Guidelines to Establish (or Reestablish) a Positive Connection in Your Marriage

a couple embracing in a positive connection

In my last article, I talked about four toxic patterns that diminish our feelings of safety, security and love within our relationships. And because we are human, we will sometimes fall into these patterns. But the good news is that we can recover and rebuild feelings of safety and love. My purpose in this article is to offer eight guidelines for interrupting harmful interactions and establishing or reestablishing a positive connection in your marriage (or any close relationship).

  1. Clarify your outcomes.

It’s helpful at the beginning of an interaction, especially when emotions are running high, to be clear about the outcomes you want. If not clear, it is easy to slip into the toxic patterns of relating. I don’t think that you deliberately choose to hurt each other or damage your relationship but you back into toxic behaviors in the heat of the moment because you have not thought about what you want.

And let me be clear by what I mean by outcomes. I’m talking about relationship outcomes—like showing respect, building trust, preserving goodwill and unity, making it safe to talk, really listening and hearing your partner out, and so on. If you haven’t clarified the importance of such outcomes, it becomes easier to slip into criticizing, accusing, escalating, blaming, punishing, invalidating or withdrawing. If you have clarified your most important relationship outcomes, you move away from these tendencies and towards establishing a more positive connection.

  1. Use a soft start-up.

John Gottman, one of the best known and respected relationship researchers in the world, tells us that the way a conversation begins is the way it will end 96% of the time. If a conversation starts on a harsh tone (through criticism, accusations, sarcasm, name-calling, blame, etc.) it will almost certainly end on a harsh tone. A hard start-up will doom you to failure so if you find that happening then best to back off, perhaps take a time out, and then start over. Beginning with a soft tone will help you establish a positive connection and make it easier to discuss a sensitive topic.

  1. Avoid flooding.

Flooding is overwhelming your spouse with negative emotion. It doesn’t mean that you can’t bring negative topics or emotion into a conversation, but don’t do it in a way that leaves your partner feeling defenseless and shell-shocked. If you are in danger of flooding your spouse or are feeling flooded yourself, then it is best to call a time out so one or both of you can cool down before continuing the conversation.

  1. Use repair attempts.

Repair attempts are efforts to deescalate tension and reestablish positive connection during a sensitive conversation.  Most all couples are going to experience tension and even say and do things that are harmful from time to time. The important thing is to recognize when this is happening and do something to back off. Some couples do this quite naturally. Others need to learn and be on the lookout for such opportunities.

Repair attempts can take many forms, some non-verbal such as a playful look, making a face, or wadding up a napkin and throwing it at your spouse. Other attempts are verbal. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t very nice of me,” “I really don’t want to fight about this.” “Can we start over.” “It seems like we’re escalating.” “Let’s take a break.” “Give me a minute to calm down.” Are all examples of repair attempts. The success or failure of these attempts is very predictive of marital success. These attempts are helpful not only because they change the tenor of a conversation but also because they relieve physiological distress and prevent you from feeling flooded.

  1. Avoid building your case.

It is so easy to fall into proving yourself right and your partner wrong. Pretty soon you’re locked into positions and so polarized that you stop listening to each other. You’ve heard the saying, “You can be right or you can be happy.” There is so much truth in this statement. A good marriage takes some flexibility. There is always truth in both points of view so what works is to let go of being right and instead seek understanding.

  1. Make it safe.

This naturally follows from the last guideline. Resistance and animosity melt away as you make it safe for your partner to talk. You do this as you use non-defensive listening. Your purpose is not to convince or persuade your partner about your point of view but rather understand his or her point of view. Listening has so many benefits. It helps you gain a better understanding of a situation and your spouse. It helps dissipate negative feelings. And it even softens your spouse so he or she is open to hearing your point of view.  it is the basis of positive connection. It is one of the most important skills you can develop to improve your relationship.

  1. Be willing to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is another way to establish positive connection. This is sharing your needs, wants, and fears openly with each other. It is also allowing your partner to do the same. Being vulnerable means that you take off a protective shield of armor so you can be open and soft. It includes taking risks to be more truthful as well as being open rather than defensive when your partner is upset with you. We’ve so often been taught to be strong and we think this means putting on a stoic exterior and never revealing our softer feelings like loneliness, hurt, or embarrassment. It actually takes great courage and strength to be vulnerable.

  1. Council together.

This is seeing your marriage as a partnership. It’s allowing your partner to influence you as you make decisions which affect both of you together. In part, this comes from a belief that two heads are better than one and that you’ll come up with better solutions by counseling together rather than letting one spouse dominate and the other take a back seat or more submissive role.

A long-term study of 130 newlywed couples found that by eight years into the marriage, men who were more flexible and allowed their wives to influence them had happier marriages and were less likely to divorce. Statistically, if a man is not willing to share influence with his wife, there’s an 81% chance that marriage will end in divorce. Of course, it’s equally important for women to be open to influence. However, research shows that women, even in unstable marriages, do this more naturally than men. And as men learn to be flexible and listen to input from their wives, they have happier marriages. This is a huge cultural shift for some men and women who grew up in more traditional, patriarchal homes.

A concluding thought

The value of these guidelines is to learn to be there for each other as you go through the ups and downs and experience the hardships of life. They are ways to create a safe space and secure attachment for each other. If you read this article together then you can learn to do this with and for each other. If you’re reading it on your own, know that you can do a lot to change the dynamics or your relationship as you change your part. So, let me encourage you to use these guidelines to create a softer and more positive connection in your relationship.


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