Do you remember hearing some years ago about an academic researcher in Seattle who was able to predict with 94% accuracy which marriages would fail just by watching one brief interaction between the spouses? It may have seemed hard to believe, but Dr. John Gottman had the research to back up his claim.
Impressive, to be sure. The best part of the story, though, is what happened next.
Dr. Gottman realized that being able to predict which marriages would fail wasn’t all that helpful in his work with couples who wanted their marriages to thrive.
For that, he had to turn his attention to studying couples in truly successful marriages and documenting just what it is that they do that makes their relationships work so well.
What Dr. Gottman learned from that research can help us all to build, nurture, and even repair relationships with our spouses or partners, and even with our children and friends.
So here it is – a summary of what couples in the very best marriages do to make their relationships thrive.
Why not share this with your spouse or partner, talk about which of these things you already do, and then choose some new ones to work on together?
STRIVE FOR A 5:1 RATIO
In their interactions with each other, the happiest couples average five positive comments for every negative one. Keep track for a day or two and see how close you come to that ratio. If you’re down around 3:1 or maybe even 1:1, which is really very common, then this is the single best place to put your first efforts toward improving your relationship.
“TURN TOWARD EACH OTHER”
Dr. Gottman says that close relationships consist of a series of “emotional bids” in which one partner reaches out to the other with a comment, question, or touch. In the healthiest relationships, partners consistently repond to such bids by “turning toward each other” to show that they are open, listening, and engaged. In unhealthy relationships, partners often ignore emotional bids or react to them with anger or hostility.
BE OPEN TO INFLUENCE
Do you feel like your partner is open to being persuaded by your point of view or stubbornly determined not to be influenced by what you have to say? It’s easy to get into a habit of always sticking to our own positions, but that’s a trap that people in the most successful marriages take care to avoid.
SPEND ENJOYABLE TIME TOGETHER
This, after all, is how (and why) we begin relationships in the first place, so why do we think we can sustain them without it? The fact is, though, that as life crowds in, it’s all too easy to give up time together in favor of work, parenting, or just catching up on our sleep. But giving it up comes at a real cost. Cliché or not, setting aside regular time to enjoy being together is one of the essential elements of the happiest relationships.
MAKE THE MOST OF CONFLICT
Conflict is essential to healthy relationships. No two people are aligned on all things at all times, so relationships with no conflict are almost certainly ones in which at least one person is sometimes suppressing his or her true feelings and needs.
And conflict need not be destructive. In fact, Dr. Gottman has observed that well- managed conflict actually serves to bring close couples closer over time, as the partners express their honest hurts and disagreements and work together toward positive resolution. Here’s how they do it.
Introduce Conflict Gently
When you bring up a problem or complaint, do it without criticizing or insulting your partner. “Honey, I feel frustrated that you called me to pick up the kids when you knew I needed to catch up at work” gets a conversation off to a much better start than “Why are you so selfish all the time?”
Avoid Contempt, Insults, and Hostility
Okay, this came from Dr. Gottman’s research into failing marriages, not successful ones, but it’s worth pointing out here anyway. Contempt, insults, and hostility destroy relationships; it’s as simple as that. Don’t fall into their trap.
Repair the Conversation
When couples in the strongest relationships argue, they take steps to de-escalate the negative feelings that can arise as they go along. They might apologize for a painful remark, inject a bit of well-intentioned humor, or just offer each other a sympathetic smile. All of these small repairs can remind them that they’re fundamentally on each other’s side so they can both let their defenses down a bit and try to work things out.
I, for one, am grateful that Dr. Gottman turned his attention from researching what makes marriages fail to studying what makes the best ones thrive. The quality of our close relationships is by far the strongest contributor to our overall happiness, so learning what works and taking even one or two steps to improve our most important relationships can have a profound effect on the quality of our lives.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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