How many relationships really work

Long and happy relationships have two characteristics in common

Our author Emily Esfahani Smith studied psychology at the Ivy League Universities of Dartmouth and UPenn. Today she works for renowned publications such as The Atlantic, The New Criterion, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico and Business Insider. Her first book, "The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters", will be published in January 2017.

Every year in Germany an average of 400,000 couples say “yes”. Yes to each other and yes to a lifelong relationship full of friendship, happiness and love until the end of their days.

Unfortunately, for most couples, this romantic notion doesn't become a reality. The majority of them end up in an unhappy, dysfunctional relationship. 35 percent of all marriages end in divorce within the first 25 years.

A crisis of this kind occurred for the first time in the 1970s: marriages were divorced on an unprecedented scale. Concerned about the psyche of the affected children, the scientists asked couples into the laboratory to observe how they interacted with one another. They wanted to find out if there are certain ingredients that are in any healthy, long-lasting relationship.

Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did all bad relationships have a certain toxic element in common?

The psychologist John Gottman was one of these scientists. For the past 40 years he has researched the behavior of thousands of couples to find out what makes relationships successful. I recently had the opportunity to interview Gottman and his wife, Julie, who is also a psychologist. Together, the two renowned experts run the Gottman Institute, where they help couples to build and maintain a loving and stable relationship.

John Gottman made his crucial observations in 1986 when he and his colleague Robert Levenson started the "love laboratory" at the University of Washington. Gottman and Levenson took newlyweds into the lab and watched how they interacted with each other.

Together with their research team, they connected the couples to electrodes while they were interviewed about their relationship. They were general questions about how they'd met, whether there was a major problem in their relationship, or whether they had a particularly positive memory of their partner.

As they spoke, the electrodes measured their blood flow, pulse, and sweat production. Then the researchers sent the couples home and came back six years later to ask if they were still together.

Based on the data collected in this way, Gottmann divided the couples into two groups: the Masters and the Disasters. The Masters were still happy together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.

When the researchers analyzed the data on the couples, they saw clear differences between the Masters and the Disasters. The disasters appeared calm in the interview, but their physiology, as measured by the electrodes, revealed the opposite.

Her heart rate was high, her sweat glands active, and her blood flow fast. Since Gottmann followed the development of thousands of couples over a long period of time, he realized that the relationships of the couples that were physiologically particularly active in the laboratory deteriorated correspondingly quickly.

But what does physiology have to do with it? The problem was that the disasters lived in their relationship in a constant readiness to fight or to flee. Sitting next to their partner and having a conversation was like meeting a saber-toothed tiger for their bodies.

Even when they were talking about pleasant or everyday aspects of the relationship, they were ready to attack, or to be attacked. This raised their pulse and made them more aggressive towards their partner. For example, the two relationship partners were supposed to talk about how their day had gone and a very aggressive husband said to his wife, “Why don't you start? It won't take long. "

The Masters, on the other hand, showed little physiological activity. They felt connected and relaxed. Even when there was an argument, they were loving and kind to one another. It wasn't that the Masters simply had better physiological dispositions than the Disasters in the first place. The Masters had simply created an atmosphere of trust and intimacy that made both partners more relaxed emotionally and thus also physically.

Gottmann wanted to learn more about how the Masters created their culture of love and intimacy and how the Disasters destroyed it. For a follow-up study, he set up a laboratory on the campus of the University of Washington in 1990, which looked like a pretty bed and breakfast.

He invited 130 newlyweds to spend a day there and watched them do what couples usually do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat and sit around. And in the process, Gottmann made a crucial discovery - which hit the heart of the question of why some relationships bloom while others bloom.

During the day, the partners made offers to connect with each other. For example, let's say the husband is an amateur orithologist and sees a goldfinch flying through the garden. He says to his wife: "Look what a beautiful bird out there!"

He is not just talking about the bird in this case, he is asking for a response from his wife - a sign of interest or support - in the hope that they will establish a connection through the bird for a brief moment.

The woman now has a choice: she can either turn to her husband or to him. Even if the offer of connection with the bird may seem unimportant and almost silly, it can still reveal a lot about the state of the relationship.

The man found the bird important enough to address and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects this.

People who turned to their partner in the study responded to him and showed interest or support. Those who turned away from their partner reacted minimally or not at all and just got on with what they did, whether it was watching TV or reading the newspaper. Some even acted with open hostility and said something like, "Don't interrupt me, I'm reading."

These interactions had a profound effect on spouse satisfaction. Couples who had already divorced after six years of inquiries only achieved an attendance rate of 33 percent in connection offers. Only three out of ten of their offers of emotional connection were answered with intimacy.

The couples who were still together after six years had a donation rate of 87 percent. In nine out of ten cases, the partner's emotional needs were met.

By observing these types of interactions, Gottmann can predict with up to 94 percent probability whether couples, heterosexual or homosexual, poor or rich, parents or childless, will be separated a few years later, unhappy together, or happy together.

Most of it depends on the mood within the relationship. Is it characterized by kindness and generosity or by contempt, criticism and hostility?

“The Masters have a habit,” explained Gottmann in an interview. “They look for things in their social environment for which they can be grateful. They consciously create their culture of respect and appreciation. Disasters, on the other hand, only look for their partner's faults in the social environment. "

"You're not just searching the social environment," agreed Julie Gottman. “You examine the partner. What is he doing right, what is he doing wrong and, depending on the situation, they criticize him or express appreciation. "

Disregard, they found, is the most important reason for separation. People who are focused on criticizing their partner overlook an incredible 50 percent of the positive things their partner does and see negative things even when it's not there.

People who give their partner the cold shoulder - deliberately ignoring them or reacting only minimally - damage their relationship. This makes the partner feel worthless and invisible, almost as if they weren't there.

And people who criticize and disregard their partners destroy not only the love in the relationship, but also their partner's ability to fight viruses and even cancer. Being mean is the death knell of any relationship.

Kindness, on the other hand, binds couples together. Other researchers have shown that kindness (and emotional stability) is the most important predictor of happiness and stability in a marriage. Through kindness, every partner feels cared for, understood, valued - loved.

“My bounty is as limitless as the sea,” says Shakespeare's Julia. “My love so deep; the more I give you, the more I have, because both are infinite. ”This is exactly how kindness works: It has been sufficiently proven that someone who receives a lot of kindness will also be kinder himself, resulting in an upward spiral of love and generosity leads within a relationship.

You can think of goodness in two ways: as a fixed quality that you either have or not, or as a kind of muscle. In some people, this muscle is naturally stronger than in others. But it can get stronger in anyone through training.

Masters see goodness as muscle. They know they have to train them to keep him in shape. In other words, they know that a good relationship takes constant hard work.

"If your partner expresses a need," explains Julie Gottmann, "and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generosity sets in when your partner makes an offer to connect and you turn to him in spite of everything."

In this situation, the more pleasant reaction may be to turn away from your partner, concentrate on your iPad, your book or the TV and mumble "aha", but ignoring such short chances for an emotional connection your relationship will slowly become safely hollow out. Disregard creates distance between partners and creates resentment in those who are ignored.

Of course, the hardest part is showing kindness during an argument - but that is also when it matters most. When disregard and aggression get out of hand during a conflict, a relationship can become irreparably damaged.

“Kindness doesn't mean we're not even mad at each other, but kindness affects the tone in which we vent our anger. You can yell at your partner and get ready. Or explain why you are hurt or angry. It's a much better way, ”explains Julie Gottman.

Her husband, John Gottman, affectionately complements his wife's statement: “Disasters will put things differently in an argument. They'll say, “You're late, what's wrong with you? You are like your mother! "And masters will say:" I don't think it's good to complain about your being late because I know it's not your fault, but it burdens me. "

The research news for millions of married couples is clear: If you want a long, healthy relationship, you need to practice kindness early on. Kindness is often associated with small gifts, small gifts or spontaneous massages.

These are good examples, but the foundation of a healthy relationship is the way people treat each other in everyday life - even without massages or gifts.

The best way, according to the Gottmans, is to always try to interpret the partner's intentions in the most positive way possible. Disasters tend to see negativity even where there isn't. An angry wife might think her husband is leaving the toilet seat up to annoy her, but he'll just forget about it.

Or the wife is (again) late for dinner. The man thinks she doesn't appreciate him anymore because she's late for a date he went to extra trouble for. She's too late because she got him a present. The fact that she has a present with her becomes a minor matter when she notices that he is in a bad mood because he misjudged her behavior. Showing indulgence and kindness when it comes to the partner's actions and intentions can directly disarm such situations.

Another way of exercising kindness is through shared joy. A characteristic of Distasters was the inability to be happy for the other. Too often good news is met with empty phrases instead of real joy. Everyone knows that their partner should be there for you in difficult times.

Meanwhile, however, research says it's more important to share happy moments with each other. How you react to good news from your partner has a direct impact on the relationship.

For a study in 2006, the psychological researcher Shelly Gable and her colleagues asked young couples about positive life experiences. For the psychologists, however, it was mainly the reaction of the partner that was important. They divided these reactions into four groups: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive and active constructive.

Example: A partner talks about an acceptance to study medicine and is very happy about it. A passive destructive partner would ignore this statement and perhaps tell a story of their own. A passive, constructive partner reacts to the statement, albeit with a fair amount of indifference, more out of obligation than actual joy.

An actively destructive person reacts with negativity to the partner's joy, downplaying the importance. Last but not least, there is an actively constructive partner who can wholeheartedly look forward to his partner.

Of these four different answers, the actively constructive partner is the kindest. The other three downplay the partner's joy, destroy it. To be happy with your partner gives both the opportunity to get closer through the shared joy.

Actively constructive reactions to the partner are essential for healthy relationships. Shelly Gable met up with the couples from her 2006 study again after two months to see if they were still together at all. The only difference between those who were still together and those who had split up was the actively constructive response.

Far more couples were still together of those who had shown genuine interest in their partner's joys than of the other three groups. In an earlier study, Gable found a correlation between actively constructive couples and a higher quality of relationship and increased intimacy.

There are many reasons why relationships fail. But when you study these relationships, you find a connection between lack of kindness and separation. With all the stress of everyday life, you should always find time and strength to invest in your relationship. Otherwise this rock in the surf will collapse sooner or later.

In most marriages, satisfaction declines in the first few years. But the marriages that are not only lasting but also testify to happiness and passion are those marriages that are conducted on the foundation of goodness.

This article appeared on Business Insider back in September 2018. It has now been reviewed and updated.