by Jonathan Shippey, LMFT, Certified Gottman Therapist
Q: How can you distinguish between your intuition telling you the partnership may not be right for you vs. your own fears about (and potential sabotaging of) your relationship? -N.M.
“How will I know if he really loves me? I’m asking you ‘cause you know about these things.”
Your question is one I’m certain that millions can relate to. After more than four decades of observing couples interact and refining ways to help them, The Gottman Institute has allowed us to “know about these things.”
In his book Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love, John Gottman identifies three distinct phases in the life cycle of love. While being in love is a complex experience, research has identified choice points when love may either progress to a deeper place, or deteriorate. The delightful falling in love phase, which we know as the “honeymoon phase,” can only carry you for so long.
Your question tells me that you’re at the crucial "Second Phase," a point at which you need to discern if you have found a reliable partner whom you can trust. The big questions of "Phase Two" are:
Do I truly matter to you?
Are you there for me?
Can I count on you to catch me when I stumble?
The answers to these questions will tell you how to know whether to trust your gut or whether your doubts and fears are clouding your judgment. It would be helpful to explore your fears, too.
Recently, I was working with a couple who had experienced a “regrettable incident” in which one partner (let’s call him John) posted something on social media that cast the other (let’s call him Joe) in a negative light—without naming or identifying who he was writing about. When Joe discovered the comment, he was shocked and hurt.
Although it was painful, can you imagine how much it deepened Joe’s trust in John (and in their relationship) when at the beginning of our process, he heard John say, “First of all, anything I do that causes you pain is not okay.”
John owned the emotional impact of what he had done, and this kind of response is essential for trust to deepen. Deepening trust is crucial for the relationship to keep growing, which is why you’re wise to question how to know if this is a good partnership that you’re in.
With that said, if your partner isn't loyal or isn’t respectful, it is most likely time to move on. (And without question if he or she is emotionally and/or physically abusive, please find a way out immediately.) But beyond these warning signs that your partnership may not be right for you, there are some key behaviors to watch for and build with your partner. The Gottman Institute uses the word “ATTUNE” as an acronym that stands for six essential processes that will help you answer the big "Phase Two" questions. Does your partner exhibit these qualities toward you?
A for Awareness of your partner’s pain
T for Tolerance that there are always two valid viewpoints within negative emotions
T for Turning Toward your partner’s needs
U for Trying to Understand your partner
N for Non-defensive listening to your partner
E for Empathy for what your partner is feeling
If, when you consider these basic ways of establishing and growing trust together, you don’t see the two of you moving through this stage of building love, it may be time to seek the help of a competent couples therapist. I spend much of my time in my work with couples facilitating experiences for them to practice attunement; the skills don’t come naturally to everyone. Experiential couples therapy may give you more reassurance about your partner’s ability to be there for you, or confirm your thoughts that it is time to move on.
Engaging in these ways of giving and receiving attuned responses to each other is key to establishing trust with each other. Trust is the state that occurs when you know and experience that your partner is acting in your best interests, and not merely their own. Every time when, as the Gottman's say, “you’re in pain, the world stops, and I listen,” we strengthen trust and grow ever more confident in our choice of a partner.