Recovering Couples: How to Develop a Deeper Friendship with Your Partner

(Originally published in New Times: For Addiction Recovery, July/August, 2007)

Friendship is essential in developing and maintaining an intimate relationship. Based on John Gottman’s ground breaking research involving 3,000 couples over 30 years on what makes relationships successful, we now know what it takes to foster friendship in an intimate relationship.

Gottman found that couples with greatest relationship satisfaction consistently demonstrated strengths in 3 areas of developing their friendships: “Love Maps”, “Fondness and Admiration”, and “Bids and the Emotional Bank Account”. Each of these components require specific relationship skills and tools; and for recovering couples this raises the question of how to address recovery issues in the relationship. Let me introduce you to three couples, problems they are experiencing in their friendship, and what they can do about it.

Couple #1: John drove home from his AA meeting excited about an awareness that opened up new insights into why he had been struggling all week to stay sober. As he walked in through the doorAlicegreeted him with “About time you got home, what a day I had with the kids. Alan needs a bath”. John silently felt deflated and resentful, shrugged his shoulders stating “OK”, and walked pastAliceto tend to his parenting.

Key Skill #1: Love Maps

Good friends know something about their friend’s world; it’s sharing the day to day experiences that bring people closer together. People change over time and to keep up with these changes good friends make a committed effort to sit and listen, without judgment.

John and Alice need to take time to catch up with each other’s day. Agreeing to set a time each night to get a “live update” fosters a sense of knowing your partner and his/her world, and of being known and understood by your partner. Finding a time to talk after Alan’s bath, John could share that he had a particularly meaningful meeting. For example, without sharing details and without breaking anonymity, he could simply let Aliceknow how he feels about what he is learning about himself. Asking Aliceabout her day and the pressure she felt with the kids will go a long way in giving Alicea sense that John cares about her and her struggles. Unless asked for, the key is to avoid giving advise or giving one’s own perspective, rather just listen with the goal to understand a little bit more about your partner’s world.

Couple #2: Samantha was learning in Al-Anon and in therapy how difficult it was for her to ask for what she needed. She felt desperate as she looked at her partner Chris concluding that he was a big part of the problem. Her thoughts went to how he always focused on himself. Despite her momentary awareness that she was “taking his inventory”, she continued to make a long mental list of his shortcomings

Key Skill #2: Fondness and Admiration

Friends are able to express what they like and appreciate in each other. Feeling loved, liked and appreciated creates feelings of emotional safety and trust. Would you stay in a friendship where you felt criticized and judged, probably not? Likewise, couples need to remember and focus on the positive qualities and attributes of their partner.

While Chris isn’t perfect, if asked what Chris’s strengths are, Samantha may remember that Chris did take her out for a wonderful birthday dinner last month. She may recall that he often asked her how her meetings are going and if she would like him to call her mother to say they are not able to attend the family reunion this year because he has a work conflict. Noticing and giving voice to what we appreciate in our partner provides balance, avoids black and white thinking, and brings positivity that will ultimately help deal with the negative problematic areas of the relationship.

Couple #3: Recovery was going well for Lisa; she just celebrated another sobriety birthday, felt connected with her sponsor, and loved her Thursday night meetings. Happiness finally seemed a possibility, but as her recovery progressed positively, her relationship with Bill seemed to deteriorate. In recent months they stopped going out to dinner, an activity they used to love on Friday nights. The tension in the silence felt heavy, and when they did try to talk, they often ended up arguing, so Bill and Lisa tended to just avoid each other.

Key Skill #3: Bids and the emotional Bank Account

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend”? The lyrics tell of how the friend expresses his commitment to the friendship, he will be there, just give a call. Every time a partner calls or reaches out for connection or attention, it is called a bid. When the other partner responds to that bid, it’s like money in the emotional bank account and builds friendship and closeness. However, if the response is ignored, or if what comes back is negative or attacking, it’s like taking money out of the emotional bank account and damages the relationship. Gottman found it was the little bids and positive responses that made a huge difference in the big picture of the relationship. For example, “How was your day?” is a bid. A turning toward that bid and building up the emotional bank account would be any response that acknowledged the partner’s interest, for example: “It was boring…It was great…I’m mad about it and would rather not talk about it, but how was your day?”. Frequent bids and positive responses to those bids can turn a relationship back on the path of a good friendship

Lisa and Bill, once they understand the importance of bids and the emotional bank account, could focus on trying to better recognize when the partner is reaching out, then respond and acknowledge with words or a smile. Studies indicate if bids are ignored and rejected, the bidder stops trying. The net effect over years is an emotionally distant relationship. Lisa and Bill, as with the other two couples, will do best if they can try to incorporate and work on all three components of friendship: Love Maps, Fondness and Admiration, and Bids.

Recovering couples are challenged with finding a place for recovery in the relationship. Some partners are both in recovery, but are unsure how to share more as a couple in their individual recovery journey. Some individuals find themselves alone in their recovery or even criticized by their partners for being in recovery. Regardless of each individual situation, developing a better friendship means “progress not perfection” in each of these areas. Having a discussion about these concepts is a step in the direction of improving or strengthening one core aspect of a satisfying relationship, friendship.





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