“Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits,” is a headline on Business Insider (but really content from the Atlantic OF COURSE because they LOVE faux science relationship research) that grabbed me by the lady balls a couple weeks ago. Having impressively kept the tab open all this time, I am here today to take a closer look at it.
Apparently, the secret to happy relationship is two things: kindness and generosity. Oh, so…just don’t be a dick.
Shouldn’t be too hard, right? WRONG. Take a look at this dismal shit:
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
According to these statistics, we have a 70 percent chance of ending up in a “bitter and dysfunctional” marriage. Better to know now?
Ugh, that’s terrible. But look at this interesting research:
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.
I know this might cost me thousands of dollars in giving a brilliant idea away, but VH1, you need to create a show based on this study called Masters and Disasters.
But this study is interesting, albeit a little obvi, you know? Obviously stressed out, on edge, angry people were not happy, and of no use to a healthy relationship.
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.
I see what they’re saying, but facing off with a saber-toothed tiger — I’d have a lot of questions, such as, what geological era am I currently in, and is that a bigger problem than my husband who won’t see the doctor for his IBS?
Ok, ok, but what about the MASTERS, the people who talked to each other like evolved humans? They were relaxed and happy because you know, like, trust and intimacy.
But aside from just not being a dick to the person you claim to “love,” there are other ways to show you care:
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, maybe it was on purpose, and it’s all part of a very long con with an end result that hasn’t quite been worked out yet. It’s hard to tell if you have a sneaky husband or not.
I’m being harsh with this article filled with new and interesting takeaways like, “Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart,” or “Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved.”
BUT, there was a valuable nugget toward the end. The last point the article explored was how we react to our partner’s good news and, how sometimes, what you think is a kind response really isn’t.
We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But research shows 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.”
That’s actually really good to understand. We all know that being kind and generous are critical to a healthy relationship. I didn’t need to read a thousand words reminding me of that, but what I do need to hear is HOW to administer that kindness. I need to know why my actions, although well-intentioned, are not actually as kind as I think they are.
The differences in these responses are nuanced, and I can see how some of them are not terribly kind, even though they are meant to be.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Don’t be a dick, not in the grand scheme of things, but in the day to day, in the smallest of small ways. Because, one big dick move isn’t as destructive as thousands of tiny ones.
Also, you need to really wade through Atlantic pieces to get to the good stuff.
Heather is a contributing editor at the-dah. She is a Los Angeles based writer, improviser, snacker, social media mistress, and aspiring adult. Read more of her food-stained stories about growing up weird at Terrible-Twenties.com, or follow her digital alter ego @MissHezah on Twitter.
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