Two renowned psychologists have discovered a simple way to tell if your relationship will work out or not.
Psychologist couple John and Julie Gottman have found the overwhelming traits that define happy and unhappy relationships, whether the couple is gay, straight, rich or poor. It all boils down to how couples treat each other in one specific interaction — when one partner in the relationship brings up something interesting or meaningful to them.
The Gottmans are experts in marital stability and run the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington, which helps to create stronger relationships using methods backed by scientific research.
Having conducted decades of research on thousands of couples, the Gottmans are able to predict to an accuracy of 94% whether a relationship between any two people will last simply by observing certain interactions.
In a 2014 interview with The Atlantic’s Emily Esfahani Smith, the Gottmans outlined the key traits of both successful and unhappy relationships.
In 1986, John Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson set up “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington to study the interactions of couples. For the better part of the next decade, Gottman invited thousands of couples to “The Love Lab” and hooked them up to electrodes to measure physiological activity. Gottman asked them questions about their relationship like how they met, a major conflict they were facing and a positive memory they shared, all while the electrodes measured the couples’ blood flow, heart rate and sweat production.
Once he recorded the initial data, Gottman planned to follow up with the couples six years after their initial visit to see if they were still together.
Six years later, Gottman found that the couples were either still happy together, broken up entirely or chronically unhappy in their relationship. When he compared the initial data of the couples, Gottman organized them into two groups — the “Masters” and the “Disasters.”
The Disasters were couples that appeared calm in the interview, but their data showed they had quicker heart rates, higher blood flow and more active sweat glands. In other words, they showed signs of arousal, also similar to the fight or flight response, because talking about their partner or the relationship caused significant stress. Gottman determined that the more physiologically active couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated.
The Masters, on the other hand, showed low physiological arousal in their sessions. They reported feeling calm and connected with their partner, leading to warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. Master couples exhibited trust and intimacy towards each other, resulting in an emotionally and physically comfortable relationship.
The Secret to Master Relationships
Gottman decided to explore how Master couples created that happy and ultimately successful relationship environment. In a separate follow-up study in 1990, Gottman transformed The Love Lab to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast. He invited 130 newlyweds to spend the day there while he observed them cleaning, cooking, listening to music, eating, talking and hanging out.
What Gottman noticed would help him determine whether or not a couple would become a Master or Disaster relationship.
Gottman observed couples making requests for a connection, which he calls “bids.” A bid occurs when one partner in a couple makes a statement to their significant other — it’s usually something they find interesting, meaningful, or it’s something they just point out. The partner brings up the subject looking for a response from their partner, usually in the form of interest or support.
For example, a wife would tell her husband, “Oh my, look at that puppy! He’s so adorable!” It’s how her husband will react to her bid that says whether or not that relationship is healthy.
Gottman noticed that partners either turned away or turned towards their partners when they made a bid. Using the example above, the woman’s husband would engage in a “turn-away” by saying something like, “Oh, that’s nice.” He might shrug off or ignore her statement, or even say something like “Don’t bother me right now.” The response is minimal, sometimes even hostile, and the bid is seen as an interruption.
A “turn-towards” reaction to a bid would have the husband respond affectionately, saying something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, that’s a great looking dog. Should we go pet it?” or even “I know! What do you think about getting a dog like that?” Clearly the response is more positive, but the key trait is that the husband acknowledged his wife in a respectful and constructive manner. He showed his wife that he genuinely cares about what she finds interesting, no matter how trivial the subject may be.
After analyzing the data, Gottman found that after those six years, couples who were divorced had turn-toward bids only 33% of the time — only three out of 10 bids were met with intimacy.
Couples who remained together after the six years were recorded having turn-toward bids 87% of the time — nearly nine out of 10 bids were met with intimacy.
John Gottman elaborated in the interview with The Atlantic:
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have 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.”
Julia Gottman added:
“It’s not just scanning environment. It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”
The Keys to a Good Relationship
The Gottmans concluded that a relationship’s worst enemy is contempt.
When people are so focused on criticizing their partners, they miss 50% of the positive things their partners do and even begin to see negativity where there is none. Unsurprisingly, that kind of attitude makes partners feel worthless, invisible, unloved and undervalued, apart from the physical stress that a negative emotional environment can cause.
Caring and showing kindness is a huge part of a lasting relationship — couples either have it or they don’t. Julie Gottman explained using a simple example:
“If your partner expresses a need, and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”
On a bad day where you find yourself tired and stressed out beyond belief, how do you react to your partner when they ask something of you? Do you shrug them off, passively or with hostility, while you focus on your own problems? Or do you put them before yourself and feel the need to acknowledge or help them simply because your loving relationship comes before your own needs? As some may expect by now, ignoring a partner, despite your own problems, can create resentment over being neglected.
Then comes the most important time to be kind: when you get into an argument with your partner. How you handle the situation either shows that you’ll be with that person for a long time or that you are truly not meant to be with each other. Julie Gottman explained:
“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
John Gottman added:
“Disasters will say things differently in a fight. Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.’ ”
The Gottmans also recommend couples not to be so quick to get emotional and make judgements until seemingly bad situations come into full view; for instance, sometimes even positive things like picking up a gift for their partner on the way to dinner can make them late.
Ask yourself how you truly feel about your partner — are you genuinely interested in the things they have to say? Do you respond positively and constructively? How do you feel about how your partner reacts to the things you like to talk about? It’s never a bad time take a look at your relationship to see whether you are a Master or will end up a Disaster.