[This post is a direct summary of a terrific article called “Masters of Love” that was published June 12, 2014 in the Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith.]
Four decades ago John Gottman began studying couples in response to the crisis that a majority of marriages were ending in divorce. He set up a “Love Lab” in which interviewed spouses about their relationship while hooked up to electrodes that measured their heart rate, sweat, etc., and then checked to see who was still together six years later. From the data he gathered, he separated the couples into two categories: the masters and the disasters. You guessed it, the masters were still happily together while the disasters were either broken up or in chronically unhappy relationships.
During the interviews the disasters looked the same as the masters, but their physiology told us a very different story via the electrodes. Heart rate, blood flow and sweat production was all elevated in the disasters. This arousal in the disasters let Gottman know that they were in fight-or-flight mode in their relationships. In other words, their bodies believed that there was a lion sized threat present while they were trying to talk to their partner. Masters on the other hand showed a lack of physiological arousal, thus a greater degree of physical and emotional comfort around their partners.
In 1990, Gottman gathered 130 couples together in a lab designed like a bed and breakfast retreat to try to get at the heart of why some couples flourish while others anguish. His key discovery was in the requests that partners made for connection or what he termed “bids.” A husband would make a bid by saying “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He is requesting a response from his wife so that they can share in a moment of connection with one another, however brief.
His partner now has a decision to make about whether to – as Gottman called it – “turn toward” or “turn away” from her spouse. These bidding interaction had a tremendous impact on the closeness of the relationship. Couples who ended up divorced had “turn toward” bids that were met with closeness just 3 out of 10 times, whereas couples who were still together six years later were emotionally responsive 9 out of 10 times.
Through these interactions, Gottman could predict which couples would stay together 94% of the time.
So much of the success of the couple came down to the spirit that the couple brought to the relationship, be it kindness or generosity or hostility, contempt and criticism. “There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning their 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 their social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
Contempt is the #1 factor that tears couples apart. Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Masters tend to think of kindness as a muscle that needs regular exercise to stay in shape, much like a relationship need regular hard work to stay healthy.
Fights are critical times that separate the happy from the unhappy relationships. Here’s Gottman again: “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.’”
One way to practice kindness is to interpret a partner’s acts charitably rather than assuming the spouse has negative intentions. Disasters tend to assume that he left the toilet seat up deliberately to annoy her, whereas masters will believe he absent-mindedly forgot to put the seat down.
Another powerful kindness strategy is in being able to connect with and celebrate a partner’s shared joy. Disasters tend to respond to good news with disinterest and shut down the conversation. In Gottman terms, “turn toward” your spouse’s good news rather than “turning away” from it.
A lot of factors tear couples apart, but one of the most fundamental is a lack of kindness. Instead of the negativity and critique that guides chronically unhappy couples, the happy ones meet the stresses of life while practicing a shared sense of generosity and kindness.
[To reiterate, this post is a direct summary of a terrific article called “Masters of Love” that was published June 12, 2014 in the Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith.]
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Coach, Psychotherapist, and Couples Therapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.