The Sound Relationship House

By Carrie Jones, LCSW

One of the most basic yet crucial elements of moving to Shanghai is setting up our homes.  Most of us spend some degree of time, effort and money making sure our house or apartment is a refuge and sanctuary from the busyness and stress of life here, a place in which we feel safe and comfortable. Are we as intentional however, about ensuring our family relationships are as safe and healthy as our homes?  The answer to this question should be a resounding yes!

Marriage therapists John and Julie Gottman have outlined seven relationship levels that when used together, can build a “Sound Relationship House.”  The Gottmans apply this concept to marriages, but it can easily be extended to all family relationships. Refer to these levels to help strengthen the emotional health and bonds within your family:

Level 1: Build Love Maps (Know One Another)

According to the Gottmans, “Masters of relationships have developed a map of the world of their partners, a map of their partner’s history, concerns, preferences, that is the current world of their partner.” Just because we knew our spouse when we first married, doesn’t mean we still know them today.  Similarly, just because we knew our child when he or she was 4, doesn’t mean we still know them at 14.  People change with time and experience.  Be purposeful about keeping current on loved ones likes, dislikes, interests, and activities.

Level 2: Share Fondness and Admiration

It’s not sufficient just to love our spouse or child – we must find meaningful ways to express our love for them on a regular basis in a way they can understand and or receive. The book titled The Five Love Languages, states that some people like to hear, “I love you,” while others might prefer a hug or a back rub, while still others crave your time and attention. 

Level 3: Turn Towards Each Other (Build the Emotional Bank Account)

The Gottmans coined a phrase, “bids for attention,” which refers to when one partner makes a passing comment (not something that necessarily needs an answer or direct response) in the presence of the other. A husband might comment on a news story he is reading or a wife might remark on the scenery as they are driving.  “Turning towards” is when the other partner responds and engages in a dialogue, signaling a desire to communicate, which fosters a healthy relationship.  The 5:1 principal states that to build healthy relationships every negative statement or criticism should be balanced by five positive statements.  ‘Turning towards’ one another helps build the emotional bank account, ensuring plenty of positive interaction is occurring on a regular basis. Sharing positive statements helps balance out the inevitable times when conflict arises or when a complaint does have to be shared (these can be viewed as withdrawals from the emotional bank account).  It is crucial that we express plenty of specific praise and words of love and affection as well as “turning towards” one another.

Level 4: The Positive Perspective

Some of us may reach a point in which just the sound of someone’s voice irritates us.  It doesn’t matter what they say, we are annoyed as soon as that individual opens their mouth.  It’s important to deal with negative sentiments and feelings before they reach this point.  If we find ourselves nearing or reaching this level with a loved one, we must do something to change the dynamic of the relationship.  As tempting as it may be, we must not allow ourselves to dwell on the irritating or annoying qualities we see, instead, we should seek out and focus on the positive qualities they possess.  Consider scheduling regular times to have fun with and relate to one another in a more positive way rather than staying stuck in the same patterns of predictable day-to-day routines.

Level 5:  Manage Conflict

Conflict is inevitable.  It is not possible to completely avoid it, but it is possible to manage it in a healthy way.  The Gottmans emphasize that in every interaction, there are two valid realities, not just one.

We must take time to listen to our loved ones, try to understand (even if not accept) their points of view, and invest time in developing skills to navigate conflicts.   When families find they must discuss a potentially sensitive subject, they can utilize a skill that the Gottmans teach called softened start-up.  Softened-start up involves talking about one’s own feelings and then expressing a positive need (a wish, a hope or a desire).  Softened start up is effective especially when we are aware of the importance of timing when initiating a potentially emotionally charged conversation (i.e., not right when someone walks in the door after a long day at work or school.) If the timing is beneficial then family members can start the conversation off gently and on a positive note before gradually moving into the heart of the matter.

Level 6: Make Life Dreams Come True

One of the best ways to strengthen and enhance our relationships is by working towards a mutual goal.  One of the most powerful ways parents can do this is to express belief and confidence in their children and help them accomplish their goals (the child’s, not the parents’), both short and long-term.  Similarly, spouses should also find ways to express faith in each other’s goals and support one another to achieve them both personally and professionally. It is also important to have shared dreams as a family and to actively work to realize these.  Working together towards a common cause has unlimited potential in uniting families and building the bonds between family members.

Level 7: Create Shared Meaning (Legacy, Values, and Rituals of Connection)

It is very easy to get caught up in the day to day practical aspects of life and forget the bigger meaning or purpose.  Families should take time to talk about what really matters to them, be it values, morals, principals or spiritual foundations.  These are the roots that will help support families in the rough times and ensure they grow together, towards a stronger and healthier future.

Rituals of connection (traditions) also have tremendous value in defining and uniting a family.  Regardless of where we live, it’s important to have special family traditions, especially while living in Shanghai where the broader culture may not be celebrating the same special holidays and life events that we do.  In many ways, it’s up to us to create the atmosphere and festivity of the holiday and to make celebrations a significant event for our families.  We must try to find a balance between continuing old traditions while also creating new traditions here.

If you find yourself in need of figuring out how to best establish any of these levels of the Sound Relationship House (things are always easier in theory than in practice!) or just in need of general support, don’t be afraid to reach out.  Community Center Shanghai has counselors who have solid experience in working with families and especially in understanding the unique challenges families living here in Shanghai face.  

To learn more about CCS, the services we offer, and to view the profiles of our counselors, visit  To schedule a counseling session or for more detailed information, call 136 3631 7474 or email

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