How familiar are you with your spouse’s inner world? What do you know about your partner’s history, concerns, preferences, worries, and the current world? How do you update your knowledge of your spouse’s inner world?
In more than four decades of research with over 3000 couples, Dr. John Gottman found that emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. He calls this having a richly detailed love map—his term for that part of the brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life. Another way to say this is that they have made plenty of cognitive room for their marriage. They remember the major events in each other’s history, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change.
Without such a love map, you can’t really know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them?
Such knowledge also provides the fortitude to weather marital storms. Couples who have detailed love maps of each other’s world are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict. For example, the birth of the first baby is one of the major causes of marital dissatisfaction and divorce. Sixty-seven percent of couples in John Gottman’s newlywed study underwent a precipitous drop in marital satisfaction the first time they became parents. However, the remaining 33 percent did not experience this decline—in fact, about half of them saw their marriage improve. What separated these two groups? The couples whose marriages thrived after the birth had detailed love maps from the start. These love maps protected their marriages in the wake of this dramatic upheaval.
So, how can you enhance your love maps? The process entails asking open-ended questions and then remembering the answers. An open-ended question is one that can’t be answered with a quick “yes” or “no.” Instead, it invites your partner to offer up his or her experiences, opinions, and emotions. Asking an open-ended question demonstrates a genuine interest in your partner’s live and inner world. “Did you call the plumber today?” is not a question that tells you much about your partner’s internal world. However, questions like, “How would you like our life to change in the next 5 years?” and “If you had all the money in the world, what would your dream house be like?” will reveal to you something entirely different about your spouse’s inner world.
Getting to know your spouse better and sharing your inner self with your partner is an ongoing process. In fact, it’s a lifelong process. If you need some prompts for open-ended questions, you can find a series of exercises for enhancing love maps in John Gottman’s New York Times bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999, 2015). You can also find the Gottman Card Decks, which include the Love Maps and the Open-Ended Questions Card Decks, for free in the App Store or Google Play. You may want to incorporate these exercises into your daily life and/or return to them from time to time to update your knowledge about yourselves and each other.
Gottman, J.M., & Silver, N. (1999, 2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony Books.
© 2023 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities