Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Science Says Couples Need Two Traits for Happily Ever After

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Psychologist John Gottman is a social scientist who has been researching and studying married couples closely since the 80s. From his data, Gotten separates couples into two categories: “the masters” and “the disasters.” The masters are pros at creating an environment of love and intimacy; the disasters, on the other hand, regularly squashed those things.

Interested in knowing how the masters created a loving and intimate culture in their marriages, in 1990 Gottman invited 130 newlywed couples to spend a day at a retreat while he watched their behavior. There and through a follow-up study several years later, he made a critical discovery, recognizing two traits that all couples who have not only remained together, but remained together happily, share.

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, 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 that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing 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. 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. 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.

The two traits necessary to turn toward your partner’s bid when you are tired, distracted, angry, or stressed out are: kindness and generosity. Gottman says 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. 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.” In other words, they routinely turn toward their partners’ bids even when they don’t feel like it.

Kindness, of course, is closely linked to generosity, and many couples exercise generosity through gift-giving, but another, maybe even better, way to exercise generosity 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.” Being generous with your time and attention are equally important!

Another kindness strategy revolves around how and whether a couple shares joy together. There are four potential responses to a partner’s good news, like getting a promotion or receiving an emmy (!): passive destructive (“Well, guess what — I lost three pounds this week!”), active destructive (“Where do we even have space for an Emmy?), passive constructive (“That’s nice”), and active constructive (Oh, my God! I didn’t even know you were nominated! That’s so exciting — we need champagne immediately!”). You can probably guess what response is akin to turning toward your partner and not killing his joy and fucking up your relationship. Also, why would you want to ignore an opportunity for champagne?

Active constructive responding is critical for healthy relationships. Psychologists have found that “the only difference between the couples who [remain together after several years] and those who break up is active constructive responding. Those who show genuine interest in their partner’s joys are more likely to be together.”

Life is hard. It is full of joy and conflict, and when you get married, you sign up for a lifetime of riding out the storms and celebrating the blue skies. In the past four months of my marriage, this has become clearer than ever. We’ve had the birth of our baby girl (following a turbulent pregnancy), fantastic career accomplishments, difficult challenges in parenthood, and the sudden death of a parent and the grief and logistics following that. All of these things have tested us as individuals and as spouses, and have reminded us how crazy life can be. I like to think — and say — that relationships shouldn’t be that much work despite the old adage that that are — that if you’re with the right person, it should be relatively easy to be together. But, of course, that’s only true when life is easy. When it throws you these curveballs or when it begins filling up with the demands of middle-age (which often includes parenting young children and caring for or worrying about aging parents), everything is work — most especially your relationships.

This article was one of the best ones I’ve read about how to make a relationship succeed in the long run (thanks to my sister’s boyfriend for sending it!), and it’s been a good reminder to me, as Drew and I work on our relationship in the midst of all these other life challenges and demands, to practice kindness and generosity. In fact, I’d say those are pretty good muscles to exercise with everyone, wouldn’t you?

40 comments… add one
  • Bubbles

    Bubbles November 9, 2015, 1:17 pm

    Wow!! This is a great eye-opener. After years (decades) of marriage, I tend to fall in the passive constructive bunch 🙁 basically because we’re secure in our relationship (we’re not going anywhere/not divorcing). This is a good reminder that I need to step it up.

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    RedRoverRedRover November 9, 2015, 1:25 pm

    My husband definitely “turns toward” me. You don’t even know how many animals he’s had pointed out to him and then had to subsequently look at and comment on. Hundreds. Maybe even thousands. 🙂
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    I’m not 100% sure what my husband would say about me. I think I turn toward him to, although I’ve never really thought about it. There are times when I only have, say, 10 minutes and I’m just trying to finish a TV show or something where I’ll ask him to just give me some time. Other than that, though, I think I pretty much always listen to him when he speaks, and engage with him. We’ve been together almost 10 years now, so I guess we’re doing ok so far. Just got to keep it up.

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  • othy

    othy November 9, 2015, 1:33 pm

    When my husband and I are actively spending time together (i.e. out to eat, doing an activity in the house together), I’m a ‘turn towards him” type. However, when we’re home and going about our own business, I’m more of a “I’ll see it in a minute” type. I wonder what that says about us.

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    • honeybeenicki

      honeybeenicki November 9, 2015, 1:40 pm

      My husband is like that (turn towards when actively engaged, “I’ll see in a minute” when we’re just hanging out at home) and often its because he’s busy staring at his phone. Its something I’ve asked him to work on – not for me, because if its really important I can tell him that, but for our son. Sometimes he forgets to tune back in while doing the mundane and even at only 4 months, the baby looks at him, expecting interaction.

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        saneinca November 9, 2015, 8:30 pm

        One of my biggest peeves is someone ignoring the spouse/children/parent next to you and texting/calling on cellphone.
        What is so burning important that one needs to be constantly on a device?
        You work, come home and then you talk to some body somewhere else while ignoring the family next to you ?

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        SasLinna November 10, 2015, 2:38 am

        My boyfriend is also pretty glued to this phone a lot of the time. Often I then take mine out too, and we both stare at our phones for a bit. The funny thing is, I used to think that – since he’s so attached to his smartphone – he probably just doesn’t mind as much if we’re looking at our phones. But if I’m the one doing it when he doesn’t have his phone out he does in fact mind and tries to get my attention pretty much immediately. It’s something we both need to work on. I’ve gotten better at just calling him out. I usually say “so what’s new on your phone” and then he puts it down. Most of the time it’s anyway just an email or a news alert.

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      • Portia

        Portia November 10, 2015, 10:47 am

        Yeah, I do something similar: if I want his attention and he’s online, I usually ask him what’s on the internet today. Either we’ll talk about what he’s reading, he’ll put it down, or we’ll start looking at pictures together on Reddit aww. Either way, it’s a win.

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  • Lianne

    Lianne November 9, 2015, 2:01 pm

    I have definitely been guilty of asking my husband to wait until I have finished what I’m doing before looking at what he’s pointing out. He gets very frustrated. I try to be better, but this article has definitely got me thinking I need to be better. He is so good about turning toward me – I should do better in trying to reciprocate!

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    ktfran November 9, 2015, 2:07 pm

    I’m naturally an active-constructive person with most everyone. Or I try to be. I do know when life has me down, I let frustrations show with people who are closest to me, such as my mom or sisters… and potentially the guy. I love this post because it will remind me not to get lazy with important relationships.

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    Emily November 9, 2015, 3:31 pm

    This is sweet. Sometimes his thing is not my thing. Currently he’s super into reggae records. But I can get interested or at least listen to him talk about them because I’m interested in HIM and so I try to remind myself of that. Mostly, people just want to be heard and the person you live with and spend so much time with should be someone you at least LIKE and are caring towards, otherwise what is the point?!

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    PumpkinSpice November 9, 2015, 6:34 pm

    What a nice article. I think I am a turn towards type of person. Mr. Spice is as well. We actively engage each other. But we also are the “one sec, I need to finish this” type as well. As long as it is balanced out, I think it’s OK. ?

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    haggith November 10, 2015, 12:11 am

    I wonder if this research could have the same results if replicated in other cultures, especially in non-western countries to see if these traits are as relevant to the longevity of their relationships that in the US

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    SasLinna November 10, 2015, 2:31 am

    This makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s not just the ‘turning toward’ your partner when they try to get your attention, but kindness in other daily interactions as well, such as thanking them for doing a chore , complimenting them regularly or taking the time for a hello or goodbye kiss.

    I find it pretty fascinating that being there for your partner when things are going well is more important than being there when there’s a problem. But it makes sense: When there’s a problem, you pretty much automatically try to help. But with successes it may be less obvious that a big response is needed. I particularly struggle with this because my parents did not compliment me much on successes, so it kind of feels unnatural to me to go “you did such great work on this!” (although I still do it). This article is helpful as a reminder that being happy for my guy’s successes and complimenting him is really important.

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  • Nookie

    Nookie November 10, 2015, 5:05 am

    I read this article quite awhile ago and I find exercising my kindness muscle isn’t too hard, it’s the generosity one. And I mean in relation to how you interact with your partner, I’m a very easily annoyable (not a word but using it anyway) person.
    .
    Example: He’s been taking the dish clothes off the oven railing and leaving them on the counter top. THE HORROR. I realise it’s a silly thing but it bugs the heck out of me, why not just put them back when done with them? But I don’t say anything because a) I don’t want to be a nag and b) I think it will blown out of proportion if I do.
    .
    Maybe it’s a kindness to just put them back and not say anything? Or in relationships, should you be able to say ‘hey buddy, could you put that back in its place because I’m an anal weirdo about it’?
    .
    I admit I’m a work in progress.

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    • Skyblossom

      Skyblossom November 10, 2015, 7:46 am

      Our kitchen towels are always on the counter because they get used so often it seems tedious to keep putting them back. I do hang them on the oven door handle when they are really wet but at that point it means I’m retiring them for the day and they will go through the laundry before coming out again.

      I work with a woman who thinks it’s a funny joke to complain at everyone about how the pens and markers go into a container with four divisions. It is beginning to get on my nerves that she has to make a comment every single morning. If the pens bug her then by all means sort them to the way she wants them but don’t passively aggressively try to force everyone else to sort them the same way. She also complains that her family never helps in the kitchen but then also tells us that everything in her kitchen has to be in exactly, precisely the right spot or she shouts at them so they avoid helping in the kitchen. In the end I’d balance what he is doing with the towels against the annoyance of them sitting on the counter top because it is his kitchen too and that is where he keeps them in his kitchen and you put them on the oven door because that is where you put them in your kitchen. Would you find it irritating if he began to complain about you always putting them on the oven door because he found it tedious to have to pull them off of there to use them? I think it always helps to frame it from the other persons perspective.

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      • Nookie

        Nookie November 10, 2015, 8:41 am

        That’s an excellent point really, just try to bear in mind that I like things a certain way and if it bugs me just put them where I want them to be. I will try to remember that next time and not let it bother me so much! If I like it that way, it’s down to me to do it. Thanks, that’s super helpful!

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      RedRoverRedRover November 10, 2015, 8:32 am

      Ugh, my husband will wipe things up with a sponge, then just leave the sponge sitting beside the sink. All wet and dirty. Then I go to pick it up to use it, and either it’s soaking and filthy, or it seems fine but then when I wet it, it smells like mold. So I throw it out. He can’t figure out why I keep throwing the sponges out. I’ve told him a few times he has to rinse them and squeeze the water out or they go moldy, but he doesn’t seem to get it. He lets other things get moldy too, like facecloths. It’s so gross. But what can I do? At least sponges are cheap.

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      • Nookie

        Nookie November 10, 2015, 8:45 am

        Ick that is a bit gross. I admit that since we had this kitchen all recently redone, I’m kind of an asshole about it. It bugs me also that when he does the dishes, he leaves a puddle of water between the sink and window frame but I just clean that up and laugh at it.
        .
        Skyblossom’s got a good viewpoint on it, I will try to incorporate it more into my thought process… I’m really quick to take offense, in life. I’d like to work on that.

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        RedRoverRedRover November 10, 2015, 8:59 am

        Yeah, I take her viewpoint on most things… like he doesn’t load the dishwasher as efficiently as I do, so he ends up not fitting everything in. But I’m like, whatever, at least I didn’t have to load it. 🙂 I don’t let that stuff bug me, it’s just minor. But the moldy sponges, because I touch them and sometimes use them before I notice… or picking up the sopping wet ones covered in bits of food… I can’t ignore it. It’s so gross. Now I just don’t use them anymore, which means I clean the kitchen less, which means it gets dirtier. And I try to buy cloths for my own use, but they always disappear, I don’t know what he does with them. So I’ve kind of given up on the kitchen. The counters have bits of food on them, but I have nothing to wipe them with except grungy moldy sponges. 🙁
        .
        It’s pretty much my only complaint. He’s great other than that. I just wish he’d get it with the mold! Maybe I have to bring it up again.

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      • Nookie

        Nookie November 10, 2015, 9:21 am

        Yeah, that’s how I feel about the dishes – it’s fine, at least he’s done them!
        .
        I wish he was a bit tidier, he probably wishes I was a bit messier. But I think we’re mostly just accepting that the other person is the way they are, I’m just appreciative of another way to look at it.
        .
        And also, I should cut him some slack as he’s taken some time off and has taken on the apple tree trimming. I think it’s more difficult and time consuming than he thought it would be!

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        snoopy128 November 10, 2015, 10:57 am

        Ugh. My bf is the same way with sponges. I find them the next morning, in the sink full of water and little bits. It’s the one thing I can’t see to get through his head- mould grows in wet and warm conditions. He also leaves puddles around the sink. But the does the dishes, which I hate doing, so I pick my battles and let it go most of the time.

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        RedRoverRedRover November 10, 2015, 11:00 am

        Yeah, I don’t want to be a nag, so I let it go. But it’s so disgusting! How does he not get it?!?!?! And then I find myself thinking, how did his mom not teach him this. What’s wrong with her? 🙂

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      • Skyblossom

        Skyblossom November 10, 2015, 1:28 pm

        My husband would grab the dishcloth from the sink and use it for anything, like wiping the floor. I bought several dozen dishcloths and have kept that many for years. They go in a cabinet in the kitchen and if I am going to wipe anything I get out a new one. That way I don’t have to worry about what he’s done with it and I know I am using a clean cloth. We tend to use two to four a day and I throw them in the laundry the next day. I also have several dozen kitchen towels and do the same. I think I would be annoyed if they just disappeared.

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        RedRoverRedRover November 10, 2015, 2:24 pm

        My husband does that too! One time we were at the cottage and he was washing dishes. He saw an ant, so he smushed it with the sponge, then went RIGHT BACK to washing the dishes with it!!!! I made him throw it out, he didn’t get why. So. Gross. And he’s not generally gross! It’s just this one thing with the sponges. I don’t get it, at all.

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      • Skyblossom

        Skyblossom November 11, 2015, 9:09 am

        That ant incident is hilarious!

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        RedRoverRedRover November 11, 2015, 10:13 am

        I’m glad someone enjoyed it. 🙂

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        SasLinna November 10, 2015, 11:53 am

        Throwing out the sponges regularly really seems like the easiest solution here. 🙂

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        Anonymous November 10, 2015, 1:36 pm

        Yeah, I agree! Sometimes the solution is the one that just works best for the situation, not the optimal solution. There’s a lot of those types of solutions in our house…

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        RedRoverRedRover November 10, 2015, 2:22 pm

        I do that, but it doesn’t solve picking it up to use it and having it be sopping wet and full of food. 🙁 The mold, yeah, as soon as I smell it I pitch the sponge.

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        SasLinna November 11, 2015, 2:52 am

        Maybe you could have a hiding spot in the kitchen for the sponges you use and ignore the ones he’s been using? You could even get a different color…
        Btw, you’ve made me squeeze out the sponge way better than usual today. You’re right, leaving them wet is gross.

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        Sabrisa November 11, 2015, 7:07 pm

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      SasLinna November 10, 2015, 11:51 am

      So my take on this is that you can pick a few things that you’re particular about and ask your partner whether he can pay extra attention to these, and at the same time you drop all the other minor complaints you might have. It might or might not work – it can be surprisingly difficult to adjust your behavior when it’s in an area that you just don’t care about – but trying to pay attention to a few specific requests should generally be possible.

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        K November 11, 2015, 11:43 am

        I like this. Sometimes my boyfriend does things that annoy me, like he doesn’t shut his dresser drawers, just leaves them open. He gets water all over the floor after he showers. I’ve mentioned those things to him before, but he hasn’t really changed and I don’t want to be a nag. It hasn’t bothered me enough for me to keep bringing it up. Easier for me to just shut the drawers myself, etc.

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  • Diablo

    Diablo November 10, 2015, 9:37 am

    Two observations: 1) The bidding thing reminds me of the most basic tenet of improvisation (in comedy or music): no blocking and no wimping. When someone makes an offer, you don’t refuse and you don’t participate half-heartedly. You run with it and try to turn it to an offer for them, so the dance/play continues. because it doesn’t stop once your offer is accepted – there is always another coming back your way. 2) Regarding the notion that good relationships require lots of hard work, it’s a bit like how we view work in the broader sense. We all know we are supposed to do something we love in our careers, but most of us don’t most of the time. We work for money, and we don’ end up too happy. If your marriage is held together by “reasons” (the kids economic security, a sense of wanting to be married, etc), then the work seems like work and is hard. If you love what you do (or who), then yes, technically it still counts as work, but it is work you love to do and it doesn’t feel hard.

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    • Nookie

      Nookie November 10, 2015, 10:29 am

      Diablo for President!

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      • Diablo

        Diablo November 10, 2015, 10:52 am

        Thanks, although i prefer the term Benevolent Despot.

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        RedRoverRedRover November 10, 2015, 11:01 am

        Hey hey hey! We just got rid of our (not-so-)benevolent despot! Don’t go invoking him in case you bring his wrath back down on us!

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      • Nookie

        Nookie November 10, 2015, 11:02 am

        Diablo for Benevolent Despot!

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    • Skyblossom

      Skyblossom November 10, 2015, 1:30 pm

      YES!

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom November 11, 2015, 10:19 am

    I love to read Dr. Gottman’s research findings! He is one of my favorites. I’ve read this before and found it fascinating. More and more I wonder if it isn’t just as big a problem to have a partner who doesn’t make bids in the first place. A partner who is too involved with their phone or a partner who makes bids to other people. My cousin would share everything with her mom instead of her husband. There are those who share with their friends instead of their partner. Not that you cant’ share with both but I think there needs to be a level that is skewed to the partner over others.

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