The Formula for a Successful Relationship

“When you get down to it, love is the only purpose grand enough for a human life.”

Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees

successful relationshipsMost people still believe that this thing called “love” is a mysterious occurrence which happens, like a lightning bolt, out of the blue, with no rhyme or reason. Or, perhaps we want to believe in the mysterious nature of love and relationships because then we can avoid some responsibility when a relationship turns out badly. More and more often, however, the emotion of love, as well as what it takes to have a successful relationship are being investigated and researched from a scientific angle. It is the hope that through scientific research and investigation, we can finally understand what makes a succesfull long-lasting relationship – and maybe even prevent divorces from occurring.


The First Stage of Love


The first stage of love is called “limerence.” Limerence is infatuation, obsession, that spine-tingling, heart-twisting state which is characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of those feelings, and feeling that your entire world will come to an end if you can’t see the person you are longing for. During the limerence stage, couples can talk for hours on end. They feel as though they’ve known one another forever. The want to know everything about one another. Some wish they could bottle this first blush of love, and keep it forever. Others look back on the limerence stage as being wonderful—yet exhausting.


The Art and Science of Love


science of loveTwenty-nine years after their first date, John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman still finish one another’s sentences, banter easily with one another and are honest in telling others how their struggles through the years has only made their relationship stronger. The Gottmans have spent the last two decades refining a science-based method which allows couples to build a successful relationship. Over the course of a two-day workshop, costing $750 per couple, The Gottmans detail “The Art and Science of Love.” And, as it turns out, the Gottmans believe there is a specific secret to a happy relationship.


Predicting a Successful Relationship


John has spent decades observing more than 3,000 couples, deciphering each couple’s unique patterns of arguments and behaviors which he believes can accurately predict whether a couple will remain together happily—or end up in divorce court. John Gottman is the recipient of awards from the National Council of Family Relationships and the National Institute of Mental Health. He has been on the Today Show as well as Oprah, and co-authored the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which made it to the New York Times bestseller list. John has become the “go-to” guru of relationships, largely because his predictions for the success or failure of relationships are consistent—and somewhat baffling to those who still want to believe in the randomness of love.


Indicators Which Predict Whether Couples Will Stay Together


indicatorsOne of John’s experiments found that after watching how couples communicated with one another, certain specific indicators could predict with a stunning 94 percent accuracy, which of those couples would remain together. Some were skeptical—could Gottman’s method actually predict a solid relationship from a shaky one—before those in the relationship were even aware of where their relationship stood? Taking away the elusiveness of love and relationships, Gottman’s research allows relationships to be understood, then put into a language we would all do well to apply to our own relationships.


Gottman details what he calls “bids for connection.” A bid for connection occurs when one partner points out a detail in our everyday world. “Oh, wow, look at that beautiful deer in the field.” Responses will vary, depending on the health of the relationship. The other partner might say “Amazing, let’s get the binoculars and take a closer look.” He or she might mumble some form of “huh,” or, in a troubled relationship, the answer might be closer to “Well, if you would ever wash the damn windows, maybe I could actually see the deer.” What Gottman found, is that the healthiest relationships are those in which the first response is the norm. In scientific terms, those in happy, successful relationships turn “toward their partner’s bid” 87 percent of the time. What Gottman ultimately discovered is that eavesdropping on a couple’s conversations could almost always tell him whether a divorce was in their future.


The Next Level of Research


John took his research to the next level, creating a “mock” apartment which allowed couples to do ordinary, everyday things together such as cooking or watching television. The part that wasn’t so ordinary involved electrodes hooked up to the couples and surveillance cameras throughout the apartment. Specially designed computer programs analyzed data from each couple’s interactions. Facial expressions were analyzed, and the electrodes transmitted constant heart rates and vascular tones as the couples talked, flirted, argued—all the things “normal” couples do on a regular basis. Many years later, follow-ups were done in order to see which couples were still happily together and which had split up. This data was also entered into the computer program and, seemingly like magic, the computer created equations which associated specific behaviors with long-time couple contentment.


Some of those findings included:


  • The couples who remained happy in their relationships used “we” often, while the unhappy couples used “me,” “I,” and “mine.”
  • When overall happy couples argued, they still maintained a ratio of five positive comments to each negative one.
  • The happy couples made an effort to calm and soothe one another, even in the face of anger or arguments.
  • Happy couples had a strong friendship, and were more likely to speak in greater detail about one another and about their past.


Although anyone who has ever had a serious argument with a partner may wonder how it could be possible to make five positive comments to every negative one, Gottman’s research found it to be absolutely true. In the end, couples who were truly connected and truly cared about each other more than they cared about themselves, didn’t want to say hurtful things simply to “get back” at their partner during an argument.


Intimacy Could Be the Key


intimacyInterestingly, a person eavesdropping on the Gottman’s marital interactions might just get the wrong idea. Their conversations are filled with short spats, adjustments, constant glances at one another, yet through it all, those interactions are filled with intimacy, even in public. Julie tends to interrupt John, correcting his version of an incident, yet John accepts the corrections with seeming equanimity. They are very open about past wounds—seemingly very deep ones—which occurred in their relationship, yet they are also openly affectionate with one another. The Gottmans, together, created techniques which could teach less-than-happy couples methods to make their relationship better.


Resolving Conflict in a Relationship


One of these methods they dubbed the “dreams with conflict” technique, and it came straight from an argument between Julie and John. Julie had a dream of climbing to the Mount Everest base camp for her 50th birthday with ten of her best female friends. John, who Julie says “gets altitude sick on a ladder,” was against the trip. John played the “what if” game with Julie every single night, asking her such questions as “What if there’s a blizzard?” “What if you get hurt?” Julie would stubbornly counter with “What if you get hit by a bus?” Eventually, John came to realize the deeper reasons Julie was set on the trip as the couple talked out the issue.


Showing Admiration, Respecting Vulnerabilities


Along with methods for dealing with couple conflict, the Gottman’s teach couples to show one another admiration, guiding them to work through a serious problem which triggered one another’s vulnerabilities. The couples are then asked to make a list of adjectives they could use when praising their partner, such as reliable, brave, honest, funny, etc. The couples were provided with a collection of “lines” they could use when an argument threatened to completely derail their relationship. Couples were told to share their admiration for their partner with him or her regularly, telling the other how proud they were of how he or she handled something, even if it was an everyday issue. Couples were also taught to handle prior annoyances with one another in a softer, kinder manner.


When a Relationship is Just Not Meant to Be


Despite all the methods for resolving conflict, and developing a successful relationship, John Gottman notes that sometimes people simply aren’t going to make it as a couple. Perhaps their dreams don’t mesh, perhaps there has simply been too much pain in the relationship’s past. John also noted that when a couple is unable to build trust, or when one partner has a constant sense that the other simply isn’t there for them, the relationship has little chance of success. Julie also acknowledges that sometimes, even when couples go through therapy, the relationship simply isn’t meant to be. She pointed out that there is often simply too much pain in a relationship, often stemming from how difficult it is to “balance between attending to your partner’s needs and staying true to who you are.” In the end, John says of his and Julie’s relationship—“Since the day I met her I have never felt alone.”


Whether you agree with the Gottman’s methods and conclusions or not, you might find the following dating and relationship facts interesting:


  • The most common breakup time is between three and five months from when the relationship begins.
  • Women are attracted to men who wear blue.
  • Four out of every ten workplace relationships will end in marriage.
  • We decide on the attractiveness of another person in a mere two seconds.
  • In the dating world, women admit to being afraid of meeting a serial killer, while men admit to meeting someone “fat.”
  • People who are happy with themselves attract more dates, and one of the biggest turn-offs during a date—and a long-term relationship—is negativity.
  • Overall, men know they are falling in love after three dates, but for women it takes closer to fourteen dates.
  • The number one issue couples in a committed relationship argue about is money.
  • Following money, comes arguments about parenting.
  • In what may surprise many women, research has found that 33 percent more men than women say it bothers them a lot that their partner is not more romantic.
  • Successful couples have discovered the value in showing up. When things are tough, and it would be easy to walk away, the happiest couples have made the choice to hang in there and be there for their partner.
  • The best way to change your marriage is by making changes to yourself rather than by trying to change your partner.
  • A crisis—or even a really bad argument—doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage is over. Like storms, crises can be loud, dangerous and scary, but couples who work through that pain, can find themselves with a new, exciting beginning.


Successful Relationships Require Compromise


According to a marriage counselor at the University of Texas, successful, long-term relationships involve compromise on the part of both partners, and ongoing effort. It is important in the early stages of a relationship to build a foundation of appreciation and respect, explore one another’s interests, try new things to establish mutual interests, and make a habit of apologizing immediately when you have made a mistake or hurt your partner’s feelings. Your partner will trust you more if he or she knows you will take responsibility for your words and actions.


Dealing with Conflict in a Relationship


Remember that relationships change as time passes, and it is necessary to set aside time to check in with your partner regarding changing expectations and goals. When couples ignore difficult topics, the relationship can end up in the danger zone quickly. When conflict compromisearises, the source may lie in unrealistic demands or expectations or unresolved issues or behaviors. Resolving conflict requires that both partners are honest, willing to communicate, and willing to consider their partner’s perspective, even when they don’t understand it. Establish a pattern of emotional support for one another, agree to disagree and move on regarding issues you will never completely agree on, and distinguish between the things you want from your partner versus the things you need. When you disagree, make a pact to discuss one thing at a time, to really listen to what your partner has to say without interrupting, and to use some filters and forego saying all the angry things you may be thinking. Think about the Gottman’s formula for a successful relationship and determine how it applies to your own relationship.


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