What really makes relationships work? I have written before about the 4 behaviors that sabotage relationships that came out of Gottman’s research in his “Love Lab”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Based on observing interactions between couples and identifying these key behaviors, he was able to predict with over 90% accuracy whether a couple would stay together or not. (See: 4 Behaviors that Sabotage Your Relationships.)
But Gottman also further studied the couples who he called the “masters” – who were still happily married after 6 years – to see how they developed a culture of love and intimacy. (See: Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits.) He noticed that throughout the day, people would make requests for connection, which he calls “bids.” For example, the husband would notice a bird fly across the yard and exclaim: “Look at that beautiful bird outside!”
The wife now has a choice to turn toward her partner by showing interest and support (e.g. by looking up and replying “You are right – what a pretty bird!”) or turning away by responding minimally or not at all and continuing to do what she was doing (like reading or watching TV). Couples who were together after 6 years turned toward their partner 87% of the time (vs. only 33% for couples who divorced 6 years later.) This interaction seems very casual, but the difference between feeling accepted or rejected by someone is huge.
Another habit of the “masters” that Gottman discovered is that they scan the partner for things they are doing right and show respect and appreciation vs. scan them for things they are doing wrong and responding with criticism.
It basically comes down to kindness and generosity. We can be kind by turning towards our partner and by noticing and letting them know about all the things they are doing right. “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” explains Gottman, “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. 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.”
I believe that Gottman’s research is not only applicable to marriages, but other relationships as well. We can all use more kindness and generosity, whether it’s with friends, family, teachers, neighbors, or others. As Ellen de Generes would say: “Be kind to one another.”