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Positive Psychology Program

Holding together into old age. Positivepsychologyprogram.com

Some time ago Emily Esfahani Smith wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic titled “Masters of Love: Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.” Marriages start off with couples “committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth… Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people.”

Since the sexual revolution, social scientists have been studying this rather modern upheaval of broken marriages/families, and wondered “are each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?”

What researchers found: Masters and Disasters

In 1986, John Gottman set up “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington where newlyweds were studied, and then brought in six years later. He was able to separate 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. When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters.”

“Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab… to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

Profound effects on marital well-being

“These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow-up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time… The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. [Almost] nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples… will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?”

Habit of Mind: Appreciation

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart…

“People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.”

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together.

“Research… has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved… there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

(For more see: “Masters of Love“)

Toward a Culture of Kindness and Generosity

My wife and I are joining a number of couples to complete a 12 session “Love After Marriage” e-course. My wife and I are very different people – and sometimes the differences seems so accentuated as to feel insurmountable, but it is part of the curriculum of the spiritual life to positively work together for our marriage – for embedded in marriage is a great mystery.

This is more enigma than dogma.