Last week, my fiancé and I walked out of a movie theater feeling a little unnerved. We’d just seen Gone Girl, and the possibility (err, probability) that we, like any other couple, could find ourselves in a bitter, toxic marriage was sobering. We’ve always thought that we are “just not like that” because we’re “different”—and I think we are different, but doesn’t everyone feel that way about their relationship at some point?
We’re all familiar with the troubling statistic that roughly half of marriages end in divorce, but we often don’t give as much thought to those couples who stay together even when their marriage brings them more frustration than joy. What percentage does that leave for truly happy couples? Probably not much.
While finding the Right Person may be in the hands of fate, once we’re with that person, we do have some control over the success of our marriage, fortunately. According to psychologists John and Julie Gottman, the two most important traits for a successful marriage are kindness and generosity, both of which we can practice in our daily interactions with our spouse.
Drs. Gottman studied a group of married couples over a six year period and determined that couples fell into one of two categories: Masters or Disasters. Masters feel calm and comfortable around each other; disasters, however, are tend to be in fight-or-flight mode during a normal conversation with their partners—even if they appear calm. Not only is this chronic stress emotionally distressing, it puts your immune system at risk.
But here’s the good news. A couple can avoid becoming “Disasters” if both partners are committed to a few, common-sense principles:
Show kindness—even during an argument. Julie Gottman explains, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger […] 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.” So it’s okay to feel and express a range of emotions with your spouse—that’s normal—just be considerate of how you share them.
Show kindness—this applies to the little things, too. Drs. Gottman demonstrate that spouses make “bids” for each other’s attention. How a spouse consistently responds to these bids can make a couple into Masters or Disasters. Picture this: Your guy has found yet another cat video on Youtube, and he must show you (true life story here). You can A) “Turn towards” your spouse and actively watch the video with him (“Why is this poor cat always falling in the bathtub!?”); or B) You can “turn away” from your spouse’s bid by watching with no engagement (blank stare, no commentary) or saying, “Um, not now. I have to wash my hair.”) Hint: Masters turn towards their partners nine times out of ten—Disasters: only three times out of ten.
Kindness breeds kindness. Drs. Gottman encourage us to think of kindness like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it is. Likewise, the more kindness and positive energy we share, the more likely we are to receive kindness in return.
View your partner’s intentions with generosity. Sometimes things go wrong. Your partner doesn’t show up to dinner on time. While it may be easy to think that she’s being inconsiderate yet again, reach for the more generous approach instead: Maybe she had every intention to arrive on time, and something just happened, as these things do. Make up your mind after she has a chance to explain.
Share each other’s joy. Sometimes things go right. Psychologist Shelly Gable argues that how we respond to our partner’s good news has a lot to say about our relationships. We have four options for responding when someone shares good news: active constructive (“That’s great news! How did you find out? Tell me more.”), passive constructive (“That’s nice.”), active deconstructive (“Gee. I don’t think you’re ready for that. Are you sure this is something you want?”) passive deconstructive (“What do you think about this show?”)
After stumbling across these principles, I felt less like the future happiness (or unhappiness) of my marriage was left to some fickle marriage gods. As Amy of Gone Girl writes, “Everyone told us and told us, ‘marriage is hard work.’” I’m sure it is. But it’s a comfort to know what work works.
Dumplings, do you have any tips for successful marriage? What do you think is the most important thing to remember?
Related: How to Fight Fair with Your Partner
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Photos: Raul Lieberwirth via Flickr, Dr. Wendy Longo via Flickr