Turning Toward in Relationships

A few weekends ago I was at a fabulous training for a type of couple’s therapy created by John and Julie Gottman, relationship researchers extraordinaire. The Gottman methods (sometimes called Sound Marital House Therapy) are unique because they sprung out of research, as opposed to coming from intellectual theory. John Gottman, for decades, studied couples interacting. He (and his research team) recorded couples living together in a hotel-type environment. He also recorded couples talking about problems, in shorter segments. Over the years, he and his team were able to extract behaviors that successful couples did, as well as behaviors of couples whose relationship were on the rocks, or did not last. There is a ton that could be said about the Gottman research and their approach to working with couples. But I want to focus on the idea of “turning toward” in this entry.

The Gottmans identified “turning toward” as a foundational and essential behavior of successful couples. Like most positive behaviors, it doesn’t have to be present 100% of time, but Gottman identified that when couples exhibited turning toward less then 50% of the time, it signaled a relationship in trouble. When a person initiates contact with their partner, and this can mean starting a conversation, make a passing comment, physical affection, or even a gesture, the other partner has basically 3 options. They can 1) turn toward, 2) turn against, or, 3) turn away. One basic premise for almost all couple’s therapy is that usually, thecontent of the communication (what is being discussed) is not as important as the process(how is it being discussed). So, in the examples below, you’ll notice the content is benign and superficial. However, the way Person B responds still has the chance of eliciting strong emotions in Person A, especially if the style of communication represents a larger issue for this pair.

Turning away usually looks like ignoring the bid for connection. Sometimes it might look like a total absence of response, or maybe a response that seems to be completely unrelated. Here is an example:

Person A: “I’ve always wanted to learn to sail, I wonder how hard that would be…”

Person B: “I can’t believe the Giants won the Superbowl.”

Person B, in this instance, probably did not have any ill will toward Person A, but nevertheless sent a message that they were not interested, or not focused on communicating or connecting with them in that moment. They “turned away” from the bid for connection. Usually when a person’s bid is ignored in this way, they do not make the same bid again in the future. You can see how, over time, fewer and fewer bids for connection are made if the ones that are made are ignored.

Turning Against. It’s usually a lot easier to see how turning against someone in conversation is destructive. Yet, most of us still do this at times. This is what it might look like, although it could be subtler, or more overt then this:

Person A: “I’ve always wanted to learn to sail, I wonder how hard that would be…”

Person B:“I don’t know why you want to do that. You’re always starting things that you don’t finish. Why would this be any different?”

Ouch. Person A at this moment might feel angry, hurt, sad, shut down. Depending on their personality, they may react either by escalating (possibly an argument will start), or by withdrawal/shutting down. Both are destructive. Not only that, in this example, Person B is criticizing Person A in a general, global manner (“you’re ALWAYS starting things you don’t finish), which is also a destructive behavior.

Turning Toward. When we respond with interest and positivity, we turn toward another person. Our answer might be simple and affirmative, or more involved and deepening. But it leaves the speaker feeling heard and validated.

Person A: “I’ve always wanted to learn to sail, I wonder how hard that would be…”

Person B: “I don’t know, I’m sure you could figure it out with lessons or something. What is it you like about sailing?”

Being conscience of how you respond to others is important. And these little exchanges throughout the day, though they may seem petty and insignificant, are what create the patterns and mood in your relationships. Remember, it is always tempting to focus on the content of your communication, but also, look for ways that you can improve the flow, the process.

Engagement is a pillar of positive psychology. One of the exercises that I’ve taught in positive psychology groups is called “active-constructive listening”; it is essentially the same thing asturning toward. Through listening in an engaged manner, we can put more energy into the relationship, strengthen the connection, increase positive feelings both for ourselves, and for the speaker, and possibly even broaden our worldview or knowledge about the other person. All of these things furthermore buffer us against negativity or other relationship issues. If generally, you feel engaged with, listened to, and understood, this, alone provides some degree of protection from other negative factors in relationships. Put simply, if you have generally positive feelings toward another person, you will be more understanding when you do have a conflict with them.

Think about how this particular principle applies to different types of relationships parent/child, relationship partners, friendships, co-workers. Do you have an easier time staying engaged in certain types of relationships? Unfortunately, many of us are more engaged with those relationships that are less close to our hearts, like those with our co-workers. There are good, and totally understandable reasons for this, but when we notice how we disperse our energy and attention, then sometimes we want to make adjustments that better reflect our deeper values.

For more reading, check out John Gottman’s book, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

In it, he writes about the principle of turning towards, as well as many others that he found to be important factors in lasting relationships. This is an excellent book that I recommend to all of the couples that I work with, as well as individuals wanting to improve their relationships.