Most relationships start with Yes.

Can I buy you a drink?
Would you like to go out sometime?
May I kiss you?
Will you marry me?

Yes.

Do you remember your first Yes-es? Do you remember the thrill of connecting to another person? The joy of getting to know one another? Do you remember the world that began opening up on the strength of that tiny word? Do you remember how that answer led to more questions?

Yes is a word that does more than answer a question. It creates opportunity and invites possibility. Yes opens doors. And allows for a certain kind of mathematical magic, multiplying itself as you continue to use it. It’s a powerful word. Dr. Dan Siegel draws attention to this power with this pretty simple exercise:

Notice how you feel when you read these words:

No.

     No.

     No.

     No.

     No.

     No.

     No.

Now sense how you feel when you read these words:

Yes.

     Yes.

     Yes.

     Yes.

     Yes.

     Yes.

     Yes.

What did you notice?

Seriously, pause for just a moment and notice what you noticed. I was surprisingly moved when I first did the exercise earlier this year. With “no,” I felt scolded and alone and even started breathing heavy. With “yes,” I felt relaxed and even relieved. Just now, I did it again with this video and had an almost identical experience.

Dr. Siegel suggests that “yes” makes us more receptive and that “when we are receptive, presence can be created. Practicing presence is essential for the thriving of our relationships.” I’d argue that thriving relationships exist only when both partners are consistently saying Yes.

John Gottman’s model of thriving relationships, called the Sound Relationship House, is supported by the twin pillars of trust and commitment. Trust is established as partners ask and answer the question, “Can I count on you?” and then answer “Yes” with both conviction and consistency. Commitment is built by reinforcing that Yes over time even through conflict and mis-communication and job stress and empty nests  and few too many drinks and a few extra pounds.

But it’s not just the walls of the house that are dependent upon Yes. Yes is in the DNA of the entire structure (Aside: Do buildings have DNA? End of aside). Imagine your house. Imagine that every room, every closet, every lamp, couch, utensil, every corner – even the dusty ones – are asking you a question about your relationship.

At the foundational level, those questions are about the relational friendship. Do you know your partner’s story? Do you like your partner? Do you tell her? Do you turn toward your partner? Do you turn toward him enthusiastically? Are you attracted you your partner? Are you proud of her? Are you grateful? Do you say so?

An abundance of Yes leads to the Positive Perspective which is essential for thriving relationships. When the relationship has a surplus of positive energy, partners are better equipped to face the harder questions that inevitably come up.

Psychologist Dan Wile says, “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” This is just to say all relationships have conflict. The middle level of the Sound Relationship House asks couples to manage that conflict with Yes: Yes, I will seek to understand your problem before I seek to solve it. Yes, I will work to cultivate empathy for your point of view. Yes, I will respect your dream. Yes, I will dialogue with you even though – and especially – when I disagree with you. Yes, I will remember to talk with you like you are someone I love. Relationships that handle conflict well are answering these questions with Yes.

A critical skill in conflict management is the art of compromise. Most negotiations break down because parties are focused on their differences. They concentrate on protecting their territory. The Gottmans suggest switching the focus toward identifying what you have in common. Articulating and pursuing the common goal. They call it…wait for it…“Getting to Yes.”

The attic of the Sound Relationship House is about creating shared meaning and making life dreams come true. Will you dream with me? Will you create with me? Can we do something that’s never been done before? Yes opens doors to ideas and opportunities that you may not have considered.

You don’t have to go skydiving or spelunking, but you could. You could also just start at home. Start by asking your partner what their dreams are. Do you know? Can you say right now what your partner’s dream is? If not, turn that “no” into a “yes” as soon as possible. It’s hard to pursue dreams together if you don’t know what they are.

Look for opportunities for Yes in your house. Look in every corner, even the dusty ones. You may have to pay a little extra attention. You may have to be a little more present. I promise you, your partner is asking you questions all the time, even if you can’t hear them. Saying Yes is a great way to start being present and creating a thriving relationship.

More in The Relationship Alphabet
Y is for Yes
Zach Brittle, LMHC

Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at his website.