By Mark Goulston

“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist” – Indira Gandhi

Our take on this is that you can’t and won’t relate to another person as long as you are locked out of being able to empathically connect to them either because of your anger and resentment. On the other hand you may not relate to them because you have a belief you are adamantly holding onto and psychologically unable to let it go.

Design Thinking is an approach to creative problem solving made popular by David Kelley, Founder of the design company, IDEO. We decided to apply it to the problem of creating and sustaining a happy marriage, personal or business relationship/partnership. Here are the steps and applications:

1.    Empathy — The first step of design thinking is to truly get where your mate, customer, client or target market is coming and even beyond what they say or are conscious of. Empathy is the Rate Limiting Step (after which the next steps flow more fluidly) to the process because with it, you’re able let go of preconceived notions or personal agendas and deeply listen to others with an unfiltered, beginner’s mind.

British psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, referred to this as “listening without memory or desire.” By that he meant listening with no prior (memory) agenda or present/future (desire) personal agenda that you are trying to plug someone into. Another word for that is “pure curiosity.”

John and Julie Gottman are two of the most respected and authoritative experts on relationships and empathized deeply with what can destroy a marriage (or any relationship) and have described the Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Of all of them, contempt is the most destructive.

From our experience working with couples and business partnerships for thirty plus years, we would agree with the Gottmans’ observations and conclusions, especially with regard to the highly destructive role of contempt in a relationship.

If empathizing with a moribund relationship reveals the above, what might the polar opposite be?

With marriage and intimate relationships we believe it is being loved and being loving and what sustains that and also applies to business partnerships is enjoying and liking your partner and possibly more important, feeling enjoyed and liked by them.

Our work has revealed that when you ask couples (and this may be less so about business relationships) if they had to choose between enjoying and liking their partner or feeling enjoyed and liked by them, the majority of individuals will choose the latter.

As one man explained, “When instead of feeling enjoyed and liked, you feel dislike, disdain and even contempt from your partner it feels like an ice pick picking away at the inside of your ribcage.”

An additional interesting and revealing observation is that the more a person replies that they’d much rather enjoy the other person than be enjoyed by them, the greater the likelihood that that first person has narcissistic tendencies (because of not caring about what the other person feels).

2.   Problem Definition — The second step is utilizing what you learn from empathizing with your partner and turning that into a problem to be solved.

This reveals two problems to be solved. First, how do you prevent a relationship from deteriorating into mutual contempt and if and when inevitable conflicts and arguments occur, how can you default back to and then sustain liking/enjoying and feeling liked/enjoyed by each other even when the arguments aren’t resolved.

3.   Ideation — Following the problem definition, the next step is to ideate about a possible solution that can be turned into a prototype.

If the four horsemen including contempt can destroy a relationship, what might their polar opposite be? After many years of doing couples therapy and inventing Recoupling Therapy (helping divorced couples successfully come back together and remarry) and also working with business partnerships, we have observed that partners don’t necessarily stop loving each other – in that they can remain attached/habituated to each other – but they do stop liking each other. The more that partners like and enjoy and feel liked and enjoyed by each other and continue to feel that way, the greater the chance that their relationship will last.

The sooner partners can recognize when either or both begin to dislike each other, the more likely they can step in and reverse it.

The longer dislike – either mutual or felt by one partner – is allowed to go unchecked and uncorrected, the more likely it is to cross over into anger, resentment and eventually contempt.  

Therefore, if a process can be instituted and implemented at the first sign of like and enjoyment turning into frustration and then quickly into dislike and then reversing it, the greater the chance to keep a relationship from deteriorating.

4.   Prototype — In this step, a prototype is created to address the problem to be solved.

In our experience, the more proactive an approach is, the more likely it is to lead to a positive lasting result. In contradistinction, the more reactive partners are, the less likely will there be a lasting result.

Why is that?

The more you focus on a future possibility that appeals to both partners and before either messes up in the eyes of the other, the more people will buy into it. The more both people react to a negative event the more likely either is to become defensive or be on the attack.

The following “prototype” contains three parts and combines practices from friends who after going through divorces and/or ugly business partnership breakups have come upon solutions that prevent disagreements from escalating into arguments, fights and malevolent feelings.

  1. Set ground rules for conduct that both agree and commit to more than having to win or be right when conflicts arise. For example:
    • Never using the words, “You never” or “You always”
    • Never screaming at each other
    • Never shutting down emotionally
    • Always committing verbally to the relationship before it’s time to go to sleep with, “I’m still not over this, but I love you and want to be with you, but we will talk more about this tomorrow.” This avoids having the partner who can’t fall asleep (whereas the other partner may go to sleep to avoid thinking about it) ruminate about it all night
    • Either person having the option to table the conversation until another time or day, when calmer minds can prevail
  2. Formally set a time each month to ask and answer the question, “Are we on track?” During that conversation, each person gets to explain what they’ve been frustrated, upset and disappointed about in the prior month without being interrupted and where the other person only gets to ask clarifying questions. Following this they are to describe what they would prefer their partner do differently – either what positive behavior they’d desire from them or negative behavior they’d want them to stop – in the next month.
  3. Prior awful relationships to put and keep things in perspective. One of the most happily married couples I know, whose partners were both previously divorced, told me that what helps them get through any conflict without becoming angry was remembering their prior marriage and how difficult, hostile and horrendous their ex-spouse had reacted during conflicts. Just the thought of never thinking they’d get out of those marriages sane or even alive, causes each of them to realize how much better their current marriage is and realizing this, they will go from frustrated and angry to chuckling and being grateful to be with their new partner. This realization can also apply to business partnerships as I can personally attest.

5.   Test — In this final step in Design Thinking, the prototype is tested to see if it solves the identified problem from step 2.

Couples and/or partners will bring up the three practice prototype above and discuss how to put each practice into action and also discuss whatever objections either partner might have and what steps going forward they can take as individuals and as a couple to overcome them.

In our experience, any partner who objects to the above is often communicating that when their emotions and feelings are triggered, they expect their partner to deal with it by agreeing to conform to change to accommodate the first partner’s complaints. This may appease an easy-to-upset, difficult-to-please (i.e. “high maintenance”) partner in the short run, but usually doesn’t work in the long run and will often lead to increasing resentment, conflict avoidance by the less overly emotional partner until it builds up and a point of no return is reached, which is difficult or even impossible to come back from.

One alternative is to refer back to the practice of agreed upon ground rules for dealing with disagreements and conflicts as explained in 4 – Prototype above.

The above is a work in progress to use Design Thinking to keep a relationship healthy and happy, and we’d welcome your input regarding it and would especially appreciate your trying it out and getting back to us.


  • Mark Goulston, M.D.

    Author, speaker, podcast host, psychiatrist

    Dr. Mark Goulston is the inventor and developer of Surgical Empathy an approach that helps people to break their attachments to counterproductive modes of functioning and frees them to connect with more productive and healthier alternatives. He is the host of the “My Wakeup Call” podcast where he interviews people on the wakeup calls that changed who they are and made them better human beings and at being human and the host of the LinkedIn Live show, "No Strings Attached." He is a Founding Member of the Newsweek Expert Forum. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on deep listening, radical empathy and real influence with his book, “Just Listen,” becoming the top book on listening in the world, translated into twenty languages and a topic he speaks and teaches globally. He is an advisor, coach, mentor and confidante to CEO’s, founders and entrepreneurs helping them to unlock all their internal blocks to achieving success, fulfillment and happiness. Originally a UCLA professor of psychiatry and crisis psychiatrist for over 25 years, and former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer, Dr. Goulston's expertise has been forged and proven in the crucible of real-life, high stakes situations including being a boots on the ground suicide prevention specialist and serving as an advisor in the OJ Simpson criminal trial. Including, “Just Listen,” he is the author or co-author of nine books with multiple best sellers. He writes or contributes to Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Biz Journals, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Psychology Today and has appeared as an psychological expert in the media including: CNN, Headline News, msNBC, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Psychology Today and was the subject of a PBS special. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, California.