Only three in ten couples remain in healthy, happy marriages, as noted in the book "The Science of Happily Ever After."
Was there some common toxic issue found in the miserable marriages?
Emily Esfahani interviewed author and psychologist Ty Tashiro who shared the scientific studies conducted at the University of Washington in 1986 by John Gottman and Robert Levenson. With a team of researchers, they had couples attached to electrodes to track their physiology.
The couples spoke about their relationship, such as how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects’ blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweat they produced. Then the researchers sent the couple’s back home and followed up with them six (6) years later to see if they were still together.
From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.
The body tells a story that words do not. The disaster couples looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples over time, it was found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.
The master couples, showed low physiological arousal, the opposite of the disasters. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. The masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
John Gottman elaborated: “Disasters will say things differently in a fight. Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.’”
In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat.
He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. What was discovered was the key “bid” to why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, aka “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a robin outside the window. He may exclaim, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting (a bid) a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the robin.
Every relationship has interactions that are often conversations. The wife can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband. Though the bird-bid might seem minor, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects his interest.
By turning toward your partners to engage the bidder, shows interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t — those who turned away — would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy.
So the first scientific trait is attention; whether there is a “turning toward” or “turning away” reaction. This is how you respond and give attention to your partner. The active construction response is the type of attention that fosters a greater connection.
According to Shelly Gable, associate professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, an important key to understanding a relationship’s strength is how it works in good times, not just whether it withstands the bad. Partners’ reactions to each other’s good news can better predict the quality of a relationship (and whether it will endure) than can a partners’ reactions to bad news.
The 3 wrong ways and 1 right way: Gable has found that out of four possible ways to respond to a partner’s positive news, only one the "active-constructive response" is good. Couples whose partners react in any of three less positive ways are at greater risk of separating.
Consider the following example Gable gives to illustrate: Your significant other comes home, beaming, and announces that he/she just got a great promotion at work. You could react with:
1. Active-constructive response. "That’s great, you’ve earned it, I’m so proud of you!" followed by questions. Conveys enthusiasm, support, and interest.
2. Passive-constructive response. "Great job, honey!" then shifting to the next topic. Like dinner.
3. Active-destructive response (what Gable dubs "finding the cloud in a silver lining response"). "Wow! Does this mean you’ll be working later hours? Are they going to be paying you more? I can’t believe they picked you out of all the candidates." Generally deflating.
4. Passive-destructive response. Can take either of two forms: "Wow! Wait until I tell you what happened to me today," which is very self-focused, or, "What’s for dinner?"—Ignoring the event altogether.
Positive reactions also magnify the uplifting effects of the good news for the partner who’s doing the sharing, Gable notes. A negative or semi-positive response to a partner’s good news, however, can undercut all the benefits derived from disclosing in the first place, such as fostering trust, intimacy, and satisfaction with the relationship.
Does your partner bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility? Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.
Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. Kindness is a bond that leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship. In some people, the “kindness muscle” is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise.
Kindness is the second basic trait to whether a couple has a lasting relationship.
The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt and aggression spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship.
If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often. Kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis.
Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy or good news. Is there excitement or disdain? How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.
There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness.
Among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.