Despite the fact that the divorce rate in the U.S. is high, some marriages remain strong over many years. In fact, one study found that some married couples have the same neural activation patters of those who have just fallen in love despite being married for decades. (Acevedo & Aron 2011). What do these couples do differently? How can you have a successful relationship? What’s the best relationship advice?
A researcher named John Gottman found was able to predict with a 94% success rate which marriages would end in divorce and which would thrive just by watching a couple interact for 30 minutes. What he found was that successful couples have 5 positive to every 1 negative interaction (Buehlman & Gottman 1992). So, it’s very important that you manage negative and maximize positive interactions in a relationship.
There’s going to be conflict in every relationship. Research has shown that it isn’t conflict itself that causes relationship problems; it is how conflict is dealt with. Managing conflict is especially important in the first 7 years of marriage. Interestingly, negative affect during conflict predicted divorce in the first 7 years of marriage, while lack of positive affect predicted later divorce (Gottman & Levenson 2000). It’s important to address a problem you have with the other person, just be careful about how you do it.
- Start with a Complaint: Conflicts that begin with a criticism, rather than a complaint are predictive of unhappy marriages. Complaints are specific, and don’t attack the other’s character (“you forgot to take the garbage out yesterday, do you have time to take care of that now?”) A criticism attacks the other person’s character (“you always forget to take the garbage out yesterday, you are worthless.”). One study found that you can predict the outcome of a 15 minute conversation by looking at just the first 3 minutes 96% of the time. (Carrere & Gottman 1999).
- Avoid the 4 horsemen during the discussion: John Gottman identified 4 types of negative interactions that are destructive to a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- Criticism: As noted earlier, criticisms are attacks toward the other’s character and personality. They not only happen at the beginning of conflict, but can happen throughout.
- Contempt: Contempt is the most destructive of the four deadly horsemen. It is expressions of disgust such as eye rolling, mockery, and sneering.
- Defensiveness: Defensiveness is trying to rationalize some sort of behavior. Arguing rarely resolves a conflict, it usually makes it worse.
- Stonewalling: Stonewalling is when one person shuts down, they don’t even acknowledge the other person’s presence (Gottman 1999). Try your best to avoid all of these negative interactions during a disagreement.
- Accepting influence: When one side does not accept influence (is willing to be persuaded by the other) there is an 81% chance that the couple will divorce (Gottman 1999). Take complains seriously, listen and be willing to be persuaded.
- Repair attempts: 84% of newlyweds who were high on the four deadly horsemen, but had effective repair attempts were in stable, happy marriages 6 years later (Gottman 1999). Repair attempts are when you attempt to repair a negative interaction with words or actions.
- Forgive: Forgiving your spouse for their mistakes significantly improves relationships. (Fincham & Hall 2006).
Overall, there’re going to be disagreements in a relationship. The important thing is to communicate respectfully and try to find win-win outcomes. If you’re too angry in a given moment, wait until later to talk.
Since you need 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction, it is important to fill your relationship with positive moments (even more important for people who fight a lot). One study found that an accumulation of positive interactions can lead to something called “positive sentiment override,” where even potentially negative interactions are seen through a positive lens (Gottman 1999). Thus, positive interactions are not only good in themselves, but they can also reduce conflict.
- Appreciate: Showing appreciation causes an upward spiral, promoting an increasingly strong relationship. (Gordon & Impett 2012). When an individual feels more appreciated, they are more likely to appreciate. This is probably the single most important thing you can do. Start by thinking about 3 things you appreciate about the other person every night and when appropriate, tell them. It can be difficult to do this when your relationship is having trouble, but it’s a great way to kick off an upward spiral of positive interactions.
- Engage in a variety of new activities together: Engaging in new activities has been show to improve relationships (Aron & Norman 2000). So go for a hike, play tennis, or find other fun new things to do together.
- Support each other: Take an interest in the other person’s dreams and aspirations. Support them through the highs and lows.
- Responding to positive news: How you respond to positive news is important. Active construction, like “great job!” is the best. Passive construction: a smiley symbol, active destruction: “that doesn’t sound hard to me,” and passive destruction: “someone already told me that” are not as good for relationships (Gable 2004).
- Talk about “Us”: Couples that used pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “our” have lower cardiovascular arousal, more positive emotional behavior and less negative emotional behavior during conflict that couples who use pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “you.” (Seider & Hirschberger 2009).
- Laugh: Humor can also improve relationships. Interestingly, women like men who make them laugh, men like women who laugh at their jokes (Bressler 2005).
- Put away the cell phone: The presence of a cell phone had negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality (Przybylski 2012).
- Bids for attention: When an individual makes a comment or laughs at something they are reading; this is known as a bid for attention. Researchers have found that individuals in happy couples respond to bids for attention 85% of the time, while individuals in unhappy couples only respond 30% of the time on average (Driver & Gottman 2004).
Successful couples can be categorized into three types: volatile couples (fight a lot), validating couples (fight a moderate amount), and avoiding couples (hardly ever fight). All three types of marriages can thrive. What all of these couples have in common is that they have at least 5:1 positive to negative interactions (Gottman 1993). If there is a formula for successful marriages, that seems most likely to be it.
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