Psychologist Jacqui Maguire shares a surprisingly simple trick to revive your relationship with your significant other, just in time for the busy holiday period.
The holiday season is upon us. The hope for all of us is that this time of year is populated with laughter, connection and joy. My daydreams are of eternal sunshine, dusk sea swims, a good book and contented children. I will report back next year about whether those dreams come true! For many of us though, Christmas and the summer months can be a period of significant stress. Financial pressure (especially this year with record inflation), extended-family dynamics, end of year fatigue, an overpopulated social calendar and the strain of the summer holidays can all combust. And through the stress, it can be the relationship with our significant other that suffers.
The quality of our most intimate relationship, and how satisfied we are with that relationship matters. Science shows that marriages, and by extension long-term partnerships, strongly influence our physical and mental health. The evidence ranges from marriages leading to reduced smoking rates and alcohol consumption, better dietary intake, decreased prevalence of depression and even longer lifespans. Being in a satisfying long-term relationship literally lengthens your life.
Given we know that our relationships may be put to the test in the upcoming months, what can we do to protect them? To help me answer this question, I’m going to turn to renowned psychologists John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman. The Gottmans are renowned for their work investigating and understanding relationships; in particular what supports effective, long-lasting relationships. It is the Gottmans whose research can predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a partnership will succeed or fail after watching a couple communicate for 15 minutes.
In 2022 the Gottmans released their new book The Love Prescription. It is a short book that details how couples can revive and/or nurture their relationship over seven days. One of the predominant and practical strategies in this book is called “turning toward”. And it is this skill of turning toward each other that I hope all couples can prioritise and implement as of now.
Every day partners attempt to connect with each other through what the Gottmans label as “bids” for connection. Bids for connection can be widely varied. A bid can be sharing the theme of a book they are reading, pointing out a picturesque sunset or asking their partner to taste the dinner they are making. At a deeper level, a bid for connection may be trying to raise an important topic or sharing a piece of work they feel vulnerable about. No matter the nature of the bid for communication, the Gottmans’ research shows that those in relationships that last turn towards each other’s bids 86 percent of the time; those whose partnerships end in divorce, only turn towards bids 33 percent of the time.
This research shows that people in satisfying and successful relationships are aware when their partner is bidding for their connection, and respond in a way that strengthens their connection. They don’t turn away from the bid (ignoring it or showing indifference) or turn against their bid (responding in a way that is patronising, aggressive or mean).
If a partner turns away or turns against their partner’s bids for connection most of the time, this can result in the “bidder” feeling lonely and isolated, which can lead to the resentment. That creates a festering ground for lack of satisfaction and harmony in their relationship.
How to improve turning toward your partner:
- Notice when your partner is trying to engage you through words or actions.
- Pause and understand that in that moment you have a choice to turn toward, away or against.
- Regardless of what you are doing or how busy you are, do your best to turn toward. And know that turning toward can be very quick. It can be as simple as an acknowledgement “that’s interesting” or “thanks for telling me”.
- Recognise that your ability to turn toward (even if it only took you two seconds) is enough to leave your partner feeling seen, heard and understood.
- If you recognise that your partner has turned toward your bid for connection, show gratitude. “Thanks for showing interest” or “I really enjoyed talking that through with you.”
- Small changes can have big impacts. By noticing, turning toward our partners’ bids and reinforcing each other’s positive bids we can greatly enhance the health and satisfaction of our relationships. Even in the silliest of seasons.
Jacqui Maguire is a registered clinical psychologist who was awarded Wellingtonian of the Year – Education in 2021. She’s a regular media commentator and the founder of the Mind Brew podcast. See jacquimaguire.co.nz.