As my client Gail chatted about how her husband was constantly annoying her with his talk about his work, and how she had criticized him at every available opportunity.’ I couldn’t help but think of the recent article by John Gottman, an international expert on relationships. Along with his wife Julie who is also a psychologist they run The Gottman Institute, and have devoted their lives to uncover what creates or breaks marital stability.
The 2 keys to long lasting relationships.
Along with a team of researchers they have made a series of scientific findings that determines the likelihood of a couple staying together, or not. And guess what the two key players are? Kindness and generosity – attitudes that seem to be missing from the increasing number of couples getting divorced.
Every year in the USA about 2 million marriages take place and in the UK there are roughly 250,000 marriages. It is shocking news that between 40 – 50 percent of those marriages will end in divorce, an outcome that few contemplate when gazing into each other’s eyes and say ‘I do’ and ‘until death do us part.’
Since the 1970’s scientists and psychologists have been trying to find the keys to successful relationships. In 1982 Gottman set up ‘Love Lab’ within The University of Washington. They invited newly weds and watched to see if there were any trends in the way they interacted with each other.
The science behind happy, long lasting marriages.
During the observed conversations couples had electrodes on their body so that the researchers could gather physiological data. This data was stored and then after a gap of 6 years Gottman’s team contacted the couples to see if they were together or not. Couples who were still married were called ‘Masters’ and those who had separated were called ‘Disasters.’
Relaxed Master couples v stressed Disaster couples.
When reviewing the physiological data, along with the marital outcomes, researchers discovered that the ‘Disasters’ showed signs of stress during the observed conversations. In a nutshell they felt under threat whilst they sat and chatted to their ‘nearest and dearest.’ So even when they looked fine outwardly, inside they were preparing to be attacked or attack.
In contrast the ‘Masters’ who were still together after 6 years had showed little sign of physiological arousal. They were calmer and kinder to each other – even when having a disagreement. This group weren’t fitter or stronger but simply had created an environment based on trust and love, so at no time felt under threat from their spouse.
This fascinated Gottman and in 1990 he invited 130 newly weds to spend time at a lab – again at The University of Washington. The lab had received a huge make over and was designed to look like a bed and breakfast retreat.
The couples were encouraged to spend time doing what they would normally do when relaxing on holiday. So they were observed doing regular activities like cooking, eating, chatting and listening to music. And it was here that the researchers made a critical discovery.
The importance of simple everyday acknowledgements.
They noticed that throughout the day a person would make a comment to their spouse, which Gottman called a ‘bid.’ A bid is a general comment like ‘hey look at that beautiful sunset,’ or ‘what is that little bird trying to say tweeting that loudly?’ And is a call for a reaction, a connection in the form of an acknowledgement or comment. It’s not about the importance of the bird itself but that the person was interested in the bird and wanted to share that experience.
The partner then had a choice and could react either by turning ‘towards’ or ‘away.’ In other words connecting or not. A turn towards connection can be something as simple as a smile and a ‘how lovely.’ In comparison, the couple who displayed more turn away bids would often ignore their partners comment or even be overtly hostile.
During a follow up 6 years later, the couples who were still together had a staggering 87% of turn towards bids; compared to 33% from the group whose marriages had dissolved. This simple observation showed that the ‘Masters’ had created a bond of mutual trust and respect through simple repeated acts of kindness and acknowledgment. But there was more.
Kindness, generosity and appreciation = the glue of longevity.
The base line in a successful relationship was that whatever was going on – even if things were tough; the couples bought kindness and generosity to their interactions. So even when arguing there was a spirit of respect and they didn’t let things spiral out of control by turning the disagreement into a slanging match. Kindness acts as a kind of emotional glue forging a stress proof union that protects the relationship.
The life long importance of being acknowledged.
Just as the health of a baby relies on more than just nutrition so does a relationship if it is to last. Simply put Gottman has proven– ‘the more you acknowledge your partners bids with kindness and interest – the more likely you are to stay together.’
Remember – Gail and the constant criticism levied towards her husband? They had been married for 15 years and had ‘stayed together for the children.’ She said throughout their married life they had criticized each other at every opportunity. They separated later that year but I couldn’t help but wonder if they had known that their unkindness had poisoned their relationship – would they and millions of other couples still be together?
Next we will look at the actions that Gottman suggests that help to foster a spirit of kindness within a relationship.
Written by Jill Wootton, September 2015.