Have you ever looked at a couple who seemed so perfect together that you wondered, “What’s their secret?”
Why do some couples stay happily married for fifty years while others divorce after weeks, or worse still, stay together in increasing bitterness and resentment? Everyone wants to know the key to long-lasting love and happiness, and psychologist John Gottman believes he’s found it. Through decades of longitudinal studies on married couples, Gottman and his wife Julie have developed a system for identifying, maintaining, and nurturing successful romantic relationships.
The secret, according to the Gottmans’ research, is kindness. This is explained through what Gottman calls “bids” for connection: moments throughout the day in which a person attempts to elicit a response from their partner. For example, a man asking his wife to look at a comic in the newspaper is requesting a response from her and hoping they will connect over it. How the wife responds now is critical. She can either “turn toward” or “turn away” from the request–she can laugh along with the husband or engage him in conversation, or she can ignore him or criticize him for bothering her. Gottman’s studies showed that these interactions have major effects on marital happiness. Couples who experienced long term happiness and fulfillment “turned toward” their partner 87% of the time.
These bids extend from small matters, like prompting a partner to look at something interesting, to large ones like sharing big achievements or difficult feelings. When the partner responds to a bid with interest and care, it improves overall communication and creates a feeling of love, affection, and connection. When one partner ignores the other or responds in hostility it creates tension and discomfort that carry over into the relationship as a whole.
Responding to a partner’s bids well requires both kindness and generosity. Cultivating an attitude of kindness means being aware of opportunities for gratefulness and being sensitive to the needs of loved ones. Kindness requires us to be mindful of our words and approach conflicts with restorative intentions rather than destructive ones. Generosity comes in when we choose to view our partner’s actions in a positive light rather than a defensive one. Being generous with your partner’s intentions means choosing to believe that they have your best interests at heart, even if their actions don’t necessarily make you happy. For example, when your partner is late to dinner, you can choose to insult them and take it personally, or you can trust that they did their best to get their on time but met some kind of obstacle. Kindness and generosity lead to more open communication and foster an environment of love and affection.
Another generosity can be practiced is by responding in kindness even when you are tired, stressed, or distracted.
When your partner makes a bid and you turn toward them in spite of the way that you feel, it strengthens your connection to one another. It is the small moments of connection that build a strong relationship and likewise the small moments of emotional neglect that can pile up to create a lifetime of unhappiness.
Additional studies show that the most important thing couples can do to nurture their relationships is to assure the other person that they are valued. By responding to our partner’s “bids” we show them that someone is listening and paying attention to what they have to offer. People who ignore their partners damage their relationships by making their partner feel worthless and furthermore, negatively affect their physical health! An Ohio State University study shows that people experiencing marital stress have a decreased ability to fight off viruses and cancers, and have increased chances of certain diseases.
This is hopeful news! Kindness and generosity aren’t traits we are born with, they are abilities that we learn and cultivate throughout our lives. With mindfulness, encouragement, and hard work, anyone can put this information into practice and improve their relationship.