Marriage Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.
Have you ever tried to describe a couple of your friends as they begin to form a romantic relationship? Odds are, the words “rational” and “reasonable” were not part of your description. Nope, oxytocin — the love hormone — is flowing along with other happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin.
As the relationship matures, however, many other factors come into play. One crucial question that arises is how these other factors affect the long-term viability of the relationship. Another way to phrase the question is: “Are there factors that can determine or predict whether a couple’s relationship will succeed or fail?”
Relationship researchers John Gottman, Ph.D. and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D. of the famed Gottman Institute have wrestled with this question extensively. After a decade of research they identified one set of variables that pointed to the likelihood of a relationship succeeding or failing. Writing for Psychology Today, Drs. John and Julie Gottman say that the results of their research were pretty cut and dry. “Either they emphasized their good times together and minimized the bad times, or they emphasized their bad times together and minimized the good times. Either they emphasized their partner’s positive traits and minimized their partner’s more annoying characteristics, or they emphasized their partner’s negative traits and minimized their partner’s more positive characteristics.”
Putting these habits into practice involved four characteristics.
- “Fondness, Affection, Admiration.” Although admitting that there are some negative aspects to their relationship (an occasional argument or an annoying trait), healthy couples simply choose to emphasize the positive traits.
- “We-ness Versus Separateness.” With communication being a key part of a relationship, a positive indicator is the use of “we” as opposed to “I” when talking about themselves.
- “Expansiveness Versus Withdrawal.” A good example here is the enthusiasm and specificity of how couples talk about their shared memories.
- “Glorifying the Struggle.” Every couple struggles at times — that’s a given. But the sign of a relationship destined to succeed is how they talk about the struggle. The successful couple “expresses pride that they have survived difficult times,” write the Gottmans, “versus expressing the hopelessness of their hard times.”
Couples in the early stages of a relationship can focus on enhancing these characteristics to improve their odds of being happy and fulfilled. But the really good news is that even couples in a long-term relationship can turn things around if they’re having trouble. Referring to exercises that the Gottmans ask couples to do, they say “In the end, a big part of the success or failure of your relationship depends on the conversations you have with each other. Three hundred couples did the exercises, recorded their conversations, and shared their stories. New couples, celibate couples, same-sex couples, and long-term married couples all found that these conversations brought them closer and helped them see each other in new and exciting ways. They became better friends, and they fell in love all over again.”