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How to Strengthen Your Relationship During the Holidays: Using the Gottman Method

By November 18, 2022December 18th, 2023Integrated Care Clinic

While holiday time can be a time of joy and fun for many, it can also be an incredibly stressful and challenging time for couples and families. It is not uncommon for individuals to feel completely overwhelmed during a time this is supposed to bring happiness. These stressors can lead to increased tension and can make it more difficult to stay connected and happy with one another. One method that might assist couples that wish to enrich their relationships during this time is the Gottman Method, which is an evidenced-based therapy approach that can help couples learn how to enhance their relationships, manage conflict, and stay more connected with each other.

What is the Gottman Method?

The Gottman Method, developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, is a form of couples therapy that is based on hundreds of scientific studies performed on over 3000 couples.  This method is grounded in the Sound Relationship House Theory which is the basis of the Gottman Method, where a house is a visual representation of a secure relationship. The house has seven floors where each floor holds a strategy that the couple can use to enhance their relationship, as well as two “wall” strategies which ultimately hold the couple’s relationship together (trust and commitment).

What are the main goals of the Gottman Method?

The main goals of the Gottman Method include: 

  1. Building Friendship and Intimacy (Levels 1-3 of the house)
    • This goal involves changing the way the couple thinks about both each other and their relationship by increasing fondness and admiration, changing the balance of “turning away” from each other to “turning towards each other”, and learning how to enjoy and appreciate their partner’s world (which includes understanding their values, hopes and dreams).
  1. Helping Couples Learn Ways to Manage Conflict (Level 5 of the house)
    • Research has shown that 69% of the time, the conflict discussed is perpetual and therefore is rarely resolved. Therefore, the Gottman Method helps couples learn skills for how to have healthier dialogue and communication about these conflicts in order to get out of a gridlocked state. The focus is on how to manage these conversations, not necessarily on how to resolve them. Additionally, the Gottman Method focuses on presenting couples with skills on how to solve the problems that actually are “solvable” and learning how to compromise. These skills include learning how to do a gentle start-up (which involves softening the start of the beginning of a conversation in a way that can lead to a more satisfying outcome by talking about one’s feelings using “I” statements and then stating what you need in a positive way), learning how to respond and use repair and de-escalation techniques, and practicing self-soothing techniques for themselves and their partners.
  1. Building Shared Meaning Together  (Level 6-7 of the house)
    • This goal includes helping the couple become intentional about creating a system of shared meaning by using rituals, goals, cultures, and legacies.  Part of this involves creating both formal and informal rituals of connection, as well as having the couple have a shared purpose in building a life together.

 

What strategies can I do during the holidays?

Update your love maps

Oftentimes at the beginning of a relationship, an individual will try to get to know everything they can about their partner. They form a cognitive “map” of their partner. Essentially, a love map involves how a couple stays curious and interested in each other’s inner worlds. However, over time, some couples forget to update these maps. Over the years, some couples forget to prioritize the friendship in the relationship and stop focusing on what is important to each other. This can erode the strong foundation of a relationship and can lead to more negativity in a relationship. 

Updating love maps includes having each partner understand the other person’s likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, challenges, worries, and stressors. By truly understanding your partner, you will be able to support them in all ways possible. On the flip side, your partner will also be able to understand you, and together you will each provide the mutual support that is craved. These love maps need to be constantly updated, because each person’s likes, dislikes, stressors, and dreams change constantly. Focusing on love maps can help strengthen the foundation of friendship in the relationship. 

Some ways to update your love map include: 

  1. Prioritize finding 20 minutes during the day where you and your partner can focus on each other and talk, which means turning off the TV and focusing on catching up on each other’s days. It may be difficult to find this time away from family and friends, but making sure you prioritize this will help you feel more connected to each other.
  2. During this time, ask each other open-ended questions such as: What do you want your life to look like in 5 years?
    • How do you feel about your family right now?
    • What do you find exciting in life right now?
    • What are your current dreams for life?
    • What is a way that you would like to change?
    • Talk to me about what is causing you the most stress right now?
    • Describe what is currently worrying you?
    • If you could have dinner with any person, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
    • What adventures would you like to do in the next few years?
    • What has been your proudest moment this month?

 

Create Rituals of Connection

Some examples of these could include:

  1. Prioritize a weekly date 
  2. Have mealtimes be a chance for the family to be together in an environment of calm. Make sure each person gets a chance to talk  and do your best to avoid any conflict during meals.
  3. Before leaving for work each day, make sure you know one thing about what is going to happen in your partner’s life that day so you can connect with them about that later on.
  4. When returning home after work, prioritize having an affectionate greeting to each other.

Have stress-reducing conversations

Throughout the holidays, take time to discuss a current or upcoming stressor in your life that is outside of the relationship. Each person will take a turn, with one person being a speaker and the other person being a listener. The goal of this exercise is to focus on the emotional connection and help manage stressors without jumping to problem-solving, which can often make the other person feel misunderstood or incompetent. 

Steps:

The speaker talks about their stressor for a designated amount of time. 

During this time, the other partner will focus on responding to their partner in specific ways. 

Rules for the Listener: 

  • Show genuine interest by maintaining eye contact and asking questions such as “what is most upsetting to you?” or “What is this like for you?”. 
  • Communicate understanding by empathizing with what they are saying. 
  • Take your partner’s side, even if you don’t agree with their perspective. 
  • Take a “We” against “Others” approach by focusing on what the partner is feeling and demonstrating solidarity with their partner that they are in this together. 
  • Express affection (either through words or actions).
  • Validate the emotions being expressed.
  • Don’t offer any unsolicited advice (unless the partner asks for it)
    • After following all the above steps, you can ask your partner, “Do you feel understood” and if the partner says yes, then ask “are you interested in receiving advice or problem-solving”. 

Then, the listener and speaker switch roles. 

Thanksgiving Every Day of the Year

Increasing gratitude in a relationship can help shift a relationship that is filled with negativity and arguments to one that is more focused on positives. Being able to slow down and notice the “positive” things that your partner is doing can also help you be more aware of them, as it is common to focus only on the negative feelings and ignore the positive. This state of mind can be known as negative sentiment override, which is when you only see the negative things in spite of any evidence to the contrary.  

Every night, take a few moments to share a moment with your partner about something that you are grateful about. This could be a moment that happened at work, or a good conversation you had with a friend. Not only does this end the day on a more positive note, but it also can help you update your love maps with each other. 

The second step of this exercise is to have each member of the couple give each other at least one real praise every day for at least a week. Throughout the week, pay attention to changes in the relationship. Make sure that the praise that is being given is heartfelt and genuine.   

What if I feel like my relationship needs more support?

If you would like more support on how to implement these practices and strengthen your relationship, please reach out to me, Dr. Hannah Gilfix. Using the Gottman Method, I can work with you and your partner to strengthen and rebuild the friendship in your relationship, learn how to handle conflicts that seem to never go away, and be able to build a greater sense of meaning together.

 

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