Marriage isn’t really what it used to be. Today, many people are more open minded, feeling as if they don’t need a piece of paper to prove commitment. Out of all the people who get married, only 3 in 10 actually remain together.
During the 1970s, marriages started falling apart at very high rates. This urged social scientists to start observing their traits, worrying it would have an impact on children.
What are the specific traits that create happy, long lasting marriages?
Psychologist John Gottman was one of the people who wanted to figure this out.
He had a team of researchers hook couples up to a set of electrodes. They were all asked to talk about the dynamic of their relationship. How they met, large conflicts they face, and positive memories they share. As they shared their thoughts, they measured their blood flow, heart rates and the amount of sweat produced.
These couples were then contacted six years later to see how they were doing.
Gottman saw there was two main groups which he called the masters and the disasters. People who were masters were still happy after six years, and the disasters were broken up or fundamentally unhappy in their relationships.
When all the research was analyzed, there was a few main differences in how the couples interacted with each other.
A lot of the people who were in the disaster category appeared calm during the interviews, but their physical state was much more stressed. They had higher activity of heart rate, blood flow and the production of sweat.
Gottman saw that most of the disaster couples created more physical stress as they spoke about their relationship.
It was as if the disaster couples were in fight or flight mode; their physical states told a story of stress.
When they were asked to talk about mundane aspects of their relationship, they were mentally prepared for an attack. For example, a husband would say to his wife “Why don’t you start talking about your day. It won’t take you very long.”
Not very pleasant, right?
On the other hand, the masters showed low physical stress. They were more inherently connected, which looked like a fundamentally different behavior.
They had created a space of trust and intimacy that made them more emotionally connected and comfortable.
How exactly did they create this kind of energy between each other?
Gottman invited 130 couples to come to a retreat and observed their behavior. They did what normal people do on vacation, hang out, cook, clean and just live life. This study was important in realizing exactly what makes some relationships more successful.
It’s something Gottman called ‘bids‘. This is when a partner would say something to their significant other, in an act of connection. If a husband said to his wife “Look at that bird!” He is specifically creating an emotional connection with his wife, wanting an equal exchange of excited energy back. It’s not really about the bird as it is about their shared excitement.
It creates a feeling of interesting, sharing a moment together that both people can connect over. Gottman describes these responses as “turning toward” or “turning away”. If the wife responds by emotionally turning towards her partner, she is engaging the bidder. If she shows interest and supports the idea, this is one of the fundamental traits of a happy relationship.
Those who turned away from their partners, by saying something like, “I’m busy” and not showing interest, would create more hostility. A minimal response creates an unbalanced feeling and can leave one person feeling more alone.
Couples who got divorced after six years only ‘turned towards’ their partner 33% percent of the time. Only 3 in 10 of the emotional bids were met with a connection.
On the other had, the couples who were still together ‘turned towards’ each other an amazing 87% of the time. That is a major difference in connection. 9 times out of 10, their emotional needs were met by their partner.
That is a massive difference!
Gottman saw it came down to what their partners would continually bring to the table emotionally. Were the couples mostly compassionate and understanding, or more hostile and critical?
Seems pretty simple when you think about it, right? Are you emotionally supporting your partner or bringing them down? Couples who built their confidence upon each other had more of a chance staying together.
So, support your partner. It’s all about the ebb and flow of energy between you two. If your lover shows a level of excitement, creating that same level of enthusiasm within you balances the emotional energy.
Communication is always key, so if some days you don’t feel like you can give the same amount of energy back, simply talking about it can create that same ebb and flow.
Sometimes we don’t always have the energy to reflect our partners, but being open, vulnerable and compassionate with one another is being a master of your relationship.
Thanks to The Atlantic for this amazing study!