Wholeness Healing Today

Two Traits that Make a Lasting Relationship

Relationships can be complicated.  Although many people marry, the majority of marriages fail by ending in divorce and separations or falling into a pattern of relating that carries resentment and dysfunction.  Only three out of ten marriages remain healthy and happy.  (Tashiro, 2014)

As a society, we first got alarmed about divorce rates escalating in the 70’s. The breakup of the nuclear family and its impact on children was high on the list of concerns with social scientists. Psychologist John Gottman studied couples in his lab for the past four decades. He and his wife, Julie Gottman, run the Gottman Institute, which is devoted to helping couples build and maintain healthy relationships based on scientific studies.  Gottman was involved in those studies during the 70’s.  His most critical findings came in the late 80’s when he and Robert Levenson brought newlywed couples in and watched them interact with each other.  Along with watching them interact, they had electrodes hooked up to them as they asked the couples to talk about their relationships. The electrodes measured their physiological responses such as blood flow, heart rates and how they sweated.  They followed up with these couples six years later. (Marcarelli, 2014)

From the data, they separated the couples into two groups – the masters and the disasters.  The masters were still married six years later and the disasters had broken up or were very unhappy in their relationships.  What the data showed in the early lab tests was that even though the disaster couples may have looked calm on the outside when talking about their relationships, their physiology reading gave a different story.  The disasters showed signs of being in fight or flight mode.  They were prepared to attack or be attacked.  This sent their bodies into attack mode with their heart rates soaring, with increasing aggression.

The masters, however, had low physiological arousal.  They felt calm and connected which turned into warm and affectionate behaviors, even when they fought. The masters created a climate of trust and intimacy that made them each more emotionally comfortable, and so they were physically more calm.

Gottman wanted to figure out how the masters created this environment of love and intimacy so he did another study in the 90’s. He watched 130 couples spend the day at a retreat and watched them as they did what couples do when then are on vacation:  cook, clean, hang out together and talk.  He made a critical discovery in this study which he calls the requests for connections, “bids” that couples make towards each other.

When a partner makes a comment that is a request for connection, a “bid”, he is requesting a response from his wife.  This is a response that is a sign of interest or support.  The wife has a choice.  She can “turn toward” or “turn away” from her husband.  This can reveal a lot about the health of a relationship.  Will the wife recognize and respect that her husband thought the subject was important enough to bring up in conversation?

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t, those who turned away, would not respond or responded minimally and continued doing whatever they were doing (watching TV, reading the paper).

Couples who had divorced after a six year follow-up had “turned-toward bids” only 33% of the time.  Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met. The couples who were still together after six years had “turned-toward bids” 87% of the time.  Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

Finally, Gottman can predict with 94% certainly whether couples will stay together by looking at the types of interactions couples bring to the relationship and the spirit of these interactions.  Gottman looks at kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism and hostility.  The masters have a way to scan their environment, looking for things they can appreciate and say thank you for.  They work towards building the culture of respect and appreciation very deliberately.  Disasters are scanning the environment to look for their partner’s mistakes, not only checking out the environment but checking out the partner, looking for what the partner is doing right and respecting him and expressing appreciation or for what he is doing wrong and criticizing him.

In our next issue, I will talk about the way to work on developing this “kindness” muscle with your partner, and how to pick out the positive traits in your relationship and with your partner.  In the meantime, pay attention to your response to your partner’s “bids” for emotional connecting.  Observe whether you are “turning towards your partner” or “turning away from your partner”.  Perhaps if you and your partner already have a good ratio of “turning towards” each other, you may already have developed the culture of kindness and generosity in your relationship.  If not, perhaps becoming aware of optional behaviors can help you move in that direction.

Works Cited

Marcarelli, R. (2014, Nov 11). Relationships last when both partners have these two traits. Retrieved from www.hngn.com/home/news/services.

Ty Tashiro. (2014). The Science of happily ever after. Ontaria: Harlequin Enterprises.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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