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Five Building Blocks of Relationship Culture

Five Building Blocks of Relationship Culture

 My last blog discussed the culture we create within our relationships. If you missed this blog, feel free to check it out HERE.

Making any sort of intentional change in our relationships can be difficult to say the least. Navigating how to balance more than one individual’s emotions, opinions, experiences, etc. can be a daunting task. That being said, establishing a supportive relationship culture that works for you will make it much easier to make decisions, meet one another’s’ needs, and face problems together in the long run. (more…)

The Culture of Relationships Part 1

The Culture of Relationships Part 1

The past few weeks, I have been gearing up to teach my course about culture, families, and diversity at BYU again in the fall (hopefully in person and not just online!) Through reviewing my materials from last year and thinking about how I want to teach going forward, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of culture.

Defining Culture

What is culture? We’ve heard about it and talked about it throughout our lives, but what does it really mean? Culture can be succinctly defined as the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, roles, etc. acquired by a group of people (Samovar & Porter, 1994). Another way to describe culture is simple: culture is the way people do things.

There are several different types of culture. For example, in the business world, companies and organizations often talk about creating a culture for the employees and consumers. Ethnic groups from around the world have distinct cultures that govern their ways of life. In difficult times, we often turn to our culture, whether it be religious, ethnic, corporate, etc., as a way to cope. Leaning on cultural values and ways of living give individuals direction and comfort in uncertainty. For example, a company may lean on its cultural values when faced with a global pandemic as they decide whether to lay workers off or cut pay. A family might lean on their religious culture as they lose a loved one. When faced with oppression or discrimination, an ethnic group may lean on their ethnic culture as a way to make sense of their pain and gain strength.

Relational Culture

The same way various types of culture can provide coping during difficult times, the culture of our relationships and families can do the same. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests 10 questions that really help us understand culture. As you read through them, think about your family and relationship culture. How do these questions help guide your understanding of your own family and relationship culture? How does your culture help or hinder your individual coping?

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

(Brown, 2012).

As a marriage and family therapist, I frequently get asked questions about challenges that may arise in marital relationships. A few common questions that I hear are, “What if my partner goes back to compulsively viewing pornography?” “What if my partner slips back into eating disorder behaviors?” “What if my partner’s anxiety becomes unmanageable again?” These are painful and difficult questions that can invoke a lot of fear and anxiety in those asking them. The unknown, especially in a relationship, can feel threatening and scary. Instead of giving a protocol, a solution, or advice, I typically like to reflect my client’s question back to them. What if that does happen? What will you do? How will you handle it together? In what ways are you building your relationship now to be able to deal with the difficulties that will come later on?

Here’s where the idea of relationship culture really becomes important. It’s not so much about what to do in each scenario, but how your relationship tolerates difficulty. When those difficulties come, are you open and honest with one another? What boundaries are set in place about what is appropriate to share outside of a marital or familial relationship? How do you handle emotional disclosures in your relationship?

As a marriage and family therapist I have seen ways in which relationship cultures lift heavy burdens off of the shoulders of individuals, heal broken hearts and wounded minds, and allows individuals to be the most authentic versions of themselves and loved for it. On the other hand, I have seen the culture of relationships inflict pain, multiply shame, and stunt individual growth and vulnerability. The culture of our relationships impacts all individuals involved in those relationships and is vital to consistently work on.

Relationship Culture is Important…Now What?

Now that we’ve discussed relationship culture and why it is important, you may be wondering how to build a healthy, open, and resilient relationship culture within your marriages and families. I think the first step is to get honest with yourself about what your relationship culture really looks like, perhaps by asking yourself the ten questions listed above. As you do so, think about the following: what do you like about the culture of your relationships? What’s not working for you? What have you observed in other relationship cultures that you’ve been a part of that you admired? That hurt you? Next month I will dive into more practical ways to build up a healthy, supportive relationship culture in your marriages and families.



Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.

Samovar, Larry A and Porter, Richard E.,1994: Basic Principles of Intercultural Communication. In Larry A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter: Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 7th ed., Wadsworth, Inc., CA:USA.


Finding Beauty During Dark Days

Finding Beauty During Dark Days

We are memory collectors. Memories shape the narratives of our lives. They shape our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. Memories contain stories as well as the full range of emotional experience. Memories hold our humanity. (more…)

A Recipe for Connection

A Recipe for Connection

I am the youngest in my family by 12 years. You read that right, my sisters were 18 and 16 and my brother was 12 when I was born. Because of the large age gap, my brother and I haven’t necessarily had the typical sibling relationship. I’m not the best at keeping in touch with him by phone but we make time to see each other 3-4 times per year. I spent about a week with him over holidays and loved our time together talking, playing games, and cooking. My brother and I both really love cooking and trying out new recipes. The other day I got a text from him with a recipe for shrimp and grits (YUM). I quickly replied, “Yum! We’ll have to try it out. Thanks!” As I began to move onto other things, I thought about it for a second. Why did my brother send me the recipe? He could have sent it to me for a few reasons. 1. To show off his cooking skills and refined palette 2. Because he knows I like cooking and trying new things 3. To connect with me. Now, I haven’t talked with him to confirm my theory, but I’m guessing it was a mix of all three. My quick response to his text message would have allowed me to miss out on connecting with him more fully. Instead, I decided to call him, which is pretty unusual for me to do. We talked on the phone for his entire 1-hour commute home. I hung up feeling rejuvenated and grateful to be related to such a good human. (more…)

Brave the Spaces Part 3

Brave the Spaces Part 3

Being braver in our relationships sounds like a nice idea. As we’ve read in previous blogs over the past few months, there are several benefits of moving our relationships towards bravery and vulnerability. But at the heart of things, how do we do this? How can we intentionally create relationships that are brave? Transforming our relationships to brave spaces requires a purposeful decision to exercise bravery every day. Here are some methods of creating and adjusting our relationships towards bravery that you can try out for yourselves. (more…)

Brave the Spaces – Part 2

Brave the Spaces – Part 2

In my last post, I talked about the importance of bravery in our relationships. If you haven’t read it, feel free to take a look HERE.

One important aspect of bravery in our relationships is communication. Honest, open communication requires a high level of vulnerability and bravery. Many couples that I have worked with know that their communication patterns need to increase in honesty and vulnerability, but they aren’t sure how to go about making that happen. It can seem scary and overwhelming; many people feel unsure of where to start. Hopefully this blog can be a crash course in some of the best ways to bravely improve your communication, whether with a spouse, child, parent, friend, romantic partner, etc.

Soft Start-Up

The first principle of brave communication is what prolific marriage researcher, John Gottman, calls a soft start-up. Being soft feels a little counterintuitive to bravery. However, a soft start-up sets the tone and creates a space for vulnerability and bravery. Gottman’s research shows that 90% of conversations end the way they start (Gottman, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work). Therefore, if we want our relationships to be vulnerable and brave, starting soft is a great option. This means trying your best to emotionally regulate beforehand, describing what you see in the relationship without being judgmental, and owning your feelings.

Own Your Own Feelings

One of the difficult and vital parts of communication is owning your feelings—even the difficult ones. This can be challenging because sometimes those difficult emotions feel raw, painful, and far too vulnerable to share, even within a brave relationship. Instead of bravely stepping into the discomfort of those emotions, sometimes we share surface-level emotional experiences that may be masking what’s actually going on for us. An analogy often used in the therapy world is an iceberg. For example, what we might see on the surface is anger, but underneath may be pain, loneliness, fear of rejection, and so on. When we only share the surface level emotions, we run the risk of not having our underlying, tender emotions taken care of by our partners, or are not satisfied with the responses our partners give us.

Owning your feelings by speaking to what is actually going on is brave! One way to effectively do this is by using “I statements.” This helps you stay out of blaming language that can make your partner feel isolated and defensive. For example, instead of saying, “You’re never home on time!” (acknowledging the surface level of the iceberg), you may say, “I feel anxious and a little abandoned when you don’t call when you’re going to be late coming home” (acknowledging the underlying, more vulnerable emotions). Owning your emotions and beginning difficult conversations with “I statements” allows the person you’re communicating with to understand what is going on for you and instantly softens them up a little to take care of those vulnerable feelings.

Avoid Protecting Forms of Communication

Prolific marriage researcher, John Gottman, suggests that there are four unhealthy patterns of communication that, if present in relationships, can often lead to divorce. These are ominously dubbed the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for relationships. These forms of communication are used to protect oneself. As discussed in the previous blog, it is hard to connect with our partners when we are so focused on protecting ourselves from risk. Evaluate the important relationships in your life. Are these Four Horsemen present? If so, take some time to think about how you could work together with your partner to avoid these and replace them with more constructive ways of communicating, leaving more space for bravery.

Four Horsemen

Criticism. Criticism is seen when there is an attack on character or personality rather than behaviors. This keeps us out of bravery because it is easier to blame and shame than it is to show that something that the other person did was painful or difficult for us.

Defensiveness. A common response to criticism is defensiveness. We don’t  listen when we are defending ourselves. We also might flip the attack on the other person, making our conversation about being right and being safe rather than connection or working on problems.

Contempt. Contempt is criticism’s big brother and involves more hostile forms of attacking, including things like eye-rolling, name-calling, and sarcasm. It’s easy to see how nearly impossible it would be to have a brave conversation in this environment.

Stonewalling. Stonewalling is just what it sounds like: ignoring, running away, or distancing one’s self as a way to avoid conflict or difficult conversations. Stonewalling can foster anxiety and mistrust between partners, making it very difficult to be willing to engage bravely. It is also impossible to have a brave relationship if you’re avoiding it!

You can read more about these Four Horsemen styles in John Gottman’s book, “7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.”

We barely scraped the tip of the iceberg with this blog about brave communication (see what I did there?), but hopefully it’s gotten us thinking about our communication styles with those we love and how we can improve them. Communication is a huge part of good relationships and a great way for us to practice more bravery with those we love. Keep an eye out for the next blog that will discuss how to cultivate more bravery in our relationships.



Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.