Relationship Skills 101

This page is meant to provide my clients in therapy a place to refer to periodically. Therapy takes work, and sometimes refocusing the relationship can be helpful to ensure you're going in the right direction. Together in therapy, I help you learn how to build these skills to have a more meaningful, purposeful and fair relationship no matter the type of relationship you are in.

This information is based off of the book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert by Dr. John Gottman. Scroll to the bottom for research on gay and lesbian relationships. Here's what the research of over 40 years of studies says.

What harms relationships?


Remember that if your relationship has some of these characteristics, you're not doomed. Learning to catch them and do your part to create change is the first step in dismantling this buildup.

1st sign: Harsh startup in discussion (96% of time it will also end negatively)
2nd sign: One or more of the 4 Horsemen is used (see below)
3rd sign: Emotional flooding (overwhelmed and disengaging)
4th sign: Body language (eyes, gestures, facing away, ignoring)
5th sign: Failed repair attempt (not accepting a bid to make up)
6th sign: Bad memories, rewriting the past as distortedly negative

The 4 Horsemen of the apocalypse (aka the end of the world) of Failed Relationships:

Often we learn our reactions from early on in our lives or from our families, but it doesn't mean they are productive. These cause your partner to feel the opposite of respected, valued, relaxed and understood. This video shows an introduction, while I detail them further below.

1. Criticism 

  • Labeling someone and making it about their character as opposed to the behavior. 
    "You're too lazy to pick up your mug and put it in the dishwasher." 
    "You always leave your mug laying out." 
    "You never put your mug away." 
    Instead of... "I'm feeling a bit unheard. Can you please put your mug in the dishwasher when you're finished?" 
  • Underneath every criticism is a longing.
  • Antidote: Say what you feel and need. Complain without blame.

2. Contempt

The second horseman arises from a sense of superiority over one’s partner. It is a form of disrespect.
  • Putting oneself in a higher plane, looking down on the other person.
    "You are incapable of putting the mug away."
    "Yeah you put the mug away sometimes, maybe once in a blue moon."
    "Why should I remind you? Do you think you actually do well with reminders?"
    "Oh please, you'll never put the mug away no matter what I suggest."

    Instead of... "I appreciate that you always clear your plate off. Do you think you could also put your mug away?"
  • Includes belittling, demeaning, cynicism, sarcasm, disgust, name-calling, swearing, mockery, sneering, eye-rolling, hostile humor or backhanded compliments.
  • Antidote: Build a culture of respect, appreciation, acceptance and value of the other. Use gentle-startups in conflict.

3. Defensiveness

  • The problem isn't me, it's you. Counterattacking, or acting as victim, which even if true doesn't help the relationship.
    "That is nothing compared to your corner in the bedroom."
    "You want to see a real mess? What about your stuff piled up in the shed?"
    "I can't do anything right."
    "You're always picking on me."
    Instead of... "It is getting a little disorderly; I'll straighten up."
  • Underneath defensiveness is a way to protect oneself and ward off a perceived attack.
  • Antidote: Taking responsibility for at least some part of the issue.
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4. Stonewalling

  • Checking out, seeming disinterested--as if talking to a stone wall.
  • ::I disagree with that, but I'm not going to say anything because I'm getting so angry... so I'm just going to avoid eye contact and cross my arms and not engage::
    Instead of... "I'm getting a little frustrated and overwhelmed. Can we take a break? I promise to continue the discussion in 20 minutes."
  • Underneath most stonewalls is flooding. The person is coping by trying not to say anything; this comes across as not listening or caring, ignoring and feels abandoning.
  • When heart rate reaches 100 beats per minute, the person is emotionally flooded and unable to continue the argument constructively. 85% of males cope this way.
  • Antidote: Physiological soothing... take a break and calm down, allow heart rate to come back to baseline, use relaxation techniques or take a deep breath, or imagine a calm place (it works).

WAIT! There's more. If you stop here and only focus on what's going poorly, you might feel slightly hopeless about your relationship, as many people do. Keep on reading to remind yourself of what you are doing well, to start tackling the unproductive habits and direct your focus toward what makes for a strong, satisfying and meaningful relationship instead. Remember that things can change and it starts with you.

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What makes relationships last?

The 7 Principles toward building a strong, satisfying and meaningful relationship:

1. Enhance Your Love Maps

  • Continue to know each other's world from the inside out. Do you know the roads and neighborhoods in the person's map of life, or just the state highways? This is not only intellectual but also emotional, helping partners to feel connected, appreciated and valued. It also keeps the relationship fresh. Good friends know each other well. 
  • How? Ask about your partner's closest friends, favorite hobbies, favorite relative, favorite childhood experience, worst childhood experience, important events coming up in life and how they feel about them, biggest fears, which side of the bed they prefer, favorite restaurant, etc. 

2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

  • Mentally rehearse positive things about your partner's qualities versus rehearsing annoying, irritating and negative things about their personality. This is the antidote to contempt. This nurtures affection for one another. And if you look, they're usually already doing a lot of things right. Don't let yourself focus on the wrongs more than the rights. Would you do that with a friend?
  • How? Think about the history and philosophy of your marriage: How did you fall in love? What made you choose this person over all the others? Think about what you appreciate about that person, or the qualities you admire. Tell your partner as often as you can, or they otherwise may not know.

3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away

  • Become more aware when your partner attempts to connect with you; this is already happening but we often miss it by keeping tally of the negative things. Keep tally of the positives and they may surprise you. Small things often are much more critical than large, romantic gestures. Responding when partners make comments about their day, or the news, or using humor or goofiness and not taking things too seriously help to increase trust and allow one to relax in your company.
  • How? Smile at them, hold their hand, have a good end-of-day conversation, gossip with each other, turn away from technology and connect with your partner, help each other with practical tasks. Be friends. Who knew that throwing a load of laundry in for your partner lays the foundation for sex, romance and passion?

4. Let Your Partner Influence You

  • Accept the influence of your partner and share power in making decisions; this conveys honor and respect. Men tend to have a harder time with this, but everyone can improve. A person often responds with one of the 4 Horsemen to effectively 'shut it down.' 81% of the time this happened, the relationship self-destructed. What men can learn from women: Globally, boys and girls play differently. By the time they are grown, women have had experience in emotions, communication and social interaction. Men and women who are flexible are seeing more lasting relationships.
  • How? Respect the other's opinion even if you don't agree with it. What part of their request can you honor? If you are having a hard time accepting influence, acknowledge this tendency and talk it over. Two heads are better than one. You have to give a little to get a little. Those who realize this gain both a better solution and a richer relationship where both feel equally satisfied and valued.

5. Solve Your Solvable Conflicts

One of the most surprising truths about marriage is most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriages.
  • Only about 1/3 of conflicts are solvable, the rest are perpetual and not going to change about the person.
  • The following are several examples of how to accomplish this: Soften startup, Give and receive repair attempts, Soothe yourself and each other, Compromise, Process grievances.
  • Soften your startup in bringing up disagreements (only 4% of arguments will survive if you do not start gently). Complain but don't blame ("I feel...about this and I need..."). Make statements starting with "I..." instead of "You..." Describe what is happening, don't evaluate or judge. Be clear, stating what you want rather than what you don't want. Be polite, appreciative and don't store things up. 
  • Learn to make and receive attempts to repair things, called "repair attempts."
    "So what you're saying is..."
    "I'm sorry, I can see why you felt that way. I meant ..."
    "This is important to me, please listen."
    "Please say that more gently."
    "Did I do somet
    hing wrong?"
    "I'm starting to feel... (negative emotion)"

    "I agree with part of what you're saying."
    "I think your point of view makes sense."
    "I never thought of things that way."
    "Give me a moment to digest this."
    "Let's take a break."
    "I'm feeling flooded."
    "We are getting off track."
    "Thank you for telling me how you feel."
    "I understand."
  • Soothe yourself and each other (take a good break, especially when emotionally flooded; relaxation techniques help to calm emotions)
  • Compromise: tell each other your areas of inflexibility and areas of flexibility around the issue. Determine your common goals, and work with what you're willing to be flexible on.
  • Process any grievances so they don't linger: always come back after taking a break so your partner doesn't feel abandoned.
  • Typical solvable problems: electronic distractions, stress, money, housework, porn, relations with in-laws, becoming parents, sex.
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6. Overcome Gridlock

  • The majority of conflicts are unsolvable and have a deeper meaning underneath (experiences, values, ethical ideas, other beliefs). Learning to understand and accept the other's values and perspective will help you to live with their differences, rather than wasting time trying to change them.
  • Ask your partner the following: what they believe about the issue, how they feel, the story as it relates to their history or childhood, and what they need. Respect your partner's dreams, even if you do not share them.
  • Ex: One partner keeps buying shoes and the other partner is furious the Visa bill keeps racking up, even though they pay it off every month. The problem keeps occurring over and over. When asking the above questions, the couple figures out that in growing up poor, the one partner was made fun of for having only one pair of shoes by a peer. The other partner, also having grown up poor, never lived in a house, only apartments, and wants to save up and get ahead so they can own a home and not live paycheck to paycheck. In understanding more about the other, this problem will probably not completely go away, but in learning about the issues beneath the problem, they can create a budget, set some boundaries and still allow both to accomplish their dreams of having lots of shoes while still getting ahead financially in life!

7. Create Shared Meaning

  • Share a deep sense of meaning, supporting each other's hopes and aspirations into a shared purpose together.
  • Deepen shared meaning by exploring rituals, roles, goals and symbols of connection.
  • Create and agree on family activities, housework and childcare roles, goals to live out your dreams, and other ways of bonding
  • Ex: Have family mealtime together. Unplug from distractions after 9pm or on Sundays. Talk about each other's day while one takes a shower. Get a massage together when you're stressed through Take an annual vacation for just you two. Create your own traditions during holidays.

Same-Sex Couples

  • Even while typically vulnerable to social and cultural stressors, studies on gay and lesbian couples reflect they have unique strengths.
  • They tend to display more affection and humor during conflict, attain the ability to calm down during a fight, and are more likely to remain positive after a disagreement.
  • "Gay/lesbian couples use fewer controlling, hostile emotional tactics. Gottman and Levenson also discovered that gay and lesbian partners display less belligerence, domineering and fear with each other than straight couples do." They appear to take things less personally, suggesting fairness and power-sharing is more common among them.
  • Positive comments are taken more positively than negative comments are negatively, opposite of straight couples. "When it comes to emotions, we think these couples may operate with very different principles than straight couples. Straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships."
  • Differences between lesbian and gay couples: lesbian couples showed more positive AND negative emotions than gay couples, suggesting they are more emotionally expressive. Gay men have a difficult time repairing the conflict if their partner initiates too negatively, and may need additional help, compared to lesbian and straight couples.