Emotional Health · Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: The Secret Behind Successful Marriages

Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This week, she focuses on the kind of everyday interaction that helps couples mature into “masters”—or “disasters”—of love.

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Ever since the 1970s, when divorce rates started to soar, scientists have been looking for the secret behind what makes a marriage work—and its converse: Why do 3 out of 10 marriages, according to the latest statistics, fail? Two recent articles reviewing the current state of the research have come up with similar conclusions: it’s all in the head.

An article in The Atlantic called “Masters of Love”  focuses on the work of John Gottman, who, with his wife, fellow psychologist Julie Gottman, runs an institute in New York “devoted to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies.” Beginning in 1968, Gottman has been doing studies that involved detailed behavioral analysis in order to pinpoint what makes or breaks a marriage. He and his colleagues can predict with astonishing accuracy whether or not a couple will stay together, based on simply observing the way they interact.

One of their earliest findings was that even though they were not aware of it, some partners experience what the scientists measured as high levels of physiological arousal when they are together: they are literally in “the flight or fight mode” indicating that

Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked. This sent their heart rates soaring and made them more aggressive toward each other. For example, each member of a couple could be talking about how their days had gone, and a highly aroused husband might say to his wife, “Why don’t you start talking about your day. It won’t take you very long.”

Happy couples, in contrast, tend to exhibit low physiological arousal. Feeling calm and connected, they experience a sense of trust and intimacy, even when they are fighting (my italics).

Gottman calls these two types of couples “masters” and “disasters.” Masters are able to maintain and promote intimacy by responding to their partner’s needs to be acknowledged. These interactions can be quite ordinary and mundane, but turn out to be very important to the long-term health of the marriage:

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

Gottman’s team found that the data showed, six years after his initial assessment, that divorced couples made “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time, while couple who were still together made them 87 percent of the time. Even when they may be preoccupied by something else, “masters” understand that their spouses are asking for validation when making bids. They make a choice, often consciously, to be kind. Kindness, in Gottman’s estimation, can be seen as a “muscle”: one can choose to exercise it or not, but the more you exercise it, the more reliable and strong it will become. People who have this view of kindness as a choice rather than a character trait are much more likely to respond when their partners make “bids.”

A recent article in The New York Times also underscores the importance of one’s “attitude” when it comes to successful relationships: “It might not surprise you to learn that the science of romance isn’t incredibly romantic. The research suggests that believing in soul mates—or destiny, or the idea that there is exactly one person who you were absolutely put on this earth to find—can and probably will backfire.” This is just the kind of thinking that leads people to expect fixed things—like the idea that kindness is a character trait—and it encourages partners to be more passive than active in their interactions. In the words of psychologist Benjamin Le:

There is research that shows that people who believe in “destiny” put less effort into working through relationship conflict. The idea here is that if we are soul mates, then nothing will go wrong in our relationship, and it will be easy. A conflict makes a destiny-believer question whether the current partner is actually their soul mate, and then they give up on working it out.

On the other hand, couples who see themselves on a “journey,” a quest that requires effort and active participation from each of them to stay on course, showed greater levels of satisfaction.

The Times article expands on this idea:

Embracing change over time rather than expecting perfection at the outset may have benefits outside the realm of relationships, too. Mr. [Le’s] findings recall research by the psychologist Carol S. Dweck, who has found that praising kids for trying hard may be more effective than telling them they’re smart.

In other words, when students feel empowered to do better based on their efforts, rather than feeling they are the passive recipients of a certain level of native intelligence, it gives them more motivation to work hard. Gottman’s marriage masters are constantly “scanning” to look for ways to accentuate the positive by appreciating and interacting positively with their partners. They see it as within their power to make their marriages succeed. They actively put a positive “spin” on their partners’ behavior, so that even when their partners disappoint them, they give them the benefit of the doubt.

And isn’t that what we all want? Someone who is “in our corner”? Perhaps that is why we are so devastated when the person we thought was our best friend, our “sanctuary,” is critical and hurtful. Many people behave around their partners (and, sadly, their families) in ways that they would never dream of acting around friends or even strangers: without manners. Instead, masters know to treat their loved ones with courtesy. Courtesy is based primarily on kindness and consideration, and who deserves that more than those we love?


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