How to Be an Emotionally Intelligent Partner

Lessons from John Gottmann and 12 Years of Marriage

Photo by Foto Pettine on Unsplash

During my first month of marriage, twelve years ago now, I came home from work and sat down on the couch with the TV remote in hand, thinking my day was done.

I was happy to perform some handyman task if asked, but I certainly didn’t jump up to fold laundry when my wife put the basket in front of me. If she wanted me to go grocery shopping with her, I went with little patience and some confusion: “I know I should go because she asked, but she can’t expect me to tolerate this longer than half an hour, right?”

Worst of all, I was mostly uninterested in conversation. Though we talked all the time while dating, I assumed a detached role once married. I preferred to zone out after a long workday and felt little need to interact since we shared the same roof during all of our free time.

The reality check came when my wife told me in the midst of a heart-to-heart, “We’re not friends anymore.” I realized my role would have to change if I wanted to provide my bride with the happy, fulfilled relationship we had always wanted.

I realized I had to renew our friendship.

7 Principles for Making Marriage Work

After years of research on highly-satisfied married couples, John Gottmann concluded that “happy marriages are based on deep friendship,” defined as “a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company.”

Cultivating friendship requires emotional intelligence. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottmann claims that the “emotionally intelligent husband is the next step in social evolution.” He’s not necessarily sensitive and in touch with his feelings, but he knows “how to convey honor and respect” toward his spouse.

This doesn’t mean previous generations of husbands didn’t convey honor and respect to their wives, but they did it far differently because their wives’ expectations — and therefore the husbands’ roles — were much different.

My father was a provider, my mother a nurturer. When he returned from work, he wasn’t expected to help with cleaning, laundry, or cooking. He wasn’t “disrespectful” if he didn’t do the dishes without being asked. In fact, I don’t think asking even occurred to my mother.

Emotionally intelligent husbands not only help with household chores but also cultivate a deep and mutually-satisfying friendship with their wives. They naturally implement Gottmann’s principles for making marriage work.

Principles 1–3: Map her World, Admire, and Turn Toward Her

“Unlike husbands before him,” the emotionally intelligent husband “makes a detailed map of his wife’s world,” nurtures his “admiration and fondness” for her, and communicates his love by “turning toward her in his daily actions.”

Although I knew her well, I “mapped her world” by becoming even more intimately acquainted with her likes, dislikes, preferences, passions, and daily frustrations, irritations, and joys. I took time to appreciate all the things she did (and still does) as well as the qualities that made me fall in love with her in the first place.

Most importantly, I conveyed my admiration and fondness to her both directly and indirectly. I made a point of expressing love and appreciation, but I also “turned toward her” by showing interest in her interests. We already shared many interests and values, of course, but her interests expanded and evolved as we entered a new stage in our lives.

She wanted me to share her enthusiasm for cooking nice meals, grocery shopping, and decorating. It’s hard for a man to be excited about such things, but attentively listening to his wife’s gushing description of a new recipe can add new information to his “map of his wife’s world,” nurture his admiration for her, and communicate his love more powerfully than any bouquet of roses.

Flowers are cliché; listening attentively and responding enthusiastically to her interests is a much more sincere and meaningful expression of romance.

Positive Sentiment Override

Twelve years later, I cannot overstate the impact of greater emotional intelligence on marital happiness and fulfillment. It develops deep friendship, which in turn leads to “positive sentiment override.”

Each spouse’s positive thoughts about the other supersede any negative feelings, and it takes a much more significant conflict to disrupt their happiness.

As Gottmann says, “Their positivity causes them to feel optimistic about each other and their marriage, to assume positive things about their lives together, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

When my wife and I focus on cultivating our friendship through emotional intelligence, we have much more tolerance and patience for each other’s imperfections and mistakes. In the past, my forgetfulness sometimes communicated a lack of respect and love (“If he loved and cared for me, he wouldn’t forget things that are important to me”).

But when my wife knows I love, care for, and respect her — because I know she loves ricotta, because I thank her for cooking, because I respond with genuine interest when she talks about how she made dinner — then she just laughs off my forgetfulness. We are freed from unnecessary conflict and can focus instead on valuing each other for our positive qualities.

Principle 4: Compromise and Sharing Power

We still have arguments, of course, and sometimes I’m still as emotionally dumb as a rock. But when I’m emotionally smart, I strive for a mutually-agreeable compromise rather than winning the argument. Gottmann believes this may be the “fundamental difference” between emotionally intelligent and unintelligent husbands.

Whereas past husbands were the authoritative “heads” of the household, the “new” husband has learned the necessity and advantages of compromise. He lets his partner influence him. He searches for common ground rather than insisting on having his way. He respects his partner’s perspective and values, acknowledges her feelings, and shares decision-making power with her.

No relationship can thrive if one partner always dominates. The other will inevitably resent, resist, or withdraw from the dominant partner’s control. One can easily win an argument about a specific issue but lose in the context of the relationship. The emotionally intelligent husband understands this and reboots his role accordingly.

Principles 5–7: Solving the Solvable, Overcoming Gridlock, and Creating Shared Meaning

Practicing the principles involved in emotional intelligence are the foundation for living out Gottmann’s remaining principles: “solve your solvable problems,” “overcome gridlock,” and “create shared meaning.”

Solving the solvable requires distinguishing between solvable and unsolvable problems and practicing emotional intelligence to establish a strong base on which to practice more traditional conflict resolution techniques.

Couples cannot resolve disputes unless they have positivity between them. If each believes the other is good-willed, then the focus can rest on the problem, accepting influence, and seeking compromise.

If each believes the other is ill-willed or unloving, then the focus will likely remain on blaming, judging, and resenting each other. Some problems, Gottmann argues, are simply unsolvable because their cause lies in fundamental differences. Couples often “gridlock” over these problems when they argue repeatedly with no progress, not even mutual understanding.

However, a couple in “positive sentiment override” can minimize the intensity and frequency of the conflict and maintain a happy, satisfying friendship, thus overcoming gridlock.

And to experience the maximum fulfillment marriage can offer, couples can use their emotional intelligence and positive sentiment to create a shared culture in which both individuals’ dreams, goals, and roles are strongly valued and supported.

As John Gottmann says, “The more emotionally intelligent a couple — the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage — the more likely that they will live happily ever after.”

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker. Learn more at www.EricSentell.com.

Writer tackling faith, politics, relationships, writing, media, & other impolite topics. College Teacher. Podcaster. My newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/yy7znuy8

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