Updated 2021-06-30

Early in our marriage (more than 40 years ago!) my husband and I attended a Marriage Encounter weekend. Perhaps you’ve heard of these weekends. Participants listen as leader couples give instructive, revealing presentations on various aspects of their own relationships. Later in the privacy of hotel rooms, partners dialogue together about their own relationships.

Are you friends with your partner?

My husband was not the least bit interested in going when I first brought up the idea of the conference, but he went anyway. Though he did not take off his watch as we were instructed to do, and though I was uptight about both his attitude and the watch, it turned out to be a fine weekend.

What sticks in my mind about that weekend is a statement by the leaders: “This weekend is to help good marriages become better.” Since then I’ve puzzled about what, exactly, makes for good marriages. And so, perhaps, have you. John Gottman, a researcher from the University of Washington, has for many years been studying what he calls the “Masters and Disasters” of marriage. He suggests it’s important to keep friendship alive.

Keep friendship alive: add cognitive room

Happy couples keep friendship alive by assigning a lot of brain time and energy to their partners and the relationship in general. Gottman calls this “cognitive room.” Partners who devote cognitive room to each other feel as if they really know each other. He concentrates on her daily concerns like the stress she is feeling about work and her parents’ health; she knows who the main characters in his life are and is curious about how they interact with him. Partners who have cognitive room for each other know more than just facts about each other; they understand and empathize with each other’s emotional world. They feel for each other’s dreams and aspirations. They want to know the latest. If all she knows about her partner’s goals dates back to his graduate-school days, several years ago, she isn’t devoting much cognitive room to him.

For some, making cognitive room for your partner comes easily. But some people don’t have a clue. That isn’t necessarily because they’re malevolent. Many partners are willing to work at making cognitive room once they understand how good this sort of space is for their relationship.

Keep friendship alive: is there fondness and admiration?

In good relationships the partners bathe each other in tubfuls of respect and appreciation. Gottman notes that in these relationships there is a ratio of about five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Here’s where flowers and surprises and hand holding and date nights come in. (By the way, did you know that many men like surprises and flowers too?) But here is also where your gushing over his accomplishments, her handiness with household repairs, his insightful parenting, her intelligence, and his generosity are very important.

Keep friendship alive with turning toward bids

In successful relationships partners keep friendship alive by constantly bid for the other’s attention and affection. For example, when he remarks, “Hey, honey, there’s a goldfinch at the feeder,” he’s trying to engage his spouse by sharing an observation and a bit of his inner life with her–making a bid for attention and connection.

Bids may be verbal or nonverbal, sexual or not, direct or indirect. If you are so engrossed in reading your morning newsfeeds that you don’t acknowledge your husband’s comment about the goldfinch, you are turning away from his bid. If, on the other hand, you put your device down and respond with interest, you are turning toward his bid. Healthy relationships are crowded with turning toward bids. Because bids are frequently subtle, turning away from bids is often unintentional. However, striving to be mindful of the importance of making and turning toward bids pays off handsomely for relationships.

Positive sentiment override

So good relationships are full of cognitive space, many acts of fondness and admiration, and plenty of turning toward bids. And when partners actually work at these things, the behaviours become rewards in themselves.

Gottman defines one of the most important rewards as “positive sentiment override.” Sounds technical, but the idea is really pretty simple. Positive sentiment override is an emotional bank account, held in common by the relationship partners, that has a healthy, positive balance. The positive balance allows the marriage to cope with stress, conflict, disappointment, and other negative influences. Positive sentiment override is like a car’s shock absorbers; it smoothes out the bumps every relationship endures, while not excusing or ignoring them.

Just an ordinary evening…

So what does this all look like? Let me introduce you to “Joe and Mary” as they, over the course of an evening, deal bit by bit with normal workday stress through personal interactions that contribute to positive sentiment override for their relationship – and provides some real relief after a tough day.

Mary begins the evening absentmindedly engaged with mundane, end-of-day chores. Naturally, a good part of her head is still focused on her workday problems. She’s devoting cognitive room to work. She casually mentions to Joe that she’d like to talk after the kids are in bed. Mary is making a bid for emotional support.

After supper Joe takes over Mary’s regular habit of dropping a load of laundry into the washing machine and then checks on the kids’ homework. Joe is also making bids for emotional connection. Mary brings Joe a cup of coffee, unbidden. She is turning toward his bids. He catches her eye and says “thank you” in a tone that tells her he really appreciates her thoughtfulness. He is turning toward Mary.

Later Mary keeps the kids quiet while Joe is on the phone. She isn’t particularly intentional about that bid, it just happens. Joe’s casual thank you, likewise, isn’t a conscious turning toward Mary. Later though, when Joe deliberately turns away from his laptop and comes looking for Mary, he is consciously making cognitive room in his head for her and their relationship. Mary shares with Joe all that happened at work that day. She is responding to Joe’s request to update his cognitive room about her. As Joe hears Mary’s story, he reassures her that she handled work remarkably well, given the complicated circumstances. Mary notes the genuine affection and admiration in his voice. “Oh, Joe, I wish you were my boss!” she responds gratefully.

Together Mary and Joe have added significantly to the positive sentiment override in their relationship. The positive sentiment override is actually great enough for Joe to overlook Mary’s sharp remark about his nagging. And Mary’s positive sentiment override plays a large part in her picking up after Joe without a thought, even though she railed at him just this past weekend to stop dropping his clothes on the floor.

Joe and Mary’s evening is not the stuff of an exciting Hollywood movie, but it is a relationship that keeps friendship alive, the stuff of a good relationship. They have conflicts too, of course, and sometimes the conflicts are nasty. Positive sentiment override, however, gives them the space they need to continue tackling those conflicts in good faith. Building on countless boring evenings such as the one described, Joe and Mary are not likely to turn from masters into disasters of marriage.

The following day work hasn’t changed much for Mary, but the memory of Joe’s comments linger, and her day — though tough — is bearable. She has a wonderful spouse to return home to later. And Joe — he’s not keen on attending that Marriage Encounter weekend Mary has signed them up for, but he’ll give it a whirl.

Irene Oudyk-Suk, the founder of Couples In Step has trained with John Gottman.

If you think that your relationship needs a tune up give Couples In Step a call. We offer retreats, intensives and weekly counselling.