The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

by John M. Gottman, Joan DeClaire

The Relationship Cure will teach you how to build the emotional awareness that is essential in forming and maintaining strong healthy connections with the significant people in your life. This book highlights the steps involved in mastering emotional communication in relationships. 

Summary Notes

Connecting emotionally with others through bids

“But even our best efforts to connect can be jeopardized as a result of one basic problem: failure to master what I call the “bid”—the fundamental unit of emotional communication”.

The best way to communicate and connect emotionally with others is by bidding and responding to their bids. Here, a bid refers to a question, gesture, look, touch or anything that expresses a willingness to communicate with others. 

It’s part of human nature to love feeling included, to have a sense of control over your life, and to be liked. When you respond lovingly to the bids of others, you build stronger and lasting relationships through these expressions of affection, interest, and humor.

Often, we are unaware of the bids others are making for emotional connection and we may fail to respond. When this happens, your relationships with the significant people in your life are bound to deteriorate. Failing to respond to the bids others make is the major reason behind most relationship problems including marital discord, divorce, sibling rivalry, parenting problems, friendship fallouts, and family feuds.

You need to be intentional about building and maintaining relationships and building awareness about what the people you love are communicating to you. After all, fulfilling relationships do not just suddenly appear fully formed, you need to develop them one step at a time. 

You can choose to respond to the bids others make in one of these three ways;

  1. Turning towards: This is all about reacting positively so that the other party can feel connected to you. This approach is highly recommended as it strengthens relationships. For example, laughing at a funny comment made by your friend.
  2. Turning against: This involves using sarcasm or ridicule to turn against others’ bids for connection. This approach is not recommended because it can hurt the feelings of the other party and cause the relationship to deteriorate. For example, your sister fantasizes about owning a passing sports car and you reply “dream on!”
  3. Turning away: This approach is also not recommended as it involves deliberately ignoring the bids of others or acting preoccupied. When this happens, the other party can become emotionally drained and this can also take a toll on the relationship. For example, your friend points out a beautiful woman walking down the street and you don’t even look back.

Actions to take

Bidding and Responding

“Most people don’t get married, have children, make friends, or take jobs with the intention of allowing these relationships to fail”.

You need to connect emotionally with others to build and maintain strong relations. This involves bidding for the attention of others and responding appropriately to their bids too.

This can be challenging, of course. However, if you fail to pay attention to the needs of those you care about, you will end up ruining the relationship.  Instead, if you are mindful of their needs, you will be able to understand their feelings and shift your attention to them.

You may also find yourself in troubled relationships where conflicts trigger intense emotions such as fear, stress, and anger. Often, these emotions drive away all your best intentions to solve the problem at hand. When faced with such scenarios, your best bet is to take a break from the conversation and do something soothing like watching a movie, listening to music, or reading your favorite book.

How you start a conversation can influence the way others respond to your needs for attention. That’s why you need to use a soft tone in your conversations, especially when you want to address a conflict. Pose your problems as complaints and not criticisms because when you criticize people, they become angry and communication becomes almost impossible..

That said, the six major barriers to bidding effectively and responding positively to the bids others make are:

  1. Being unaware of the needs of others
  2. Starting conversations on a sour note
  3. Communicating harmful criticisms instead of helpful complaints
  4. Letting yourself be triggered by negative emotions during conflicts
  5. Constantly feeling irritable about people and places
  6. Avoiding those conversations you need to have

Actions to take

Our Emotional Command Systems

“Problems in bidding can also result from misunderstandings that occur between people who have different levels of comfort within the emotional command systems”.

The human brain has Emotional Command Systems that are responsible for coordinating our emotional, physical, and behavioral responses for survival. The Emotional Command Systems are more like the tracks on which our emotions work. You need to activate these systems to take your feelings in various directions depending on the service you want to perform. For example, exploring your environment, seeking sex, or making friends all require different responses. 

Understanding these systems is crucial in building your emotional awareness and also in improving your ability to make bids and respond to the bids of others. Above all, when you understand your Emotional Command Systems, you can better understand the people you are close to and maintain stronger relationships.

There are seven Emotional Command Systems;

  1. The commander-in-chief: You are most likely to activate this system to break free from restrictions or take charge of situations. When this system is overactivated, it could result in violence, rage, anger, and aggression, whereas underactivation could result in frustration, impotence, and passivity.
  2. The explorer: This system coordinates functions that are related to searching, learning, and satisfying one’s curiosity. For example, seeking information to start a business or finding out the best ingredients for a recipe. Overactivation of this system could result in intense sensation-seeking, overwork, and manic behavior, while underactivation could result in restlessness, boredom, and irritation.
  3. The sensualist: This system coordinates feelings related to sexual gratification and reproduction. The behaviors associated with this system include flirting, sexual contact, and intercourse. Overactivation of this system could result in sexual harassment, coercion, and having unprotected sex whereas underactivation could result in aversion and depression.
  4. The energy czar: This is the system that is responsible for making sure the body gets the rest and care it needs to stay healthy. Behaviors linked to this system are resting, relaxing, exercising, and good nourishment. Overactivation of this system could result in stress, sleeping disorder, and extreme changes in weight while underactivation could result in fatigue, exhaustion, depression, and weakened immune system.
  5. The jester: This system coordinates functions that are related to play, recreation and diversion. Common behaviors associated with jesters include playing games, seeking entertainment, telling jokes, engaging in make-believe, or just fooling around. Overactivation of this system could result in extreme silliness and maniac behavior while underactivation could result in depression and inhibition.
  6. The sentry: This system coordinates functions that are related to fear, worry, vigilance and defense. The behaviors associated with this system include worrying, seeking safety, prevention and protection. Overactivation of this system could result in unrealistic fears, phobia, paranoia, overprotectiveness, intense anxiety, hypervigilance, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder whereas underactivation could result in carelessness and unsafe risk-taking.
  7. The nest builder: This system calls to mind all the nurturing, affiliation, and bonding behaviors and feelings that are typically activated in a solid parent-child relationship. Of course, this system is also helpful in forming other types of relationships like marriages and friendships. Overactivation of this system could result in irritability, panic when faced with separation and loss of personal boundaries whereas loneliness, depression, anxiety, and grief are some of the consequences of an underactivation of this system.

Actions to take

Understanding enduring vulnerabilities

“I believe that each of us has endured some psychological pain and that we do our best to survive, to heal, and to protect ourselves against being hurt again”. 

When we experience dramatic and traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, a betrayal, violence, divorce, abandonment, accident, depression, or a life-threatening illness, we may experience enduring vulnerabilities as a result. Here, enduring vulnerabilities refer to a past experience that has created a subconscious reaction within you to similar experiences in the present. 

For example, if as a child your mother always referred to you as a lazy boy who would never amount to anything, you may become a workaholic in your adult life to prove her wrong - even if it negatively impacts your marriage. 

Our past pains affect how we relate to others. You may become irrational while protecting yourself from being hurt again especially if the actions of another inadvertently trample on the highly sensitive areas of your psyche. It is evident that our past traumatic and painful experiences most often undermine our abilities to trust ourselves and others, resulting in enduring vulnerabilities that typically show up when we are creating healthy new relationships.

Most often, our enduring vulnerabilities surface around issues of affection, control, and inclusion, which can all be detrimental to forming and maintaining healthy relationships. You, therefore, need to heal yourself from the enduring vulnerabilities in your life by getting more insight into your past and talking to people you are close to.

Actions to take

Sharpening your emotional communication skills

“Many people continue to develop their skills at emotional communication well into adulthood, allowing them to create richer, more satisfying relationships with others”.

Most of us find it hard to communicate our feelings for various reasons. While some of us value our privacy, some of us are either too embarrassed by our feelings or don’t just like burdening our friends and relatives. Besides, some of us may be too unused to expressing our emotions that it becomes difficult to find the right words to say what is happening.

That said, trying to conceal your emotions by not expressing them verbally doesn’t mean others have no insight. You reveal your feelings through facial expressions, gestures, body movements, the tone of your voice, and through the use of metaphors. For example, body movements such as fidgeting are associated with not paying attention and often reflect discomfort.

It is therefore extremely important to continue developing your emotional communication skills by consciously studying how others express their emotions verbally and nonverbally. This helps you see all the subtle cues they are passing back and forth as they bid and respond to the bids of others.

Actions to take

Finding shared meaning

“When people agree that their relationships lend meaning to their lives, they keep coming together, turning toward one another, and strengthening those relationships—even in the face of conflict”.

The ability to discover shared meaning in our lives is the final step towards building better emotional connections that result in stronger relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. When people find their commonalities, they can easily settle their conflicts and also collectively pursue the goals that matter to them. 

You could find shared meaning in different areas of life -  like building a successful business, raising a healthy child, or worshipping God. When two people discover the things they share in common, they are more likely to will willingly support each other’s dreams, even if there is little to gain personally from doing so. This will go a long way to strengthen their relationship.

You can achieve shared meaning in relationships by talking about your dreams and aspirations and mutually supporting each other in achieving them. Recognize the fact that conflict always stems from idealism and engaging in meaningful activities with others can go a long way in helping you discover the things you have in common with them.

Actions to take

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