The key to stay­ing to­gether ... It’s not what you think

Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY CHAR­LOTTE AN­DER­SEN

AN­A­LYT­ICS AND DATA don’t sound like a for­mula for ro­mance, but John Gottman has de­voted more than 40 years to fig­ur­ing out the math that makes re­la­tion­ships work. In his “Love Lab” at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, in Seat­tle, he has an­a­lyzed how cou­ples com­mu­ni­cate ver­bally and non-ver­bally and fol­lowed them for years to find out if their re­la­tion­ships sur­vived. More than 200 pub­lished ar­ti­cles later, he claims to be able to pre­dict the out­come of a re­la­tion­ship with up to 94 per cent ac­cu­racy. Dubbed “the Ein­stein of Love” by Psy­chol­ogy To­day, Gottman—along with Julie Gottman, his wife of 30 years and re­search part­ner—now teaches other mar­riage ther­a­pists the most com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ings about love, based on ob­ser­va­tions from the Love Lab.

Myth: Mar­riage should be fair.

Cou­ples who en­gage in quid pro quo think­ing—if I scratch your back, you should scratch mine—are usu­ally in se­ri­ous trou­ble, John says: “We be­come emo­tional ac­coun­tants only when there’s some­thing wrong with the re­la­tion­ship.”

He cites a 1977 study by the psy­chol­o­gist and re­searcher Bernard Murstein as the first to find that quid pro quo think­ing was a char­ac­ter­is­tic of ail­ing re­la­tion­ships rather than happy ones, be­cause of its in­di­ca­tion of a low level of trust. “We’ve found in our re­search that the best mar­riages are the ones in which you’re re­ally in­vested in your part­ner’s in­ter­ests, as op­posed to your own,” Julie says. Ne­go­ti­at­ing from a po­si­tion of pure self-in­ter­est is dys­func­tional; the hap­pi­est cou­ples give with­out ex­pect­ing any­thing in re­turn be­cause they can rely on their part­ner to op­er­ate with their best in­ter­ests in mind.

Myth: Your part­ner isn’t a mind reader.

Make no mis­take: open com­mu­ni­ca­tion is an es­sen­tial tool for a happy re­la­tion­ship. But the Gottmans have found that suc­cess­ful cou­ples are bet­ter at be­ing avail­able and re­spond­ing to each other’s sub­tler needs for at­ten­tion, sup­port, em­pa­thy or in­ter­est— even by sim­ply turn­ing away from the TV to re­spond to a spouse’s com­ments. One of John’s stud­ies found a cor­re­la­tion between dis­sat­is­fied mar­riages

and the hus­band’s de­fi­cient abil­ity to in­ter­pret his wife’s non­ver­bal cues.

Myth: Scream­ing fights lead to di­vorce.

“Vo­latiles” have been flagged by the Gottmans as one of three types of “happy-sta­ble” re­la­tion­ships. (The other two, if you’re curious, are “val­i­daters” and “con­flict avoiders.”)

In fact, the av­er­age happy-sta­ble cou­ple has at min­i­mum a five-to-one pos­i­tive-to-neg­a­tive ra­tio dur­ing con­flict—mean­ing they have five times more pos­i­tive feel­ings than neg­a­tive ones, even while fight­ing—which





John has found to be the marker of a healthy re­la­tion­ship. In con­trast, cou­ples headed for di­vorce have a ra­tio of 0.8 to one, with far less pos­i­tive emo­tions for each neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tion. The dif­fer­ence is that happy cou­ples are able to off­set ar­gu­ments with laugh­ter and fun; in­deed, in neu­tral cir­cum­stances, their ra­tio spikes to 20 to one.

John notes that each style has its pros and cons. “Con­flict avoiders have a very peace­ful ex­is­tence, but on the other hand, they can wind up lead­ing par­al­lel lives in which they’re very dis­tant from one an­other,” he says. “On the other hand, the pas­sion­ate cou­ples who ar­gue a lot run the risk of de­volv­ing into con­stant bick­er­ing.”

Myth: Talk things out un­til you agree.

Sixty-nine per­cent of mar­riage prob­lems are man­aged through dia­logue rather than be­ing defini­tively solved, ac­cord­ing to John’s re­search. “The com­mon lore is that con­flict avoid­ance is a bad thing, but it re­ally works for a lot of peo­ple to just agree to dis­agree,” he says.

Most dis­agree­ments arise from per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences between part­ners, so the con­flict is not re­solv­able. The key is to avoid a “grid­locked con­flict,” in which you can’t make head­way in a re­cur­ring fight. At the bot­tom of th­ese is­sues, the Gottmans have found, are core dif­fer­ences— any­thing in­trin­sic to a part­ner’s be­lief sys­tem, his­tory or per­son­al­ity, from a closely held value to an as-yet-un­ful­filled dream.

For in­stance, a fight about fi­nances might not be just about the cash but also about the mean­ings of money, power, free­dom and se­cu­rity. The goal is to re­al­ize that a dia­logue about your con­trast­ing per­spec­tives is much more im­por­tant than try­ing to defini­tively solve en­dur­ing dis-

agree­ments. The Gottmans rec­om­mend find­ing ways to honor each per­son’s as­pi­ra­tions and core needs re­gard­ing the is­sue at hand.

Myth: Gen­der dif­fer­ence causes megafights.

Men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus; we’re all just from Earth. As it turns out, “men are just as in touch with their emo­tions as women,” Julie says. “On the other hand, some women are very re­luc­tant to ex­press their neg­a­tive emo­tions, so it bal­ances out. There are more sim­i­lar­i­ties than the cul­ture gen­er­ally be­lieves.”

A 1998 study in Cog­ni­tion and Emo­tion found that when women thought about their lives in the long-term, they re­ported them­selves as be­ing more emo­tional than men. But when par­tic­i­pants rated their emo­tions on a mo­ment-to-mo­ment ba­sis, the gen­der dif­fer­ences were min­i­mal.

Myth: You re­peat your par­ents’ mis­takes.

How you carry your child­hood baggage is more im­por­tant than the fact that you have some. “No­body es­capes child­hood with­out some crazy but­tons and trig­gers, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a great re­la­tion­ship,” John says.

Tom Brad­bury, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, coined the phrase “en­dur­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties” to de­scribe th­ese his­tor­i­cal trig­gers. Cer­tain words and ac­tions might dig up old feel­ings and pro­voke a re­ac­tion. Make sure you and your part­ner un­der­stand what sets the other off and avoid pick­ing on those weak­nesses.

Cir­cum­stances from your past could also prompt what psy­chol­o­gists call pro­jec­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. An ex­am­ple is tak­ing some­thing you re­sent from your child­hood and ap­ply­ing it to your sig­nif­i­cant other. If you had a dis­tant, cold par­ent, for in­stance, you might as­sume your part­ner is be­ing dis­tant and cold too. In­stead of blam­ing the per­son you’re with, ex­plain how the ac­tions make you feel and what he or she can do to help you feel bet­ter; lis­ten com­pas­sion­ately and

re­mind your­self that there’s no such thing as “ob­jec­tively cor­rect” or im­mac­u­late per­cep­tion.

Myth: Op­po­sites at­tract.

The idea that one part­ner’s strengths com­pen­sate for the other’s weak­nesses and vice versa sounds good, but the Gottmans say their re­search pro­vides no sup­port for this. John’s anal­y­sis also in­di­cates that sim­i­lar­ity in core be­liefs is not an im­por­tant pre­dic­tor of, or in­flu­ence on, a cou­ple’s prospec­tive hap­pi­ness. “The ma­jor in­com­pat­i­bil­ity we’ve found that’s re­ally pre­dic­tive of di­vorce is how peo­ple feel about ex­press­ing emo­tion,” John says. For in­stance, if one per­son wants to talk about anger and sad­ness while the other thinks you should keep neg­a­tive feel­ings to your­self, both part­ners may start to re­sent one an­other. If you’re hav­ing an ar­gu­ment, the Gottmans have this re­minder: it’s eas­ier to move from dis­agree­ment to mu­tual un­der­stand­ing when a re­la­tion­ship feels safe and one part­ner ex­presses a clear in­ter­est in the mean­ing be­hind their part­ner’s be­hav­ior.

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