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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
“In 25 years of marriage, my wife and I have never fought. We have never even raised our voices with each other.” The rest of us in the high priest group sagged. Probably none of us could say the same thing.
He continued: “Both of us know that we want the best for each other. So, if anything my wife says hurts my feelings, I know that I have misunderstood her.”
Many of us have wanted to be the same kind of spouses but have not been as successful with managing our mouths and our hearts. At times I have been discouraged when I compared myself to husbands like the one in priesthood meeting.
I feel differently now. Research by John Gottman shows that there are three kinds of relationships. The man who spoke in priesthood meeting was describing a validating relationship. This is the kind that counselors and ministers have recommended for decades.
It sounds idyllic. Partners solve their problems in peaceful, respectful ways. Peace reigns. The problem with validating relationships is that they can become relatively passionless—more like a business partnership than a marriage.
The second kind of relationship is volatile. Partners argue passionately for their points of view. They are open, honest, and lively. Their relationships are exciting. But you can see the danger. They can hurt each other with their honesty and directness. The challenge for volatile relationships “is to keep steady amidst the high winds of their passion. That can be quite a balancing act considering the frequent storms they subject themselves to. But as long as they hold on tight, they are likely to experience many years of joy and positive intensity” (Gottman, 1994, pp. 43-44).
The third kind of relationship is avoidant. In such relationships, partners choose peace. They would rather leave some issues unsettled than have unpleasantness. “They reaffirm what they love and value in the marriage, accentuate the positive, and accept the rest. In this way, they often end an unresolved discussion still feeling positive about one another” (pp. 45-46). This is good for peace but can be bad for companionship and intimacy.
For decades it seemed obvious that everyone should have a validating relationship. This was bad news for those of us who just can’t seem to stop being volatile (or avoidant). It seemed that we had to change our very natures and surrender our trademark qualities in order to become good spouses.
That idea is mistaken. Gottman researched the assumption that validating relationships are best. He found that all three kinds of relationships are likely to be enduring and satisfying (in their own unique ways) as long as there is a preponderance of positives in the relationship. There’s the good news: We can still be ourselves and be good marriage partners. As long as we emphasize the positive.
Gottman offers specific advice for validating couples: pick your battles carefully; acknowledge your spouse’s viewpoint before expressing your own; moderate your emotions; trust your partner; enhance romance. (See pp. 204-205)
His advice for volatile couples: Don’t tell your partner what you can’t or won’t do; offer sincere and positive appreciation; express interest in your spouse; choose to be polite, regardless of your spouse’s actions; be direct and honest; affection; be careful about teasing. (See pp. 205-209)
And the counsel for conflict-avoiding couples: Get in touch with your feelings; reaffirm your basic beliefs about your relationship; learn to level with your spouse when necessary; create “suggestion boxes”; turn to others for support. (See pp. 209-213)
And the counsel for all couples? Find the glory in your marital story. Dwell on the positive. See the good.
All of this seems to agree with the things the Lord has always taught. He does not mandate a certain communication style or personality type. He does command that we love the way He loves: generously, unstintingly, and redemptively. That is the best kind of relationship.
For more about different kinds of relationships, read John Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail . . . and How You Can Make Yours Last.
For an LDS perspective on strong marriages, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.