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?