Why is it that with some relationships, love blossoms and gets stronger with each passing year, whereas others almost immediately go into decline or turn into long-lasting but deeply unhappy partnerships? We thought we’d try to find out the answer to this intriguing — and vital — question
Psychologist John Gottman, having observed the interaction between two partners, can predict with near 100% accuracy whether they will be happy together years down the line, or whether in actual fact they have no future. Gottman has acquired the skill after spending 40 years studying relationships.
’Happy couples above all see the positive sides to each other’s character — the things they can say thank you for, for excuses to embrace that partner, and rejoice at the fact that life showed them the path to this wonderful person’ says Gottman. ’They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully’. What Gottman calls ’Disaster relationships’ are ’scanning the social environment for their partners’ mistakes.’
Gottman, and his wife Julie, who is also a psychologist, are among the most famous marriage experts in the world. Over the course of several decades they have consulted thousands of couples and conducted hundreds of experiments in an attempt to discover the secret of a happy romantic relationship. The most famous and fascinating of these experiments was the Gottman called ’The Love Lab’.
The ’Love Lab’ Experiment
Gottman began gathering his most critical findings in 1986, when he set up ’The Love Lab’ with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington. Gottman and Levenson brought newly-weds into the lab and watched them interact with each other. With a team of researchers, they hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked the couples to speak about their relationship, like how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects’ blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweat they produced. Then the researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six 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. When the researchers analysed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters 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 longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.
ut what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal—of being in fight-or-flight mode—in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a sabre-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked. This sent their heart rates soaring and made them more aggressive toward each other. For example, each member of a couple could be talking about how their days had gone, and a highly aroused husband might say to his wife, ’Why don’t you start talking about your day. It won’t take you very long.’
The masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behaviour, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
Contempt: The main cause of divorce
Contempt, the Gottmans have found, 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. People who give their partner the cold shoulder — deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally — damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated — feel loved. There’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
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.
’Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,’ Julie Gottman explained, ’but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.’
John Gottman elaborated on those spears: ’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.”’
Practising being kind
When people think about practising kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, 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, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.
One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.
Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news. When one person in the relationship shared the good news of, say, a promotion at work with excitement, the other would respond with wooden disinterest by checking his watch or shutting the conversation down with a comment like, ’That’s nice.’
We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But research shows that being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. 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. As the normal stresses of a life together pile up—with children, career, friend, in-laws, and other distractions crowding out the time for romance and intimacy—couples may put less effort into their relationship and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart. In most marriages, levels of satisfaction drop dramatically within the first few years together. But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.