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Providence Health & Services
Swedish Health System | Seattle, WA
Kadlec Regional Medical Center | Richland, WA
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The way a couple handles conflict says a lot about the health of their relationship.
The Gottman Institute, marriage myths, troubled relationships
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How can you keep a marriage healthy? Follow these expert tips.

Happily ever after. A marriage made in heaven. Love is patient, love is kind. … These are sweet sentiments. Most of us want to believe in them. We attend weddings feeling optimistic, and celebrate silver anniversaries with renewed faith in the institution.

But marriage is more than beautiful messages and a photogenic wedding day. It’s messy.

Indeed, marriage is imperfect, just like life. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be good, and can’t withstand life’s myriad trials. It just takes hard work, persistence – and kindness.

Predicting a long, happy relationship

One way to predict whether a couple will withstand the challenges of marriage (or a long-term committed relationship) is their ability to “be kind in conflict,” says John Bruels, licensed social worker and behavioral health specialist with Swedish Medical Group in Seattle, Wash. Bruels works with clients in two clinics where behavioral health services have been integrated with primary care. “The expression of open hostility is toxic to relationships and marriage,” he says.

Early in his career, Bruels worked primarily with individuals. Then he was introduced to the research of John Gottman, Ph.D., psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington.

For the past four decades, Gottman has studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. He has written several books, and with his wife, Julie, also a psychologist, Gottman runs The Gottman Institute in Seattle. The institute uses scientific studies as the bases to help couples build and maintain healthy relationships.

As new parents, Bruels and his wife participated in one of Gottman’s studies that focused on nurturing one’s self and his/her spouse after the birth of a child. Fourteen years later, Bruels enrolled in a training program with The Gottman Institute.

Gottman’s research established his theories

Among the many longitudinal studies by Gottman and his colleagues was a series of “systematic observations” of couples in controlled environments. During the 1970s and ‘80s, Gottman set up labs where couples “lived” while being observed by researchers. Some tests included attaching medical monitors to couples, asking them questions about their relationship and observing their interactions. The monitors measured physiology: blood flow, heart rate and breathing during observation. Some couples showed subtle signs of anxiety when questioned about their relationship, such as an increase in heart rate and sweating, while other couples experienced little to moderate changes in their bodies.

Six years later, the researchers contacted the couples to see if they were still together. Based on what Gottman and his colleagues observed during the couples’ interactions in the labs, as well as the biofeedback, Gottman was able to predict with remarkable accuracy what couples had broken up, which had stayed together and were unhappy, or stayed together and were happy.

Applying Gottman’s philosophy to practice

As a counselor, Bruels applies the data and analysis from Gottman’s research to his own practice. He says The Gottman Institute approach to counseling is remarkably helpful to couples trying to navigate the challenges of their relationships. For example, Bruels pays close attention to how his clients argue during sessions. “The myth is that in successful marriages, couples are harmonious and they rarely argue,” Bruels says.

Based on Gottman’s research, conflict is a central part of human interaction and married couples are no exception. The question isn’t if a couple has arguments, it’s more how they manage conflict in their relationship. “An argument is rarely about the topic itself. It’s based on a deeper conflict of individual core values,” Bruels says.

Here are two other misconceptions about relationships:

  1. Opposite personality styles make for troubled relationships
    In fact, there is just as much evidence for the idea that “opposites attract.” Differing personalities are less predictive of a couple’s fate than how a couple navigates conflict in their relationship. Gottman found that even couples with polar opposite styles of conflict can overcome their issues if they are inclined to notice more positive than negative things about their partner and their relationship.
  2. Couples just need to express their negative feelings and “hash out” their conflicts
    Expression of hostility actually diminishes relationships and drives couples further apart. During his research, Gottman found that when disputes escalate to a certain point, the body excretes hormones and the brain starts working differently. Couples move into a fight-or-flight reflex and they’re unable to rationally communicate. Once that point is reached, the only thing that can help is a time-out (sometimes as long as three hours) so the body can recover.

Three tips for a healthy relationship

Gottman’s research for maintaining a healthy relationship boils down to three things: treating your partner like a good friend, handling conflicts in gentle and positive ways, and being able to repair after conflicts and negative interactions.

Based on these three things, Bruels shares the following tips from The Gottman Institute with all his clients as a way to help strengthen their relationships:

  1. Express interest. Learn what is happening in your partner’s world. Ask questions that show you are interested in their day-to-day life.
  2. Be gentle in conflict. Avoid criticism or blame, and instead focus on your own needs. For example, instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” focus on what you do need by stating, “The house needs cleaning and I would really appreciate some help.” Avoid statements of “You never …” or “You always … .”
  3. Repair negative interactions. Take responsibility, even if it’s for only part of the problem.

A healthier relationship equals a healthier you

A lot of studies show how marital stress has an adverse effect on one’s health. A study led by a pair of researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine revealed how relationship stress weakens the immune system.

In 2000, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a three-year Swedish study of 300 women who had been hospitalized with severe chest pains or a heart attack. The women who reported the highest levels of marital stress were nearly three times as likely to suffer another heart attack or require a bypass or other procedure.

Bruels points to Gottman’s studies on the increase in hormone levels due to marital stress and its impact on health. “Some people reach for chemicals or alcohol to help cope with the stress,” Bruels says. He’d rather see couples learn healthy ways to soothe their troubled relationships.

“Helping couples navigate their relationships during difficult times supports their overall health,” he says.

Ask for help

If you’re struggling in a relationship, seek help from a professional. There are ways to improve the health of your relationship.

To learn more about John and Julie Gottman, and their research and approach to therapy, visit The Gottman Institute.

The way a couple handles conflict says a lot about the health of their relationship.

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