Marriage & Life Partners · Relationships & Dating

Is This Love?

A few years ago, The New York Times published an essay in its “Modern Love” column called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” Based on the research of psychologist Arthur Aron, it includes a list of 36 questions a couple can ask each other, designed, in increasing order of depth, to create intimacy. The concept behind this exercise is that love is founded on the shared exchange of personal revelation and openness to vulnerability.

The writer of that column, Mandy Len Catron, has now published a book of essays, How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, “a combination of personal history, family history, and social research to try to figure out what makes love last over time.”

Is it true that we can fall in love with anyone? Probably not, although intimate, intense situations in which a group of strangers are randomly thrown together, like putting on a play, are notorious for sparking affairs. Nevertheless, the Cinderella tale we were raised on is not the full story. I wrote last week in my essay about Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Loving is not a passive activity—something that happens to you, as in the concept of falling in love, but an active process that involves constant engagement. Those that understand this and live this way are the most likely to have good relationships.” Accordingly, taking active steps to increase intimacy makes sense. But there is more to successful relationships than talking, as everyone knows, no matter how open and intimate.

Ever since the 1970s, when divorce rates started to soar, scientists have been looking for the secret behind what makes a marriage work, as well as 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” 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 just 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.”

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  • Jeanie August 17, 2017 at 8:15 am

    I think this is the best article I’ve ever read on maintaining a long-term relationship.