Two Things Can Help Make Your Relationship Last
The sad fact is that more and more relationships are losing their lasting power. Many more marriages or romantic partnerships are ending in divorce or separation. Many social scientists say that the secret of staying together comes down to two qualities: Kindness and generosity.
The Love Lab
Social scientists began studying marriages back in the 70s, to determine why some marriages failed while others worked. John Gottman, with his psychologist wife Julie, set up the Gottman Institute to help couples build lasting relationships based on scientific studies relating to love and partnership.
Perhaps their most important study was carried out in 1986, when a number of newlyweds were invited to a ‘Love Lab’ where their interactions were studied. Couples were hooked up to electrodes that analysed physical reactions, such as heart rate, blood flow and other bodily functions, while answering questions about their relationship. Six years later, the researchers tracked down the participants to see who had stayed together. As a result of the experiment, they were able to divide the participants into two groups, labelled ‘masters’ and ‘disasters’. The ‘masters’ were still happy together, while the ‘disasters’ had split up.
When the data was analysed, they found clear differences between the groups. While the ‘disasters’ had appeared calm during the initial interviews, the electrodes monitoring their reactions showed a difference picture – heart rate, blood flow and sweating were all markedly higher than in the ‘masters’. Those who were more physiologically active in the Love Lab were more likely to split up.
The researchers concluded that, in the Love Lab, the ‘disasters’ were in ‘fight or flight’ mode, in other words, they were preparing for confrontation. Conversely, the ‘masters’ who showed lower physiological reactions, were more affectionate – even when they fought.
In 1990, Gottman arranged a follow-up experiment whereby 130 newlyweds were invited to a retreat at the University of Washington campus, designed to simulate a vacation environment.
During their stay, Gottman monitored the couples’ interactions and discovered that, throughout the day, partners would make ‘bids’ for connection. What they were looking for was a response that indicated interest, or support, for what they said or did. Those who responded more frequently to these ‘bids’ were more likely to have happier relationships and stay together. What was happening was that these couples were actively meeting each other’s emotional needs.
As a result, Gottman now believes he can predict, with an accuracy of up to 94%, which couples will stay together and which won’t. He says it comes down to what each party brings to the relationship – kindness and generosity, or criticism and hostility. He says, “There’s a habit of mind that the masters have, which is this: They are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
His wife agrees. “It’s not just scanning environment. It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticising versus respecting him and expressing appreciation,” she says.
…or not to be
Both Gottmans say the Number One factor behind break-ups is ‘contempt’. If one partner is focussed on the negatives of their partner’s character, then they are missing out on the positives. Ignoring your partner, or responding minimally, damages the relationship by making your partner feel worthless.
On the other hand, being kind to your partner makes them feel cared for, understood and loved. And putting kindness into practice tends to breed more love and generosity in a relationship.
Of course, it’s difficult to be kind when you’re unhappy with your partner. While ‘disasters’ will say, “You’re late. What’s wrong with you” or “You’re just like your mom”, ‘masters’ will say, “I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness. I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.”
Clearly, the route to a long lasting, healthy and happy relationship is to practice kindness and be generous about your partner’s intentions. Instead of thinking your partner has done something deliberately to annoy you, it’s important to remain positive about their intentions.
Social scientist, Ty Tashiro, says in his book, ‘The Science Of Happily Ever After’, “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing. A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”
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