. Much more worrisome is when people give up on fighting, stop trying to communicate at all, shut down and go numb.

Relationships deteriorate and improve by a known process.

There is a relationship deterioration cycle and it goes like this:

1. Partners fight constantly without any resolution; both people feel upset and flooded with negative emotion.

2. Both partners feel they have “severe” problems.

3. One or both partners try to work out their problems alone.

4. One or both partners start leading parallel lives, where there is little or no connection or overlap between these lives.

5. Loneliness sets in.

6. Partners become emotionally numb, there is no fondness or admiration left. Many choose to divorce.

Just as relationships deteriorate by a know process, they are repaired through a known process. This process is the seven step process in the chart. A study by the California Divorce Mediation Project showed that 80% of divorcing couples cited “growing apart, losing a sense of closeness, not feeling loved or appreciated” as the reason for divorce. Only 40% cited severe and intense fighting. This and many other studies shows us that our focus must be on increasing positive emotion first, then we can deal with negative emotions and conflict.

Look out for the four horsemen!

John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher, has identified 4 behaviors to be on the look-out for in any relationship. These behaviors, known as the four horsemen, erode the foundation of your marriage:

1.Criticism - speaking negatively about your partner’s character or personality.

2.Contempt – sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor.

3.Stonewalling – turning away from your partner, tuning them out, ignoring your partner.

4.Defensiveness – defending yourself by blaming your partner.

You don’t necessarily need to solve all of your problems, you need to find a way to talk about them.

Not every problem is going to be solvable. The good news is that you don’t need to solve every problem in order to have a successful relationship. What seems to be most important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue about their perpetual problems. They may come to some acceptance of the problem and they can communicate about it with affection and amusement.