In a couple of earlier posts I wrote that close and positive relationships contribute strongly to our psychological wellbeing. Today I want to hone in on how we can nurture our relationship with a romantic partner.
Martin Seligman conducted studies on the personalities and lifestyles of depressed, angry or anxious people for two decades before partnering with Ed Diener to study very happy people. They began by measuring the happiness levels of 222 college students, and proceeded to analyse the happiest ten percent. This is what they found:
These ‘very happy’ people differed markedly from average people and from unhappy people in one principal way: a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spent the least time alone (and the most time socialising), and they were rated highest on good relationships by themselves and by their friends. All 22 members of the very happy group, except one, reported a current romantic partner.1
Of course we already know that having that special person by our side will send our happiness level soaring. The questions I want to ponder are: What makes a partnership successful? How does one keep the flame of love and attraction alive? And what can be done to improve a partnership when the partner is not so special anymore?
To provide answers to such questions we luckily can turn to John Gottman, America’s foremost relationship expert. Gottman built a ‘love lab’, a studio apartment in which couples stay overnight and spend a typical weekend. During their stay at the ‘love lab’, the couples are observed by a team of scientists via two-way mirrors and cameras from nine am to nine pm. The team monitors and records the couple’s conversations, bodily signs of stress, facial expressions and so on. By now John Gottman can predict whether a couple will separate or stay together in as little as five minutes with an accuracy of 91 percent.2 “This level of predictive accuracy”, Sonja Lyubomirsky remarks, “is unprecedented in the field of psychology.”3 One of the aspects that assist Gottman in his predictions of divorce is that its foretelling signs are quite easy to spot. We will get to these later. Let us first look at what Gottman sees in the couples whose relationship will endure.
One of the most important qualities of lasting partnerships and emotionally connected couples is that the partners know a lot about each other. Gottman calls this having ‘love maps’. A ‘love map’ enables you to name such things as your partner’s best friends, hobbies, favourite sports, foods, films etc; their deepest longings, fears, and beliefs; plus what stresses him or her. Gottman points out that “there are few gifts a couple can give each other greater than the joy that comes from being known and understood”.4 If you cannot name your partner’s favourite relative, holiday destination, form of exercise, song or musician, or what makes him or her sad, angry, hopeful, or inspired, perhaps you have not been paying enough attention. The good news is that we can decide to re-draw our relationship’s’ love map’ by asking, listening, and remembering. Watch how touched a partner is by an action or comment, which intimately reflects a deep knowledge of him or her.
The second important sign of a successful relationship is that the partners still have fondness and admiration of each other. According to Gottman, the easiest way to tell whether there a system of affection is present is by asking a couple about their past. If they can remember their time of dating in some detail, as well as come up with the qualities that attracted them to each other, the fondness and admiration are still there. If there are no embers of a couple’s mutual pleasure and approval for each other, their relationship is in serious trouble, Gottman writes. However, he stresses, even when these embers are hardly detectable, if they can be found, they can be fanned.5
So how do we fan the flames of admiration? By putting our minds to it, i.e. by considering the positive characteristics of our partner, and reflecting when they displayed them in the past. Gottman offers a list of 72 positive attributes to ponder, ranging from virile to committed to elegant to organised. He advises choosing the three most true for your partner, and then reflecting on what you value about these characteristics. Chances are that you don’t need the list, however, and can come up with your partner’s good attributes all by yourself. Gottman then offers a simple seven week course in nurturing fondness and admiration in your partner. If your relationship is on the rocks, you might want to invest in buying his book and follow his instructions.6 It is a lot cheaper and more pleasant than a separation down the track.
There is a third principle that protects and nurtures relationships, which is observable among couples who last: Partners turn toward each other rather than away. According to Gottman, partners regularly make ‘bids’ for each other’s attention, and it is how the partner responds that will make or break their sense of connection. Ongoing romance, Gottman argues, is not the result of candlelit dinners or beach holidays. Lasting romance, he finds, is kept alive through partners’ little ways of connecting over the grind of daily life. This includes responding to a partner’s bid for affection, support and attempts at humour. Connection is nurtured by responding to a banal comment about the weather or a simple question about what needs to go on the grocery list. Forget Hollywood’s take on romance, Gottman writes. We do not need to be swept up into heroic arms or swooned by teary eyes; we need (to be) a partner who acknowledges what is being said, who chats, who responds with interest and goodwill. Turning toward each other in countless small ways is the basis of romance, passion, and emotional connection, Gottman stresses.7
Recently I bumped into an elderly friend who is well known for his good sense of humour. However, his wife of some 50 years had just suffered a minor heart attack and was in hospital recuperating. Bert was out to lunch with his son who had not yet arrived, and he looked a little forlorn. “I’m very sorry to hear about Elisa,” I said to him, touching his arm. “Everyone cares. She is such a lovely, warm person.” “Yes, she is now,” he responded. “You know; I made her that. She used to be awful.”
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015