Relationship Institute Australasia

Counselling and
Professional Training

7 October 2016

Categories: Relationship Help

According to McCrindle research, November (spring) and March (autumn) are the most popular months to get married in Australia. Sadly about 38% of those marriages will end in divorce within 8.4 years. If we factor in the number of couples who end de facto relationships that number rises to approximately 48% of all committed live-in relationships ending each year in Australia. Additionally, approximately 70% of those households include children. It’s not a pretty picture.
Luckily we have some good news. After studying couples interactions over the past 40 years psychologist and researcher Dr John Gottman found that happy, healthy, long lasting relationships were characterised by two basic attitudes—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.

In 1986 Dr Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson established “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA.  Gottman and Levenson brought newlyweds into the lab and watched them interact with each other.

They wired the couples up to electrodes and asked the couples to talk about their relationship. Topics such as how they met, an area of conflict, and a positive memory they had together. As they spoke, the electrodes measured their blood flow, heart rates, and how much they were sweating. Then the researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six years later to see if they were still together.

From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: Couples who were still happily together after six years, and couples who had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.

When the researchers analyzed the data they found clear differences between the groups. The unhappy couples looked calm during the interviews, but their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

 Gottman identified a range of behaviours that differentiated the two groups of couples.  He found that happy, long lasting couples showed constant and continuous interest in each other, responding to each other’s “bids for connection” at far greater rates than unhappy couples (70% vs 30%); happy couples used a greater ratio of positive to negative statements in their day to day interactions than unhappy couples (20 positives to 1  negative vs 0.8 positives to 1 negative).

Gottman concluded that happy couples create a different “habit of mind”.  They scan their environment and their partner for things they can appreciate and things they can say thank you for.  They build a culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.  

Unhappy couples scan their environment for their partners’ mistakes and announce them in harsh and demeaning ways.  So it seems that as any year 2 child can tell you “Being mean makes me not want to be your friend”.

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from the Gottman lab has demonstrated 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 which equals feeling loved.  There is also a great deal of evidence demonstrating that 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, not to mention in a family as a whole.

Gottman says there are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you can think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Happy couples tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it often to keep it in shape. They know that a good relationship requires sustained hard work and constant positive attention to their day to day interactions.

The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt and aggression spiral out of control as our physiology arouses during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship.

“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,”  Gottman explains, “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.”

When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity another way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions – giving your partner the benefit of the doubt rather than being sure they were deliberately trying to hurt you, or ignore you, etc.

Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the unhappy couples observed in Gottman’s studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news. When one person in the relationship shared some good news, the other would respond with wooden disinterest saying something like “Ah huh” or by staying silent.  Happy couples instead acted like each other’s cheer squad, communicating pride and excitement over little things as well as the big things.

In more recent research (2006) Shelly Gable and her colleagues brought young adult couples into the lab to discuss recent positive events from their lives. They wanted to know how partners would respond to each other’s good news. They found that, in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways that they called: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.

Active destructive responses include turning away in silence, changing the subject, critisicing the news or putting it down as not good enough.

Passive Constructive responses include a half-hearted acknowledgement or saying congratulations and then dropping or changing the subject.

Active destructive responses occur when the good news is attacked in some way (e.g. Well how are you going to find time for that?  What will it cost? That’s ridiculous!  That won’t work! It’s not as much as Bill makes.).  These kinds of responses steal your partner’s feelings of thrill, accomplishment and pleasure.

Finally, active constructive responding occurs when you stop what you are doing and engage wholeheartedly with your partner in their excitement, enjoyment, pleasure.  This might include saying . “That’s great!”;  “Congratulations! When did you find out?”; “Yay for you!”; “What are you most excited about?”; “That’s amazing!”; “You are amazing!”.

Among the four response styles, active constructive responding is the kindest. While the other response styles are joy-killers, active constructive responding allows the partner to savor her joy and gives the couple an opportunity to bond over the good news. In the parlance of the Gottmans, active constructive responding is a way of “turning toward” your partners bid (sharing the good news) rather than “turning away” from it.

Active constructive responding is critical for healthy relationships. In a follow-up study Gable and her colleagues found that the only difference between the couples who still were together and those who broke up was the presence of active constructive responding. Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together. Gable also found that active constructive responding was associated with higher relationship quality and more intimacy between partners. 

There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness and generosity. As the normal stresses of a life together pile up—with children, career, friends, in-laws, and other distractions crowding out the time for romance and intimacy—couples may put less effort into their relationship and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart.  Among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the active presence of kindness and generosity protects their relationships from this outcome.

If you would like to learn more about how to protect your relationship register for one of our workshops here


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