If you’re reading this article, congratulations–your heart is in the right place, which means you’re already well on your way to becoming an even better spouse. Below I’ll share practical strategies for improving as a partner and strengthening your marital bond. The following frameworks were developed by John Gottman, one of the foremost researchers and authorities on building healthy partnerships. These methods are the product of many years of research on married couples, so you can rest assured that they’ve been tried, tested, and verified by thousands of happy couples.
Let Your Partner Influence You
Did you know that healthy and successful couples whose relationships stand the test of time are really good at accepting influence from one another? Letting your partner influence you doesn’t mean you should be a pushover or sacrifice your own beliefs and preferences in favor of your partner’s, but it does mean that you should make a habit of exploring their mental and emotional world, making sure they feel respected and honored, and treating them as an equal partner in decision making.
For example, imagine that your partner is really enthusiastic about the idea of the two of you taking a vacation to Florida in order to watch the Daytona 500. You don’t care about car racing at all, and Florida sounds humid and eccentric. Your gut impulse might be to simply veto their suggestion without really hearing them out. If you’re truly open to accepting influence, the conversation might take one of these routes:
Route 1. You see that it’s important for your partner to share their passion for car racing with you because it’s an important part of who they are (however trivial it might seem to you). You agree to go to the Daytona 500, contingent upon your choosing the next vacation destination. When you’re there, you get curious about the nuances of why, exactly, your partner loves watching cars go around a track. You find out that for them, this pastime is linked to a sensation of exhilaration and absolute freedom that they sometimes feel is lacking in their day-to-day life, despite the fact that they are generally satisfied. The experience helps you develop a new appreciation of a side of your partner of which you had not been very cognizant before. When you go home, you decide to go skydiving together in order to try to capture some of that exhilaration your partner seeks.
Route 2. You really don’t want to go to Florida, so the two of you select an alternative destination that caters more to your shared interests. However, you understand that your partner’s bid to watch the Daytona 500 together was at its core a bid to ask you to see and honor a part of them that they feel is overlooked. On the weekend, you make it a point to sit down, watch the races with your partner, and ask them questions about the sport, its famous figures, how it works, and their love for it.
Route 3. You decide to go to the Daytona 500 together. However, instead of staying in Florida the whole time you will drive there, making the vacation into a road trip. You’ll choose the other stops along the way together, and when you arrive at the race, you attempt to step into your partner’s frame by getting curious about their love for it and trying your best to honor, feel, and maybe even take on some of their excitement.
All of these routes share one thing in common: The subject was open to accepting their partner’s influence in one way or another. Accepting influence means that instead of digging your heels in and refusing to do anything differently than your norm, you’re ready to be flexible in creative ways in order to honor your partner’s character and wishes–without completely abandoning your own.
Honor and Update Your Love Maps
Do you know that getting-to-know-each-other period where you and your partner ask each other dozens of questions about your lives, backgrounds, traumas, quirks, likes, dislikes, dreams, and everything else about what makes you and them? What you were doing at that time was building a love map or a mental map of who each other is. While drawing those maps is an important part of building a foundation for your relationship, it’s equally important to both update and honor your love maps–habits that many couples fall out of over time.
Honoring the love map of your partner means showing them that you see and understand all the various sides of them. For example, when mentally sketching your love map of your partner, you might have found that they don’t fold their clothes like a normal person–they roll them, army-style. When it’s your turn to do the laundry, honoring the love map can mean something as simple as rolling your partner’s clothes just the way they like them instead of folding them, as you’d be normally inclined to do. This is a simple example, but it can also be as deep as regularly checking in with your partner about their progress towards life dreams they’ve shared with you or proactively sending them a calming text message when there’s a thunderstorm because you know they were traumatized by tornadoes as a kid.
On the other hand, love maps also need to be updated over time because people continually change and evolve over time. Just like a computer program, relying on the same old software without installing any updates means that your love map is going to become outdated pretty fast. Take care to notice the changes in your partner’s personality and preferences. When you do notice, you might be inclined to protest or tell them ‘This isn’t you!’ Instead, lean in, get curious, and ask questions in order to understand the reason behind the change and learn how you can best support the emerging new sides of them.
Pay Attention to the 5:1 Ratio
Unfortunately, negative interactions do more damage to a relationship than positive interactions do good. This happens because our brains are wired to remember and react to negative experiences more strongly than positive ones, as that gave us an evolutionary advantage during hunter-gatherer times. Today, our minds are still primed in the same way–but instead of saving our lives by making us remember where the tiger who mauled Uncle Ugg lives, this negativity bias means that our minds and emotions are prone to overemphasis of negative experiences.
Although there might not be much we can do to change the way we’re wired, there is plenty we can do to adapt to and work with it. Enter the 5:1 ratio. It takes approximately five positive interactions to make up for one negative interaction between a couple and reset the balance to baseline again. While I don’t recommend counting every interaction and obsessing over whether or not the ratio is correct, I do recommend noticing whether the amount of negative interactions you’re having feels at all like it’s overshadowing the positive ones.
When you do have a negative interaction with your partner, go out of your way to create a few positive ones soon afterward. For example, let’s say the two of you have an argument about whose turn it is to mop the floors–again. Eventually, you come to a resolution, but you’re aware that in order to get your connection back in tip-top shape you need to have some positive interactions. Perhaps later in the evening, you make it a point to snuggle up next to your partner and rub their shoulders while they watch their favorite dumb reality TV show. Or maybe you initiate a playful game of cards or take care to be extra attentive over dinner. Pay attention to the positive-negative balance in your own relationship in order to take steps to ensure that the impact from moments of negativity doesn’t outweigh the positive.
Turn Towards Bids for Connection
A ‘bid for connection’ is like the smallest atomic unit of which human interactions are comprised, and it acts as the currency of all types of relationships. A bid is anything you do to connect with your partner (or anyone else), from subtle cues to obvious gestures. Smiling and making eye contact is a bid for connection. Starting a conversation is a bid for connection. Affectionately squeezing someone’s shoulder as you walk by is a bid for connection. Even negative actions, such as catching someone’s eye and scowling at them or sighing exasperatedly in hopes that your partner will take notice are bids for connection.
There are three ways to respond to a bid. The first is by turning towards. This essentially means that you respond by engaging with the other person in a positive or supportive way. If they smile at you, you smile back. If they say ‘Man, I feel so tired’ you say ‘You ought to get some sleep!’ or ‘It really sucks that you have so much on your plate at work’. If they ask you for a favor, you do it.
That said, it’s also possible to turn towards a bid without agreeing to do something you don’t want to do. For example, if your partner’s bid is to ask you to walk the dog, but you are absolutely exhausted and your knee is hurting again, you can still turn towards their bid by gently explaining why you don’t want to do it.
The next way to respond to a bid is by turning against it, which means responding aggressively or in a way that seeks to elevate tensions. In the example above regarding walking the dog, turning against would mean snapping “I already told you my knee hurts. Don’t you ever listen?!” or replying in a raised tone of voice “It’s your turn, not mine”.
Finally, the third way to respond to a bid is by turning away. When someone turns away from a bid for connection, they respond either minimally or not at all. Most turn-away responses entail doing the absolute bare minimum possible to engage without being accused of simply ignoring the other person, and turn-away bids seek to end the interaction as quickly as possible.
If you walk into the room, sit down next to your partner, and ask “Whatcha doing?” and they’re busy looking at TikToks and don’t want to stop, their turn-away response might be to simply say “scrolling” without looking up from the phone.
While neither turning against nor turning away are ideal ways to respond to bids for connection, which one do you think is more damaging for relationships?
If you guessed ‘turn away’, you’re correct. Repeated or habitual turn-away responses are actually worse for relationships over the long run than turn-against responses. When someone turns away a lot consistently over time, it signals to their partner ‘I’m not interested in you or this connection’. While turning against can be harmful, it at least signals ‘Even though I’m fighting with you and even though my contribution to this conversation is a negative one, I am indeed engaged in this interaction’.
Gottman found a striking split that enabled him to predict divorce with 93% accuracy: he discovered that couples who stayed together over the long term turned towards each other’s bids an average of 86% of the time, whereas couples who later divorced only turned towards each other’s bids an average of 33% of the time.
In healthy relationships, both partners make frequent bids, and both partners turn towards each other’s bids most of the time. If you want to be a better husband or wife, make an effort to notice and turn toward your partner’s bids. No bid is too small to utilize in improving your relationship.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about How to be a Better Husband or Wife
Q: I want to let my partner influence me, but we have a lot of differences. How can I accept influence without compromising who I am?
A: Accepting your partner’s influence should never mean changing who you are at your core. However, ask yourself what parts of you are so essential that there’s no flexibility around them, then ask yourself whether taking up some of your partner’s hobbies or interests necessarily means changing anything essential about yourself. Alternatively, get curious about the parts of your partner that are really different from you. Ask questions and seek to understand and accept those parts, then brainstorm creative ways to honor who your partner is without changing who you are.
Q: What are some examples of how I can accept influence from my partner?
A: If your partner loves bowling but you’ve only tried it a few times, go with them and ask them to help you improve your technique. If you’re used to showing your love through acts of service but your partner really wants to hear genuine words of affirmation, try to learn how to do that even though it might not be totally comfortable at first. If your partner prefers less spicy and flavorful cuisine than you, learn to cook one of their favorite dishes the way they like it, not the way you like it. The key is to accepting influence is to be flexible and open to new ways of doing or seeing things.
Q: What’s a worse way to respond to a bid for connection, turning away or turning against?
A: Turning away is worse because it signals that at least at that moment you don’t care enough about the connection to engage at all. Turning away too frequently slowly but surely erodes the connection over time.
Q: I don’t want to turn away from my partner, but sometimes I really just need to be left alone to do my own thing. How can I balance our conflicting needs?
A: Good news–you can turn towards their bids for connection while still enforcing your boundaries at the same time. If your partner tries to connect with you while you’re taking some much-needed you-time, stop whatever you’re doing just long enough to tell them something like “hey, I love you, but I really need to recharge my batteries by myself right now.”
Q: How often should I ‘update’ my love map of my partner?
A: All the time! Remain attentive to your partner’s behavior even after the initial honeymoon period has ended and take note of any changes. For bonus points, lovingly point out changes you notice–this will make your partner feel seen and honored. You can also schedule regular ‘updates’ by choosing periodic intervals at which to sit down and talk and reflect as a couple about where you’ve been, where you’re going, and how each of you is changing and evolving.
Q: How seriously do I need to take the 5:1 ratio?
A: Take it seriously, but don’t get obsessive about counting your interactions. Instead, aim to take care to manufacture some positive interactions in the wake of any negative ones, even if the negative interactions seem small and insignificant. The ‘manufactured’ positive interactions don’t always have to be anything big or particularly time-consuming; they could be something as small as offering a few kisses when you pass your partner in the hall, or striking up a brief conversation in which you take extra care to be attentive and supportive.
If you want to be a better husband or wife and you abide by the frameworks listed above, your spouse will definitely take notice. Take these strategies forward into your relationship, sit back, and watch the magic happen.
Nicole Sheehey is the Head of Legal Content at HelloPrenup, and an Illinois licensed attorney. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to prenuptial agreements. Nicole has Juris Doctor from John Marshall Law School. She has a deep understanding of the legal and financial implications of prenuptial agreements, and enjoys writing and collaborating with other attorneys on the nuances of the law. Nicole is passionate about helping couples locate the information they need when it comes to prenuptial agreements. You can reach Nicole here: [email protected]