How many married couples make it to happily ever after? According to psychologist Ty Tashiro only three in ten marriages contain health, happiness and longevity. So what makes some marriages toxic while a slim few stick it through? John Gottman might have the answer. He is a prominent psychologist who has been studying relationships for only about four decades. He along with psychologist Julie Gottman—his wife, run their own institute figuring out what it takes to make love last. “The Love Lab” at The Gottman Institute in New York City has run many a fascinating study. In one, newlyweds were hooked up to electrodes and asked a series of questions including how they found each other, what was a big problem they faced together and to share a cherished memory. The electrodes measured their heart rate, blood pressure and sweat response to signify the level of stress each was experiencing. The couples were followed up with six years later, to see if they were still a couple. Soon a pattern emerged. Gottman separated newlyweds into two groups: the masters and the disasters. Those who were still together six years on were masters, those who had broken up disasters.
Couples who had activated systems where their heartrate was racing, their blood pressure was high and their sweat glands were active were the disasters. Those whose systems were calm were masters. The reason was, those disasters just sitting next to their spouse and answering questions made them nervous. Their body was in a state of hyper-arousal, the fight-or-flight response. This raised their heart rate and blood pressure, and perhaps that of their partner. This physical response made them more likely to lash out at their partner which made the couple unstable. As a result of following thousands of couples over a long period of time, Gottman found that the quicker their system was during these initial interviews the less likely they were to have staying power. Masters were generally well connected, and calm during these interviews. Now the researcher wanted to know what aspects of masters helped them to keep intimacy flowing and how they stayed so close and connected. In the inverse, how did disasters shutdown channels of intimacy? What he noticed was when interacting, those couples that showed an interest in one another’s interests had a closer relationship. When one mentioned something they were interested in, called “bidding” if the partner responded positively, this helped build connection. But those who turned away or responded negatively missed a chance at connection.
Couples who had staying power looked for places where their significant other did something well and complimented them on it. They built an atmosphere of respect, tenderness, curiosity and love. The masters would notice things about the partner and compliment them on it. It came down to two things really: appreciation and kindness. Conversely, the end of a relationship was near when one or both partners showed contempt. Being kind bound couples together. Contempt and being taken for granted tore couples apart. Kindness should be thought of not as a trait but as a skill we all have that we either hone or do not. Some are kinder than others but we all have the capacity for compassion. It’s what makes us human. In our technological world we often get caught up in emails or social media. But instead of just muttering a response to our spouse, we should really listen to them and find elements of interest, when we don’t we miss an opportunity to grow closer. If we can remember to keep kindness and appreciation in our relationships, according to Gottman’s research, then we have the best chance of success. For more on the logic of love read, The Science of Happily Ever After by Ty Tashiro.