Wellbeing

Are You A Relationships Master?

Recently the world reeled from yet another celebrity divorce. Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan were the perfect pair. And we (I) put them up on a lip syncing celebrity pedestal along with Brangelina, Chris Pratt and Anna Faris, Jen and Justin. Who’s next, the Obamas?!

So we thought this might be a good time to turn to a relationship psychologist to find out if we really are all doomed, and whether we should quit the love game while we’re ahead.

According to Meg Tuohey, a relationship psychologist who specialises in the Gottman methodology, we don’t necessarily need to quit. But we do need to learn how to become relationship masters. She believes the Obamas are masters, along with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and possibly Kristen Bell and Dax Shepherd. So what do these relationships have that others don’t?

Master vs disaster

While it’s hard to know what goes on behind social media doors, some couples show signs of mastery.

“Relationship master” is a term coined by the renowned relationship researcher Dr John Gottman who studied couples in his lab in the ’70s. When Gottman brought couples back to his lab six years after first studying them, the people he came to call relationship masters were still just as happy. This means that Gottman could go on to identify those who showed the signs of a relationship mastery when he first observed them.

Just as there are relationship masters, there are also relationship disasters. Gottman was also able to recognise and predict those that were unhappy down the track. In fact, he came to realise he could predict with 94% certainty whether couples would break up, be together and unhappy, or be together and happy.

The Gottman Institute today says the family is in crisis. With the divorce rate being darn high (in Australia there were 47,638 divorces in 2013) it seems like a small glimmer of hope to know there might be a remedy. The Gottman Institute suggests that recognising mastery or disaster behaviours and adopting or changing them as necessary can help protect long-term relationships.

How do you recognise a master vs a disaster?

According to Meg you have to turn to the foundations of the relationship and observe how a couple connects with each other. When one person tries to make a bid for conversation or connection, the other person can choose to engage or to reject the connection – how couples react in this situation is a strong indicator of the potential for the relationship to flourish long term.

A response which engages with the partner, such as stopping and responding positively, makes for a happy interaction.

A response which engages with the partner, such as stopping and responding positively, makes for a happy interaction. Alternatively, rejection makes for a negative experience. Negative experiences can lead to feeling bruised, arguments and distress. Small moments, sure, but they chip away from the relationship as a whole. Being positive and affirming each other helps build a strong long-term relationship.

Relationship masters engage, relationship disasters reject.

There are physiological signs too. Relationship masters experience regulated physical effects like an even heart rate and calmness. A relationship disaster will go into distress. Their blood will thicken and cortisol will be released. The response tends to be one of defence.

Can we become masters?

Meg believes that all relationships benefit from turning towards a bid for connection, rather than defence.

She also explains that it’s important to master a relationship with oneself first. Everybody benefits from taking care of the basics. Eat well, sleep well, do exercise, do something for someone else and learn something new.

“All these things are proven energisers and great for feeling as though we are contributing to the world,” says Meg. “This is a huge step towards fulfilment in life.”

When it comes to your relationship with your partner, Meg says, the first thing to do is add rituals into your day that encourage connection. This only needs to be a brief moment of intimacy, such as a kiss and a long hug at the beginning or end of the day. This simple act can help remind you why you love each other and help build a bond.

Also, taking time to get to know who your partner is today, in this moment, is important. Life changes and we grow and develop as people. Life inevitably gets in the way, so putting aside time to get up to date with who your partner is can help build bridges.

Lastly, Meg explains that you should aim to “accept influence”.

“When you are working to resolve a problem together, listen to what your partner is trying to teach you,” she says. “Try not to form your rebuttal. Take turns to understand and validate each person and then switch. After you’ve both felt fully heard, see if you can resolve the problem.”

If you can nail mastering your relationships with yourself and your partner, your other relationships should also fall into line.

So, is making a relationship last long term as simple as mastery?

“It’s as simple as both parties being committed to mastery and knowing when to seek help to build that mastery together,” says Meg.

Cues you might need to seek help include spotting when your family is in crisis. If one or both partners experiences a traumatic event, such as a death or an affair, it’s best to get help immediately to avoid further trauma for the hurt partner.

Couples often take years (Meg says around six years after problems start to arise) before they make it to therapy, and there is a lot to work through after leaving it so long. So while it sounds like you still have to put in the hard yards, perhaps there is a small glimmer of hope pointing us in the direction of the Obamas.

You can find a Gottman-influenced counsellor through the website, or if you want to get on the front foot, attend one of their workshops, or make the most of their online toolkits. Meg also recommends the Gottman Card Decks app, which gives couples a tool to help them reconnect.


Alexandra Longstaff is a writer and stylist in Sydney. She is the founder of createthatcontent.com, editor for Festival Fans and has penned pieces for Grand Designs, AWOL, YEN and the SMH Good Pub Food and Cafe Guides. She likes salty air, friends caught in sunbeams, mountaintops, weird and wonderful homes and magical people with toothless smiles. When she finds any of these things she posts them to Instagram at @alexa_longstaff.

Main image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / on Flikr