Are any of us really good at relationships? I think it is easier for some people to find a partner and even to be in a relationship, but “easier” is terribly relative. Even the best is still fumbling in the dark when it comes to navigating the needs and desires and reciprocal fumblings of another person. Three out of ten achieve happy longevity with their partner… that’s how much we all suck at it: thirty percent, and that thirty percent still goes through heart-wrenching trials and tribulations. There is hope in that thirty percent, though. It means that happy coupledom is possible and we aren’t completely incurable. It means, I hope, that we can learn and improve. There are insights along the way, and we can collect them to shed a little light on our be-obstacled paths.
I recently came across a study that was really on point. In my humble opinion, there are few pieces of relationship advice that most of us couldn’t think up ourselves as they tend to be very broad such as “be kind to one another” and “communicate.” This one, at least for me, was delightfully new and not at all vague.
It was 1986 at the University of Washington when psychologist John Gottman, along with his colleague, Robert Levenson, began to collect data from what they called “The Love Lab.” They brought in couples and hooked them up to electrodes to measure heart rate, blood flow, and sweat production. They then asked each couple to speak about their relationship, such as how they met, a major conflict they were facing at the moment, and a positive memory they had.
After collecting all the data, Gottman and Levenson grouped the couples into two categories: masters and disasters.
When asked to speak together in the lab about their relationship, the masters were calm with no marked difference in blood flow, heart rate, or sweat production. They were comfortable within and without, which created a climate of trust and intimacy.
The disasters were another story. They looked calm on the outside during the interview, but their physiology gave them away: their heart rates quickened, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow increased. This is the same thing that happens when a human is in “fight or flight” mode. In essence, the disasters saw their partner as the enemy. They were ready to attack or be attacked at all times.
When he followed up with the couples six years later, Gottman was able to determine that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated. He wanted to know how the masters created the environment of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. And so he did another experiment.
In 1990, he set up a beautiful bed and breakfast in his University of Washington lab and brought 130 newlywed couples to stay for a day, and then observed as they each went about doing regular vacation type stuff (other than sex, dear dirty reader).
This is where it got interesting.
During the course of a day, partners would each make requests for connection. Gottman called these requests “bids.” For example, if a wife is a bird enthusiast and sees a Cedar Waxwing land in the tree outside the window, she might say to her husband, “Do you see that beautiful bird in the tree?” The comment is not so much about the bird, but about getting a response from her husband; a sign of interest or support. She’s hoping they’ll connect over the bird, even if only for a second.
The husband will respond in one of two ways. In Gottman’s language, he will “turn toward” or “turn away.” Partners who “turn toward” a bid, respond by showing interest and possibly engaging their partner about the bid. Those who “turn away” respond very little and/or continue doing whatever it is they were doing before the bid, and in worse cases, respond unkindly by saying something like, “can’t you see I’m watching a game?”
Seeing a bird out the window might seem like a dumb thing to try to connect over, but the response reveals a lot about where these two people’s relationship sits. The wife thought it was important enough to bring up, and the husband will either recognize and respect that, or he won’t.
Again, Gottman followed up six years later and found that the couples who had since divorced had “turn-toward bids” only 33 percent of the time, while those couples who were still happily married had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, the happy couples were meeting their partner’s emotional needs. By watching a couple interact for a day, Gottman can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether the couple will be broken up, unhappily together, or happily together after several years. He says that it really comes down to the spirit that the couples bring to a relationship. Is it a spirit of kindness and generosity, or one of contempt, criticism, and hostility?
The concept is so applicable in our daily lives with our own partner, and that is why I like it so much. It is a concise exercise in creating healthier relationships.
At the risk of assigning traditional gender roles, when your boyfriend points out an amazing 1968 LS6 edition Shelby Mustang with that dreamy excitement in his voice, stop what you’re doing and let him know you’re listening and that you can, even if in a small way, appreciate the beauty and power of this vehicle. When your girlfriend brings up the shitty thing that her friend said to her other friend, hear what she said, look her into her eyes, and let her know what a shitty thing it was.
Imagine if more times than not, when you brought something up to your partner that had caught your attention, he or she responded the way you had hoped they would. Real acknowledgement feels so good. And like Gottman says, it truly can help create an environment of trust and intimacy.
When I think of all the times my boyfriend (who is a musician) has asked me to listen to a portion of a song that has an exceptional baseline or “mind-blowing” riff, I now realize that he is making a bid for connection. I always listen to the piece with him and try to appreciate the brilliance because he is so excited about it and it would feel mean to take the wind out of his sails, and I love music, so it’s an easy “turn toward”. Thank god he isn’t into fantasy football! I don’t know if I could turn toward that bid. Which brings me to a thought I had when I read about Gottman’s study. It was a quote I have always loved from the movie “High Fidelity”, when John Cusack’s character, Rob, says:
“…what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films – these things matter. Call me shallow, but it’s the fucking truth.”
And that, dear reader, is a whole other conversation for next time.