What sets the affirming couple apart from others? After all, most couples begin their relationship with a variety of shared, positive experiences based on their mutual attraction and emerging love.
One difference, however, is that affirming couples — that is, those in which the partners extend unconditional respect and consideration to one another — have often witnessed other affirming relationships while growing up. Their expectations and practical skills support their ability to acknowledge and accept their partner, which may not be the case in relationships that deteriorate over time. Partners who have not had the advantage of witnessing such a relationship also can develop affirming attitudes through the practice of mutual respect.
The affirming couple emerges from the blissful, “honeymoon” phase of their marriage with an awareness of both their similarities and differences. Rather than fearing their differences, they accept them and are even stimulated by them. Differences that are threatening are acknowledged and discussed, leading to growth in the deep friendship that underlies their union. They begin to recognize what aspects of their pre-relationship life no longer fit for them in this new relationship and make choices of what to maintain and what to discard. Many see the opportunity for ongoing personal and relationship renewal, and grow in their devotion to the relationship. Researcher John Gottman (1994) points out that, in relationships of this type, the partners exchange five loving comments for each critical comment.
Affirming couples look for ways to understand, support, and share affection. Threatening events, circumstances, and behaviors are not sidestepped; instead, they are seen as opportunities to learn something about their partner and about their relationship. The partners continually build their knowledge of each other’s needs, dreams, and fears, are assertive with and receptive to each other, and thoughtful and creative about their dilemmas. As the relationship grows, the partners become aware that they are creating something new and enduring.
When disagreements appear, affirming couples approach their differences by :
- Attempting repair. They look for opportunities to mend the relationship, to clarify their dilemmas and differences, and to make their conflicts mutual ones.
- Softening criticism. They find a way to express their concerns without blaming or nagging, but as a means of clarifying and solving their mutual problems.
- Self-soothing. Each partner has a way to reduce the physical and emotional arousal that emerges when they are threatened by their differences.
- Accepting each other’s influence. They are disposed to listening to and understanding their partner’s point of view and allow this to affect how they approach the disagreement.
Through dialogue, each partner works to discover the yearnings of the other. In this way, they come to understand where their partner is “coming from.” By listening to each other’s point of view, they are able to discover a “middle ground” that represents an option they both can live with.
Gottman, J. (with Nan Silver). (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York: Simon & Schuster.