The daily grind: a swirl of job efforting, dinner cooking and traffic waiting. No wonder that it’s easy to fall out of touch—much less fall out of love—with our life partner. But there’s a solution, according to psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John M. Gottman, who claims that the couples most likely to enjoy marital closeness and satisfaction are the ones who build richly detailed “love maps.”
Love maps are an outline of everything you know about your partner: hobbies, dreams, frustrations, the whole enchilada (including and not limited to details like do they even like enchiladas?). Gottman’s theory, part of a therapeutic method he’s practiced and taught for more than 50 years, is that when we’re really clear on these details, our partner feels heard and cared for. We asked two therapists trained in the Gottman Method to help explain the whys and hows of love mapping.
What Is Love Mapping?
A metaphorical rather than literal map (although geography is one way to practice the exercise on paper), the love map is all the intel, both factual and emotional, you have about your partner. Think of it as plotting your partner’s emotional landscape, whether or not it corresponds to an actual map. As Bridbord puts it: “You creatively ‘map’ your partner’s inner and outer world. We all have different countries like our relationships to our partner, our work, our worries, our fears.”
Why get all up in your partner’s business, anyway? Bridbord says it’s because couples who regularly seek deep understanding of each other’s worlds are far happier. “Why do you think couples’ therapists are notorious for requiring date nights?” she asks. “It’s not to sit silently in a movie, it’s to have time to ask how was was your day, how is that project you’re working on and so on.” Critically, the information swap has to be a two-way street, McNeil says, in order for both parties to feel seen and heard. “I recently had a couple and she was doing all the inner questions and he would share his stories, then change the subject and he was not asking her questions back.” McNeil explains that the guy wasn’t asking questions because he didn’t care, it was because he’d get caught up in his own narrative. McNeil used the communications mismatch as a teachable moment about reciprocation.
When Should a Couple Try Love Mapping?
There’s no wrong time. In fact, couples can do it several times throughout the course of their relationship. That said, McNeil warns that if it’s not the foundation at beginning of relationship, you will have trouble later. And there’s a reason for that. “We project a lot at the beginning. We have endorphins and are not asking difficult questions because we don’t want to be abandoned and we want to stay in the happy place, but we’re not doing the work,” she explains. Later, after you’ve laid a foundation of extensive knowledge about your lover, the challenge is to stay current on their lives. “It’s a myth your partner is stagnant,” Bridbord says. “Life is dynamic, and we need to stay in touch with each other to cultivate connection.”
How Long Does Love Mapping Take?
Gottman-trained therapists recommend downloading the free Gottman Card Decks app, which has a Love Maps section of prompts like “Name your partner’s two best friends”; “What is your partner’s favorite musical group composer or instrument?”; and “What was your partner wearing when you first met?” The challenge is to choose a question, answer it, then have your partner answer it about you. The app recommends you don’t keep score, since the goal is meaningful conversation and connection, not winning. Overall, Bridbord recommends devoting at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week to focusing on your love map, i.e. accruing intimate knowledge, of each other in order to keep your intimacy alive. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” she says.
Try to Go Deeper with Follow-Up Questions
In other words—go deeper. “If you just know their favorite color is green, that isn’t whole story,” McNeil explains, saying that asking follow-up questions is the path to lasting intimacy. “What does that color represent to me, how did I come to that, what does it represent?” Curious questions are a way to demonstrate you are being thoughtful. Bridbord agrees: “At the end of the day we all long to be loved for our authentic self, we are all perfectly imperfect. The happy, successful couples are the ones who ultimately love each other with warts and all. Their partner loves them authentically and knows not just that their favorite food is linguini with clam sauce, but the story behind it, like that they used to eat it at Sunday family dinner.”
Article by Dana Dickey, originally published on PureWow.