New research suggests that a long marriage may reduce the risk of dementia. But what if you are stuck in a toxic relationship? Past research has shown criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – all common in a bad marriage – can increase the risk of heart disease and harm your overall health.
Dr. Mark Rothman, a psychologist at Medcan, says that these marriages are reparable with specific guidance. He believes that the number one factor that can predict a positive marriage is not the lack of conflict but how conflict is managed. His relationship counselling, which is based on The Gottman Institute perspective, helps couples restore their friendship and ensure relationship repair attempts succeed.
We sat down with Dr. Rothman to learn about how his counselling helps couples strengthen and/or rescue their relationship.
“Imagine your relationship as a house. The most important parts of the construction are the supporting beams: trust and commitment. These two aspects are required for a relationship to exist and to continue to thrive. It’s not the only requirement but if neither of these is there, the house falls,” says Dr. Mark Rothman.
The focus starts on those beams, says Dr. Rothman, by making trustworthiness a main priority in their relationship. Then he starts working on the relationship’s bottom three floors: (1) knowing one another’s worlds; (2) developing a shared fondness and admiration for each other; and (3) “turning towards” instead of away.
“Knowing one another’s worlds is reconnecting to what they like and care about,” says Dr. Rothman, who recommends working with a counsellor or using the relationship app from The Gottman Institute, to use questions, statements and ideas to get to know each other again.
This level is all about being a good friend, says Dr. Rothman. Sharing fondness and admiration is a friendship skill that serves as protection against contempt. It’s important for couples to develop systems of fondness that extend beyond the honeymoon phase of a relationship.
Fondness can be expressed in how your partner makes you proud, impresses you, or is attractive to you. Appreciation is an expression of gratitude and can recognize the mundane (i.e. thank you for putting on the winter tires) to the character traits you appreciate (i.e. relaxed, tender, graceful, powerful, thrifty, sexy).
When practised intentionally and consistently, fondness and appreciation can increase affection and respect in a relationship.
Dr. Rothman cites research by Dr. Gottman that studied newlyweds and followed up with them six years later. Couples that had stayed married turned towards one another 86% of the time. Couples that had divorced averaged only 33% of the time. The secret is turning towards.
“This means constantly developing your bond by making an effort every day to reach out to your partner and accept their bids for emotional connection,” says Dr. Rothman.
This can be expressed in simply showing interest in something your partner likes, or taking initiative to show them attention.
“In an ideal world, couples will come see me for an annual check-up, as a proactive and preventive measure,” says Dr. Rothman. “Certainly when there is a negative system overload, that’s a really big red flag but it’s not too late.”
Many parents will forget to take care of their own relationship as they prioritize their children’s lives. Couples in longer relationships may start to drift or detach after years together. The commonly suggested “date night” isn’t going to help if you are feeling very disconnected or even resentful of each other.
“Date night is a proactive, preventive approach to maintain a connection. It is not a retroactive approach, for after the fact. In fact, it can really backfire,” says Dr. Rothman. “People need to feel understood, appreciated and cared about in their relationship and counselling can help you get there.”