An amazing article on relationships | kindness & generosity

This article is one of the best I have yet read on relationships – and so, contrary to my usual approach on my blog, I wanted to share it in its full form here. The link to the online article (from The Atlantic) is at the bottom. Enjoy.

Masters of Love

By Emily Esfahani Smith

Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say “I do,” committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.

Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?

Psychologist John Gottman was one of those researchers. For the past four decades, he has studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. I recently had the chance to interview Gottman and his wife Julie, also a psychologist, in New York City. Together, the renowned experts on marital stability run The Gottman Institute, which is devoted to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies.

John Gottman began gathering his most critical findings in 1986, when he set up “The Love Lab” with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington. Gottman and Levenson brought newlyweds into the lab and watched them interact with each other. With a team of researchers, they hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked the couples to speak about their relationship, like how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects’ blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweat they produced. Then the researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six years later to see if they were still together.

From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages. When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

But what does physiology have to do with anything? The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal—of being in fight-or-flight mode—in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked. This sent their heart rates soaring and made them more aggressive toward each other. For example, each member of a couple could be talking about how their days had gone, and a highly aroused husband might say to his wife, “Why don’t you start talking about your day. It won’t take you very long.”

The masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.

Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.

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.

* * *

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”

Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal ofevidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

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. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. 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.

“If your partner expresses a need,” explained Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”

In that moment, the easy response may be to turn away from your partner and focus on your iPad or your book or the television, to mumble “Uh huh” and move on with your life, but neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.

The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt and aggression spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship.

“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”

John Gottman elaborated on those spears: “Disasters will say things differently in a fight. Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.’”

* * *

For the hundreds of thousands of couples getting married this month—and for the millions of couples currently together, married or not—the lesson from the research is clear: If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.

When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved.

One way to practice kindness 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.

Or say a wife is running late to dinner (again), and the husband assumes that she doesn’t value him enough to show up to their date on time after he took the trouble to make a reservation and leave work early so that they could spend a romantic evening together. But it turns out that the wife was running late because she stopped by a store to pick him up a gift for their special night out. Imagine her joining him for dinner, excited to deliver her gift, only to realize that he’s in a sour mood because he misinterpreted what was motivating her behavior. The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.

“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news. When one person in the relationship shared the good news of, say, a promotion at work with excitement, the other would respond with wooden disinterest by checking his watch or shutting the conversation down with a comment like, “That’s nice.”

We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But researchshows that being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.

In one study from 2006, psychological researcher Shelly Gable and her colleagues brought young adult couples into the lab to discuss recent positive events from their lives. They psychologists wanted to know how partners would respond to each other’s good news. They found that, in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways that they called: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.

Let’s say that one partner had recently received the excellent news that she got into medical school. She would say something like “I got into my top choice med school!”

If her partner responded in a passive destructive manner, he would ignore the event. For example, he might say something like: “You wouldn’t believe the great news I got yesterday! I won a free t-shirt!”

If her partner responded in a passive constructive way, he would acknowledge the good news, but in a half-hearted, understated way. A typical passive constructive response is saying “That’s great, babe” as he texts his buddy on his phone.

In the third kind of response, active destructive, the partner would diminish the good news his partner just got: “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”

Finally, there’s active constructive responding. If her partner responded in this way, he stopped what he was doing and engaged wholeheartedly with her: “That’s great! Congratulations! When did you find out? Did they call you? What classes will you take first semester?”

Among the four response styles, active constructive responding is the kindest. While the other response styles are joy-killers, active constructive responding allows the partner to savor her joy and gives the couple an opportunity to bond over the good news. In the parlance of the Gottmans, active constructive responding is a way of “turning toward” your partners bid (sharing the good news) rather than “turning away” from it.

Active constructive responding is critical for healthy relationships. In the 2006 study, Gable and her colleagues followed up with the couples two months later to see if they were still together. The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together. In an earlier study, Gable found that active constructive responding was also associated with higher relationship quality and more intimacy between partners.

There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. As the normal stresses of a life together pile up—with children, career, friend, in-laws, and other distractions crowding out the time for romance and intimacy—couples may put less effort into their relationship and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart. In most marriages, levels of satisfaction drop dramatically within the first few years together. But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.

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0 thoughts on “An amazing article on relationships | kindness & generosity

  1. Interesting read. Studying behavior is always a challenge as there are no absolutes for the control group. One cannot account for personality differences, life experienced leading up to the marriage and those that follow the wedding. Regardless, the research was fascinating.

    Much of what is considered indicators of a successful marriage are present within my own. But the various intervals and measurements at those points are interesting when I consider my own. I have a traumatic experience that I went through (during my military service) six months before we married. The effects of that didn’t begin to show up for another year and then progressively poured out of me over the subsequent years. I pulled away. I was gone. For years, I was NOT a husband to my wife. I turned away. Yet, here we are a quarter century+ after our wedding date. We shouldn’t be together (hell, I should be dead, a few times over).

    Perhaps my marriage would fall outside this study as an anomaly.

    • Or perhaps, even through all those years when you were gone, had pulled away, your wife continued to try and turn to you? And perhaps, even without realising it, you did too?
      Or perhaps, you were both wise enough to realise that you had things that needed addressing that were independent from your spouse and accepted that as a hut, an illness and pulled together in difficulty?
      Maybe you went through a phase where you were one of the Disasters and then found it within yourselves to change towards becoming Masters?

      • I can say that during that time, there was entirely no wisdom on my part as I was the disaster. I was intent on leaving this world (which included her) either through a slow, steady process or via an abrupt and swift conclusion. My wife did all of the work on our marriage. She was the master until a point that she reached where she was ready for it to end – which coincided with me (independently, or so I like to imagine) finally getting help.

        • Let me share my story here. I had been asking my husband for years to get help with our marriage (help for himself would have been good, but I knew the chances of that were slim to none). It’s only when I was ready to look elsewhere, when he sensed that I was really on the verge of not being his any more that he regained interest in me. It’s only when he sensed that someone else was interested in me that he began to be interested again. It was only when he sensed he was losing his relationship, truly at risk of it, that he demanded we see a counselor…
          All this to say: maybe the coincidence isn’t so incidental 😉

          • I get that, Dawn. At the same time, I am fairly certain that I was oblivious to a great many situations. My wife could have easily cheated on me and I would never have known.

            When she threatened divorce the first handful of times, didn’t give her any reaction because there wasn’t one within me. I finally did respond by wanting to save her the trouble of the divorce (I did love her enough to consider this). I decided to help her out by leaving her in a cash-positive state and a sizable insurance settlement.

            I woke up and got help. She was there celebrating and working with me through my entire climb from ruin.

          • She is a pretty amazing lady, isn’t she?
            I thought insurance settlements excluded suicide? But I can relate to the ‘making life easier on her’ by leaving, even if in the most absolute way.
            I’m glad you woke up. I’m glad to have met you 🙂

          • You that have gotten to know a little bit of her have only seen a very minor fraction of this woman who more than makes me whole. I make her whole. One day possibly, some of our friends will meet us in person and see that she is so much more than I could possibly convey in a handful of posts and comments.

            I am glad to be here so that I could meet you too, Dawn.

    • I know a few others have already responded to this comment, but I will add that I agree, you may have generally had those elements present in your marriage, even if to a lesser extent then you had today?

      I think you guys are pretty amazing, by the way. It’s amazing what you have overcome.

  2. I’m going to reblog this.
    During so many years, I have been trying to show my husband that always trying to find fault in the other, or always being on the defensive from fear of an attack, wasn’t what marriage should be like and there were other ways, even though I didn’t fully understand either what the problem was, or the solution, or both.
    Thank you for reposting this thought provoking article!

  3. Reblogged this on Dawn's Nights and commented:
    I seem to be reblogging a lot today.
    This article spoke to me. It spoke of my marriage, even of my relationship before my marriage. It spoke of my parents, my in-laws…
    I hope it will make you think as much as it did me.

  4. I got a bit weepy when I read this (although I really appreciate its wisdom). One of the last rifts between my husband and me occurred when I wanted to share the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. Five seconds into listening, he said flatly: “It sounds like an annoying Christmas song.” It really hurt me because it felt so symbolic of our entire relationship – of me not feeling like he was willing to reach out and connect with the things I found beautiful/fun/interesting. There’d been so many moments like that, admittedly coming from both sides.

    I still don’t know if we could have fixed it…and it’s still breaking my heart. Oh well.

    • Oh honey, I’m sorry. I can relate to what you describe…that dismissive stuff. I’m not sure I was much better, but we fed off each other in that way. I think once empathy and kindness is gone it’s very hard to bring it back. Certainly some do, but for Will and I, we decided we were done and that our marriage couldn’t be saved.

      I’m sorry your heart is breaking. If there’s anything you need, let me know.

      • Thank you for your kind words, Anne. They help. Tonight is particularly difficult – I’m quite sure he is moving on for real now and while I am happy, I feel very alone tonight. This is the moment I have been waiting for, but it just hurts. I have to be strong and take extra special care of myself. I think it’s the best thing i can do.

    • I also had many, many flashbacks to my own marriage when I read this. It was an “ah ha” read for me in that I understand better the underlying dynamics that added to the disintegration of my marriage.

  5. I do have to add that he realised it hurt me and asked to hear it later (after I explained how it made me feel)…but I felt so disheartened that I just let it go. Maybe that’s my fault, then. I don’t know.

    • No, it’s not your fault. It’s not like you left him because he didn’t listen. It was just a rezlisation that there was no more connection between the two of you.
      I remember having similar feelings. He did get better slightly in the very end, but I knew deep down he was never going to change so I decided to leave.
      We are not at fault, we just finally said ‘This isn’t what a loving marriage should feel like’.

  6. An amazing read — I’m going to have to re-blog this, too. The way the article explains the positive couples versus the negative ones is illuminating. The author backs up simple (yet powerful) habits that positive couples have with research. Thank you for posting this, because it gives some great advice!

  7. The Gottman Institute is based out here in Seattle and it’s so popular and resonates with many people that several Seattle based employers will cover the cost of couples to attend.

  8. What a great article. I’ve come to realize that for 20+ years of my marriage, both of us were active destructive. When one of us attempted to work on things, the other would be in that active destructive mode – so between us, we destroyed the marriage a long time before Doc left. The heartbreaking thing is that I realized my part four years ago and made a conscious effort to change the way I behaved and reacted (sometimes not very successfully, but as a whole, I changed into a different person) and Doc was never interested in examining his own behaviors and motives. I wonder if the marriage might have, not only been saved, but transformed into something healthy and wonderful if we had both committed to being there for each other. And, like Dawn, I would have liked for him to get help for himself – not just for the marriage. It’s going to be interesting to see what life and future relationships have in store for both of us.

  9. I read about Gottman’s study awhile ago. It’s all extremely interesting. I truly believe Kindness is a muscle. We have to practice it everyday with everyone around us. 😀

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