Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best protection against feeling adversarial toward your partner.” — Dr. John Gottman
Over the last 16 months, we have found ourselves confined, and at times isolated, to our homes with minimal outside social interaction. Many of us have been trying to create new hobbies or start a house project, though ultimately, we have been left with a spotlight on one of our most important relationships. Hiccups in our romantic relationships typically can be outshined by the busyness of our day-to-day schedules and social lives, but when all that stops, it’s important that we make sure the flames are still shining bright.
There’s a common misconception about relationships, and it starts with the words “happily ever after” that we hear in Disney movies as children. We’re told that it’s easy to simply settle down with a partner who will bring happiness with no strings attached, no complications and no fights. While navigating our romantic relationships, we learn just the opposite. Through years of research, Dr. John Gottman emphasizes the idea that couples must learn to manage conflict rather than avoid or attempt to eliminate it.
Trying to solve unsolvable problems is counterproductive, and no couple will ever completely eliminate them. However, discussing them is constructive and provides a positive opportunity for understanding and growth. One of the foundations for these conversations is your favorite F-word — friendship.
That’s right, friendship is the groundwork for a lasting romance, and the best part is that this friendship can be fostered and built over time. We do not need to be friends before dating, but instead, we can grow together by sharing stories of our lives, asking open-ended questions and having new experiences together. Creating this strong sense of friendship helps you address those unsolvable problems and, ultimately, view your partner positively. When you feel like a team member and are befriended by your biggest fan, you’re more likely to have grace and understanding for each other during those disagreements and not take conflict personally. Also, the basis for emotional and physical intimacy is centered around this friendship, especially in long-term relationships.
So, after being stuck at home through a global pandemic, how can you foster this friendship to be the solid foundation that your relationship needs? Dr. Gottman (1999) developed the Sound Relationship House that lays out the components of a healthy relationship. Of these, three of them directly highlight the friendship that is needed to help your relationship stand strong.
• Build love maps. Make every attempt to learn the road map of your partner’s inner world. Get to know your partner’s likes and dislikes, ask questions about their world and know what is going on for them. You can download the Gottman Card Decks app on your smartphone to help facilitate these conversations.
• Share fondness and admiration. Let your partner know that you are their biggest fan and why. Don’t hold back! What do you love about them? Give them praise, compliments and gratitude. This includes everything from affection to romance and even passion. Intentionally put a positive spin on your relationship — choose your words wisely using warmth, care and ultimately, respect.
• Turn toward instead of away. This one is simple, but needs to be intentional — pay attention to your partner. Their off-the-wall questions or comments may really be their way of trying to connect. Listen to what they say, respond to simple requests, help them, show interest in their accomplishments, respond to their joke (yes, even if it’s not funny), help them destress, play with them, join them on an adventure or learn something new together. Turning toward can be as simple as eye contact, a smile or even a wink.
While these tools may seem basic, you can really make an intentional and loving effort to have mutual respect and joy for each other’s company. Build your friendship to help fuel your flame! Be open to having fun in your romantic relationship, get out and play, especially now that places are open, but of course, be safe! If you think you need a little help with fueling your flame, please contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a free, confidential couple’s counseling appointment.