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To revive romance, one crucial factor must always remain: friendship

First published in the Express 11/02/2021

For those of us isolating with our partners since last March, keeping the romance alive has, at times, proven difficult. Before the pandemic, most relationships used to be confined to a few hours in the evening, or even to just a few hours a week, if you weren’t living together. Now, during a tense and uncertain time, sustained overexposure can bring out the worst in ourselves and each other.

The best way to preserve romance is to minimise negative interactions. Of course you’re going to bicker (and that’s perfectly normal as long as the majority of your interactions are still positive), so the next time an altercation arises, pay close attention to what the conflict is really about, and how you’re both engaging in it.

Let’s start off with the bad news – most arguments cannot be solved and will end in a break-up. Don’t take my word for it, I’m citing the results of extensive research compiled by John Gottman, a specialist in relationship stability. His team observed hundreds of couples (heterosexual and homosexual) over decades and found that 70% of conflicts involve perpetual or unresolvable problems. For example, David doesn’t do his share of the housework and this bothers Elizabeth; or Chris always flirts at parties, and Sophie hates it. Couples spend years and huge amounts of energy trying to change each other without success. Lasting couples know this and when these irreconcilable problems first begin to show, they both take steps towards a compromise (or they call it quits in the early stages).

Now for the good news – it’s fairly easy to change a heated argument into a constructive discussion. Participants of Gottman’s workshops are always relieved to hear that even the happiest and most stable couples have their fights. The most important factor in a healthy and lasting relationship is how the partners handle conflict. If the conflict begins with harsh criticism, sarcasm, or contempt, it’s more likely to end badly. If during arguments one regularly ‘floods’ the other with verbal abuse, or the other regularly ‘stonewalls’ (disengages from the situation or even completely ignores the other), the level of negative sentiment slowly starts to overtake the positive, so that the ‘set point’ of happiness in the relationship declines to a degree that becomes too painful to endure. Finally, if no attempt to repair the situation is made, that’s not just the end of romance, that’s the end of the relationship.

To revive romance, one crucial factor must always remain: friendship. Love is not enough to make it last; you have to like your partner too. Without maintaining a mutual respect and a simple fondness and admiration for your partner, relationships can get too adversarial. According to Gottman (and many, many other psychologists), a happy and lasting relationship in one where each partner supports the other’s hopes and dreams. A relationship is going in the wrong direction if one partner has to sacrifice what they want to make the other person happy. Instead, we must find familiarity and interest in our partner’s emotional world and ‘turn towards them’. Gottman’s data finds that women are more open to the influence of their partners, but men find this difficult. Yet the happier relationships are generally those in which the man listens to his partner and takes account of their views and feelings. Better, longer-lasting relationships are those in which the power is shared. Remember, genuine friendships are equal.

Romance can stay alive even in the most humdrum conversations. It is when you stop acknowledging each other (turning away) that the relationship is on its way to a dead end. While some couples believe that romantic dinners or holidays can make a relationship happy, in fact it is the little daily attentions given to the other person (turning toward) that count for much more.

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