Relationship Lessons: What Can we Learn?
Have you heard of Dr. John Gottman? He is a professor of psychology that has spent decades studying couples trying to understand what keeps them together or drives them apart. Most of his research at the Gottman Institute has been focused on heterosexual couples; however, more recently he has been studying lesbian and gay couples and believes they may be better equipped to have mature relationships. Really? Now why would that be?
- Fluid roles: Same-sex couples do not automatically divide household chores or parenting along gender lines. In fact, they usually explicitly decide who will do what and spend more time jointly sharing household tasks.
- Sexual Experimentation: In a similar vein, without predefined social assumptions about sexual encounters, same-sex couples experiment more freely, including sexual play.
- Conflict: Same-sex couples approach conflict more gently, with less belligerence and domination. Gottman’s research suggests that same-sex couples are more honest with their partners, a trait which makes for more stable relationships in the long run, whether homosexual or heterosexual.
- Attractive People: Gottman’s research indicates that gays and lesbians have learned how to be friends with people they are attracted to without acting on those attractions. There is an implication here that straight folks can learn to have more friends that are just friends and not potential sexual partners.
- Less Micromanagement: Same-sex couple tend to have more flexibility around money or extended family obligations. Often, same-sex couples have shared money and separate money, and have a more equitable power balance around money.
- Communication: It’s really important in relationships to keeps the lines of communication open. We all know that. But, polyamorous folks have to keep the lines of communication open with multiple people. That’s a bit tricker, and is a skill that is transferable to all kinds of family relationships.
- Consent: Consent is not just about not saying “no”. It’s about actively saying “yes” to some things and “no” to other things. It’s about knowing yourself well enough to know what you want, and to know what you don’t want.
- Feelings and Needs: Everyone has them. And everyone is an important person. Keeping the feelings and needs of others in our minds helps us to choose actions that are supportive and not hurtful.
- Jealousy: Can we be pleased when the people in our lives experience success, joy or pleasure? Or do we become envious or jealous? Polyamorous people learn how to deal with feelings of jealousy, if and when they arise, without projecting blame upon their partners.
- There’s always more than one way: Just like water will find it’s way around many different obstacles going over, under, around, and through; there are many different ways to be in relationship. Societal conventions may try to make us believe that there is only one way to be in relationship, and that’s just not true.
Are there other lessons we can learn from Dr. Gottman’s 35+ years of research about relationships? Well, he’s written books on the subject, but there are two things I would like to highlight.
- Four Don’ts: Gottman’s research indicates that there are four behaviors that lead trouble in relationships, and he calls them the Four Horsemen. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- One Big Do: Take time each day during what seem to be inconsequential moments to honor, love, and connect with our partners. Gottman calls these Sliding Door Moments, and the basic idea is to tune into what is going on with the important people in our lives. There are an infinite number of these moments where we can either choose to attend to our partners, or stay absorbed in ourselves.
Relationships have their ups and their downs. I think in our culture we are taught to believe in “happily ever after”, when actually, relationships take time, patience, practice, caring, and deliberate effort. So let’s put aside criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and jealousy, and instead put effort into building precious moments by tuning into the people we love each and every day.