Want a Happy Marriage-Do This

I’m proud of the work I do here, but let’s face it: this ain’t brain surgery.

In fact I think most of the advice doled out in this space is pretty much common sense.

The issue for most of us is that common sense takes a holiday when it comes to the chemistry, sex, and emotion inherent in relationships.

That’s why I work so hard to give you a data-driven (not an ideology-driven) approach to dating. This stuff is not about what’s right and wrong, but about what’s effective and ineffective. In other words: “what works?” That’s what I want you to do.

Nobody has done this better than John Gottman. Back in the mid-80’s, Gottman set up a Love Lab to observe married couples. From the data he gathered, he separated the couples into two groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages. By monitoring their vital signs, Gottman observed something interesting:

“Masters felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.”

This is one of many reasons I spend so much time talking about not being a slave to chemistry and finding an “easy” relationship. If you’re always on high alert – heart pounding, blood pounding, palms sweating – in the presence of your partner, you are constantly in fight or flight” mode. That’s not a great way to spend 40 years.

This stuff is not about what’s right and wrong, but about what’s effective and ineffective. In other words: “what works?”

Gottman deepened his research by observing couples interactions and labeled them “bids.” Bids are just basic requests. If I ask my wife to check out a new blog post I wrote, she can either “turn towards me” (and say yes) or “turn away from me” (ignore me or say no). Which do you think is healthier in a long-term relationship? Someone who takes an interest in you? Or someone who is dismissive or hostile to your needs?

Sure enough, Gottman observed that “couples who had divorced had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.”

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…Being mean is the death knell of relationships.

Again, not terribly surprising, but important to realize nonetheless. We all know how we are prone to take for granted the people we love the most. We’re polite to our neighbors, to our servers, to our co-workers, but we will say the nastiest things to our partners.

That doesn’t fly. According to other studies, kindness and emotional stability are the most important predictors of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. (I’ve cited previous work which stated that the best husbands were the ones who were sensitive to their wives’ emotional cues and helped out with housework and childrearing).

Kindness and emotional stability are the most important predictors of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.

Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the Atlantic article from which these studies are quoted, summarizes these takeaways in one stunning paragraph.

“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. As the normal stresses of a life together pile up–with children, career, friend, 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. In most marriages, levels of satisfaction drop dramatically within the first few years together. But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.

Your thoughts, below, are appreciated. And when you take a look at the comments on this thread (and others), pay attention to whether the poster sounds kind. If not, you might want to take his/her opinion with a grain of salt.

Mean people give shitty relationship advice.