by Margaret Cabaniss
As the unmarried “mama” of our bloggy contingent, I’m the last person who should be giving marriage advice — but psychologist John Gottman is a different story. His decades of research into what makes for happy relationships translates today into an ability to predict, with 94 percent certainty, whether a couple will split up or stay together, after observing them interact for only a few minutes.
Not only that, but Gottman says there’s one very basic trait that separates the “masters” (those couples in happy relationships) from the “disasters” (those who are unhappy, or who eventually split up). The secret sauce in happy marriages? No secret, really: It’s kindness.
“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.”
“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “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.”
Sound familiar? Read on:
Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. 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 independent from theirs 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.
It seems so obvious, and yet relationships today fail at a depressing rate. Maybe because we tend to think of kindness as a concrete act: giving a gift or a paying a compliment, say. But according to the Gottmans and other researchers, the kindness that makes for lasting relationships is an attitude built into every interaction — particularly those times when we’re stressed, angry, tired, or generally feeling anything other than kind.
As the Atlantic author points out, kindness is better viewed as a muscle: The more it gets exercised, the stronger it becomes. And there are a couple of concrete habits we can cultivate to build the kindness muscle:
One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down. . . .
“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”
So true — and equally applicable in every relationship (with coworkers, siblings, friends, parents), not just romantic ones. Another:
Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news. . . .
We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But research shows that being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.
This one surprised me, but it makes sense. As a congenital worrier who sometimes greets other people’s big plans with a list of questions about what could go wrong, the article was a powerful reminder of just how damaging that sort of response can be.
There’s lots to think about here, and I’m curious to hear what you think. Does Gottman’s research ring true to you? How do you practice kindness? What do you find critical in building strong relationships?
Image: via Pinterest, source unknown