(7 of 8 in a series for National Marriage Week)
What’s the most important difference between successful couples and unsuccessful ones?
Given the earlier three-part post on listening, you might think the answer would be “good communication skills.” But it’s not.
Marriage researcher John Gottman, in fact, is skeptical about the value of the typical kind of communication training. Watch couples who have been happily married for a long time: they don’t seem to do anything the communication books teach. Moreover, their marriages are far from conflict-free. Indeed, they still seem to have what Gottman calls “perpetual problems,” meaning differences that come up repeatedly over the years and never get resolved.
Then why do I still teach communication skills? As I’ve said before, they won’t magically erase all conflict, and if you have some way of speaking and listening that fosters the kind of relationship you want, by all means do that. But the beauty of a standardized set of skills is that it provides a structure to protect couples from reactively hurting each other — provided that they notice when they’re being emotionally reactive in the first place and intentionally use the skills to keep themselves in check.
So … what does make the difference, according to Gottman, if not communication skills? Simply this: they have far more frequent positive exchanges than negative ones.
Well, duh, you might think. I don’t blame you. But hang in there with me.
Imagine a couple having a fight. At some point, the husband wants to repair the rift between them, but doesn’t know what to say. Tentatively, he reaches over and touches his wife gently on the arm.
What happens next is key. In more stable couples, the wife accepts the gesture and softens a little. In more unstable couples, the wife may yank her arm away. There is a positive gesture on the husband’s part, but it’s not reciprocated by the wife.
Gottman suggests that happy couples have five times as many positive interactions as negative ones, even in the midst of conflict. Five times? Why? Because as humans, we tend to pay more attention to threat and negative emotion while taking the positive for granted. Negative emotions have a bigger impact on our physiology and loom larger in our assessment of the relationship. That’s why some couples can say “We fight all the time”; they may know intellectually that the statement can’t literally be true, but it feels true.
The moral of the story is that the cultivation of positivity in marriage should never be taken for granted. To put it in terms of the “intentional behavior” described in the last post, what do you want for your marriage, and what do you plan to do about it? When, if ever, do you specifically make time just to enjoy being in one another’s company? How often do you make it a point to notice and express appreciation for what you love about your spouse? If you have a complaint, do you start with something positive, or launch right into an attack?
The positive aspects of the relationship don’t just happen by themselves, especially where negativity has taken deep root; they have to be intentionally nurtured. The more positivity we build into our marriages, the more resilient our relationships will be to distress.
And hopefully, it will just be a whole lot more fun.