Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Mapping a way to rebuild relationships

Edited by Jill Wright,

All the members of the team of Melbourne psychologists with expertise in relationships have a lot of respect for the work of John Gottman, and the insights he gained working in the so-called "love lab" at the University of Washington.

Over at Psyblog, Jeremy Dean obviously shares that respect. He has posted on "The Four Things That Can Kill A Relationship Stone Dead", which are:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling , or cutting off communications

Those so-called "Four Horsemen of the [Relationship] Apocalypse" are often highlighted by psychologists as predictors of likely separation. This article in Psychology Today, for instance, covered much the same ground.

Those four behaviours form something of a vicious cycle, and when a couple is trapped in that cycle it can sometimes seem that the only way out is separation.

In fact, as our work has proved time and time again, even highly embittered couples can rescue their relationship by learning how to accept conflicts and understand each other better.

With a little help, they can rebuild the respect, affection and closeness that had apparently evaporated from their lives and as Gottman puts it, "turn towards each other".

I'm going to develop some of these themes over the next few weeks.

One of the things that Gottman and other researchers have established is that even the most successful couples have conflicts. It's completely unrealistic to believe that good relationships are free of arguments, some of which will never be resolved.

What matters is not  whether people in a relationship have disagreements or how they handle them, as how they act with each other when they are not fighting.

If one or both display common signals of contempt for a partner - exaggerated eye-rolling, sneering, heavy sarcasm etc. - then the relationship is in deep trouble.

But it seems that much-quoted observation by Mark Twain that familiarity breeds contempt doesn't apply to couples. 

It is actually familiarity, and the ability to maintain an interest in what each other is doing, feeling and thinking that preserves and strengthens the friendships on which relationships develop. And the quality of that friendship is the most significant determining factor of a healthy relationship, for both men and women.

Gottman recommends that couples work on updating that intimate data by keeping a "love map" on each other.

Here's an online workbook which provides some useful hints on love-mapping.




About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.

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