Winning Your Sweetheart's Heart... and Again

Courtesy of Brisbane ACT Centre psychologist, Nikita Kotlarov. Check out Nik’s website here.

Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart… and again.

  1. Perfect relationship? Where?
  2. You are different, most of this will not change.
  3. Unburdening or Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart?
  4. Adults misbehave too.
  5. Wired to connect, hurt from disconnect.
  6. When we protest, we misbehave. We protest when in pain.
  7. Who do I blame for the pattern?
  8. Emotional hurt less valid than physical? What about trust?
  9. Scary cues.

10. I don’t want to think about the scary cues, how do I build? 11. What will help/or make changes more difficult?

There is no such thing as a perfect relationship.
We may admire a couple of friends, who seem to have it ‘all together’, or watch a movie and get an idea of others having perfect relationships. Unfortunately, after the actors finished shooting the movie, they go and have real lives with real relationship problems. After all, don’t we all try to show our best side to our friends as well? Chances are, some of them might thing we have it ‘all together’ as well!

When two people come together, they often share some similarities, and also many differences. Most of their differences will never be resolved. For example the male is unlikely to stop being a male. Even in same sex couples the partners often chose those who are very different to themselves. Initially, we Win our Sweetheart’s Heart by celebrating these differences, rather than trying to get our partners to change. We call it the ‘honeymoon’ stage, when we truly do celebrate these differences, often creating our children in the process!

I am not happy with my relationship! Now what!?
Luckily for you, being a human means that we are great learners and can quite flexibly adapt to the changing world (like long working routines or the arrival of a baby), our changing ideas about ourselves (like traumatic experiences, aging, or simply gaining wisdom), or changing perceptions about our partners (like her/him starting to earn more, or stopping work to focus on parenting). It is also important to remember that we don’t have unlimited resources. We can’t be everywhere doing everything at the same time all the time! This means that in working on your relationship you will sometimes be Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart or sometimes unburdening. Surprisingly, not many of us will know the difference. A good start in building your relationship is to regularly pay attention – am I unburdening, or am I Winning my Sweetheart’s Heart? Regularly learning the difference during ‘peace’ times will help you make a valued choice during the times you are flooded emotionally. This is called ‘overtraining’ and can be used when you are expected to perform under pressure.

Working with couples, I often see the aftermath of some extremes of fights. Two loved ones will hurt each other in many ways, will betray trust, break things, threaten to-or reveal secrets, hurt each other emotionally, and even physically. When asked, both will often either not remember what the fight was about or will agree it was about something small and insignificant. Why then, do we go through such tremendous emotional rollercoasters with our partners?! Or else withdraw, emotionally and even physically… whilst hurting and grieving not having our partners present in our life or not being present in theirs. All the while, avoiding them, avoiding topics of conversation, or avoiding connection. Quite the opposite from Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart! These experiences appear to be akin to our responses to threats – fight, flight, freeze, and fright – the nature’s ‘crude-but-fast’ survival reaction. Survival of what? What is the threat?

Psychologist and co-founder of the Emotionally Focused Therapy Dr Sue Johnson explains that we are born with fundamental needs – to survive and to belong. As a result, we have the corresponding fears – fear of injury/death and fear of abandonment/rejection. These are as powerful as each other and sometimes we will act in a way that will risk… or even cost… us our life – so that we are not abandoned/rejected. Fears can be triggered by cues, suggesting a threat. Some cues are with us when we are born. For example, wind in the face, loud noises, or quick drop can startle, upset, or panic a baby. Similarly, there are cues that trigger our fear of abandonment/rejection. These are just as powerful and can trigger primal panic, similarly to that of injury/death.

Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dr Edward Tronick has demonstrated this in his series of experiments popularly called the “Still Face Experiments”. You can easily find the video on YouTube. The experimenter asks the mother to face the baby without responding to her. The baby immediately notices the ‘disconnect’ and instinctively (she has no logic developed yet) acts to get her mother back. After number of failed attempts, the baby’s distress becomes unbearable and the experiment is stopped after only 2 minutes. The attempts to reconnect vary from withdrawal, to appealing to mother’s curiosity, to protest, to panic. This is our normal human way of connecting with loved ones. Adults do that too. Especially, when feeling a ‘disconnect’ from our partner. Sometimes this works. I might realise how much pain my partner is in and come to soothe her (Win my Sweetheart’s Heart) after hearing her yelling “you’re never there for me!” Alternatively, I might experience this as a ‘disconnect’ and a ‘threat’ of abandonment/rejection and… panic as well. Sometimes unburdening our panic, expelling our anger, or protecting ourselves will trigger our partners more (and so on…). Responding to your partner’s attempts to reconnect in a way that is perceived as reconnecting will be Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart.

Fault… We focus so much on whose fault it is…
Blaming ourselves can be so painful and can flood us emotionally. Unburdening through blaming others can result in them feeling under attack and defend. Chances are, of course, if we or our partners could simply choose between two buttons “good response” or “bad” – we would always choose “good”! But it’s not that simple and the world can be harsh and complex. If I don’t fully control it, how can it be my or my partner’s ‘fault’? Our experiences can be multifaceted and painful and sometimes couples fall into a pattern that is not working. As Dr Sue Johnson calls it the “protest polka” is a dance, where one partner’s move hurts the other, pushing them to move in a hurtful way, and so on. Consider in your relationship, when you and your partner get into painful conversations, does one withdraw more, while the other pursues? Does one’s withdrawal lead the other to pursue more? Does the pursuit lead to more withdrawal? This is a painful place for anyone to find themselves and I find it difficult to allocate faults to either of the partners. Finding a way out of this pattern can help you Win Your Sweetheart’s Heart.

When we step on someone’s foot, there’s no need to be confused. The person who did the hurting, cares for the person in pain, “are you ok? I am so sorry, I didn’t see you there. Let me have a look at it” and so on. Unfortunately, we seem to regard physical pain as more valid than emotional… for some reason. Our partners can – and if we care about each other, will – get hurt emotionally by something we have done. During that time, we could look after our partners (apologise, soothe, etc) or do I look after ourselves (defend, blame, etc). Dr John Gottman calls times that we face this choice “sliding door moments” (after the movie). One such event does not define the relationship. It is important, however to consider that every time we choose ourselves, we erode trust. On the other hand, every time you choose to look after your partner, you build trust and get another step toward Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart. Yes, you read correctly – trust is built in small daily choices, when you put your partner before yourself.

How do I know when I trigger my partner’s primal panic? Dr John Gottman and his team spent literally decades videotaping couples, coding their behaviours, observing their impact on relationships. Ultimately, they were able to define 4 behaviours that they called the “disasters of relationships” (or the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Each comes with an antidote to help you in Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart. As you read through those, notice that each of these behaviours are more than common in our communities – they are culturally supported:


1. Criticism (accusing, blaming) – instead, state your pain and need

2. Defence (sometimes by attacking) – instead, take responsibility “oh, that’s a good point… sorry”

3. Contempt – “I’m better than you… honey, this is how you do it…” (feel superior, name-calling – best predictor of divorce) – instead, make deposits into your emotional account at 5:1 ratio

4. Stonewalling (see pic, pulse > ~100) – instead, manage your and your partner’s agitation

Later on, Drs Julie and John Gottman, described the 7 behaviours they called the “masters of relationships”.


Give your partner at least 5 times more Praise than Reprimand. The sound Relationship House (bottom up):

1. Build Love Maps (know your partner – maintain awareness of your partner’s world) – ask open ended questions.

2. Share Fondness and Admiration (instead of focusing on mistakes, focus on what the partner does well) – Make deposits into the Emotional Bank Account at 5:1 ratio.

3. Turn Towards (towards bids: be aware of how partner asks for attention and respond) – Accept bids for emotional connection.

4. The Positive Perspective – A positive perspective occurs when the friendship of your marriage is strong

5. Manage Conflict:

  • Accept influence from your partner – be open to compromise.
  • Discuss your problems – take turns listening to one another about perpetual issues.
  • Practice self-soothing – reduce your agitation.

6. Make Life Dreams Come True – Help partner act on what matters to them

7. Create Shared Meaning – Build a shared sense of purpose. What is your mission and legacy?

Humans are great learners, which means that when we do something once, twice… we get better at it. In my sessions with couples, I often notice how quickly the partners will assume their habitual positions in their interaction with each other. So much so, that it appears they kind of acting out a well-rehearsed script. Both know to anticipate hurt, even if none was offered. This is a testament to how powerful of a learner human beings are. We can learn to do quite complex things, like driving a car, on ‘autopilot’, without having to pay deliberate attention to the process. Sometimes, the ‘script’ doesn’t fit what needs to be done. For example, finding oneself driving overseas on the opposite side of the road, we need to slow our ‘autopilot’ down and bring it to our awareness. Similarly, when things you do in your relationship, and/or some of the patterns, don’t work, being a human and a great learner means you can slow these processes down, bring them to your awareness and make conscious choices. Try this until you find what works and it too will become a more effective ‘script’ in Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart.

Some of these scripts are likely to affect you outside of your home. Humans have a unique ability to ‘conjure up’ a mental experience without the need in external triggers. For example, I can, from time to time, experience real emotional reactions (with real biological changes in my body) in response to some of my memories, or fears for the future. Neither one has to be present in the room with me, I just get ‘hooked’ on this mental experience. In therapy – what you learnt about being hurt in relationships could affect how you relate to your therapist. You may anticipate and/or misinterpret things as judgement, blaming… more hurt. Generally, 3 things are likely to make changes more difficult for you: a) lack of clarity in who cares for whom at what point – you and your partner kind of take turns; b) getting ‘hooked’ on past wounds and hurt; c) getting ‘hooked’ on logic and missing the big picture of what you and/or your partner are going through. Some terrible logic can lead us to build resentment, rather than gratitude. One such ‘hook’ has been described by social psychologists Harold Kelley and John Thibaut as ‘CL alt’ or ‘Comparison Level for Alternatives’. This is when as a partner, I decide to shift the responsibility for my actions in the relationship to my partner, assume I am beyond blame, and stop committing to Winning my Sweetheart’s Heart. Usual thoughts that come with this are ‘I don’t need this mess’ or ‘I deserve better’ – the perception that if the partner was to be replaced, I would somehow be having a great relationship. To effectively be Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart, you will need to be able to notice when you are ‘hooked’ and return to acting on what is important.

Finally remember, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. You are likely to experience some effective times, but also some ineffective. This does not mean that “nothing works”. It just means that in the balance of things, you are right now ineffective. Work with your partner to grow the times that you are effective. Learn to notice as quickly as possible when you are ineffective and return to what you found works for you to be effective again. Regularly seek opportunity to celebrate your partner. As the DJ Avicii and singer-writer Aloe Blacc put it…
Life’s a game made for everyone, and love is the prize…

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