“To be powerful in a relationship, you must be open to influence” – John Gottman, Marriage Researcher and Therapist
What is influence? It’s the ability to receive feedback from someone. It’s learning how to be flexible as opposed to rigid in your relationships. We all want the people around us to be flexible and, often, while we remain rigid. This seems to be a core element in dealing with the stress, triggers and conflict that occur in our marriages and relationships. At the heart of influence and flexibility is a construct it’s safe to say we all need a little more of: HUMILITY. Humility is a critical element of healthy and dynamic relationships and humility is essential to being open to flexibility – whether you are naturally flexible or not.
Think about it this way: Just as physical flexibility is a result of being stretched over time, emotional flexibility is a learned trait as well. We learn to be emotionally flexible by allowing ourselves to be influenced by our partners in the spirit of compromise. Influence is crucial in relationships because rigidity in relationships causes disconnection. Constant rigidity in one partner usually leads the other partner to stop trying to compromise over time and, instead, they just find ways around their partner’s rigidity to get what they want. This causes relationships to be quite transactional as opposed to mutually respectful and relational.
If you’ve ever been in this type of relationship, you’ve noticed that one partner just seems to bat away every option pitched at them. Eventually, the pitcher stops attempting to connect. This is one relational pattern that leads couples to live as “roommates” instead of dynamic partners. It’s problematic for a number of reasons but if we pare it down to the marriage research we find that emotional disconnection is a pre-cursor to divorce.
According to the Gottman researchers, marriages often end in divorce during two distinct seasons and for two distinct reasons. Marriages end within the first 7 years due to difficulty acclimating to married life (merging temperaments, homes, finances, families) OR marriages often end around year 12 due to lack of emotional intimacy. Rigidity in relationships contributes to this decline in emotional intimacy because the curiosity that lead each partner to seek to know their spouse when they began dating has now been replaced by a sense of stagnation. Curiosity has been replaced with rigidity and emotional intimacy has shifted into a cool aloofness or a purely functional relationship.
So how do we cultivate emotional connectivity, accept influence from our partners and continue to pursue the depth of intimacy that leads to long-lasting relationships? Gottman marriage researchers suggest that instead of immediately “batting away” suggestions from your partner, focus on trying to catch requests and pitch them back and forth. Find common ground. Find a way to say “yes” even if you’re agreeing with a PART of what they are saying. This can be done with phrases like, “Good point” or “Say more…”
It’s a paradox of communication that you must first give up power to gain power. If the idea of being a little more flexible in your relationship makes you uneasy, consider facing your ambivalence by acknowledging different parts of yourself. Let me explain. Psychologically, we are ALL made up of parts. This is why we feel ambivalent at times. We can say, authentically, “One part of me feels this, but the other part of me feels that.” That’s okay. It means we are multi-faceted humans who have the capacity for growth and change. Truly, growth only happens when one part of us is discontent. We need not be afraid of ambivalence.
A goal in healthy conflict/resolution is to allow our partner to influence us, even if it’s just one part of us to start with. This type of approach facilitates emotional intimacy and becomes a precursor for compromise. If being open to influence in your behaviors feels daunting, consider being open to shifting your attitude first. Perhaps you can begin with a newfound flexibility in your mindset. This could look like choosing to shift a belief that, “You always want to make me look like the bad guy” to “I’m going to choose to believe that you may not always have negative intentions.” You can shift from, “I know all there is to know about you” to “It’s possible that there’s more to learn and I want to give it a try.” Once you begin to become more flexible in your (otherwise healthy, non-abusive) relationships, a deeper emotional intimacy is on the horizon and positive relational growth is not far behind.