When we make a commitment to our partner, our usual expectation is that our relationship will last for life and that our love will see us through the inevitable hard times. Yet, when reality sinks in, we have to acknowledge that while love is one of the components of a relationship’s longevity, it really takes more than love to achieve happiness and avoid divorce. It takes community and family support (which isn’t as available as it once was in our society) – and it takes some skill and intentional effort to support the relationship.
Psychologists have carried out substantial research over the past several decades trying to understand the secrets of why some couples are able to stay together and others are not. For instance, John Gottman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington, has studied over 2,000 couples, and he has had remarkable success in predicting which couples will make it and which will not. Contrary to popular wisdom, one of his findings is that increased sex does not necessarily improve a relationship. He also found that financial problems do not always imply trouble for a couple.
One of Gottman’s major findings is that couples who fight are not necessarily on the road to a breakup. In fact, frequency and intensity of fights do not correlate with marriage (dis)satisfaction. Gottman makes the point that arguments may be constructive in building a long-term relationship because they help us to clarify our needs and increase mutual respect between partners. But whether the arguments will lead to a breakup or not depends on how the couple resolves conflicts. Couples counseling or marital counseling is not necessary to learn these but it is helpful in avoiding common pitfalls while developing and practicing new skills.
Ratios Predicting Successful Marriages/Relationships – 5:1 during conflict, 20:1 otherwise
One finding to emerge from the research is that couples are likely to succeed if they have a healthy balance between positive and negative interactions. In fact, strong relationships have a five to one ratio – five parts positive interaction to one part negative while discussing a conflict. Couples who break up, on the other hand, tend to have more negative than positive interactions. For successful, contented couples, the ratio of positive to negative interactions when not in a conflict discussion averages 20:1.
Our ability to draw on the good will and positive experiences during a conflict maintains respect, trust, and connection during conflict, seeing us through to a resolution or at least to an agreement to carry us through until the issue comes up again.
Positive Behaviors in a Relationship
What are these positive interactions? Much of it is common sense. They are found in
- Showing interest in what your partner is saying,
- Expressing affection to your partner both verbally (“I love you”) and non-verbally (holding hands, doing kind little things),
- Showing you care – perhaps by making a phone call during the day or bringing home flowers
- Showing appreciation by remembering the good times in your relationship or telling your partner how proud you are of him or her
- Indicating your concern – instead of acting defensive, show that you are concerned about your partner’s troubling experiences or apologize if you say something hurtful without thinking,
- Conveying empathy in your facial expression and verbal feedback – show that you truly care about what your partner is going through,
- Displaying acceptance of your partner’s thoughts and feelings – this shows your respect for your partner
- Joking around, which includes playful teasing, laughing together, and maybe acting silly together, and
- Sharing your joy when good things happen.
When I studied with the Gottman Institute, they suggested each couple imagine there is an emotional bank account. We draw on the account of good-will and connection which buffers stresses from outside the relationship and carries us through the difficult situations we encounter as a couple. The suggestion is that each person in the relationship makes daily deposits into this account. I like to emphasize that frequent, smaller deposits are key to maintaining the system. Imagine the depository has a small slot for frequent, smaller deposits. After all, going all out on Valentine’s Day doesn’t carry you very far if the smaller connections are not happening.