June is the most popular months for weddings, which means the idea of “forever” is on a lot of people’s minds as the summer begins. However, amidst the fanfare and beauty of June brides, tired cakes, and first dances is the very real statistic that over 50 percent of modern marriages end in divorce. What’s worse, of those that last, 2 out of 5 couples are together, but unhappy.
Since the 1970s, when the divorce rate first began to spike, researchers have looked into the psychological, social, and emotional reasons why couples stay together. More than the simple, “love, honour, and cherish” promise of marriage vows, these studies have proven that two, key components truly allow relationships to endure: kindness and generosity.
The Masters and the Disasters
In a landmark study which began in 1986, psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson tracked married couples both when they first wed and then again 6 years later.
Looking at physiological cues which included monitoring blood pressure, heart rate, and sweating, the researchers began to notice that couples who ultimately ended up divorced, separated, or unhappy all had a similar set of physiological signs similar to “fight or flight” arousal when interacting with one another. These couples, labeled “disasters,” seemed perpetually on edge, physiologically speaking, even when they appeared calm in interviews.
By contrast, the couples who were still together 6 years later, dubbed “masters,” showed no such physiological signals. Instead, they remained connected, intimate, and calm when talking and even when arguing.
Though the difference between Masters and Disasters was physiological, the Masters couples did not have a natural or physical advantage over the others. Rather, they had created an environment conducive to that calm physiological response.
Through simple acts of kindness and generosity.
“Turning Toward” Each Other
Upon further research, Gottman, along with his wife and fellow psychologist Julie, discovered that couples with staying power are generous with their time and attention to their partner. Especially when it comes “bids” for attention. Labelled “turning toward” each other, these instances occur daily when we make an attempt to share our world with our partner.
For example, a wife may “bid” for her husband’s attention by bringing up an interesting article in the newspaper about a topic she cares for, such as animal rights. When she draws his attention to it, he can either “turn toward” her, and engage in a conversation about it, asking questions or sharing in her passion, or “turn away” from her by dismissing her call for attention, ignoring it, or only giving part answers and trying to change the subject.
Though no couple has the ability to “turn toward” one another 100 percent of the time, the most successful ones will nearly nine times out of 10, whereas “disaster couples” will only about three out of 10 times.
This type of generosity of time and attention creates an environment where individuals feel validated and safe, which are key elements in making a relationship endure. When people feel like their interests and ideas matter, they feel like they matter.
Other daily interactions also matter in the overall satisfaction a couple experiences, specifically when it comes to interpreting the other’s actions and our ultimate responses. Couples who endure focus on kindness and give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to conflict.
Understanding that most people act selfishly rather than specifically target others with ill intent, they allow that their partner’s actions, no matter how frustrating, are usually not about them.
When disagreeing, a Masters couple is more likely to deflect blame, rather identifying annoyance. For example, if his spouse is late, a Master may say, “I know you got caught up at work, but it really frustrates me when you are late to our planned date night. Can you please call me next time?”
On the other hand, a Disaster couple would more likely use blaming, antagonistic language: “I cannot believe you are late again! Can’t you tell time and plan ahead when you know we have a date night scheduled?” Both Masters and Disasters have are consistent with how they handle issues, including financial disagreements.
It isn’t easy or natural to be kind when frustrated, and even Masters couples will place blame on the other at times. However, research has also proven that kindness multiplies, especially in romantic relationships.
That is, by being kind to your partner you encourage them to react with kindness in return. This creates that critical environment of intimacy and trust which leads to the type of relationship that endures.