The Secret of Happy Relationships

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As a young man I was always a big dreamer. I dreamt that one day I would have an idyllic fantasy relationship with a perfect girlfriend. In the presence of my partner I would finally be happy. We would gaze into each other’s eyes and all our worries would fade away…… Yes, this is exactly what love is like. It’s not difficult at all. You never argue – and you never annoy the hell out of each other! Well good luck to you if that’s true. For the rest of us, we have good days and bad days. However, some of us have more bad days than others! The reality is that around half of marriages end in divorce. And what about the other 50% of marriages that don’t end in divorce? We can assume that life is not plain sailing for all of those who manage to stay together. However a few couples appear to have very successful and happy relationships. Are they just lucky? Or is there some kind of ‘secret’ to experiencing happy relationships? John Gottman is professor emeritus of psychology at Washington University. He has spent over 40 years studying couples. His aim has been to learn what makes relationships successful. After 14 years of research, John recruited 130 newlywed couples for a research project. His team then monitored each of these couples for a weekend. Remarkably, his team were able to predict which couples would get divorced with 100% accuracy!! They were also able to predict which couples would be divorced after 6 years with 90% accuracy. But did John learn anything about the successful couples? John’s research suggests that successful couples behave differently to unsuccessful couples. In this article I will show you the ‘secret’ that enables successful couples to stand the test of time.

How does John Gottman know so much about relationships?

John studies couples’ interactions in what has been affectionately called the ‘Love Lab’. The ‘Love Lab’ is in fact a small studio apartment. It’s located in a park-like setting on the Washington University campus grounds. The apartment has a kitchen, dining area, pullout bed, television etc. There is a large window looking out onto the canal. Couples who agree to participate in John’s research bring their own food, videos and board games etc. But this holiday apartment is slightly unusual. There is a two-way mirror in the kitchen (freaky huh? :). Researchers observe the couples’ interactions from behind the mirror. Video cameras are also mounted on the walls. And couples have microphones pinned to their clothes. They also wear sensors which detect stress signals (sweat and increase of heart rate). The cameras are turned off over night. And couples are allowed to leave the apartment for half an hour each day. During this half-hour, they are not monitored.

Some people are ‘Relationship Masters’

John has discovered that some couples appear to be extremely good at handling conflict. In fact, he says these couples make conflict look like fun!! He calls these couples ‘marital masters’. And he has become fascinated by them. Like all couples, these pairs still argue. However, during arguments, they appear to be able to ‘stay connected’. Importantly, they try to avoid becoming defensive when they argue.

How to stay connected during an argument

How do you avoid becoming defensive when you’re having an argument?? Well, during an argument, the ‘marital masters’ appear to do the following.
  1. They ‘pepper’ their conversation with flashes of affection.
  2. They also show intense interest in their partners’ feelings.
  3. They are keen to maintain mutual respect for one another as they argue.
  4. They even appear to be able to inject some humour into their arguments.
But this is impossible right? How can you maintain this kind of positive attitude when you’re arguing???

How to stay positive when we argue

So how do these couples stay positive when they’re arguing? It turns out that this is the wrong question.
Start Quote These couples’ ability to stay positive during arguments is a symptom of something far deeper. Their ‘argument positivity’ is a spill-over from how they interact with one another when they are not arguing. End Quote
Gottman believes the key to remaining positive centres around how we respond to our partners’ ‘bids’ for attention.
  • ‘Bid’. When John Gottman refers to a ‘bid’, he is referring to a bid for connection. John refers to bids as ‘the fundamental unit of emotional communication’ within relationships. Examples of ‘bids’ might include:
  1. A question
  2. A gesture
  3. A look
  4. A touch
  5. In fact, any expression that means ‘I want to feel connected to you.’

Ignoring ‘bids’ results in divorce

The manner in which we respond to our partners’ ‘bids’ for connection has a profound impact on the likelihood of our relationship succeeding. Gottman discovered that:
  • Husbands heading for divorce ignored their partners’ bids 82% of the time
  • Husbands in stable relationships only ignored their partner’s bids 19% of the time
  • Wives heading for divorce acted preoccupied 50% of the time when their husbands’ made ‘bids’ for attention
  • However, happily married wives act preoccupied only 14% of the time in response to their partner’s bids for attention

Regular response to ‘bids’ makes arguments easier

So how does the manner in which we respond to our partner’s ‘bids’ affect our arguments? Let’s recall what Gottman said about how ‘marital masters’ act during arguments. They pepper their arguments with ‘flashes of affection’ and humour. They also show interest in what their partners have to say. And they maintain an attitude of respect. Gottman believes that the manner in which couples respond to ‘bids’ determines whether or not they can act positively during arguments. He believes that if we respond positively to bids on an ongoing basis, this generates good feeling in our partner. It’s as though we are investing ongoing good feeling in the ‘attitude’ bank. Typically, when we argue, we get angry. This can cloud our judgment and cause us to act in a hostile manner.
Start Quote But if couples have built up their credit in the ‘bid’ bank, then they become overflowing with positive feeling towards one another. And this appears to override some of the negative feelings that are typically associated with arguments. End Quote
In Gottman’s words a partner might say to her/himself:
I may be mad as hell at him right now, but he’s the guy who listens so attentively when I complain about my job. He deserves a break.
I’m as angry as I’ve ever been with her, but she’s the one who always laughs at my jokes. I think I’ll cut her some slack.
This kind of attitude is crucial during arguments. It helps to stop bad feeling from escalating. This helps couples to connect and understand one another better. And this helps couples to use conflict to help resolve issues. As a result, positive attitude is increased. And hurt feelings can be repaired.

How ‘marital masters’ respond to bids

Gottman says that we can respond to bids in one of 3 ways. We can:
  1. Turn towards
  2. Turning away, or
  3. Turn against.
Let’s deal with the ‘turning towards’ response first. Marital masters typically ‘turn towards’ one another in response to their partners’ bids.
  1. Turning Towards. When Gottman uses the phrase ‘turning towards’, he simply means responding to a bid in a positive manner. Here are some examples:
    • One partner makes a funny comment and the other partner laughs
    • A guy comments on an impressive car and his friend responds ‘Yeah, nice ride!’
    • A parent asks her son to pass the salt and her son passes it in an accommodating manner
    • A lady chats about a holiday she is considering, and her friend shows an interest: she asks questions, suggests nice places to go etc.
  2. Turning Against. This involves responding to a bid in an argumentative or demeaning manner. This kind of response often involves sarcasm or ridicule. Here are some examples:
    • A guy comments on an impressive car and his friend responds ‘With your wage? You’ll never afford that!’
    • Gottman refers to one couple whom his researchers saw in the ‘Love Lab’. The wife gently asked her husband to put down his newspaper and chat. The husband sneered ‘What are we going to talk about?’ His wife responded, ‘Well we were talking about buying a new television. We could talk about that.’ Her husband then replied ‘What do you know about televisions?’
    In this last scenario, the women then went silent. Withdrawal is the typical response when a person’s partner ‘turns against’ her bids for emotional connection.
    Start Quote Gottman has found that this pattern (hostility followed by withdrawal) leads to divorce. Studies have also shown this kind of interaction undermines friendships and other family relationships. End Quote
  3. Turning Away. This refers to ignoring another person’s bid for connection, or acting preoccupied. Here are two examples:
    • A guy comments on an impressive car but his friend doesn’t respond at all. Or his friend responds by looking up and saying something unrelated like ‘what time is it?’ or ‘Do you have change for a £5 note?’
    • Gottman provides another example which he observed in his ‘Love Lab’. In this example, a wife apologised to her husband for a mistake she made whilst making dinner. She apologised 3 times during the course of the evening. She clearly wanted the husband to let her off the hook. But each time she apologised, the husband ignored her and looked away.
Gottman has found that couples who regularly ‘turn away’ from a partner’s bids for connection typically get divorced after a relatively short period of time. Most couples who typically ‘turn against’ (the 2nd type of response to a bid – see above) also get divorced. However, interestingly, couples who habitually ‘turn against’ one another often get divorced after being married for a longer time period.

So what’s the ‘secret’ of happy relationships?

According to John’s research, happy couples that stand the test of time do the following.
Start Quote Happy couples ‘turn towards’ one another in response to bids for emotional connection around 80-85% of the time. That equates to ‘turning towards’ one’s partner in response to 8-9 out of 10 of her bids for connection. End Quote
In the past, I have been a very self-absorbed person. Before I began to address this issus, I would spend most of my time talking about myself and my own interests. However, over the last couple of years, I have tried to ‘turn towards’ other people more often. These days I try to focus my attention on showing an interest in other people during conversation. I still find this difficult because I seem to have an innate drive to talk about myself. But since I have made a concerted effort to show an interest in others, I have noticed that my relationships have vastly improved. But I don’t find it easy. And sometimes I still kick myself for not showing enough interest in other people during conversation. So I’d really encourage each reader to think about this. How often do we respond positively towards other people’s ‘bids’ for connection and attention? I believe that responding positively to other people’s ‘bids’ for connection is the secret to having happy and rewarding relationships.

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Live Life Satisfied is a lifestyle website focused on improving our emotional wellbeing. I publish around 2 articles per month addressing issues relating to living a well-rounded, fulfilled life. Why not have my e-mail updates sent directly to your inbox? SIGN UP FOR MY EMAIL UPDATES to have my articles sent directly to you! (Alternatively click the orange 'Subscribe to Email Updates' button below.) Please Give Feedback: Did you find this article helpful? I love to receive feedback from people: it's what makes writing these articles worthwhile. If you found this article useful, or if you have any questions or comments please let me know. Click here to e-mail me, or leave a COMMENT BELOW. Your feedback means a great deal to me. Photo: Bethany King


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