“There is, and always will be, more that you don’t know about your partner… Another way of saying this is you can always get to know your partner better.”
— Zach Brittle, licensed mental health counselor
Why do some spouses grow ever closer, while others grow apart?
Psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John M. Gottman may have an answer.
Gottman has conducted over 40 years’ research with thousands of couples. He’s well-known across the world for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction.
Moreover, in 2007, The Psychotherapy Networker described him as “one of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century.”
It’s safe to say he knows a lot about relationships and how they work.
According to Gottman, the couples most likely to enjoy marital closeness and satisfaction are the ones who build richly detailed “love maps”.
Table of Contents1. What are "love maps"?2. Why do "love maps" matter?3. Signs you might need to work on your "love maps"4. What do healthy “love maps” look like?5. Suggestions for building better "love maps"
1. What are “love maps”?
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman defines a “love map” as “that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life.”
Having a detailed “love map” involves taking a genuine interest in your partner. It means making plenty of mental space to store information about their personal opinions, preferences, quirks, dreams, and fears.
You should be aware of major events in each other’s life history, and attentively update your inventory of knowledge as your spouse or lover continues to grow and change.
“Getting to know your partner better and sharing your inner self with them is an lifelong process,” says Ellie Lisitsa, staff writer at the Gottman Institute. “The more you know about each other, the more you feel a strong connection, and the more profound and rewarding your relationship will be.”
2. Why do “love maps” matter?
Gottman says spouses who are in the habit of keeping up to date with each other’s lives (including intimate details about what the other feels and thinks), are better equipped to cope with major life changes, stressful events, and conflict.
It’s common knowledge that the birth of a first child can be a testing time for any marriage. A study of 50 newlyweds published in Journal of Family Psychology found that in 67% of couples, parenthood coincided with a significant drop in marital satisfaction.
In the remaining 33% of couples, however, marital satisfaction either increased, or remained stable. The researchers found that the satisfied couples showed greater awareness of their partners, and their partners’ lives (compared to dissatisfied couples).
In other words, because the satisfied spouses were already in the habit of staying abreast of each other’s emotions and experiences, this acted as a sort of protective “glue” for their marriage.
Gottman tells us “the experience of parenthood is so profound that your whole notion of who you are and what you value gets reshuffled.” Especially when your lives are shifting dramatically, it’s key to prioritize knowing each other.
Staying on top of how their significant other is changing enables couples to “go through the transformation to parenthood together, without losing sight of each other or their marriage.”
“Having a baby is just one life event that can cause couples to lose their way without a detailed love map,” explains Gottman. “A job shift, a move, illness, retirement or even just the passage of time can have the same effect. But the more you know and understand about each other, the easier it is to keep connected as life swirls around you.”
3. Signs you might need to work on your “love maps”
Throughout his extensive years as a clinician and researcher, Gottman has seen many married couples fall inadvertently into the problematic habit of neglecting their “love maps”.
To illustrate this common relationship issue, Gottman provides a deliberately extreme example. He describes Rory and Lisa, a couple he encountered, who were experiencing serious relationship problems:
“Rory was a workaholic pediatrician who slept in the hospital an average of twenty nights a month. He didn’t know the names of his children’s friends, or even the name of the family dog.”
Rory’s wife, Lisa, was upset — not just because she saw very little of Rory, but because he seemed so emotionally unconnected to her, and to his home life. He seemed irritated by her attempts to show him she cared. Lisa began to fear their marriage was no longer important to him.
Although Rory and Lisa’s situation may seem hyperbolic, Gottman says a similar dynamic plays out in many relationships, although usually in a less dramatic way.
It starts when couples slip into a pattern of “inattention to the details of their spouse’s life.”
In other words, they are so caught up in other priorities, there’s little space left in their minds for keeping up with each other’s ever-evolving worlds.
Hence, they only have a very basic, superficial sense of each other’s present likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, hopes and anxieties.
Here’s what this might look like in your partnership:
- You may know your husband loves a certain kind of music, but you’ve no idea which musicians inspire him the most.
- Your wife may have developed a new circle of close friends, but you can’t remember what she does with them, or what any of their names are.
- Your partner might have told you they’re having serious problems with a co-worker, but you’re foggy on the details.
4. What do healthy “love maps” look like?
In contrast, Gottman explains that emotionally intelligent couples are “intimately familiar with each other’s worlds.”
They recognize that “life changes everyone, and that neither of them may be the same person who spoke those wedding vows five, ten, or fifty years ago.”
Understanding this truth actually makes couples more stable — not less so. Those who don’t take their knowledge of each other for granted make the time to check in with one another periodically. Naturally, this leads to deeper mutual understanding and friendship.
Licensed mental health counselor Zach Brittle puts it this way:
“When you choose to spend your life with someone, you hand them a map to your inner world. But the map you hand your partner is [only] a pencil sketch. The task for couples is to intentionally be adding details to that map by asking questions and telling stories […]”
In this way, your “love maps” help you gain clarity about each other, as well as about the journey through life you’re taking together.
Here’s what well-built “love maps” might look like in your relationship:
- You’re able to surprise your partner with food they enjoy, because you know some of their current favorite dishes.
- You’re aware of your spouse’s long and short-term career aspirations, as well as how they’re feeling about their boss these days.
- You know about the greatest periods of stress or trauma in your wife or husband’s childhood, and you understand how these experiences still affect their family relationships.
5. Suggestions for building better “love maps”
Since understanding one another is a lifelong process, it’s important for all couples to keep developing their “love maps” — regardless of how well they feel they know each other right now.
The process of regularly updating each other’s “love maps” can be as simple as sitting down and catching up, Lisitsa tells us. In his book, Gottman provides a positive example of a couple who “always made sure they had time to catch up on each other’s day, no matter how busy they were” and prioritized at least one weekly dinner during which “they just talked.”
Remember, Gottman also says that couples with healthy “love maps” are “in touch not just with the outlines of each other’s lives — their favorite hobbies, sports, and so on — but with each other’s deepest longings, beliefs, and fears.”
To sustain real personal insight, therefore, it’s important that your conversations extend beyond the superficial:
“Love maps shouldn’t just be broad — they should also be deep […] Your goal is to listen and learn about your mate.”
To facilitate learning, Gottman advises thinking about questions to ask your partner, such as: “How are you feeling about parenthood these days?” or “What’s the hardest thing about work at the moment?”
Keep your “love maps” up to date by ensuring you’re aware of the following:
- The present “cast of characters” in your partner’s life, including friends, potential friends, and rivals
- Recent and upcoming important events. What has your partner achieved that they’re proud of recently? What is your partner excited about, or dreading?
- Your partner’s current worries and aspirations
If your “love maps” are already quite detailed, but you’d like to reach an even greater level of intimacy, Gottman suggests setting aside an uninterrupted stretch of time to journal in private for self-exploration.
Afterwards, sharing and discussing your entries with your partner can help deepen your knowledge of each other.
Possible writing prompts might include:
- How was affection expressed in your family when you were growing up? How does this affect your relationships today?
- What life experiences would you like to have (which have not taken place yet)?
- What demons in yourself have you overcome? Which demons are you still fighting?
Throughout the lifetime of your relationship, expect to keep returning to your “love maps” to update your knowledge about yourselves and each other.
This knowledge will not only deepen your bond, but protect it in the wake of dramatic upheaval. If you don’t make a conscious effort to keep understanding each other, it’s too easy for your relationship to flounder when life throws you sudden curveballs.
As Gottman reminds us: “Without a [detailed] love map, you can’t really know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them?”